"Wha—what's it all mean, girls? Tell me, Little Scout," said David, catching her hand. "What happened to me? I thought I came home—home to tell you Griffin threw me out in the snow, and called me a thief, and how all of them scowled and cried out at me, and I thought——" then, looking at the tall man, he cried again,—
"Tom, is it so? Is it so, my dear boy?"
"Yes, father," said Tom, slowly, to calm him, "it is, happily, all so."
Then his little daughter, who had stood by his side through it all, kissed him, and said,—
"Come, father, look at the pretty presents Tom has brought us and you. See here's a beautiful new coat hanging on your peg for you, and Molly and Polly are as gay as any ladies," and she led him, tottering and feeble, to the loaded table—no longer ashamed of its defaced back beneath the pile of gifts it bore.
Then Mr. Tripple, hand in hand with the unresisting Polly, and Molly, and Tom, an unbroken circuit of cheery faces that electrified David Dubbs into a wrinkled smile in spite of lingering grief, clustered around the table and exclaimed aloud with admiration at the gifts Tom had brought.
But David, still overshadowed by the events of the afternoon, said, in a quivering voice,—
"But to-morrow, children, to-morrow! I am discharged by Griffin; we shall starve to-morrow!"
"Not while I'm about," laughed Tom. "Come, come, be calm, and I'll tell you all about it."
And he did tell of the long years of hope and distress, of despair when unconsciously within reach of fortune; of its final realization and of its golden yield. "So here I am, father, and your old hand shall write no more for Emanuel Griffin."
Then said Dolly, "You don't speak, father; you are surely not sorry?"
Sorry! He was stifled with gratitude; he was transforming into his old self. The familiar tenderness of her voice opened the floodgates of his heart, and he burst into a louder "Hurrah" than over Griffin's turkey, and kissed them all around, Mr. Tripple included, and, indeed, the day had been so successfully employed on the part of that gentleman that his early entrance into the family was far from problematical—so of course David did perfectly right.
Polly here broke in, "And, father, it was Tom who brought the note, and Tom who planned the surprise for you. What did it say, Tom? you can tell us now."
He laughed quietly, and then said, as if he were reading impressively from the open sheet to Mr. Griffin himself, and making him writhe under his coolness,—
"Sir: The connection of my father, David Dubbs, Esq., with your counting-house, will cease from this day forth.
"Sir, your obedient servant, "Thomas Dubbs."
Told by an English Tourist.
"He seemed to be a kind of connecting link between the old times and the new, and to be, withal, a little antiquated in the taste of his accomplishments."
A STILL CHRISTMAS.
It was Christmas eve in the year of our Lord 1653. The snow, which had fallen fitfully throughout the day, shrouded in white the sloping roofs and narrow London streets, and lay in little, sparkling heaps on every jutting cornice or narrow window-ledge where it could find a resting-place. But in the west the setting sun shone clearly, firing the steeples into sudden glory and gilding every tiny pane of glass that faced its dying splendor. The thoroughfares were strangely silent and deserted. The roving groups that had been wont at this season to fill them with boisterous merriment, the noise, the bustle, the good cheer of Christmas—all were lacking. No maskers roamed from street to street, jingling their bells, beating their mighty drums, and bidding the delighted crowd to make way for the Lord of Misrule. No shouts of "Noel! Noel!" rang through the frosty air. No children gathered round their neighbors' doors, singing quaint carols and forgotten glees, and bearing off rich guerdon in the shape of apples, nuts, and substantial Christmas buns. In place of the old-time gayety a dreary silence reigned through the deserted highways, and down the narrow footwalk, with even step and half-shut eyes, tramped the Puritan herald, ringing his bell and proclaiming ever and anon in measured tones, "No Christmas! No Christmas!"
In sober and sad-hued garments was the herald arrayed, with leathern boots that defied the snow and a copious mantle enveloping his sturdy frame. Now and then he stopped to warn a couple of belated idlers that they would do well to separate and go quietly to their homes. Now and then a little child peeped at him timorously from a doorway, and, overawed by his sombre aspect and heavy frown, retreated rapidly to hide its fears in the safe shelter of its mother's gown. Men shook their heads as he went by, and muttered something that was not always complimentary to his presence; and women shrugged their shoulders and sighed, and thought, perchance, of other Christmases in the past, with Yule-logs burning on the hearth and stray kisses snatched beneath the mistletoe. From a latticed window a girl's face peered at him with such a light of laughing malice in the brown eyes that the Puritan, catching sight of their wicked gleam, paused a moment, as though to reprove the maiden for her forwardness, or to inquire what mischief was afoot under this humble roof. But the night was growing chill, and he had still far to go. It might not be worth while to waste words of counsel on one so evidently godless; and, with a heavier scowl than usual, he tramped on, swinging his bell with lusty force. "No Christmas! No Christmas!" echoed through the darkening streets, and, as he passed, the girl contracted her features into a grimace that would have done credit to the wide-mouthed gargoyle of a Gothic cathedral.
"Cicely, Cicely!" cried a voice, at this juncture, from within, "close the shutters, do, and come and help me."
Cicely, who had been inclined to stare out a little longer, shot the heavy oaken bolt into its socket, and, opening a door leading to the inner room, disclosed a scene whose ruddy cheerfulness shone all the brighter in contrast to the dreary streets outside. A mighty bunch of fagots blazed and crackled on the hearth, and above the carved chimney-place hung branches of holly, their scarlet, berries glowing deeply in the firelight. In one corner, half-veiled by a tapestry curtain, a waxen Bambino nestled in its little manger, while before it burned a small copper lamp. Wreaths of holly and ivy bedecked the doors, and, standing tip-toed on a tall wooden chair, a young girl was even now striving to fasten these securely with the aid of a very old and wrinkled woman, who seemed more competent to admire than to assist the undertaking.
"Some bigger berries, pray, Catherine," she said, impatiently; "and, Cicely, if you feel you have loitered enough, hand me those two long ivy branches. They should droop gracefully—so! And now stand off a little way and tell me how it looks."
The younger sister obeyed, and, stationing herself in the middle of the room, surveyed the whole effect with much approval. Annis, her fair face flushed with the exertion, balanced herself on her lofty perch and gazed complacently upon her handiwork; while even Mistress Vane, who had been seated quietly on a deep chair by the fireplace, roused herself as from a reverie, and looked half-wistfully around the cheerful room. "What bell was that I heard just now?" she asked.
"The herald's, proclaiming a still Christmas," answered Cicely, promptly; "and he watched me as sourly as though he knew that we were plotting treason."
"Cecil, Cecil!" remonstrated her mother, in alarm. "Surely you did nothing imprudent."
"I?" returned Cicely, apparently oblivious as to what she had done. "I cast up the whites of my eyes, as though repeating psalms for mine own inward sustainment; and seeing me so piously disposed, he was fain to pass on to the correction of greater sinners."
"That were well-nigh impossible," said her sister, laughing; but Mistress Vane only looked anxious and disturbed. The sense of insecurity to which Annis was indifferent, and which Cicely at fourteen found absolutely amusing, weighed heavily on the older woman, who had a better understanding of the danger, and who had suffered cruelly in the past. Husband and son had fallen for a lost cause, confiscation had devoured the larger portion of her once fair inheritance; and now, with her two young daughters, she found herself beset by perils, harassed by stringent laws, and at the mercy of any ill-wind fate might blow her. Cromwell's mighty arm held the fretful country in subjection, making the name of England great and terrible abroad, and silencing every whisper of disaffection at home. The Puritans, in their hour of triumph, stamped upon the land the impress of their strong and bitter individuality; and a morose asceticism, part real and part affected, crushed out of life all the innocent pleasure of living. With every man determined to be better than his neighbor, the competition in saintliness ran high. Under its vigorous stimulus the May-pole and the Yule-log were alike branded as heathenish observances, the Christmas-pie became a "pye of abomination," and all amusements, from the drama to bear-baiting, were censured with impartial severity. Feast-days were abolished, and even to display the emblems of the Nativity was held to be sedition. The Established Church, cowed and shorn of its splendor, was treated with surly contempt; the Catholics were altogether beyond the pale of charity. It was not a time calculated to promote festivity; yet, while the heralds proclaimed through the frosty streets that Christmas at last was dead, Annis Vane, with holly and ivy, with Yule-dough and Babie-cake, was making all things ready for its mysterious birth. And as she worked she sang softly under breath the refrain of a carol she had learned at her nurse's knee,—
"This endris night I saw a sight, A star as bright as day; And ever among A maiden sung Lullay, by-by, lullay."
