As originally published in|
The Atlantic Monthly
The Christmas Angel
"I have just one left!" shouted a shrill voice. "Notice the work in it, -- four blades, scissors file, corkscrew, toothpick; cuts glass like paper. A beautiful Christmas gift for man, woman, or child. Can be taken out of the pocket in the finest society without the slightest feeling of embarrassment. Price one mark. Whenever I sell a knife it maddens me. What do I receive in return? Nothing. You who buy receive something for eternity. Have the goodness to pass the knife to the gracious Fraulein in the fur cloak."
The speaker paused as this particular last knife made its way through the group of soldiers, drosky drivers, students, maid servants, and children until it reached the hands of Miss Elisabeth Joy, while a second voice cried from under a wide-spreading umbrella, "Wanted, some one to buy an American spider, -- will amuse for hours, create a smile on the face of the smileless, bring luck to the entire family, enliven the whole Christmas tree; also I hold in my hand one thousand jokes, -- will kill you laughing. Draw nearer, dearest Gretchen and Hans."
It was snowing a little, after the fashion it has of snowing just before the coming of the great December Day: the air was cold, the street cheerless, but neither the state of the atmosphere nor of the walking had any effect in diminishing the number of persons who thronged the square. As Elisabeth Joy slipped the knife in her pocket, she was jostled by the crowd against a young man who seemed looking for some one.
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"Nun, guten Abend," he said; "found at last. I am afraid I have kept you
waiting. Are you the gracious Fraulein in the fur cloak?"
The girl laughed merrily. "It was purely accidental, my buying that knife," she explained. "I must have given an encouraging nod at just the right moment, -- one is so irresponsible in a scene like this. If you had not arrived exactly as you did, I have n't a doubt I should have been smiling next at the man with the jokes and the spiders. How young all this makes one feel, does n't it? Quite in the mood for embracing every dear little Marzipan herring and pig!"
Crossing the street, they turned away from the passing and tangling of men and vehicles, forever passing, forever tangling, in the busy Leipziger Strasse, and came to a quieter spot where conversation was more of a possibility. Here Elisabeth called her companion's attention to a lighted window in the fourth story of a house on the opposite corner.
"I have to go up there for a moment," she said. "I sha'n't be gone long. I hope you don't mind waiting?"
The girl disappeared, and the young man, walking up and down below, noticed, as he watched the upper window idly, that the light, which before had been rather dim, became suddenly brighter.
Elisabeth Joy and Sydney St. John were lifelong friends and comrades. As children, they had spent the summer playdays together in the pleasant old garden of a mutual great-aunt where every Sunday afternoon they were accustomed to conduct a religious service, assisted by a flower congregation, the forget-me-nots standing for blue-eyed little boys and girls, the gay rows of asters for tall young ladies in pretty bonnets, the pansies for lovely old grandmothers. At these services the boy Sydney read from a prayerbook once belonging to an English ancestor, and containing prayers for King George and Queen Charlotte, and King Charles the Martyr. The great-aunt, when consulted as to the efficacy of these prayers, thought they were no longer needed, King George and Queen Charlotte, and King Charles the Martyrs being included in "all Thy servants departed this life in Thy hope and fear." The children felt that this was too general, and that by relocating these petitions they not only showed a proper attention to the memory of these royal personages, but added greatly to the distinction of their services.
It was a long time now since the flowers in the great-aunt's garden had played the part of a Sunday congregation, and today the two children were busy students in the imperial city of Berlin. When the girl drew aside her curtains in the morning, she could look across the courtyard to a window where Sydney St. John was already seated before his desk; when she closed her curtains at night, he was still at work. He would be a very learned man some day; indeed, he was that now, in the opinion of the household, whose members often wandered by the wardrobes, cupboards, and tables of lamps lining the corridor, on their way to visit the collection of rare books over which their young American spent so many industrious hours. The books were written for the most part in tongues spoken by those other wise men, who, seeing a star in the east, arose and followed it until they came to the manger where the young Child lay. Elisabeth knew all about these books, -- when they were bought, and where, and at what price, and in what condition. Sydney St. John called her the godmother of his library.
"What were you doing up there?" the young man asked, as Elisabeth came back somewhat out of breath.
"I was lighting a lamp. A dear old friend of mine had one given to her for Christmas, and she sent me a note asking if I would perform the opening ceremony. All honor to sentiment; it is growing every day more precious and less attainable."
"Was the lamp a pretty one? The question does not sound as if I knew I were talking with the giver."
