AT a tentative suggestion from the man of the house we had agreed in the summer, the four of us, that we would spend Christmas at our old haunt in the mountains.
Don Danuelo said he had outgrown place. With so many severed ties, no place was home: he was free. The Señor replied that all places were home to him, and he would be glad to come home. The Judge hesitated — he lived in a small inland town — and said, “ The old are not much missed at Christmas. Your children form ties, and — ” there was bitterness in his tone — “ your absence is not regretted as much as your company when your home is theirs.” I assented because these were my dear friends and I was absolutely alone in a boarding-house, the harbor of feminine derelicts — and a spray of holly over a picture in a nine by ten upper-floor room did n’t mean Christmas.
We met on the train, the Señor, Don Danuelo, and I. It was a raw, blustery night; at the last minute I half wished that I had not consented to go; but having agreed I met my promise squarely. I have never quite grown used to setting out alone at night. At the first plunge into darkness I feel the untried swimmer’s instinctive dread; it takes courage to down that shrinking!
I had taken the drawing-room, a luxurious extravagance I really could n’t afford, — I called it a Christmas gift to myself,—that we might spend a pleasant evening together undampened by the lofty smile of the superior porter, or stare of fellow traveler. I wished the spirit of Christmas to start with us, to travel with us, to stay with us when we reached the mountains. I have no right to these youthful fancies at my years. Sometimes I am half ashamed that I feel so young; it is indecorous, in ill accord with graying hair. In the same spirit I had brought a box of chocolates for the evening, and I took it from my bag when we settled into place.
Don Danuelo sank heavily against the plush back of the seat and put on his black silk skull-cap, sighing. The Señor sat at the window watching the receding arc of city lights as the train curved the bay.
“ It’s good to leave this desolation.” He nodded when the last twinkle disappeared. “ Our beloved city in its ashes has only the spirit of its people to keep its holiday. Ah! — ah! it is sad to see it laid low.”
Don Danuelo twisted uneasily. “ I feel a twinge of my rheumatism. I’m not sure that I ’m not a fool to leave the city this time of year.”
“ We are three wise folk journeying afar,” the Señor said blithely. “ And, madam,” — he turned to me, — “we have the happiness of having a lady accompany us on our quest. We are fortunate indeed.”
“ Not a wise woman, I’m afraid.” I shook my head, laughing, and looked out.
Thick clouds darkened the sky; we heard the wind screech as it clawed at the double car-windows. Yet I rather liked flying through the darkness, now that I was not alone. It was so warm and light inside, so deliciously comfortable and cosy. The revolving car-wheels ground out a Christmas refrain, and my heart echoed it. Surely the Christmas spirit hovered near.
The Senor leaned toward me — he was not given to compliment — and pointed to the star shining through a clear space in the wrack of cloud. “ Madam, your eyes are bright as the Christmas star. It is a happy journey to you ? ”
“ A happy journey,” I repeated. “ Tomorrow night will be Christmas eve — and it will not be lonely. It has been for many, many years,” I added low to myself.
“ I’m sure there’s no way of heating the rooms, and my asthma will come back,” Don Danuelo grumbled. “ Why do they overheat the cars so abominably ? ” Don Danuelo was plainly out of sorts; his mood followed the gathering storm. He was a little “ low in his mind,” as he graphically expressed the fall in the barometer of his feelings, and refused sweets. “ I take better care of my digestion at my age,” he replied, scornfully eyeing the Señor, who was munching chocolate creams in evident enjoyment. “ A merciful man is merciful to his stomach,” he continued in grim disapproval.
The swaying of the car was soothing, and, under the acetylene lamp, Don Danuelo was soon nodding, his head drooping forward on his breast. He had aged since summer, but he looked peaceful; the Christmas spirit was whispering pleasant dreams, from the smile on his lips.
“ Do not wake him.” The Señor laid finger to his lip. “ It is blessed to sleep. I envy Don Danuelo. The nights are long to us who wake and think. But we shall all rest in the mountains, madam.”
The mountains raised naked hands to us next morning in the gray, sullen light. Tree and bush, save evergreen, were stripped to the bone of leaf; bare branches stood stark against the sky. A light snowfall had whitened the higher peaks; sombre green of tall pines looked black against the white. The river flowed dark and swollen, gnawing at granite boulders, snarling in foamy rage like a great cat tearing at its bonds. Across Shasta, threatening clouds were drawn. It was a changed world, from the bright glow of summer to this lowering winter. Yet the shorn mountains held a strange dignity. I felt depressed as I shook hands with the man of the house, but the cheeriness of his greeting made sunshine. You knew he was glad to see you. Even Don Danuelo smiled at the old welcoming jokes. And Christmas was in the air, Christmas fragrance rose from every green thing, filling the earth. Swaying limbs were Christmas branches resinous and sweet, and young Christmas trees were set like altar tapers thick on the edge of the field.