"Is it not strange, mother," she said, breaking suddenly off, "that men should deem it a mark of holiness to cast derision on the birth-night of their Saviour?"
"Let us be just even to our enemies," replied Mistress Vane, gently. "They think not to deride the Nativity, so much as to condemn the riotous fashion in which Christians were wont to keep the feast. There have been times, Annis, when the Lord of Misrule did more discredit to this holy season than does the Puritan to-day."
Annis opened her blue eyes to their very utmost. This view of the matter was one she was hardly prepared to accept. "Why, dearest mother," she protested, "when should we venture to be happy, if not on Christmas-day? And how can we show ourselves too joyful for our salvation? And did not his most blessed majesty King Charles knight with his own royal hand a Lord of Misrule who held court in the Middle Temple?"
Mistress Vane smiled at her daughter's vehemence. She knew more about these jovial monarchs and their courts than Annis did, and it may even be that his most blessed majesty's approval carried less weight to her experienced mind. But in these dark and chilly days a little enthusiasm was helpful in keeping one's heart warm, and she was far too wise a mother to disparage it. "Truly they made a brave show then upon Christmas-day," she admitted, "for the lord mayor and his corporation, a goodly company of gentlemen, rode in procession to the church of St. Thomas Acon, and thence to dine together with many pleasant ceremonies. And stoups of wine and huge venison pasties were despatched to the Temple for the stay and comfort of the mock-court, who made merry all day long. And the streets were crowded, far into the night, with maskers and revellers; and even the poor might for once forget their poverty, and were welcome to the brawn and plum-broth of their richer neighbors."
"And now we have nothing of all this!" cried Cicely, with passionate regret. "Nothing to look at and nothing to hear save the cracked bell of a dingy herald, who does not even ride a hobby-horse like the merry heralds of old. In truth, Master Prynne hath made good his own words when he holds that Christmas should be rather a day of mourning than one of rejoicing."
"Not so thought my godfather, kind Master Breton," said Annis, thoughtfully. "For he hath written that it is the duty of Christians to rejoice for the remembrance of Christ and for the maintenance of good-fellowship. 'I hold it,' he hath said, 'a memory of the Heaven's love and the world's peace, the mirth of the honest and the meeting of the friendly.'"
Cicely's eyes danced with glee. "That were well remembered," she said, mockingly; "if, now, you can but tell us in turn what your godfather's nephew, Captain Rupert Breton, hath thought upon the matter."
Annis flushed scarlet, and the quick tears welled into her eyes as she turned them reproachfully upon her sister. It was not easy for her to think of her absent lover and maintain the cheerful frame of mind she deemed appropriate to the season. The shores of France seemed very far away that night, and the long months that had elapsed since the defeat at Worcester stretched backward like a lifetime, as she recalled his last hurried farewell. He had ridden hard and risked much for those few words, and patiently and bravely she had waited ever since, hoping, praying, turning her face steadily to the brighter side, and keeping ever in mind the happy hour which should reunite them to each other. Now, in silence, she bound together the last green boughs and put all in order for the night. Old Catherine had long since gone off, yawning and blinking, to bed, and Cicely, half-asleep, nodded over the dying fire. Only her mother watched her, with eyes of loving scrutiny, and Annis smiled brightly as she kissed the careworn face. "I shall not cry myself to sleep to-night," she said, resolutely. "This is a time for gladness; for the star of Bethlehem is shining in the sky, and the birth of the Lord is at hand."
* * * * *
Bright glowed the Christmas-logs on the capacious hearth till every pointed leaf and scarlet holly-berry shone in the generous firelight.
"Whosoever against holly doth cry, In a rope shall be hung full high."
For, when the oak and ash trees babbled to the wind, and betrayed the Saviour's hiding-place, the holly, the ivy, and the pine kept the secret hidden in their silent hearts; and for this good deed they stand green and living under winter's icy breath, while their companions shiver naked in the blast. Not till the risen sun has danced on Easter morn shall the oak adorn a Christian household and prove itself forgiven. The Christmas-pie—the Christ-cradle, as the Saxons used to call it—had been baked in its oblong dish in memory of the manger at Bethlehem, with the star of the Magi cut deeply in the swelling crust. The Yule-dough, cunningly moulded into the likeness of a little babe, had been carefully laid by as a sovereign protector from the evils of fire, floods, carnage, and—so say some ancient writers—from the bite of rabid dogs. Annis Vane, decked out in the bravest array her altered fortunes would permit, knelt by the blazing hearth. Her ruff was of the finest lace, and a row of milk-white pearls clasped her slender throat. She shaded her face from the fire, and piled up shining cones of bright-brown nuts that seemed to tempt the flames.
"All we lack now is the mistletoe," she said, half-despondently. "It was no easy task to find the holly and bring it home unnoticed; but we cannot gather mistletoe near London, and there is none for sale throughout the city."
"Of what use is the mistletoe," said the practical Cicely, "when we are but three women here alone? We can kiss each other as readily under a sprig of ivy, and we can fire our nuts without the help of man or lad, provided only we keep one in our minds. Of whom shall I think, Annis?" she queried, wrinkling up her pretty forehead in anxious perplexity over so disturbing a doubt.
"You are far too young to think of men at all," answered Annis, reprovingly, and with all the conscious superiority of age. "Nor do you know enough as yet to make such pastime profitable."
Cicely's brows drew together with a frown which plainly indicated the nature of the retort upon her lips, but a glance from her mother checked her. "The word uttered in vexation is better left unspoken," said Mistress Vane, with gentle authority. "And I am waiting here, not to listen to disputes, which in these stormy times have grown wearisome, but to hear the Christmas carol promised me to-night."
Annis, with flushed cheeks, took down from the wall a little mandolin of Spanish workmanship, and, striking a few chords, began the carol, in which Cicely, after sacrificing some moments to ill-temper, concluded presently to join, her clear flute-notes rising high above her sister's weaker tones,—
"When Christ was born of Mary free, In Bethlehem, in that fair citie, Angels sungen with mirth and glee, In Excelsis Gloria!
"Herdsmen beheld these angels bright To them appeared with great light, And said, God's Son is born this night, In Excelsis Gloria!
"The King is comen to save kind, Even in Scripture as we find; Therefore this song have we in mind, In Excelsis Gloria!
"Then, dear Lord, for thy great grace, Grant us in bliss to see thy face, Where we may sing to thee solace, In Excelsis Gloria!"
As the sounds died into silence there stood one in the icy streets and listened. No self-elected saint was he, scenting out treason to the Commonwealth, but a cavalier from France, with his love-locks shorn for sweet prudence's sake, and a mighty mantle enveloping him from head to foot. If Annis Vane had waited, and hoped, and built up her faith in the cheer of Christmas-night, the joy she coveted was very near at last. After lingering a few moments, as though on the chance of hearing more, the stranger advanced and knocked sharply at the heavily-barred door. It was opened in due season and with great caution by old Catherine, who evidently thought the hour ill-chosen for a new-comer, and mistrusted sorely the purpose of his visit. He allowed her scant time, however, to threaten or expostulate, but, putting her gently on one side, stepped to the inner room. There, pale with anxiety and terror, Mistress Vane leaned forward in her chair, while Cicely, half-frightened, half-defiant, grasped her mother's skirt. Before the fire stood Annis, her blue eyes shining like stars, a round, red spot burning feverishly in each cheek, her lace ruff rising and falling distressfully with the heaving bosom within. The mandolin had fallen from her hands; the ruddy firelight lit up her slight figure and fair, disordered curls. She stood thus for a moment, swaying breathless betwixt hope and fear, then, with a low, joyous cry, sprang forward into her lover's arms.