"A very pretty one, thank you; it looked quite like a big yellow rose in the gloom of the long narrow room, -- you know the kind, with the furniture on the two sides, and a path through the middle. Like the true German that she is, my poor old Fraulein has got her Christmas tree trimmed and ready to light, and under it she has spread out a lot of family photographs. Don't you call that very forlorn, to sit down on Christmas Eve in front of a lonely little tree, with only the faces of dead and absent friends as companions? I felt as if we ought to give up our walk, and pretend we were some of her relations for the time being. When I told her you were down here and where we were going, she said she did n't see how we could possibly find any pleasure in it; that she always avoided the Weihnacht's Market and the service at the Dom as she would a mob."
"I don't much wonder," and the young man dodged his head just in time to escape collision with a talking doll, while the individual offering it for sale shouted in his ears, "Here is a little creature that has neither father nor mother, and yet delights in calling, 'Thanks, dearest papa; thanks, dearest mamma.'"
On the nearest corner, a blind organ-grinder ceaselessly turned the handle of his instrument, the front of the latter bearing the inscription, "I am the blind father of nine children. Blessed be the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." By the side of the street, old women seated before low portable stoves were frying cakes and sausages; and close at hand was the village of booths, which every year springs up as in the night around the gray walls of the old Prussian castle.
From the first of these a woman leaned forward, saying with honeyed graciousness of speech, "Approach, heart's dearest little people; observe these doves!" She held in her hand a toy dovecote, over which a circle of wooden doves hovered, while a second circle surrounded the feet of a figure which represented a young girl wearing a brilliant dress of red and orange. By pulling a wire, the doves in the air went round and round; the doves on the ground nodded their heads as if engaged in picking up the grain which the young girl, whose arms now moved steadily to and fro, was supposed to be scattering. This scene was accompanied by a curious sound proceeding from the interior of the box upon which the toy rested. A person of a sufficiently lively imagination might have interpreted the sound as the cooing of the doves.
Elisabeth opened her purse. "One never sees such toys except at a Weihnacht's Market. I must buy it for Alexander. You don't know about Alexander, Sydney: he is the dearest baby; he lives in the lane back of aunt Marjory's garden; his father is a German shoemaker. I discovered Alexander last summer, and invited him to visit the pansy grandmothers, and the aster young ladies, and the forget-me-not children. He believes in them now as sincerely as we used to do, and do still, for that matter. We never forget our old friends."
"Certainly not; I often find myself thinking of those pretty aster girls. Elisabeth, horen Sie mal! A most delightful idea has suddenly struck me. We can do it next year, if present plans come true and we are at home together. Aunt Marjory is always wanting something novel, and this will be charmingly novel. Let us have a Christmas market of our own. We should need only one booth, but of course that must be very representative; and for our customers we must invite a lot of little children, German children if possible. I will attend to the outside matters, such as talking dolls and hand-organs that are the blind fathers of large families, and you shall stand in the booth and give out the wares; and instead of appearing as a stout old lady with a shawl over your head, indiscriminately addressing the public as 'heart's dearest little people,' you shall be a beautiful Christmas angel, with real wings, and real 'heart's dearest little people' all about you. I will furnish the wings; I know how to make very pretty ones," and the young man hummed lightly, --
"'Voudriez vous avoir des ailes?
Oui, pour revenir.'
How does the proposal please you? Would n't you like to play angel?"
"Yes, indeed. I have already played it once, but this will be better; the other was only a picture. Did n't I tell you about it? It was two years ago last spring, when we were in Italy, and a painter in our party made a study of me as an angel with long sweeping wings and a dear little crown of jewels. He intends to use the study later as material for one of the figures in a large picture. You always do have the most attractive plans. Aunt Marjory will be simply delighted. Come, let us buy our wares; we shall need a great many."
Under the gently falling snow, they went in and out through the rows of booths, chatting and laughing over their merry purchases, until it was six by the clock in the Rathhaus tower and the bells were ringing from the Dom. Then the basket procured to contain the result of this Christmas marketing being confided to the keeping of an old woman at a cake stand, the two friends entered the church just as the people within were singing: --
"Gelobet seiest du, Jesus Christ,
Dass du Mensh geboren bist
Von einer Jungfrau, das ist wahr,
Des freuet sich der Engel Schar.