“ It’s been raining a week solid,” the man of the house said, urging the patient horses up the sticky hill-road. ” The roads have been most washed out. We were afraid you might n’t come, and —”
“ We came to greet the little baby,” the Senor said, “ to see the beautiful gift laid at your door.”
The pleased father’s face rippled with proud good humor.
“ We’re going to make a fisherman out of him.” He turned to Don Danuelo. “ You ought to see him grip his fingers round ‘ old reliable.’ ” “ Old reliable ” was Don Danuelo’s favorite stout bamboo bait-rod.
“A fisherman!” Don Danuelo’s expression was consternation itself. “ Man alive! ” he ejaculated — “ Caramba! — I brought him a doll — a doll. When you wrote, you said a baby — ” He pounded the stalwart man of the house on the back. “ Why did n’t you say a boy, man. Lordy, lordy — a doll! ” He chuckled to himself all the way up the hill. “ He shall have ‘ old reliable,’ sir, when he grows up to it. I hope he may land as many fine trout with it as I have lifted from the Sacramento.” The old man became reminiscent between chuckles. “ Oh, lordy, a doll! ” he kept repeating.
We brought smiling faces to greet the Judge, who met us at the gate, gaunter, thinner, more bowed than when we left him in the summer.
The storm burst toward night. Rain fell as it can fall only in the northern mountains, in hard, persistent slant. The wind shrieked from the top of the hills, and rushed in wild elation down the canons where sullen boom of river joined the roar. The big fir shading the porch rasped the shingles of the roof. Windows shook in their frames, and one pane of glass in the best room smashed into bits. The old house trembled, afraid; the world was full of crash of sound. On a far mountain-side the splintering of a tree came sharp as a rifle-shot. Outside it grew black, dense black, stormwhipped, and full of confused strife. You could feel the darkness; it was thick, palpable. When I went to the door I could not see a finger’s length across the porch. The vines flapped like chained things writhing to be loosed. The door was torn from my grasp and swung back and forth on its hinges.
Inside the gathering-room a huge fire leaped. The whole room swam in light, warmth. The door of the adjoining room was ajar, so that we could see the little child asleep in its rude cradle. The calendars on the wall — there were many — were wreathed in fir. Great branches of toyon berries, our Californian holly, banked the high mantel-piece — rich, glossy branches thick with lustrous red berries making the heart glad with their glow. I filled the top of the pine desk with the overflow, and every space was bright with fir and berry.
We were watching red apples, from last fall’s trees, turn and sizzle on strings before the blaze. The Señor broke the silence.
“ What a glorious Christmas eve! What a grand Te Deum the forest and river are singing.”
After he spoke, somehow, we forgot the strife and cold and fretted nerves.
The master of the house brought out a graphophone and set it on a table in the corner.
“ We’ll have music to-night,” he said. “ I bought this for the baby.”
“Lordy, lordy—a doll!” I overheard Don Danuelo chuckle to himself.
“ If you wish to hark back to youth, play the old tunes,” I whispered to the Judge, as the man of the house started the machine with “Down on the Suwanee River.” Don Danuelo’s eyes brightened, and he turned to the little woman, who sat where she could watch her baby.
“ If it will not trouble you, may we have some eggs and cream ‘ and sugar ? I have some fine whiskey in my room. We’ll have a famous egg-nog to-night, just as we used to have on the old plantation when I was a boy.”
To the grinding out of the “ Suwanee River” Don Danuelo beat eggs; no one else could be intrusted with that delicate task. I was permitted, as a special privilege, to beat the whites to proper stiffness under strict supervision. The Judge was detailed to pour the whiskey carefully, drop by drop. Don Danuelo sat before the fire, a kitchen apron tied about his neck, stirring the mixture in the yellow bowl, issuing orders. The Señor hovered about interestedly, for the compound was new to him. Don Danuelo’s foot kept time to the stir of the spoon.
