Country Christmas

I

ALL that day a thin mist hovered in the soft air, growing denser overhead until it blotted out even the gray-white patch behind which the sun stood and hung at last only a dirty, shallow dome close to the earth. Faintly shimmering, it clung to whatsoever it touched, — to branch and bough and fence and field, against coat and cap and glove, and in the hair and brows, — and like points, needle-fine, it stung the face gently. It settled upon the paltry blanket of snow not long since fallen, and penetrating what was so recently feathery pure, its crystals lightly lodged next one another, shrunk it to soddenness close-packed and large-pored. There was a sea smell upon the southwest wind that had come up slowly about midafternoon, so little windlike at first it barely stirred the least plumes of the pines and only faintly rattled the stiff clusters of longer grass thrusting through the snow. It might easily rain by nightfall, surely before to-morrow.

Although everyone hoped it would n’t. Rain on a northern Christmas is somewhat more than a catastrophe — it is akin to disgrace.

Everyone had worked so hard, too, to make this Christmas Eve a greater success than ever before. For days Seaver and Colby and Ernest had been cutting scrub evergreens — two hundred in all — with which to bank the clearing, walling it about with a dense green fragrance to keep out whatever wind there might be; stripping yet more with which to build the lean-to that was to house the crèche; then weaving in the interstices of that framework of roof and three sides the loppedoff sprays of sweet-smelling cedar and spruce and tamarack; spreading what was left of these upon the ground to sit on, and over the planks as well which had long ago been placed between those few sturdier trees that still inhabited the clearing, rising proudly apart from the more crowded trunks and less shapely crests beyond this space. A terrifying heap of roots and stumps, gnarled and dry, stood ready for the oil which would be poured over it, then to be ignited. And in a sheltered spot a low wall of stones, charred from the fires of many Christmases, encircled a tent of small logs over kindling, an iron grating laid upon all. Here the rich creamy soup would be heated and the coffee brewed and the crisp buns, crescent-shaped, their tops glossy brown and thinly crusted, kept warm — the oven odor and that of yeast still in them. Last of all, the great tree — tallest and most perfect of fat-fingered firs — was cut and hauled by the oxen to its last proud stand, there to be richly trimmed and at the end to overcome in its splendid, final hour the swift-deepening winter twilight with soft, living flame.

All this had Seaver and Colby and Ernest accomplished. It must not rain.

II

But Marion had worked hard, too, — perhaps even harder than the men, — and not just for days either, but for weeks. There would be about seventy people here and for each there must be a gift — nothing costly, to be sure, but withal practical and giftlike. Neither Aunt Minnie Bemis’s Boston Store nor Southard’s could yield all the objects of her fastidious search, so she had had to shop farther afield in Brunswick and in Bath. She had, in fact, begun the whole arduous business around Thanksgiving time in far-away Boston while on a week-end visit there. And now each must be neatly wrapped in bright tissue and bound with gay ribbon or twine, each must be labeled. Nurse helped with this — Nurse, with her British competence and calm.

Then there were the costumes and properties for the tableau. But Susan, unfailing as usual in imagination and industry, was enlisted to help with these, and plundering the full store of her possessions, garnered against an occasion like this, she produced such fabrics, so rich a yield, as could only have been acquired in a life — as hers had been — of much travel. For Susan had ransacked the market places of the world for beauty. What was more, besides, she had always found it — and more often than not found it in a trifle, in those things which the unwise no whit treasure, failing in foresight and the deep, immediate enjoyment of impermanence. So that now the frail gauze, the brief and useless fragment whose deep tint recalled a hot Eurasian sky, the strip of red — these together were a Madonna’s robe and wimple and soft enshrouding veil.

But Nurse felt that she must declare herself in the matter of this.

‘I should like to see it all kept as simple as possible!’ she asserted in her clipped way of speech.

Susan kept silent. Only afterwards she spoke of it bitterly to me, inveighing against that view which reduces the festive to its skeletal quantity.

‘But what is life for,’ she cried, making an end of it, ‘if not to be adorned?’