The holiday week was over. All Berlin and all Germany had eaten its Christmas goose, had heaped its dishes high with Marzipan and Pfefferkuchen, emptied its tempting glasses of fragrant "Bowle," and thrown open wide its windows to welcome the Happy New Year with a lusty " Prosit Neu Jahr" as the clock struck twelve in the Sylvester night. These pleasant things having been accomplished, the world settled again to a more serious existence, since the happy New Year must of necessity mean also the busy New Year.
One afternoon, early in this same busy, happy New Year, Elisabeth Joy sat in her room industriously reading. Some one knocked at the door. It was Sydney St. John, bringing with him an armful of books just returned from the binders.
"Good-afternoon, dear godmother," he said. "I hope we are not interrupting. We thought perhaps you would like to see us in our new gowns."
"Good-afternoon, dear books; you know you never interrupt, but it is very polite of you to mention it. How fine you are looking!" The girl turned the pages as she spoke, and examined the covers approvingly. "I was reading about Roswitha; are you acquainted with her, Sydney? Would you like me to invite her to meet you and the books?"
"Invite her, by all means," said the young man, pouring some water into a kettle that, with other dainty arrangements for tea-drinking, stood on a low table in the corner. "Shall I set the rose-colored cup for her? It suits the name, does n't it? The books may know her, but I have not that pleasure. Who and what was she?"
"She was a learned nun: she used to read Virgil and Terence, and write plays in Latin. She lived so long ago that even her gravestone has disappeared, and the date with it."
"Possibly that is her rosary," said Sydney St. John; "it looks old enough" He had lighted the lamp under the kettle, and now took down a string of wooden beads hanging from the corner of a shelf above his head. "Really, Fraulein Lisbeth, you ought to label your things, you have such interesting ones," and turning to the writing-desk, he printed "Roswitha's Rosary" in neat lettering, and fastened the slip of paper to the beads. "See how instructive you might make your surroundings. People would inquire, just as I have done, 'Who was Roswitha?' Some, not wishing to display ignorance, might try to discover without asking, even go so far as a journey to the Konigliche Bibliothek. I do like to have things labeled. One knows then where one is. I wish people could be labeled. Shall I bring you the rose-colored cup and a nice little cake?" He lifted the lid of a jar and looked in critically. "Your friend Roswitha does n't seem to be coming; at least I do not feel any indications of her presence. Of course she may be here, for all that; if she is, I am sure she would prefer a glass of convent cordial. I don't connect learned nuns who wrote plays in Latin with pleasant little cups of afternoon tea."
"I don't either," said the girl, "and so I will take the pink cup, if you please, with one lump of sugar and no cream. There is n't any reason that Roswitha should be here; she would n't feel particularly interested in us. But seriously, Sydney, I do believe that people now and then come back, -- that is, sometimes and some people; only no one knows it, except perhaps half consciously through a sweet counsel given or hope received; and even in that case I suppose the persons thus visited would say it was a dream. What do you think?"
"I think of a little girl whom I knew once upon a time. She had a pretty little head full of pretty little notions. Her name was Bessie. She loved to lie in the tall grass and blow thistledown on straight up to the blue sky. And she believed that her thistledown floated soft by into heaven, and that the angels would miss it unless it came every day."
Elisabeth smiled, and asked if the young man also remembered the story which the great-aunt Marjory had woven for them out of this childish fancy, -- the story about thoughts, and how far they could be sent, and how the white ones always floated softly into heaven just as the thistledown was supposed to do, and how the angels needed as many white thoughts as possible to blow down to people who had none. "By the way," continued the girl, taking from the table a letter written in a delicate old-fashioned hand, "here is a letter from aunt Marjory, with a message for you. 'Give Sydney my dear love, and tell him I am very much delighted with his plan for next Christmas, and have already been talking with Alexander about it, who understands perfectly because he is growing up with a picturebook which contains an angel standing under a Christmas tree."' The girl folded the letter and laid it back on the table. "Have you commenced the wings yet?" she asked.
The young man replied that he was spending all his spare time cutting out patterns; and did Elisabeth prefer them short and spreading, or long and drooping, as for instance butterfly wings or conventional angel wings, and of what color, white or rainbow?
"White, and in shape butterfly wings; they would be so much more convenient. How do you think a little crown of white roses would look to wear with them?"
"Charming!" said the young man, gathering up his books. "So that is settled, -- butterfly wings and a crown of white roses. Thanks for the tea. I 'm glad Roswitha did n't come."