“ I can hear old Uncle Billy outside, rattling the glasses on his tray! ” he sighed reminiscently; “ and I recollect,” he turned to us, his eyes glistening, “ when I was a boy, sneaking out to the pantry and putting a big dinner goblet in place of the small glass meant for me. And Uncle Billy was white : he never told, but put his big hand round that corner of the tray, when Marse Dan’s turn came. Lordy! ”
The graphophone wheezed. The man of the house took up the brush to smooth the flow of sound. “ Here, Judge, not so fast,” Don Danuelo called. “Whiskey’s like oil; it must be poured slowly to mix well.” I showed my foamy bank. “ Hm, madam, a little bit stiffer. It must be stiff enough to stick if you turn the platter upside down.” His hearty laugh deadened the roar of the storm. “ Turn the crank of your machine again, man. I can hear my mother playing that tune on the old piano — and the governor snoring in the corner — and Uncle Billy listening behind the pantry door — I’m young again to-night. Your beating of the whites does credit to you, madam; they are light enough to have been done in the south.”
My wrist ached, but I was foolishly pleased at praise in even so trifling a thing; not many bones of approbation are flung to us when we are growing old. Don Danuelo filled a glass, and with a stately bow, not at all impaired by the broadness of his girth, handed it to me.
“ I shall play Uncle Billy to-night. I appeal to your excellent judgment, madam.”
“ Nectar! ” I exclaimed as I drank. Why nectar? But that seems to be the summit of all things drinkable, and I am not of an inventive mind.
“To the blessed Christmas Eve.” The Senor’s glass touched mine, and all the little circle in the firelight clinked glasses merrily in chime of good fellowship. The Judge’s gaunt face softened, his crustiness crumbled, and he toasted Don Danuelo.
“ To the best fisher on the river,” he pledged gallantly.
“ With bait, sir, with bait!-” Don Danuelo disclaimed, but swaggered at the compliment.
“ The best mixer of the best drink on earth,” the Judge added, draining his glass.
“ Hear — hear! ” the rest of us clamored in hearty assent.
Don Danuelo refilled our glasses from the yellow bowl with a kitchen spoon. What did it matter? We, too, were in that old drawing-room; we, too, heard the ancient piano and were served by Uncle Billy with the thin silver ladle from the Canton bowl. We, too, were young. The Senor drew up his slender figure and stood.
“ I wish,” he said, “ to drink a very good health to my good, good friends; to the little babe in the other room. May peace be his portion of the drink of life; may that cup be ever at his lips; may peace be with all of us to-night, and forever.”
The words were not many, but the soul wished it so earnestly that a transfigured look was in his face. For a moment a hush; then the wail of the storm smote across the silence. The man of the house started the instrument again. “ Old Dan Tucker ” rollicked among the rafters; Don Danuelo’s foot patted the bare board floor.
“ Come on, madam.” He held out his hands to me. “Come on, all. We’re going to have a Virginia reel. We always ended Christmas Eve with it on the old plantation — and many’s the reel we had at the Mexican hacienda, ay de mi! ”
I hesitated. He drew me from my seat. I was not unwilling; my feet twitched; I felt the invitation of the music. The Judge unbent and took his place in line. The Señor, willing pupil, followed the Judge’s instructions. No one was old; age was a myth — youth, youth, eternal youth, bubbled like wine in our veins. There was color in the Señor’s pale cheeks, his deep eyes sparkled. The Judge! It was a slender young man who bowed graciously before me; and I dipped and curtsied, full of the joy of it, the joy of motion and high flood of life. When we halted, for pure lack of breath and a break in the music, Don Danuelo cut the finest pigeon-wing. Transfixed, we watched the rhythmical intricacies of his steps. No one was old — we had all gone back! I held my breath in fear that the joy of it would bring tears.
We may tell you adolescents that it is wisdom, ambition, fortune we care for. We may tell you this, but all the time it is youth our hearts are craving, youth with its beliefs, its trust, its glow, its magic — youth, the lost pence we spent so prodigally — and will never have the chance of spending again. Had a miracle happened ? My body was as light as my heart; my heart beat rapturously. I saw youth in all those faces in the circle about the fire; the lines born of the travail of life were smoothed away. Don Danuelo hummed the air the graphophone was playing; the Judge’s eyes snapped fire, and mischief smothered his usual gravity; the Señor looked serene and blessed — and I — I vow I felt twenty. My hair was loosened, my cheeks glowed; I felt the burn that was not from fire; I did not care. I turned to the Senor — it is always to the Señor we turn — to ask if it were really true—this blessedness — when the door was flung open; the section boss in oilskins was swept in with the wind, and a trail of rain followed him. A wet dog crawled to the hearth and settled limply, his head between his paws. We made way for both and waited. A lantern swung in the man’s hand; his face was troubled, anxious. Don Danuelo rose to shut the door, and limped; I noticed it. He put his hand to his knee — the old gesture. My heart grew gray. Was it all over? It could n’t last!
The man addressed the man of the house: —
“ Jim, the bridge below the station has been washed away, and the down train’s stalled. The suspension foot-bridge ’cross to my cabin’s gone, too. The river’s running bank-full. My wife’s alone on t’other side; it’s a nasty night.”