And, of course, there was the matter of food. But Mary saw largely to that — under Marion’s supervision and with Hilton’s help. ‘Help’ and Hilton — they were synonymous all through that winter. Because he had no steady work, he just helped — helped Mary, helped Marion and Seaver, and a butcher in town sometimes, on Saturdays and like that. And that morning he had helped Joan make great snowmen— three of them — to point the way to the edge of the woods where the path to the clearing began. They were strung out across the western lawn and stretched each a stubby arm to the north, upon which a paper lantern was hung whose candle would be lighted at dusk. Planted solidly on their firm bases, one sporting side whiskers of feathery pine and another a goatee, an old and battered hat worn rakishly askew by the third, they stood pompous and mute, making an impressive trio, to say the least. The embellishments were Hilton’s, and to Joan, just turned eleven, these were not short of—in truth, surpassed — genius. When I had looked upon them and examined each in detail and admired and exclaimed, she turned her round ruddy face toward mine.

‘ Don’t you really think,’she pleaded, ‘now don’t you really — that Hilton is a regular Praxiteles?’

And so the mist had served some happy purpose after all; for without its effect the snow could scarcely have been made to bunch and cling for the creation of this stupendous statuary.

Yet there was not one of us but hoped hard that it would not rain.

III

Then as that brief, dark afternoon became dusk and early evening, the wind was momently stilled and the mist thickened. It seemed that only a miracle could avert rain. But, for all that, each last preparation went forward with the impatient energy and haphazard skill of fatigue. In the farmhouse the Virgin and her midwives bore with good humor the occasional pinpricks inflicted by hasty fingers as here a hem or there a fold was adjusted. In the silent barn Colby and Ernest led Star and Bright, the great oxen, from their stalls, driving them along the devious pathway to the clearing, returning then for Mooey, the sleek Jersey, and for Major, Joan’s stoic donkey, who in his twenty-six years had been straddled and driven by two generations of children. For these, too, must each play a part in this modern mystery. And within the clearing itself Seaver kindled the great fire, touched with a taper the stubborn wicks of a hundred fat candles. While in the kitchen Mary, her clear-skinned, blue-eyed prettiness ruddied from the fierce heat there, spooned clotted yellow cream into the soup or thrust another stick under the glowing griddles. And as for Hilton, once he had lighted the snowmen’s lanterns, his presence was ubiquitous.

Then through the woods to the south and across the soggy fields came those who were afoot — the Colemans and Hamlins, the Dan Sortwells, the Rafters, and Frances. Along the treacherous, rutted road drove the Mareans, bringing Grandmother Sortwell — the Chases, the Nashes, the Whites, and Helena Bellas; and a score or two of others. Some there were among them who in all their lives had not ventured beyond the villages of Lincoln County, who won a hard subsistence from small enterprises and from this bleak ground — and some who were rich and traveled, who had journeyed for this brief holiday from Boston, from New York and Washington, opening their fine houses to share this season’s rare bounty and joy. But through many years each had known each, so that between them there was no ultimate barrier, only the kindly region of affection and respect.

IV

Slowly they made their way past those wondrous-fashioned sentries, — now in the swiftly dimming light and in the fitful flicker from their lanterns at once terrifying and foolishly sad, — but not without pausing before each to exclaim, to admire, to laugh a little. On they went into the woods toward the clearing, whose giant glow shone thinning above and round about, casting far-flung shadows along the path. The air here was heavy with dampness, and underfoot the feel of the needle-strewn earth was spongy. Everyone hurried a little.

But inside the clearing it was windless and warm. Wide pennants of blue and yellow flame were flung aloft from the spitting, hissing, crackling heap of roots and stumps, to fly off among the treetops in ragged fragments, for a moment flaring and then gone. In the strong, steady heat, from these the encircling wall of massed evergreens had begun to thaw, their gray-green stiffness turned pliable and richly deep in tone, glossy with beaded moisture. A pungent, spicy smell was wafted inward from them and mingled with the faintly acrid one of smoke. Behind the lean-to, its fourth and open side now concealed by heavy curtains, the animals stirred restlessly in the airless darkness where Colby and Ernest held them in check. They tossed their heads and snorted uneasily.