The year grew older; venders of Italian anemones and golden mimosa established themselves on the street corners where the much-extolled pocket-knives, the so-called American spiders, and the jokes that would kill you laughing had been so busily sold in the December weather. The year grew older still, and the southern flowers were replaced by snowdrops and narcissi and pots of yellow daffodils. In a week or two the lilacs would appear, and the roses, and the blossoms on the linden-trees.
Elisabeth Joy and Sydney St. John had been taking a farewell walk and saying good-by to all their favorite places, for the girl was about to start on a journey that would lead from the flowers of Berlin back to the flowers of the great-aunt's garden.
It had been such a beautiful afternoon. Coming home, they stopped to rest on the bank of the canal, -- there where the willows bend low over the water Elisabeth had her hands full of buttercups.
"I suppose I have been doing something that is 'polizeilich verboten,'" she said. "I almost wish I had been observed. I should rather like to be detained in Berlin for having picked buttercups. Let us pretend they are motley. Here, you may have half. Count them carefully. Each one is a twenty-mark piece."
They counted the buttercups, making all the time nonsensical plans for the disposition of the imaginary wealth. Then Elizabeth swept the flowers in a heap together. "What shall we play next?" she said. "It is your turn to suggest, only you are not playing very well this afternoon. You made no end of mistakes in counting the buttercups. I believe you have grown old and solemn all of a sudden. What are you thinking about, if you please, you are so quiet?"
"I am watching the river boats drift by," the young man answered, "and I am dreaming, wishing, hoping."
"Dreaming, wishing, hoping what? Confide in me. People always confide in those who are going to a far country. It seems safe, I suppose; one takes the secret with one."
Sydney St. John made no answer. After a while he said, "How pleasant it looks over there on the boat, with the man and the woman bringing their fruit into the city!"
"And the little dog," Elisabeth added. "Don't you see the little dog? Guten Tag, doggie, gluckliche Reise! The man doesn't look very strong. I am quite sure his wife is going to outlive him. That will make another widow in the world. There are so many of them already! Did you ever notice, Sydney? It seems almost like an especial dispensation, because women, poor things, are apparently so much better adapted than men for the bearing of trouble. When that woman becomes a willow, how she will trudge out to the Kirchhof on his birthday with a wreath over her arm, never forgetting the observance until her own 'Stundlein,' her 'little hour,' itself arrives! Is n't that so German to have a pet name even for the time of one's last sickness 'Wenn mein Stundlein vorhanden ist' impresses me exactly as if one were speaking in an endearing fashion of something particularly intimate and precious, such as a welcome gift or a joyful surprise. I suppose that is really the way one ought to think of dying, only of course -- no one does."
"I suppose so," the young man returned; but he was not thinking of death just then; rather of life, and springs and the nightingale's song. Presently be said, with grave tenderness of voice: "You were asking what I should like to play next. May I tell you, Elisabeth, I should like to play that we are engaged to be married, and to be happy forever after? This is what I am dreaming, wishing, hoping."
The buttercup money fell from the girl's lap to the ground, and she asked her companion reproachfully how he could go and spoil everything; but after a while she was led to consider the proposal in a more favorable light, and a little later two people began to dream and to hope, -- not to wish, for there seemed to be nothing left worth the wishing. And so the afternoon wore away by the river, on the bench under the willow-tree, which Elisabeth said ought to have been a linden, since, in Germany, lovers always sat under lindens.
"Don't you remember, Sydney?
'Und unter der Linden sassen
Zwei Gluckliche Hand in Hand.'"
"Then by all means let us play the willow is a linden," her companion answered. And they played it.
The holiday season again approached. At home Elisabeth Joy was waiting with glad anticipation for the coming of a ship now hurrying westward across the sea from Germany. Its passengers were, two middle-aged women, Miss Eunice Judd and Miss Charlotte King, a painter, a pretty Dutch young lady with a placid German companion, a boy, and Sydney St. John. The second cabin was composed for the most part of German musicians and commercial travelers. It was late on the afternoon of the fifth day out. In the salon, the painter was engaged in making sketches of the pretty Dutch young lady as she sat at the piano, the boy turning her music. The boy and the Dutch young lady were both sixteen. Frau Kringel, the girl's attendant, sat near by, absorbed in counting the stitches in some complicated crochet work. Miss Eunice Judd had curled herself in a secluded corner, that the dizzy feeling in her head might not be rendered still more unendurable by the sight of the German woman's restless needle. Miss Charlotte Ring, who wrote novels and verses professionally, had established herself at the table with a pile of notebooks. Sydney St. John was in his stateroom, and had just lifted from his steamer trunk a large flat box. He opened this: within, under a quantity of soft paper, was a pair of wings. How pretty they were! How white and shining! His thoughts went back to the afternoon on the bank of the canal, to the willow-tree that should have been a linden, to the boat with the man and the woman bringing their fruit into the city. He began to write a letter.