All these troubles not a mile away, and we had been disporting ourselves like old — Don Danuelo limped painfully when he ladled the last drop from the yellow bowl and gave it to the man, who swallowed it gratefully, not minding that it no longer foamed.
“ My wife is scared,” he said. “ I can’t get to her; I can’t try; it’s my duty to look after the other folks who don’t need me. Jim, you ’re the best friend I’ve got, and I’ve come to you to see if you can do anything. She’s alone; there’s a California lion on the hill back of the house.”
So quietly the Señor left, I did not hear him go. He came back wrapped in an oilskin coat much too big for him.
“ I will go with you and see what can be done.”
The baby woke; the little woman went to hush it. Don Danuelo offered to hold it while the mother searched for a lantern for the man of the house, and I saw a check folded in the tiny hand. He motioned me to silence.
“ It’s nothing — a little Christmas gift; there’s a mortgage on the ranch, you know,” he whispered, passing the baby over to me. “Lordy, lordy, a doll!” again he chuckled to himself. “ I owe the little rascal this apology.” When I would have praised him, he muttered fretfully, “I told you on the train that I shouldn’t have come, madam. It’s beastly weather, and my rheumatism cuts like a knife.” But I knew that in his heart nothing could have torn from him the memory of that last hour.
When the mother returned, I hastened for wraps and my heavy boots. The Judge came in, storm-equipped. We both declared, in spite of protest, our determination to go. I knew that I was foolish and of no earthly use except for the comfort that a woman’s presence might give to another woman separated from the world by a mad river. Young blood still coursed in my veins, and I was keen for adventure.
When we went out, following in the wake of the lanterns, it was quite still. With a sudden shift of wind the gust had blown itself out. It had turned bitter cold; the cold bit at your face and tweaked at your ears, chilling your blood to ice. The rain had stopped; sleet and snow were falling, a hateful mixture. I put out my hand and felt the sting of the icy drops. The road was ankle-deep in slushy red mud. You had to wrest your shoe from one clammy imprint to make another; the ooze made a sucking sound. Fortunately it would freeze before we came back. The thick darkness was dimly lightened by the veil of fine snow flung against it. The only way to cling to the road was to follow the tiny, blurred points of the two lanterns ahead. I fell behind and lost the light at a bend crowded close by a dense growth of sapling pine. I halted; I was not afraid, for fear was a thing of the past. The Señor spoke; I had not noticed that he had fallen back with me.
“ Had you not better return, madam ?”
I struggled for breath to answer negatively, and increased my pace.
The station was filled with railroad officials and impatient travelers; telegraph instruments ticked rapidly. Here, the section boss left us.
“ Do what you can to get her over, but run no risks,” he cautioned sternly, and went to his duty toward the stalled train.
Snow was coming down thicker; cedar and fir showed white-topped branches; the slush was already stiffening; the thermometer, hanging at the station door, was racing past freezing point. You had to swing your arms to keep the blood moving. I shivered in my warm wraps as we walked down the track to the clump of redbuds where the end of the slight bridge had been anchored to a rock. The roar of the river kept us from speaking; we had to shout to be heard a foot away.
Through the wet redbuds, now shedding snow upon us, we came to the river. In black rage it was boiling close to the top of the bank, the surface massed wilh wreckage. One huge pine-trunk jarred the bank near where I stood; I felt the earth shiver. The woman, with a shawl pinned over her head, stood on the opposite bank, lantern in hand, peering through the dark. At the flash of our lantern she swung hers in return. A firm hand signaled us; I was proud of my sex, and stepped where she could see that there was a woman ready to help. We tried to shout, making trumpets of our hands. In that swirl of sound, a human voice was powerless — no more than the pipe of a reed.
The men went lower to examine the fastenings of the wire cable thrown across the river by the McCloud Country Club for the purpose of carrying over its heavy freight — the only communication with the other side left intact by the storm.
“ It’s impossible to get a human being across to-night,” the man of the house said when they returned. “ The car’s on this side, but it would be almost certain death; the cable’s not six feet above the water now.”
They signaled to the waiting woman on the bank, who interpreted their purpose by signs. She held the lantern near her face, and I never saw despair more plainly written on human features. 1 saw her press her hand to her heart, then straighten and smile. That smile strengthened me. I confess I was crying and letting tears freeze on my cheeks. It seemed so lone, and she was young. The dark mountain back of her rose straight as a wnll, black with mystery, — and creeping furry things seek shelter in storm they say, — and who knew what the black trees held ? It is these mountain folk who can teach us city-bred weaklings to endure. She pointed toward the cable. The Señor stepped to the nearest point and shook his head. He clasped his hands together and closed his eyes. We bent our heads. And to the woman standing in the thickening fall of snow I felt that new courage came.