Welcome now the good cheer of Christmas-night! Welcome the Christmas-pie, the pasty of venison, the pudding stuffed with plums, and the flagon of old wine. Love is a brave appetizer when backed by long fasting and a ten hours' ride, and Captain Breton brought all the vigor of youth and happiness and of a noble hunger to bear upon the viands. The glow of the cheerful room was infinitely comforting to the tired traveller; the sight of Annis's happy face put fresh hope and courage in his heart. He had much to tell of the gay court of France, and of the royal exile, who should one day, God willing, sit on his father's throne. Nor were there lacking adventures and dangers of his own to give flavor to the narrative, nor plans for the future, colored with all the happy confidence of youth. He had come home to win his bride, and to carry her away to brighter scenes until this soured and gloomy England should be merrie England once more. "He who would keep a light heart within London walls," said he, "must needs be very sure of heaven, as are Master Prynne and Master Philip Stubbes, or very much in love, as am I. It lacks but a covered cart and a bell in every street to make one feel the Black Death is upon us. If you can laugh in such an atmosphere of melancholy, Annis, what will you do in France?"
"Mayhap if I laugh enough in sober London I shall grow too giddy and forward in foolish France," returned Annis, gayly; "unless——"
"Unless what, dear heart?"
"Unless while I am safe in Paris you are fighting the battles of the king in England. Then tears will come easier than laughter, as in truth they have done of late."
"Wherever I may be, your prayers will prove my bulwark," said Captain Breton, confidently. "It would take more than a silver bullet to find its way to my heart while you are besieging heaven's doors in the tumultuous fashion that only women can attain. I bear a charmed life as long as you remember your petitions."
Annis answered with a look, and Cicely, nestling by her mother's chair, watched her sister with wide, serious eyes. To the child standing on the threshold of womanhood the presence of love carries with it an intoxicating flavor of mystery. It is something that fills her alike with envy and a vague resentment, with wonder and an indefinable desire. Its commonest expression is a perverse antipathy to one of the lovers, with an irrational increase of affection for the other; and in this case Captain Breton came in for his full share of Cicely's smothered anger and disdain. He, meanwhile, in happy unconsciousness, chancing to meet the brown eyes lifted dreamily to his own, and noting the upward curve of the short, sweet lip, thought within himself that this elfish little Cicely was growing almost as pretty as her sister—a judgment which proves conclusively the blindness of love; for Annis, though fair and comely to look upon, came no nearer to her young sister's beauty than does the pink-tipped daisy to the half-opened rosebud uncurling slowly in the sun. At present, the girl, seeing that she was watched, turned away her head pettishly and eyed the leaping flames.
"Annis said to-night there was but one thing lacking to her Christmas cheer," she remarked, after a pause, and with the too evident intention of saying something vexatious.
"And that was I!" interposed the cavalier, with the ready assurance of a lover.
"It was not you at all," returned Cicely, "but the mistletoe. We gathered the other greens ourselves, but there was no mistletoe to be found within or without the gates of London."
"By a happy chance we can proceed as though we had it," said Captain Breton, contentedly, while Annis crimsoned like a rose. "It is a welcome little plant, and carries a merry message; but if it be banished in these saintly days, we obstinate sinners must kiss without its sanction."
"But the maid who is not kissed on Christmas-night beneath the mistletoe will never be a wife during the coming year," persisted Cicely, who had laid down her line of attack and was not to be driven therefrom.
"Now, will you wager your ring or your new ear-drop on that, little sister?" said the captain, laughing at the threat. "Or have you a trinket that you value less to risk in such a cause?"
Cicely, deeply affronted, puckered up her brow and drew closer to her mother; but Annis, far too happy to be vexed, leaned over and kissed the pouting lips. With her, joy meant thanksgiving, and her heart was singing—singing the song of the angel of Judea: "In Excelsis Gloria!"
A Norseman's Saga.
"As he sat there with a sou'wester down over his ears, in a long pilot coat, his figure appeared to assume quite supernatural proportions, and you might almost imagine that you had one of the old Vikings before you."
There was once a man named Alf, who had raised great expectations among his fellow-parishioners because he excelled most of them both in the work he accomplished and in the advice he gave. Now, when this man was thirty years old, he went to live up the mountain, and cleared a piece of land for farming, about fourteen miles from any settlement. Many people wondered how he could endure thus depending on himself for companionship, but they were still more astonished when, a few years later, a young girl from the valley, and one, too, who had been the gayest of the gay at all the social gatherings and dances of the parish, was willing to share his solitude.
This couple were called "the people in the wood," and the man was known by the name of "Alf in the wood." People viewed him with inquisitive eyes when they met him at church or at work, because they did not understand him; but neither did he take the trouble to give them any explanation of his conduct. His wife was only seen in the parish twice, and on one of these occasions it was to present a child for baptism.
This child was a son, and he was called Thrond. When he grew larger his parents often talked about needing help, and, as they could not afford to take a full-grown servant, they hired what they called "a half:" they brought into their house a girl of fourteen, who took care of the boy while the father and mother were busy in the field.
This girl was not the brightest person in the world, and the boy soon observed that his mother's words were easy to comprehend, but that it was hard to get at the meaning of what Ragnhild said. He never talked much with his father, and he was rather afraid of him, for the house had to be kept very quiet when he was home. One Christmas Eve—they were burning two candles on the table, and the father was drinking from a white flask—the father took the boy up in his arms and set him on his lap, looked him sternly in the eyes, and exclaimed,—
"Ugh, boy!" Then he added more gently,—"Why, you are not so much afraid. Would you have the courage to listen to a story?"
The boy made no reply, but he looked full in his father's face. His father then told him about a man from Vaage, whose name was Blessom. This man was in Copenhagen for the purpose of getting the king's verdict in a law-suit he was engaged in, and he was detained so long that Christmas eve overtook him there. Blessom was greatly annoyed at this, and, as he was sauntering about the streets fancying himself at home, he saw a very large man, in a white, short coat, walking in front of him.
"How fast you are walking!" said Blessom.
"I have a long distance to go in order to get home this evening," replied the man.
"Where are you going?"
"To Vaage," answered the man, and walked on.
"Why, that is very nice," said Blessom, "for that is where I am going, too."
"Well, then, you may ride with me, if you will stand on the runners of my sledge," answered the man, and turned into a side street where his horse was standing.
He mounted his seat and looked over his shoulder at Blessom, who was just getting on the runners.
"You had better hold fast," said the stranger.
Blessom did as he was told, and it was well he did, for their journey was evidently not by land.
"It seems to me that you are driving on the water," cried Blessom.
"I am," said the man, and the spray whirled about them.
But after a while it seemed to Blessom their course no longer lay on the water.
"It seems to me we are moving through the air," said he.
"Yes, so we are," replied the stranger.
But when they had gone still farther, Blessom thought he recognized the parish they were driving through.
"Is not this Vaage?" cried he.
"Yes, now we are there," replied the stranger, and it seemed to Blessom that they had gone pretty fast.
"Thank you for the good ride," said he.
"Thanks to yourself," replied the man, and added, as he whipped up his horse, "Now you had better not look after me."
"No, indeed," thought Blessom, and started over the hills for home.
But just then so loud and terrible a crash was heard behind him that it seemed as if the whole mountain must be tumbling down, and a bright light was shed over the surrounding landscape; he looked round and beheld the stranger in the white coat driving through the crackling flames into the open mountain, which was yawning wide to receive him, like some huge gate. Blessom felt somewhat strange in regard to his travelling companion; and thought he would look in another direction; but as he had turned his head so it remained, and never more could Blossom get it straight again.
The boy had never heard anything to equal this in all his life. He dared not ask his father for more, but early the next morning he asked his mother if she knew any stories. Yes, of course she did; but hers were chiefly about princesses who were in captivity for seven years, until the right prince came along. The boy believed that everything he heard or read about took place close around him.