"My Elisabeth, I feel like a prince in a fairy tale, for who else could be bringing wings to a Christmas angel, who else could have the promise of being always her comrade and playmate? Always, always! Oh, sweet length of love! Always, always! I like to write the words, they sound so long.
"When I was a boy, I used to pray very earnestly upon my knees that eternity might end some day. I was not the prince in the fairy tale then. I did not know" --
What was that, -- the sudden crash, the sudden shock, the sudden silence? Sydney St. John started to his feet and went on deck.
The ship had stopped going and seemed almost motionless. The passengers were talking together in low voices. Something had happened, no one knew exactly what. When the dinner hour came, the meal was announced as usual; as usual, also, the young captain took his seat at the head of the table, a reassuring smile on his boyish face. His manner, however, conveyed the impression that it would be more acceptable just at present if no questions were asked. The passengers therefore asked no questions.
"So far as I am concerned," observed Miss Eunice Judd to the boy, in the subdued tone which every one had unconsciously adopted, -- "so far as I am concerned, I find it rather agreeable to be able to hold myself up again. Anything is better than that terrible dizzy feeling, even if it is being on the verge of perishing. I do wish the captain were a little older. He 's nothing but a mere child; only twenty-seven, they tell me. I shall inquire the age of the commanding officer the next time I venture on a ship; that is, of course, if I should ever have another opportunity. I suppose he must have had some experience, else he would n't be in such a responsible position. It is evident he wishes to avoid discussing unpleasant subjects while eating. Well, there is good common sense in that. I believe in keeping one's mind at rest, especially at meals, but I do hope our time is n't being wasted. If we have got to take to the boats, I should like to make one or two preparations. They say that if the captain had n't entered the engine-room just when he did, and opened a valve, -- or may be it was closed a valve, -- whichever way it was, if he had n't done it at that particular moment, we should have gone down then and there. Now that sounds pretty serious, does n't it?"
"I guess it is pretty serious," said the boy. "There is going to be divine service after dinner."
A little later, the second-cabin passengers entered, and the company thus assembled were told that an accident had occurred, placing the ship for a moment in great danger; but there was no longer immediate cause for alarm, unless indeed a storm should arise, and this was not probable, there being every prospect of pleasant weather, as well of aid to some passing vessel. The only inconvenience to be apprehended was that of a longer voyage than had been anticipated. The explanation was followed by the service which the boy had announced to Miss Judd. At the conclusion of the quieting words the young captain shook hands with every one present, and expressed a wish that all should remain together, spending the evening in social intercourse. The German musicians therefore gathered about the piano. The painter brought out a portfolio containing photographs of his pictures. Miss Charlotte King entertained a group by reading aloud an amusing chapter from one of her novels. Up aloft, a sailor kept his faithful watch. In the rigging burned the signals of a ship in distress.
A wise young captain, this man of twenty-seven, with a smile upon his knee.
Sydney St. John stood for a time apart, occupied with a photograph found among those in the painter's portfolio. On the left of the picture, and attracting immediate attention as the centre of light and interest, was the dim outline of hills, and above a star. From among the hills radiated rays of light like the light of an opal. Directly overhead an angel floated in the air, swinging a censer, as if this little spot of earth were an altar. At the right were clustered other angels One held a crown of thorns, one a stalk of lilies. Higher still could be discerned the shadowy forms of innumerable figures, the figures of the heavenly hosts. In the foreground were angel children. Beneath all were clouds whose formation suggested the petals of flowers. Among these clouds birds were flying. The angel with the censer had been painted from the study made in Italy of Elizabeth Joy.