But as each guest entered the clearing these things — sound, smell, fire — were all but lost to him before the soft dazzle and shimmer of the great fir rising there in its centre. Long strips of thick tinsel dipped in gentle festoons from its branches, were draped from crest to base, evening its contours. A thousand shining ornaments — multicolored, great and small — were hung from its feathery fingers. And candy canes. And cornucopias stuffed with sweets. And each perfect candle flame burned silent and steadfast, save at the very top, where the freer air ruffled one or two. It was this sight which silenced each guest for an instant and made each stand in sudden and momentary wonderment as he came upon it. Here was Christmas, its chief symbol and reality.

V

There manifested itself then among these spectators a reaction and feeling strange as it was unexpected. It was as if each wished to speak and none could, so that, without wanting it, the obstacle of chagrin came between, and all this glitter seemed no more than an empty function, planned and executed without feeling. A shyness possessed each and cut him off from his nearest fellow, made him even a little resentful — unreasoning though he knew himself to be.

And then out of their midst stepped Harry Nashe.

‘Come along, children!’ he barked in that urgent voice which everyone knew only muffled his kindliness. ’Ring round the Tree! Here, you, Dick and Shirley and Margaret Alexandra —’

Embarrassment vanished. For when Grandpa Nashe gave orders, there was nothing for it but to obey — and that with no show of reluctance, either. Even grown-ups, remembering halfunconsciously when they too had been ordered about by him, came forward as well. And when they were solidly circled about the tree —

‘All ready!’ with forefingers raised, ‘“O Christmas Tree — ”’

His aging voice boomed — for all that the higher notes cracked a little and were sometimes flat. When that was finished, we did ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ ‘It Came upon the Midnight Clear,’ and ‘Joy to the World.’

And as I watched this little man with a mien and figure which, despite his years, were still sturdy and alert, I recalled what I knew of his brave life, and within me my heart swelled with admiration and sympathy so that the song on my lips was stopped. Born to position and wealth, the boyhood friend of statesmen, himself destined for a career of greatness — in his very prime his health had broken and he had come here, never wholly to retrieve it, with his loyal wife and two children. Then, through the war years and afterwards, his inheritance had dwindled until now he was even grateful for the meagre stipend which his post as lay preacher in the village brought him.

But useless regret or embitterment had no part in his abundantly endowed nature. These simple creatures about him and their every want had become the whole concern of his and his wife’s living. Scarcely a day passed that they did not deprive themselves to satisfy a need of one of these; and from his pulpit he exhorted their souls to valor. He was not unlike Saint Paul, I thought then, only perhaps more human.

VI

I looked toward Susan, who, like myself, stood a little apart watching.

She too was being brave, but with a more immediate valor. For, hard as her life had at times been, she had by her gayety and spirited enterprises outwitted ennui and drabness. Even with a purse slim as hers not uncommonly was, she had lived rich in friends, in places, and — more than all — in her own capacity for living. But now, under her seeming enjoyment of this moment, I knew she was sad. I knew that within her she felt ‘empty and dry as a pod rattling in the wind,’ as she herself was wont to say; for this Christmas she was alone. Her son was far away in South America and ill with malaria; her daughter was kept in New York by her demanding work. And she was troubled, too, because she was herself unwell, and because for the first time the years of her life seemed many and the future chartless.

But, looking at her, I also knew that she was not letting her sadness be more to her than a vague aching, that she was seeing more beauty, more implications in this scene than all of us together. And I was reminded of what Helena had once said of her: —

‘ Is n’t Susan wonderful! She always makes things more attractive than they really are.’

I wonder.

VII

During the last of the singing, Marion came up behind me to whisper that everything was at last ready, that the actors had made their way unseen from the farmhouse into the lean-to and had taken their places, so I moved nearer the firelight and turned, in the small Testament which I had been holding, to the second chapter of Saint Luke. A slow silence descended then and all eyes were upon the thickcurtained lean-to.

Mary, her hard, hot work in the kitchen now finished, slipped into the circle at the edge of the clearing, close beside Hilton.

‘And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.’