He was about eight years old when the first stranger entered their door one winter evening. He had black hair, and this was something Thrond had never seen before. The stranger saluted them with a short "Good-evening!" and came forward. Thrond grew frightened and sat down on a cricket by the hearth. The mother asked the man to take a seat on the bench along the wall; he did so, and then the mother could examine his face more closely.
"Dear me! is not this Knud the fiddler?" cried she.
"Yes, to be sure it is. It has been a long time since I played at your wedding."
"Oh, yes; it is quite a while now. Have you been on a long journey?"
"I have been playing for Christmas on the other side of the mountain. But half-way down the slope I began to feel very badly, and I was obliged to come in here to rest."
The mother brought forward food for him; he sat down to the table, but did not say "in the name of Jesus," as the boy had been accustomed to hear. When he had finished eating, he got up from the table, and said,—
"Now I feel very comfortable; let me rest a little while."
And he was allowed to rest on Thrond's bed.
For Thrond a bed was made on the floor. As the boy lay there, he felt cold on the side that was turned away from the fire, and that was the left side. He discovered that it was because this side was exposed to the chill night air; for he was lying out in the wood. How came he in the wood? He got up and looked about him, and saw that there was fire burning a long distance off, and that he was actually alone in the wood. He longed to go home to the fire; but could not stir from the spot. Then a great fear overcame him; for wild beasts might be roaming about, trolls and ghosts might appear to him; he must get home to the fire; but he could not stir from the spot. Then his terror grew, he strove with all his might to gain self-control, and was at last able to cry, "Mother," and then he awoke.
"Dear child, you have had bad dreams," said she, and took him up.
A shudder ran through him, and he glanced round. The stranger was gone, and he dared not inquire after him.
His mother appeared in her black dress, and started for the parish. She came home with two new strangers, who also had black hair and who wore flat caps. They did not say "in the name of Jesus," when they ate, and they talked in low tones with the father. Afterwards the latter and they went into the barn, and came out again with a large box, which the men carried between them. They placed it on a sled, and said farewell. Then the mother said,—
"Wait a little, and take with you the smaller box he brought here with him."
And she went in to get it. But one of the men said,—
"He can have that," and he pointed at Thrond.
"Use it as well as he who is now lying here," added the other stranger, pointing at the large box.
Then they both laughed and went on. Thrond looked at the little box which thus came into his possession.
"What is there in it?" asked he.
"Carry it in and find out," said the mother.
He did as he was told, but his mother helped him open it. Then a great joy lighted up his face, for he saw something very light and fine lying there.
"Take it up," said his mother.
He put just one finger down on it, but quickly drew it back again in great alarm.
"It cries," said he.
"Have courage," said his mother, and he grasped it with his whole hand and drew it forth from the box.
He weighed it and turned it round, he laughed and felt of it.
"Dear me! what is it?" asked he, for it was as light as a toy.
"It is a fiddle."
This was the way that Thrond Alfson got his first violin.
The father could play a little, and he taught the boy how to handle the instrument; the mother could sing the tunes she remembered from her dancing days, and these the boy learned, but soon began to make new ones for himself. He played all the time he was not at his books; he played until his father once told him he was fading away before his eyes. All the boy had read and heard until that time was put into the fiddle. The tender, delicate string was his mother; the one that lay close beside it, and always accompanied his mother, was Ragnhild. The coarse string, which he seldom ventured to play on, was his father. But of the last solemn string he was half afraid, and he gave no name to it. When he played a wrong note on the E string, it was the cat; but when he took a wrong note on his father's string, it was the ox. The bow was Blessom, who drove from Copenhagen to Vaage in one night. And every tune he played represented something. The one containing the long solemn tones was his mother in her black dress. The one that jerked and skipped was like Moses, who stuttered and smote the rock with his staff. The one that had to be played quietly, with the bow moving lightly over the strings, was the hulder in yonder fog, calling together her cattle, where no one but herself could see.
But the music wafted him onward over the mountains, and a great yearning took possession of his soul. One day, when his father told about a little boy who had been playing at the fair and who had earned a great deal of money, Thrond waited for his mother in the kitchen and asked her softly if he could not go to the fair and play for people.
"Whoever heard of such a thing!" said his mother; but she immediately spoke to his father about it.
"He will get out into the world soon enough," answered the father; and he spoke in such a way that the mother did not ask again.
Shortly after this, the father and mother were talking at table about some new settlers who had recently moved up on the mountain and were about to be married. They had no fiddler for the wedding, the father said.
"Could not I be the fiddler?" whispered the boy, when he was alone in the kitchen once more with his mother.
"What, a little boy like you?" said she; but she went out to the barn where his father was and told him about it.
"He has never been in the parish," she added; "he has never seen a church."
"I should not think you would ask about such things," said Alf; but neither did he say anything more, and so the mother thought she had permission. Consequently she went over to the new settlers and offered the boy's services.
"The way he plays," said she, "no little boy has ever played before;" and the boy was to be allowed to come.
What joy there was at home! Thrond played from morning until evening and practised new tunes; at night he dreamed about them: they bore him far over the hills, away to foreign lands, as though he were afloat on sailing clouds. His mother made a new suit of clothes for him; but his father would not take part in what was going on.
The last night he did not sleep, but thought out a new tune about the church which he had never seen. He was up early in the morning, and so was his mother, in order to get him his breakfast, but he could not eat. He put on his new clothes and took his fiddle in his hand, and it seemed to him as though a bright light were glowing before his eyes. His mother accompanied him out on the flag-stone, and stood watching him as he ascended the slopes; it was the first time he had left home.
His father got quietly out of bed, and walked to the window; he stood there, following the boy with his eyes until he heard the mother out on the flag-stone, then he went back to bed and was lying down when she came in.
She kept stirring about him, as if she wanted to relieve her mind of something. And finally it came out,—
"I really think I must walk down to the church and see how things are going."
He made no reply, and therefore she considered the matter settled, dressed herself, and started.
It was a glorious, sunny day, the boy walked rapidly onward, he listened to the song of the birds and saw the sun glittering among the foliage, while he proceeded on his way, with his fiddle under his arm. And when he reached the bride's house, he was still so occupied with his own thoughts, that he observed neither the bridal splendor nor the procession; he merely asked if they were about to start, and learned that they were. He walked on in advance with his fiddle, and he played the whole morning into it, and the tones he produced resounded through the trees.
"Will we soon see the church?" he asked over his shoulder.
For a long time he received only "No" for an answer, but at last some one said,—
"As soon as you reach that crag yonder, you will see it."
He threw his newest tune into the fiddle, the bow danced on the strings, and he kept his eyes fixed intently before him. There lay the parish right in front of him!
The first thing he saw was a little light mist, curling like smoke on the opposite mountain side. His eyes wandered over the green meadow and the large houses, with windows which glistened beneath the scorching rays of the sun, like the glacier on a winter's day. The houses kept increasing in size, the windows in number, and here on one side of him lay the enormous red house, in front of which horses were tied; little children were playing on a hill, dogs were sitting watching them. But everywhere there penetrated a long, heavy tone, that shook him from head to foot, and everything he saw seemed to vibrate with that tone. Then suddenly he saw a large, straight house, with a tall, glittering staff reaching up to the skies. And below, a hundred windows blazed, so that the house seemed to be enveloped in flames. This must be the church, the boy thought, and the music must come from it! Round about stood a vast multitude of people, and they all looked alike! He put them forthwith into relations with the church, and thus acquired a respect mingled with awe for the smallest child he saw.
"Now I must play," thought Thrond, and tried to do so.
But what was this? The fiddle had no longer any sound in it. There must be some defect in the strings; he examined, but could find none.
"Then it must be because I do not press on hard enough," and he drew his bow with a firmer hand; but the fiddle seemed as if it were cracked.
He changed the tune that was meant to represent the church into another, but with equally bad results; no music was produced, only squeaking and wailing. He felt the cold sweat start out over his face; he thought of all these wise people who were standing here and perhaps laughing him to scorn, this boy who at home could play so beautifully, but who here failed to bring out a single tone!
"Thank God that mother is not here to see my shame!" said he softly to himself, as he played among the people; but lo! there she stood, in her black dress, and she shrank farther and farther away.