Before dawn a rescuing steamer came in response to the signals of distress, and now two ships with sails set were following each other over the winter sea, the larger attached to the smaller. As the young captain had predicted, the voyage threatened to be a long one: the painter therefore settled himself to making a portrait of the pretty Dutch young lady; Miss Charlotte King to the planning of her next story; Miss Eunice Judd to the perusal of the ship's library, -- she had
already finished The Frozen Deep, and commenced The Woman in White. The boy and the Dutch young lady each began a journal, supposed to contain elaborate accounts of sunsets and of feelings experienced when lost at sea; Frau Kringel contentedly wandered into a still more complicated form of crochet work; Sydney St. John borrowed some paints and Bristol board, and undertook an extensive fabrication of Christmas cards, to be sold on the last day of the voyage, for the benefit of the sailors' invalid fund. People's minds ceased to dwell so much on gratitude for danger escaped, and more on the monotonous length of days still lying between them and land, Miss Judd even going so far as to say it would have been better, perhaps, if the ship had gone down that afternoon; one had to die some time, and a great deal of future suffering might have been avoided in this manner. She had always heard that death by drowning was comparatively easy. She took back her words and felt a little ashamed of them when she remembered the boy's mother, whose last letter had been signed "lovingly but impatiently."
Sydney St. John and Miss King fell into the habit of working together in the salon.
"I think," said the young man one morning, as he took up a clean sheet of paper, "I will next make a big whale coming out of the sea. I have n't done any cards with whales yet, and I am sure they are not inappropriate. Does n't the Benedicite utter a pious ejaculation of 'O ye whales'? Besides, Bliss Judd assures me one can paint exactly what one likes on a Christmas card."
Miss King looked up from her writing, and said she thought whales were not so far out of the way as some other things she had noticed, as for instance a row of little dogs with the illuminated text, "Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth Peace, Good Will to Men." "I overheard a woman asking in a shop last year, 'Can you tell me, please, what this row of painted puppies has to do with the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ?' It struck me that the question was almost as remarkable as the combination which suggested it. I did n't know any one ever stopped to think of the meaning of Christmas, except, of course, in a very general way. The most of us have to forget the things we learned long ago, to make room for the things we have been learning since. That is a sweet story, the story of the angels, and the star, and the shepherds. A pleasant faith; I believed it all once."
"I also believed it once," Sydney St. John went on as the woman took up her pen again; "believed it and understood it perfectly. After I had grown a little older, read a little, seen a little, I forgot it. After I had grown older still, read more, seen more, it came to me to remember again and to believe. I cannot explain how it came; perhaps because I needed it so much, because I found life too hard without it. I believe now with all my heart, just as a child would, only I no longer understand."
The woman rested her hand lightly for a moment on the young man's shoulder. "I like you very much," she said, and went back to her writing.
The days went on; it became vaguely reported that the disabled machinery had been put in order. One morning the rescuing steamer loosened itself from the larger one, hovered in the distance for a time, as if to make quite sure that its aid was no longer needed, and finally at sunset sped out of sight through a sea of gold. But before the sun set again, the pulse of the larger ship lost for a second time its regularity, ominous scraping sounds were heard, followed by ominous gurglings, until at last there was no sound at all, and no motion except a slight rocking to and fro.
Helpless again, and no answer coming, either to the cannon pealing across the fog by day or to the signals burning by night!
The painting of the portrait and of the Christmas cards went on, the complicated crochet work, the writing and reading of journals, letters, and novels.
But to what purpose, the passengers asked themselves daily, since it might be that after a little there would be no further use for these things.
"If I had attempted to describe a situation of this kind, I should have made it altogether different," observed Miss Charlotte King to Miss Eunice Judd, one night, as they were preparing for rest, preparations which consisted in the putting on of heavy garments suitable for any emergency, and securing more carefully their most valuable possessions upon their persons. "I should have made people weeping and rushing about for life-preservers, -- sleeping on them, in fact. Very likely I should have had one passenger jump overboard, and another become temporarily insane. We are quite too composed to be natural."
"I suppose you would have had the provisions running low!" said Miss Judd, "and the captain standing by the drinking-water with a loaded pistol. Did you notice, by the way, that we had salt pork for dinner? I presume they want us to get accustomed to it by degrees. I forgot to tell you that the cabin boy left word we were to be very sparing of the water."
"It seems the captain has a wife and little child at home," said Miss King; "he was speaking to me about them today. And Mr. St. John has been showing me the picture of a young woman with a flower-like face; he gave me a letter for her in case anything were to happen to him which did not happen to me. I have written one or two letters myself; I think I shall give them to you."
"You had better put them in a bottle and throw them overboard; that is the proper way to do in shipwrecks. I am mortified to death at being able to sleep so well. It must be owing to the sea air. I'd keep awake if I possibly could. One ought to be awake when one is more
than half expecting every moment to be one's last. Still, I don't know what use it would be, either. Speaking of letters, one's life is a good deal like a letter, and dying is the signature. Why should there be any fuss or flurry over a signature? I suppose you have very correct ideas about dying. You must have died a great many times in your stories; you have the advantage of practice."