The man of the house again tried to shout; it was useless, his words were tossed, mocking, back across the widening water. How the cold cut!
“ We’d better go home,” he said gruffly, swallowing hard; “ we can do no good.”
“ A moment. May I have your lantern ? ” the Señor begged, and went away. He came back with heaped arms. Stretching between two fir saplings a piece of canvas he had borrowed from the station-master, he laid a few sticks and paper on the ground, and started a blaze that spluttered feebly on the wet earth.
“ It will burn presently,” he said, “ when the pine needles dry out. Now if you can leave me your lantern, the station-master gave me oil, and I will keep my Christmas vigil here.”
He threw an old sack on the ground and smiled at us, lighting a cigar.
“ But — ” we protested.
“ It is my wish, my pleasure,” he said, with a finality no one could question.
The woman opposite watched him. Then, as we turned to leave, she went into her cabin, swinging the lantern almost gayly. I knew that, as usual, the Señor had brought peace. And surely what else was the blessed Christmas Eve given to us for — peace on earth, goodwill to men! The remembrance of the deed made easy the dark climb up the hill. But suddenly, when I came into light and warmth, I felt the weariness of flesh; I was very tired and numb from cold. Don Danuelo sat nursing his knee before the flame, his face twisted in pain.
“ We none of us can escape our inheritance; our make-believes are pitiful,” I said half to myself, hugging the fire.
“ I’ve got what any fool might expect — capering at my age,” Don Danuelo growled. “ Might have known I was a doddering idiot coming to the mountains this time of year. It’s cold enough to freeze — the infernal regions to-night.”
“ Would you give up the last hours? ” I asked slyly. For even in my heaviness of body I still was thankful for the thrill of youth that had been.
The man of the house slipped to the graphophone; the record was still on. A broad, peaceful smile shone on Don Danuelo’s face, and he nodded gently to sleep in time with the tune.
I could not sleep late; my mind was troubled over the watcher at the river. He was old and not over-strong. The world was white, unbroken white; dawn was late breaking in the mountains. When it came it poured slowly like silver over peak, crag, and meadow. I heard a stir in the gathering-room, and, hastening to dress, went down.
The Senor, helping a dripping woman, had just come in.
“ A merry Christmas,” he called to me gayly and took off the broad-brimmed hat with the old sweeping bow. “ Here is a Christmas heroine for you. Mrs. Sant crossed on the cable at daybreak. The intense cold has kept the snow from melting, and the river is no higher — and, thank God — the cable held.”
The woman shivered.
“ I could never have crossed alone,” she said. “ The Señor” — they all knew7 him along the river, and called him by that name — “ came over for me.” He held up his hand to silence her. The woman went on. “ He crossed at daybreak. None of you,” her voice was very grave, “ can know what that meant. The river was racing like mad, and the cable was frozen and slippery, the wheels clogged with ice. Look at his hands,” she pointed; “they’re cut and bleeding.” The Señor smiled and clasped them behind his back. “ I heard a knock on my door at the break of day. For a minute I was frightened. But I ’d had a safe night. Whenever I felt afraid I went to the window and looked across the river where I could see his fire; that made me feel safe; it steadied my nerves. You don’t know what company it was to me to see that light! Women are n’t made like men, we don’t have to have things right at hand to believe in ’em. It was just feeling somebody was near made me easy in my mind. I could have cried when the Señor stood at my door, and I thought nobody but wildcats and me were on that side of the river. Was n’t it lucky the car was on the other side? After I’d made coffee he told me that he was going to pull me over. Then my courage nearly petered out.”
“ Madam, madam,” the Señor interrupted, “ allow me, your courage was admirable — you never cried out, you helped — ”
“Don’t let’s talk of it — yet. I can still hear the noise of that water; I can feel the car swinging, the awful fear when that big tree swept by us. And when the car stopped in the middle of the river and you stood up, I thought — ” She buried her face in her hands, shuddering.
The little woman led her away for dry clothing.
“ Let me see your hands,” I demanded of the Señor.
He shook his head.
“ It is nothing, madam, nothing but a few insignificant scratches. But the little lady —her courage was splendid. It was a terrible trip for a woman; it meant creeping like a snail, with a chance of never getting over, with a whirlpool roaring underneath, so close it swayed the car. And what do you think she said when I asked her if she were not afraid. She said that she would do it again to spend Christmas day with her husband. You American women are a brave race, madam.” And the Señor bowed.