At that moment he beheld far up on the spire the black-haired man who had given him the fiddle. "Give it back to me," he now shouted, laughing, and stretching out his arms, and the spire went up and down with him, up and down. But the boy took the fiddle under one arm, screaming, "You shall not have it!" and, turning, ran away from the people, beyond the houses, onward through meadow and field, until his strength forsook him, and then sank to the ground.
There he lay for a long time, with his face toward the earth, and when finally he looked round he saw and heard only God's infinite blue sky that floated above him, with its everlasting sough. This was so terrible to him that he had to turn his face to the ground again. When he raised his head once more his eyes fell on his fiddle, which lay at his side.
"This is all your fault!" shouted the boy, and seized the instrument with the intention of dashing it to pieces, but hesitated as he looked at it.
"We have had many a happy hour together," said he, then paused. Presently he said, "The strings must be severed, for they are worthless." And he took out a knife and cut. "Oh!" cried the E string, in a short, pained tone. The boy cut. "Oh!" wailed the next, but the boy cut. "Oh!" said the third, mournfully; and he paused at the fourth. A sharp pain seized him; that fourth string, to which he never dared give a name, he did not cut. Now a feeling came over him that it was not the fault of the strings that he was unable to play, and just then he saw his mother walking slowly up the slope toward where he was lying, that she might take him home with her. A greater fright than ever overcame him; he held the fiddle by the severed strings, sprang to his feet, and shouted down to her,—
"No, mother! I will not go home again until I can play what I have seen to-day."
Contributed by An Oriental Traveller.
"A great, long devil of a Spahi in his red burnous."
CHRISTMAS IN THE DESERT.
It seemed all too good to be true: the rest from labor, the swift flight across southern seas, the landing, amid strange, dark faces on a burnished shore, the slow, delicious journey through tamarisk groves and palm forests, and the halt in the Desert that came at last.
I had been doing for the last twelve months what young artists and authors are constantly doing, to their own ruin and the justifiable ill-humor of critics, namely, working against the grain. A sweet, generous, and beautiful Patroness, seeing me on the high road to brain fever or hopeless mediocrity, stepped forward in time, and sent me to the Desert. If ever I achieve anything excellent, it will be owing to that lady, the Vittoria Colonna of her humble Michael Angelo. My little sister Mary came with me, and, when I tell you that she was a teacher in a school, you will easily understand what an intoxicating thing it was for her to see a new world every day, and have nothing to do from morning, till night. The poor child could hardly believe in an existence without Czerny's scales being played on three or four pianos at once, and a barrel organ and brass band in the street. "Oh, Tom!" she would say to me, a dozen times a day, "I've got C scale and 'Wait for the Wagon' on my brain, and can't get rid of them;" so that I verily believe to my beautiful Vittoria Colonna Mary's present well-being is due as much as my own.
We halted at a little military station on the borders of the Great Sahara, about a week before Christmas-day. The weather was perfect, and not too warm. A delicious, mellow atmosphere enveloped palm, and plain, and mosque; the air, blown across thousands and thousands of acres of wild thyme and rosemary, refreshed us like wine: we seemed to have new souls and new bodies given us, and were as free from care as the swallows flying overhead. Travellers never came to Teschoun, as this little oasis is called; but we had placed ourselves under the guidance of an enterprising Frenchman, who transacted all sorts of business on the road between Mascara and Fig-gig, the last French post in the Desert. His name was Dominique, and I shall always look upon him as the most remarkable man I ever knew. He was as witty as Sydney Smith, as clever at expediences as Robinson Crusoe, as shrewd a politician as Machiavelli, as apt at languages as Mezzofanti, and as brave as Garibaldi. Being a bachelor, Dominique was none the less ready to receive us, and, with the help of an old Corsican named Napoleon, made us very comfortable. When Dominique was carrying His Imperial Majesty's mails to some remote stations southward, or had gone to an Arab fair to buy cattle, Napoleon catered for us and cooked for us, and did both admirably. Both master and servant spiced their dishes plentifully with that mother-wit, never seen in such perfection as in crude colonies where people without it would fare so ill.
"What are we to do for society for poor mademoiselle?" asked Dominique, as he served our first dinner. "Monsieur can amuse himself with the officers of the garrison, but there are no ladies here."
"When my brother is out, I shall stay at home and talk to Napoleon," Mary said, with a mock assumption of dignity. "I don't want to be amused, Monsieur Dominique."
"Mon Dieu, mademoiselle! the officers of the garrison will fall in love with you, and that ought to amuse you better than talking to Napoleon," Dominique answered. "It's a very dull life they lead here, these poor officers; and if it weren't for hunting gazelles and hyenas, and playing the deuce with the Arabs, they'd die of ennui; but a pretty young lady like you will turn their heads soon enough."
Mary blushed, and tried to turn the conversation.
"What do they do with themselves all day long?" she asked.
"I'll tell you that quickly enough, mademoiselle. M. le Commandant has to see that the Cadi gets what he can out of the Sheiks, and the Sheiks get what they can out of the tribes, and that the tribes hold their tongue. That is what the Commandant has to do, young lady, and he does it pretty well. M. le Capitaine has an easier time of it, except when there is an insurrection, and then he makes a raid against the Arabs, and after keeping his men out of their way very cleverly, sticks up the French flag somewhere in the Desert and comes home. M. le Lieutenant does odd jobs for the Commandant and the Capitaine, and plays the flute; but we have got M. le General down here for a few days, and he is setting everybody to work. I dare say the end of it will be an expedition into the Desert. You may look, monsieur. I'm not talking at random, I assure you; generals love war as umbrella-makers love bad weather; and it is easier to make people fight than it is to make it rain."
"I think French officers must be a wicked set; I hope none of them will come near us," Mary said. "The poor Arabs! how my heart bleeds for them."
"Tiens! mademoiselle, there is no reason for your heart to bleed. Big flies live on little ones all the world over; and if the French eat up the Arabs, the Arabs eat up each other. The officers are very nice, harmless gentlemen, I assure you; and as to the Commandant, though he thinks fighting the best fun in the world, he wouldn't hurt a fly. To see him pet his little gazelle would make you cry. She's the only lady in the place, and I believe, if she died, it would break his heart. But people must have something to be fond of. My old Napoleon, yonder, has taken a fancy to a cat, and when the cat dies, Napoleon will be as lost as his namesake the Emperor was at St. Helena. Listen a moment; that's the Lieutenant practising on his flute: he has a little lodging next door."
The Lieutenant played very prettily, and Mary seemed to like his playing much better than Dominique's stories. As her room adjoined the Lieutenant's, she seemed likely to have the full benefit of his musical capacities; but I do not think she lay awake to be serenaded that night. We were fairly intoxicated with the sweet air of the Desert we had been breathing all day, and went to bed at eight o'clock, too tired and happy to dream.
Next morning Dominique informed us that he had himself delivered our letter of introduction to M. le Commandant, who promised to wait upon us in the course of the day. Not knowing at what hour we might expect him, we set to work immediately after breakfast to prepare my room for the reception of so distinguished a visitor. I helped Mary as well as I was able, and, when nothing remained to do but the dusting, retired into a recess to trim my beard.
An Englishwoman is never so well dressed as when she emerges from her bedroom at early morning; and I must say that Mary looked the daintiest little housewife possible to conceive as she went about dusting and polishing in a pink cambric dress and tiny black apron. But, neat as she was, and neat as my beard and the room were in a fair way of becoming, we were overwhelmed with surprise and confusion at what followed, for quite suddenly the door was thrown open; there was a military tramp and a rattling of a sword outside, and Dominique exclaimed, in a voice of thunder, "M. le Commandant!"
Impassible self-possession is a beautiful quality, and while Mary and I stood blushing and aghast, like school children caught at stealing cherries, M. le Commandant had made a courteous speech, welcoming us to Teschoun. Then we all sat down, and M. le Commandant talked to us. He was a sunburnt, soldierly man about fifty-five, with a rough manner but a kind smile, and we felt at home with him in a moment.