"Yes," the other woman answered. "I have died as a Roman Catholic priest, and a Jew, and a Buddhist, and an out-and-out heathen, and a soldier in the Salvation Army, and an early Christian martyr, and a person spoken of by her neighbors as being unprepared to die. I have generally died rather elaborately, but always comfortably. I believe in that. Death, when it comes, should be sweet. It was intended to be sweet. People who have lived and loved and struggled and suffered have a right to fall asleep quietly and peacefully at the end."
The fog lifted at length. Something drifted by that looked like the fragment of a wreck. After that a ship appeared and disappeared on the distant horizon. Or had it been only the semblance of a ship? The fog closed in again. What lay beyond, -- danger or safety, storm or fair weather? And would the little white wings reach land in time to be worn for Christmas?
"A far country," Elizabeth Joy had said that afternoon under the willows.
"People always confide in those who are going to a far country." She was thinking of her near approaching journey; she did not know then of another and greater journey which was to be hers before the closing of the year.
No one knew, or would have believed had one been told; indeed, nobody believed it at the first, not even after reading it in the print of the morning papers.
"Miss Elizabeth Joy!" "Oh no, that was impossible." "Only the other day she had been seen looking like a rose." "There must be some mistake, some confusion of names; it was probably the great-aunt Marjory." But it was not the great-aunt Marjory.
It happened, this setting forth on the greater journey, on the very evening when the passengers of the disabled ship at sea had gathered as one family because of their common need.
There had been a few days of suffering from what seemed in the beginning only a slight indisposition, but which was followed by something growing graver and graver, until, almost without warning, the "little hour" came, a brief period of weakness and weariness, and talking in fragmentary sentences.
"One angel brought a crown of thorns. I wanted to stand near with lilies because of the meaning; I wanted my life to be like that. But he who painted the picture said I was to swing the censer; he said it was quite the same whether one brought suffering, or beauty, or perfume, -- one had only to bring whatever one had."
Those about the bed, not having seen the pictures thought that the girl's mind was wandering; but it seemed perfectly clear after this, and she asked when Sydney's ship was expected, saying she should like to see the wise old books again. "I suppose the men who wrote them are even wiser now; that is, if they have not been sleeping. Will one remember books when one is dead?"
"I cannot tell" the Great Aunt Marjory answered; "it may be so."
"I think it must be so," the girl went on; "that is, if one has loved them very much in life. Sydney could never forget his books."
Then she asked if the holly had been ordered, adding that should she not feel well enough to go downstairs on Christmas Eve, there was no change to be made in the arrangements she had planned. "But I am going to feel well, quite well, and I am to wear wings like the wings of a white butterfly, and the crown is to be of white roses. Thoughts are like wings, -- they flutter, flutter, no one can tell how far they go....Sing me the hymn they sang in the Dom...the one that begins 'Gelobet seiest du.' Martin Luther wrote it....Sing me to sleep....I am tired....I must rest a little before Christmas."
Some one in the room sang softly: --
"Gelobet seiest du, Jesus, Christ,
Dass, du Mensch geboren bist "
Von einer Jungfrau, das ist wahr,
Des, freuet sich der Engel Schar.
At sea a ship drifted onward. From the quiet room a girl's soul also drifted, drifted in some way to somewhere, and it was all in the night.
In the afternoon before Christmas Day, one of the maids, hearing the street door open and close, went into the hall and found that Mr. St. John had arrived. He gave the maid a large flat box, saying it was to be taken at once to Miss Elisabeth. The maid, not knowing what reply to make, led the way to the library, where the great-aunt Marjory sat by the fire; the box she carried to a room beyond, and placed it beneath the miniature portrait of a child, inscribed "Bessie, aged ten," and upon which the light from a swinging lamp fell softly. There was a letter on the table addressed to Miss Elisabeth Joy. The postman had left it only a few moments before, and the maid, following an inspiration born of devotion and perplexity, had brought it, as she had brought the package, to the portrait of "Bessie, aged ten."
In one corner of the room stood a Christmas tree decked and ready to light. Close beside it was a quaint cabinet organ which had accompanied the baby Alexander's family from the Fatherland.