As I read on of the shepherds and of the angel who summoned them to Bethlehem, the two midwives stepped out from the lean-to, holding high flaming torches of pitch pine. Gently they drew aside the curtains and stood, facing forward, one on either side of the holy pageant within. . . . There, in the foreground, bent tenderly over a simple manger, knelt little Joan, her round childish face rosy, reflecting the nimbus which glowed with a steady brilliance from the enshrouded figure on the fragrant hay. Beside her stood Seaver, who was now the kindly Joseph, his large figure dressed simply in a dark and flowing robe, its cowl thrown back upon his shoulders. A little behind and to one side were Colby and Ernest, the shepherds, their faces shadowed by coarse hoods save when a flicker from the midwives’ torches played now and again for an instant across them, revealing their strong line and feature and the brown stubble of their beards. And, behind all, the four animals moved a little against each other and champed at their halters.

When I had finished, none stirred and all were silent for a time until, Harry Nashe once more leading, each voice rose softly in ‘Silent Night, Holy Night.’ . . .

Turning aside, I looked over the rapt faces about me and at length found Mary’s. And I thought of her name, and how soon she too was to be delivered, and that Hilton had no work. I remembered how at times in these past weeks her merry eyes had been turned inward, lodging an unaccustomed look of fear. But now they were shining and moist and all unafraid, knowing that for her child, too, provision should somehow be made. Shyly then, without looking and still singing, she moved closer to Hilton, while he in turn laid an arm across her shoulders.

I have since wondered whether the son who was born to them later was not named that night — Joseph.

‘. . . Sleep in heavenly peace. ’

The voices soared sweetly, then softly and slowly descended, and the thick curtains were drawn together. A last flare from the torches, a last glimpse of color and light, and it was over.

VIII

Now a low murmur rose on all sides and Hilton and Mary slipped back to the farmhouse, to return shortly with the great kettle of soup, with the trays of crisp buns smothered under fresh towels, and with the steaming coffee. Then cups were handed to each and spoons and bright paper napkins. A line began to form at the smaller fire — the one with the grating on which the food kept hot and savory.

Standing about in friendly groups, seated on the pine-covered planks and patches of ground, we talked much and ate our fill of this good fare and laughed. Joan and her two lovely cousins, who had been the midwives, walked among us in their costumes and we laughed hard to see under their skirts the incongruity of their clumsy goloshes. And when our eating was finished and we talked less because we were satisfied and a little tired, we looked again at the great tree, now mellowed by the night and by the shorter burning of its candles, and each thought his own long thoughts.

Suddenly, a far cry and another rose from behind the woods.

‘Gee!’it called. ‘Gee . . . haw-w-w!’

It came closer, was less muffled — the voice was Colby’s. We were alert and silent, an excited suspense gripping each of us.

‘Gee-haw . . . gee-e-e!’

And into the clearing, through a wide opening, they came into the firelight. Their eyes rolling, the muscles of their large shoulders working nervously under the sleek hide, the small feet cautiously and deftly seeking a foothold in the slippery snow, came Star and Bright, the great oxen. Under a silver yoke they came, and with their long curving horns silvered. Behind them they brought a drag covered with gifts — those gifts for which Marion had shopped so hard and carefully.

A shout went up. . . .

And when the excitement had abated a little Seaver came forward and distributed to each his gayly wrapped present. And none had been forgotten and none was passed over.

IX

At last it was finished. Little by little, singly and in groups, good-nights were said and we called ‘ Merry Christmas ’ after those who left. . . . Now only a few remained — those who had helped and those who were oldest friends — like Susan and Frances and Grandmother Sortwell and Harry Nashe. These alone sat on to watch the fires die down and the candles gutter, prolonging their old joy in each other which to-night had been renewed and confirmed. And none knew that for two among them this was to be a last Christmas together — for those perhaps best-beloved of them all. For in another year the gulls would be crying over Harry Nashe’s grave and far away in New York Susan would rally from that last long illness to laugh and to plan a little, making even a deathbed gay. But for all that they did not know this, there was coupled with joy in each one’s heart a little wistfulness, for none of them but had learned the wisdom which mistrusts to-morrow.

So, when Seaver had brought a tray of hot spiced drinks and they had drunk them, they went reluctantly out of the cosy clearing, now fast growing dim, and walked slowly into the open. Yet, parting, they made the night chime with pensive laughter.

Only then did the first rain fall.