"I presume that monsieur wishes to see as much of the country as possible," he said; "and I shall be enchanted to place at monsieur's disposal horses, and my servant and a spahi as guides. But what will mademoiselle do while her brother is away? I must send her my little gazelle to play with her."
"My sister will like to go with me where it is practicable," I said.
The Commandant opened his eyes, and looked at Mary much as one looks upon a pretty little duckling or a year-old baby.
"Monsieur is evidently jesting," he answered. "Mademoiselle would be too fatigued to undertake such journeys."
"I don't think so," Mary said. "I have no fear, monsieur, and I like to be with my brother."
"Ah, what courage you English ladies have! Well, mademoiselle, we will find you a quiet horse, and make everything as pleasant as possible." And after inviting us to dine with him one evening, and bidding us to make use of him in every possible way, he took leave of us.
"How nice he is!" cried Mary, as soon as the door was closed; "if all French officers were like this one, Tom, I think we shall not care how long we stay in the Desert——"
"Your heart has very quickly ceased to bleed for the poor Arabs, I see."
"But how can we be sure that Dominique's stories are all true? No, Tom; I won't believe any harm of this kind-looking Commandant. I only wish he had not come till the room was tidied and I had got on a muslin frock, but, as we are sure of having no more visitors, I'll finish your room and then unpack."
We were fairly at our work again, when another military step sounded, and another sword rattled in the passage outside. This time Dominique's arm swung back the door with less pomposity, and Dominique's voice was a trifle less emphatic as he ushered in "M. le Capitaine."
Again Mary and I scuttled about like young rabbits, and then stood still, staring shyly, and again our embarrassment was met by the calmest nonchalance. The second figure was a man of much more presence than the Commandant. He had the polished, graceful ease of a man of the world, and, though quite as good-natured as the Commandant, his good-nature pleased us less, because it was less spontaneous.
"I hope you will stay some time at Teschoun," he said, looking at Mary. "The ennui of our lives here is terrible. Think of it, mademoiselle; we have no theatre, no music, no society, and no domestic life. To find a lady here is like the miraculous advent of an angel." Mary blushed, and had no courage to make the sprightly answers she had made the Commandant.
The fine air and grand compliments of the Capitaine overcame the little thing, but she looked distractingly pretty as she sat opposite to him, smiling and blushing when he addressed her, and only saying, "Oui, monsieur," or "Non, monsieur," or at most, "Vraiment, monsieur."
"Does mademoiselle ride?" asked the gallant Capitaine.
"Then mademoiselle shall ride my little barb; there is hardly such a horse anywhere, mademoiselle, so docile, so sweet-tempered, and so sure-footed. It is not every lady I would trust with my little horse; but I know how an Englishwoman can sit in the saddle, and I am proud to offer it to mademoiselle."
"Je vous remercie bien, monsieur."
Then the Capitaine talked of Christmas-day.
"We will have a little fete-champetre in mademoiselle's honor," he said; "we will go to the great water-falls of Boisel-Kebir and breakfast there. I will invite my Commandant and all the officers of the garrison. Monsieur can make a sketch and mademoiselle can gather flowers."
We expressed ourselves delighted at the proposal, and, after promising to send Mary ostrich eggs and jackal skins to take to England, the Capitaine left us.
"I don't like the Capitaine as well as the Commandant," Mary said; "but how kind they all are to us! It is as if we were princes on a journey of triumph. Oh, Tom! what days to remember are these!"
"I think your head will be fairly turned, what with the Commandant's dinners and the Capitaine's fetes-champetres," I said; "and if the Lieutenant——"
"M. le Lieutenant!" announced Dominique, opening the door calmly, as if nothing was the matter.
We had been twice so shocked and surprised that we had no more embarrassment to expend on the Lieutenant. Indeed, he was rather shy himself, which was the very thing to reassure a warm-hearted, sympathetic little creature like my sister, and they began to talk together without any effort.
He was young and handsome, with a very frank, pleasant expression.
"I am afraid that it is useless for me to offer my poor services," he said, very modestly, "my superior officers having forestalled me; but it will make me very happy to do anything for you. If mademoiselle would like any stuffed birds, or dried flowers and plants, it will give me pleasure to procure them for her; and perhaps monsieur would like me to show him some wonderful things to paint. I draw a little myself, and know where the finest points of view are to be found."
We thanked him heartily, and accepted all that he offered us. As it was now time for our second breakfast, or, more properly speaking, lunch, we pressed him to partake of it with us, which he did. We should not have ventured upon inviting the Commandant, much less the Capitaine, so unceremoniously, but the Lieutenant's diffident manner had set us quite at our ease.
"I have a very humble apartment," he said; "but if monsieur and mademoiselle will visit me, I will do the honors of it with pride and pleasure. I can at least offer them a little music."
"Yes, I know that you play," Mary said, smiling; "our rooms join, and I heard you playing before I went to sleep last night."
"Oh, mademoiselle! I shall never forgive myself if I disturbed you."
"No, indeed, you did not, monsieur. Much as I liked the music, I was too tired to listen to it, and went to sleep all the same."
Then they both laughed gleefully, like children, and the Lieutenant promised to play to her and send her to sleep every night.
After breakfast he accompanied us on a tour of inspection. We soon saw all that there was to see of Teschoun, namely, a little line of bazaars kept by Jews and negroes, a little boulevard of a year's growth, two imposing-looking gates,—one looking towards Morocco, one towards the Sahara,—a straggling camp, and a wall of circumvallation. There were gardens in embryo here and there, but no trees of any size, and not till you had got fairly away from Teschoun could you perceive that its aspect was striking or imposing. Then, looking back from the craggy heights that surrounded it, the white line of the camp and the belt of verdure encircling it like a ribbon, struck the eye as a pleasant contrast to the warm, yellow atmosphere of earth and sky. The warmth and the yellowness were delicious. A fresh, sweet breeze blew across our faces from the Desert. We sat down and drew it in with long, devouring breaths.
A hundred yards behind us, his bright-brown body sharply outlined against the pale, amber-colored sky, stood a little Bedouin smiling down upon us. It was a perfect personification of Eastern life, and I made a sketch, while the Lieutenant told Mary of his hard campaign southward, and his joy at catching the first glimpse of Teschoun from the distance.
When we returned home we found that the Commandant's servant had left a bunch of roses for Mary, with his master's compliments; that the Capitaine's servant had been sent round with his master's horse for her to try, and that the General had sent word by his aide-de-camp that he would himself have the pleasure of calling upon us that evening.
Mary and I felt utterly overwhelmed by such goodness and condescension. A real starred, laced General was about to call on us! We could hardly believe that we were our identical, insignificant selves, who, but for you, oh! most sweet and honored Patroness, would have sunk under the burden of toil imposed upon us. But how all was changed! The poor, unknown artist was treated as if he had been Sir Peter Paul Rubens; the humble little school teacher was feted and flattered like the wife of a conquering commander-in-chief.
We had invited the young Lieutenant to drink tea with us at eight o'clock, and were enjoying a little music after a very sociable fashion, when a noisy excitement seemed to shake the house like a shock of an earthquake, and M. le General was announced in Dominique's most impressive manner.
M. le General was by no means an awful-looking person; and, indeed, we had so expended our surprise already, that we had no more at command.
He was an excessively stout, merry person, middle-aged, of a beautiful complexion, and a capacity to wink that would have vulgarized any one else but a general. He made himself very pleasant, accepted a cup of tea, praised Mary's French, said that he intended to dine with us at the Commandant's to-morrow, and told us some laughable stories about the Arabs. I noticed that the Lieutenant seemed quite overawed by the presence of the General, and sat flute in hand, like a statue. Mary tried to put him at his ease, but to no purpose. It did not mend matters when the General began first to twit him about his musical accomplishments, and then to catechise him on military matters.
"You were in that affair of '59, in Kabylia, weren't you?" he asked, in that quick, positive, military tone to which we with difficulty get accustomed.
"Oui, mon General."
"It was a badly managed thing, I believe. The Kabyles got the better of you more than once, didn't they?"