"When one's self and one's children and one's parents and one's grandparents have never celebrated the Holy Evening without the assistance of this beloved piece of furniture," said the shoemaker to his wife, as they were on the eve of embarking for America, "then it is no longer a thing; then it becomes an important person, a member of the household."
"Quite right, lieber Mann," returned the wife; "most sensibly spoken."
"Moreover, when it is not being used as a musical instrument, it will always be convenient as a table."
The Haus Orgel therefore emigrated with the family, and with the family had been invited to participate in the evening's festivities. The tree was lighted now, the German shoemaker seated before the organ. His hands ran caressingly over the yellow keys, and the guests entered singing.
Sydney St. John came with the others. As he passed the table where the toys from the last year's Berlin market awaited distribution, his eyes fell on the dovecote, with its young woman in red and orange scattering grain. He took the toy and concealed it behind a row of books. Another day, perhaps, he would give it to Alexander.
Then he noticed, hanging from the end of the bookshelf, Roswitha's rosary with the label he had printed still attached to it. His hands played absently with the wooden beads. The nun Roswitha herself could hardly have felt farther distant from the scene than he did. That he should have returned to find his playmate gone was not so overwhelmingly strange because of those days at sea. It seemed stranger that these people about him should be living and expecting to live. He felt like a person looking at figures in a play or a dream; as if at any moment the curtain might go down and the lights out, or that he might awaken to see Frau Kringel counting the stitches in her crochet work, and hear the cannon pealing through the fog.
The box had been opened, and the wings it contained placed, outstretched, beneath the portrait. He heard the children telling each other, "Those are the wings of the Christmas angel. That is her picture under the lamp, with the light shining upon it;" and they said regretfully, in their pleasant little voices how sorry they were that she had gone away.
Later in the evening, as the guests were preparing to depart, the baby Alexander pulled a chair close to the table under the swinging lamp and, climbing up, pressed his cheeks against the wings "Good-night, dear Christmas angel," he repeated in his cooing voice. "I love you, dear Christmas angel!"
Later yet, when the house had grown still, Sydney St. John came back into the room. The chair stood where Alexander had left it. The young man sat down, folded the white wings carefully together, laid them upon the fire, watching them with a far-away look in his eyes until they changed to ashes. Then he took up the letter hidden until now behind the wings. Recognizing the writing, he opened the envelope, and found within some tenderly expressed words of congratulation and good wishes from Miss Charlotte King to Miss Elizabeth Joy, together with a second letter. He opened this also, and read mechanically. It was the one beginning, "My Elizabeth. I feel like a prince in a fairy tale," and had been written from day to day during the voyage. It said "I have been thinking a good deal lately concerning the life we know, and the life we know not. Do you remember something you told me once that you believed? It was that afternoon when the nun Roswitha did not come to our tea party, and we were talking about a certain little girl who used to blow thistledown up to the angels, and about aunt Marjory's story of thoughts. Keep your belief, dearest, whatever happens keep it; as one can say it is unfounded, because no one knows; and with it, death means not sad separation, only a beautiful mystery.
"Dear aunt Marjory! If it should be that our ship drifts into the port of paradise, I hope to take her story with me; I want to see how much truth there is in it."
"Poor prince in the fairy tale!" said Sydney St. John, as he turned the page and read on and on to the end of his own last letter.
After this he took the portrait of "Bessie, aged ten," from the wall, and sat with it in his hand, -- sat like one who would never dream, nor wish, nor hope again. He was aroused by the knowledge of a presence in the room. He knew that it was remembering with him the flowers in the great-aunt's garden, the happy German life, the books, the music, the friends, the favorite walks, the river bank, the boat with the man and the woman bringing their fruit into the city.
The light of the lamp above his head, with the light of the fire on the hearth, made every object in the room discernible. He could have counted the beads in Roswitha's rosary, as it hung from the corner of the bookshelf. These things he perceived with his eyes. He could not tell how he perceived the presence; Only that it stood there under the Christmas tree, that it wore neither butterfly wings nor wings long and sweeping. It was simply Elizabeth as he had been accustomed to see her, and so natural seemed the circumstance of her appearance that it caused no feeling of any unusual occurrence.
The presence went as it had come, quietly.
Then the young man rose, kissed the little picture of "Bessie, aged ten," and hung it again in its place, put out the light of the swinging lamp, and, with a sweet sense of comfort in his heart, left the room.
He was not quite sure whether he had been sleeping or waking. He thought he had been awake.
"The Christmas Angel" by Harriet Lewis Bradley, The Atlantic Monthly, December 1894.