"I believe so, mon General."
"Bah!" cried the General, turning to me. "You see what these young officers know of their trade. I have no doubt that Monsieur le Lieutenant's musical education is much more advanced, and to serenade mademoiselle suits him much better than to make war against the enemies of his country."
And, at the mention of the enemies of his country, the General indulged in a wink. When he was ready to go, he sent the Lieutenant to order his horse, much as if he had been a little boy of ten years old; and on taking leave added half a dozen commissions in the same peremptory tone. The poor Lieutenant listened very submissively, but no sooner had the General dashed down the street, followed by his servant, equally well mounted, than he grew gay and easy again.
As soon as we were alone, Mary brought out her slender supply of gala dresses, and we discussed the important subject of her toilet of the next evening.
"It seems to me," I said, "that if you dress for the Lieutenant, you will displease the Capitaine; if you dress for the Capitaine, you will displease the Commandant; and if you dress for the Commandant, you will displease the General."
Mary gathered up her fineries in alarm. "Don't you think I had better stay away from the dinner altogether, Tom?"
"By no means," I said; "settle the matter by dressing to please me."
Which she accordingly did, and the result was a semi-moresque, dainty, and glowing bit of costume quite in keeping with the time and place.
Precisely at seven o'clock we presented ourselves at the Commandant's, Mary looking very pretty in her transparent white dress, brilliant sack of Tunis silk, and necklets and bracelets of coral and palm-seeds. The little thing had such loving, dark eyes, such a soft bloom on her cheeks, and such a sweet mouth, that I could hardly blame the General for wishing to have her sit beside him at dinner. The Commandant, being a little shy, would have given up all his privileges as host, but the General insisted upon the Commandant leading her in, and she sat between the two. It was very mortifying for the Capitaine and the Lieutenant; the former made an effort to be complimentary and entertaining across the table, but the latter looked quite crestfallen, and hardly raised his eyes from his plate. When we retired to the drawing-room, matters went a little better. The tame gazelle was brought in for Mademoiselle Marie to see; and while the General and the Commandant had a long discussion on military affairs, the rest of us sported with the pretty creature and made pleasant plans for the morrow. Then an amusing game of cards was set on foot, over which we were growing very merry, when up came the General and the Commandant.
"Eh, bien!" said the General, slyly nudging the Capitaine. "We have not been so engrossed, but we heard one or two pleasant things talked of. Upon my word, Capitaine, I am half disposed not to go to Mascara till after your picnic to the water-falls."
"You will do my poor little fete great honor, mon General," answered the Capitaine, adding, naively, "but I think that the wild geese flying northwards means rain."
"Not a bit of it. We shall have no rain until a fortnight after Christmas. Mademoiselle Marie, I shall do myself the honor of offering you one of my horses to ride."
"Mademoiselle has already condescended to accept mine," the Capitaine put in, with stiffness.
"Mademoiselle Marie, this gentleman has no horse fit to carry a lady. The brute he offers you has no more mouth than an elephant. Keep on the safe side and ride mine, which is a lamb, I assure you, mademoiselle,—a lamb."
The General spoke in jest, but the Capitaine was very near losing his temper. Mary being thus appealed to, thought to extricate herself from the difficulty by declaring herself half afraid to ride either horse, being an inexperienced horsewoman. But both the gentlemen had mules, and both the gentlemen's mules were the best. Poor Mary colored, and looked at me in despair.
"I think," I said, "the safest plan will be for my sister to try the horses, and see which suits her the best."
Then the different routes to the water-falls were discussed, and the different Douars or Arab villages where it would be best to have a Diffa, or feast, provided,—Mary's judgment being asked in every instance. All this time the Lieutenant had turned over the leaves of a newspaper very meekly, and the Commandant had caressed his tame gazelle. As soon as she could politely free herself, Mary went up to him.
"How pretty, and playful, and fond it is!" she said, stooping down to stroke the little creature. The grave face of the Commandant brightened.
"Yes; it would be very triste here without the little thing."
"Do you never go to France, monsieur?"
"I shall perhaps go in two years' time; but you see, mademoiselle, that is a long time to look forward to; and if my mother should not be living, I might as well stay here."
"Do you like fighting the Arabs in the Desert, then, monsieur?"
"Mademoiselle, when one takes up the profession of arms, fighting and exile are choses entendues. I often sigh for a settled, domestic life; but I might have been worse off. I might have gone to Mexico, for instance."
The Commandant's manner was so simple, so manly, and so tinged with sadness, that I think any woman would have sympathized with him as much as my little sister Mary did. She, poor child, having lived all her life in a school-room, was quite ready to make a hero of any man that smiled kindly upon her; and here were four heroes, in handsome uniforms, all smiling upon her at once! There was the sweet sense of youth drawing her to the Lieutenant; but I think the Commandant stood next in her favor, and she could not for a moment forget the courteous kindness of the other two.
"It must all be a dream, Tom," she said, as she gave me her good-night kiss; "but, oh! if it is a dream, don't let me wake yet."
We dreamed some wonderful things in the next few days. Dominique made us get up, one morning, very early, and drove us in his little wooden gig to an Arab encampment miles away in the Desert. It was dawn when we started, and large, pale stars were shining in a violet sky; then, like a gorgeous butterfly emerging from a dusky chrysalis, came the Eastern day, and we felt as if living in a world warmed by a hundred suns. The warm, intoxicating light took possession of our senses, and so sweet, so rarefied, so indescribably delicious was the air, that it seemed to give wings to our dull bodies. Every now and then we were overtaken by clouds of locusts, their little wings glistening like diamonds against the soft sky, or flocks of starlings darkened the air, or a serried line of wild geese passed majestically overhead. Then we came to the tents, and at our approach a dozen dogs rushed out to snap and snarl, and a hundred little naked children scampered and scuttled across the way. A stately Bedouin made us welcome, and, while Dominique transacted business with him, his women gathered around us, chattering and grinning like children. Then we were feasted upon cous-cous-sou and figs, and took leave, after many "salamaleks."
Another day we went out hunting gazelles, bivouacking along a riverside, and feasting, Arab fashion, off a sheep roasted whole. Dominique had found a pretty little French girl, daughter of a travelling farrier, to act as Mary's handmaid; and she now felt less isolated among so many men, and less shy, too. The poor child stood a fair chance of being spoiled, what with suddenly finding herself transformed from a school-room Cinderella to a fairy-tale princess, and having four lovers, all heroes, at once. For it was impossible to deny that the General, the Commandant, the Capitaine, and the Lieutenant all behaved like lovers, presenting her with jackal skins, ostrich plumes and eggs, rare birds, and other treasures of the Sahara. The General went so far as to give her a little negro boy about ten years old, though this gift we had accepted only temporarily, not quite knowing what to do with him when we left Teschoun.
Christmas-day came at last. Mary had artfully evaded the delicate point about horses by declaring herself afraid of every one's beast but Dominique's; accordingly, mounted on Dominique's ugly hack, she led the way with the General, her long, bright hair flowing in curls over her shoulders, her cheeks glowing with excitement. The pleasure and picturesqueness of the last few days—for Mary had an artistic perception of beauty—had brought out a new side to her character; and she quite surprised me, from time to time, with her saucy humor and quick repartee.
We made a brilliant cavalcade, what with the uniforms of the officers, and the richly embroidered saddles and bright-red burnouses of our attendant spahis. After riding some miles across a monotonous tract of stony desert, we came to a majestic sierra of crag, down which fell a dozen water-falls, narrow and bright as sword-blades. A thin little stream threaded the ravine, and on its banks grew clumps of the tamarisk, the oleander, and the thuya, making an oasis grateful to the eyes. Here we sat down and ate our Christmas breakfast, with stray thoughts of village bells chiming at home, and school children lustily singing their Christmas hymns.
Our host, the Capitaine, had provided a sumptuous feast of Desert fare,—roast quails and plovers, cous-cous-sou, figs, dates, and bananas, with the addition of champagne; and we were very merry.
"Mademoiselle," said the Capitaine, "think what our next Christmas will be if you are not here. Persuade monsieur, your brother, to purchase some land between Mascara and Teschoun, so that we shall not lose you altogether."
The General nudged the Commandant.
"You see what our friend the Capitaine is dreaming of! Mon Capitaine, your escadron is sure to be sent into the interior this spring; put all romances out of your head, my dear fellow, and do not entice monsieur into the committal of follies."
"I am not the only one to entertain romances," said the Capitaine, coolly. "You, mon General, did us all the honor to spend Christmas at Teschoun. We can but attribute such a condescension to the gracious influence of mademoiselle."
"Look well after the Commandant when I am gone, gentlemen," continued the General, looking round with a smile. "Matters are gone so far already that he loses his temper if a fellow-officer but jests with him. What a terrible slur it would be upon the glorious annals of French-African conquest, if such a brave officer should show himself fonder of stuffing birds for an English demoiselle than running swords through ungrateful Arabs!" and the General looked round with a very comical expression of mock horror.
"Mademoiselle has indiscriminately accepted our tokens of homage," the Commandant said, maliciously.
"But it yet remains to be seen whose offering has been most acceptable to her," went on the General, adding, au grand serieux, "we won't resort to duels unless absolutely necessary."
This sort of banter lasted so long that poor Mary's cheeks burned with mixed vanity and mortification, and she made an excuse to leave us.
"And what does our Lieutenant advise monsieur to do?" asked the General,—"to settle here, or to follow his escadron to the Desert?" Whereupon the poor Lieutenant colored, and said nothing.
What an experience it was, that Christmas-day in the Desert! The noonday sun seemed to dissolve in the warm atmosphere, and, instead of a single orb shining overhead, large and golden, we had melted suns innumerable about us, and almost lost the sense of corporeity in their charmed medium.
When the short bright day waned, and the large stars were coming out one by one, we found ourselves near home; and when the heavens had turned to bluish-black, and the stars to splendid silvery moons, we passed under the gate of Teschoun, and saw our shadows, darker and deeper than real things, fall across the white walls of mosque and fortress. For shadow and substance lost their identity in the Desert and one is always on the point of mistaking the one for the other: if anything, shadow is the more real of the two.
So absorbed was I in the suggestions of this mysterious beauty, that I had forgotten all about my sister's lovers till we were fairly in our little sitting-room. Then Mary began to sigh and blush, and to hint that she thought we had better leave Teschoun very soon.
"You see, Tom, dear," she said, with tears in her eyes, "the General says he adores me, and the Commandant says he never loved any one in the world until he saw me, and the Capitaine says that if I go away he will blow his brains out, and what am I to do?"
"And the Lieutenant,—what did he say?"
"He says nothing," said Mary, looking down; "and,"—here came a sob,—"and I like him best of all!"
"But, if he does not declare the same liking for you, we must leave him out of the question, and choose between the other three, I suppose."
"He does not speak because he is too modest: I'm sure he likes me," Mary added, still ready to cry.
"His state of feeling does not help us much, unless expressed," I replied. "Meantime, what am I to say to the General, the Commandant, and the Capitaine, if they ask to marry you?"
The little thing plucked at the folds of her riding-skirt in the greatest perplexity.
"I like the General and I like the Commandant, and I ought not to dislike the Capitaine; but I cannot marry one without offending the others; and, if I were to marry out here in the Desert, Tom, would you stay, too?"
We had been living in such utter fairy-land lately, that I felt as if it were quite possible for me to marry some brown-skinned, soft-eyed Rebecca, and turn Mahometan. But, in any case, could I desire for my sister a happier fate than to marry one of these brave gentlemen, and live in the sunny South all the rest of her days? She would be rescued from a life of toil and friendlessness, and have another protector besides her Bohemian of a brother.
"My dear child," I said, "it would be impossible for me to say that our lives should be spent together; but you may be quite sure that nothing would utterly divide them. The chief point is, of all your lovers, whom do you love?"
To this question I could elicit no positive reply. Mary, in fact, was half in love with the General and the Commandant, and wholly in love with the Lieutenant, and was quite incapable of deciding her own fate.
"You must not laugh at me," she said, simply, as we bade each other good-night; "it is so new to me to have lovers, and so delightful, that I wish I could go on forever being happy, and making them happy, without marrying either." Then she blushed and ran off to bed.
The next morning we were taking our early coffee, when we heard the clatter of horses' feet, and, looking out, saw one of the General's splendid, brown-skinned, red-cloaked spahis dashing into the town at a furious rate. He pulled up at Dominique's door, and, letting his little barb prance and rear at will, looked towards us, showing his white teeth and waving a letter in one hand.
I left my breakfast and ran down to him. We exchanged "salamaleks," and then he put the letter in my hand, adding, in broken French, "Le General,—envoyer cela,—va faire le guerre,—la-bas." Then he put spurs to his horse's flanks, and dashed away as fast as he had come.
I broke the seal of the General's letter, which ran as follows:
"Monsieur,—This morning at daybreak I received telegraphic information that a serious rising has taken place among the tribes southward of Fig-gig, and I have resolved to march upon them without delay. Judge, monsieur, how more than sorry I am to be forced to quit the society of your charming sister and yourself without making my adieux; but a soldier's duty forces him from the consummation of his fondest desires, when such a consummation seems close at hand, and I go, if not with joy, at least without soldierly reluctance. I shall never forget, monsieur, this episode, an oasis in the desert of my military life; and, while wishing for mademoiselle and yourself all possible prosperity, I hope you will remember Teschoun and the poor exiled officers there, who will never think of you both without regret.
"I feel it right, under the grave circumstances of the revolt, to advise your speedy return to Mascara, and will order a trusty escort to be in readiness for you when you shall require it.
"Meantime, receive, monsieur, the expression of my utmost esteem.
We were both of us talking over the astounding contents of the General's letter, when Napoleon came in, full of news. The insurgents numbered thousands, and there were skirmishing parties close to Teschoun. Teschoun would be most likely besieged, as it had been more than once, etc., etc. As the day wore on, the excitement increased. Little groups of French or Jewish shopkeepers collected together and talked gravely, Arabs walked about in stately fashion, smiling superciliously. In the French camp it was the old story on a lesser scale:
"And there was mounting in hot haste; the steed, The mustering squadron, and the clattering car Went pouring forward with impetuous speed."
And so great was the need for hurry that we doubted whether we should see either of our gallant hosts again. Late in the afternoon, however, the Capitaine paid us a formal, sentimental visit, and after him came the Commandant, who stood up before us, square and stiff, and stammered out a word or two with tears in his kind eyes. Mary held out her little hand; but he seemed overcome with shyness or sadness, or both, and rushed away without having taken it.
Last of all, when we had quite given him up, came the poor Lieutenant: he had been busy on a hundred errands for his superior officers, and had only five minutes to spare. We can never do anything with a few last moments, and Mary and the Lieutenant had not a word to say to each other, though I could see well enough what both would fain have said.
So I quietly left them under the pretext of fetching a cigar, and when I returned, at the close of the fifth minute, all that was necessary had been said. We then embraced each other after the hearty French fashion. Mary and the Lieutenant exchanged rings, and he went off to fight the disaffected Arabs as happy as a king!
It was a fine sight to see the troops march out of Teschoun. Color is really color in the South, and the lines of blue zouaves and crimson spahis against the mellow afternoon sky were vivid and picturesque beyond description.
On they went, arms flashing, drums beating, colors flying, till the last column had turned the hill, and then evening came on all at once, and we felt a dreary sense of disenchantment creeping over us. It was as if we had been dreaming during the last few weeks, and now we were waked, indeed! Dominique recalled us to ourselves with a cynical smile.
"Bah!" he cries, "it's all play; let 'em pretend to put down insurrection as often as they please. It is good for trade and promotion, and the Arabs know how to defend themselves."
But events falsified this sarcasm of Monsieur Dominique's, for the insurrection proved serious, and it was months before we heard of our Lieutenant. When we did hear, the news was good; and the news of him and of his English wife—dowered by our Vittoria Colonna—has been good ever since.
END OF BOOK I.