Chapter XXIII.
 
"At Christmas play, and make good cheer,
For Christmas comes but once a year."
--TUSSER.

The morning of the twenty-fourth found Grace almost too ill, with a heavy cold, to be out of bed; and it was quite evident that she would not be able to go to the Christmas-eve party at Ion, or the dinner on Christmas Day.

The captain was just finishing his morning toilet when Lulu knocked at his dressing-room door. She had come with the news of Grace's illness, and he followed her at once to the bedside of the sick child.

"My poor darling," he said, bending over her in tender concern, "you seem quite feverish. I think you must stay in bed, and we will send for your doctor."

"And can't I go to-night, papa?" she asked, the tears starting to her eyes.

"I'm afraid not, darling; but don't fret; papa will try to find some way to make it up to you."

"I'll stay with her, papa, and read her stories, and do every thing I can to help her enjoy herself," cried Lulu eagerly. "I may, mayn't I?"

"You may, if you choose," he said; "but I thought you were very anxious to go."

"I was, but I'm not now," she said. "I'd rather stay with Gracie. I shouldn't be one bit happy there without her."

"O Lu! I'd love to have you! but I don't want you to lose all that fun just for me," Grace said, with a wistful, loving look into her sister's eyes.

"It wouldn't be fun without you, my Gracie," was the quick rejoinder.

"I am glad indeed that my little daughters love each other so dearly," the captain said, kissing first one and then the other. "Well, we will see what can be done. If it were not for the disappointment to your mamma, I should stay at home with you, my darlings; as it is, I shall spend at least a part of the evening with you."

He left them, and sought Violet in her dressing-room.

"My dear, what has happened? I am sure you look anxious and troubled!" she exclaimed, the instant she caught sight of his face.

"I confess that I am a little troubled about Gracie," he replied: "she seems to have taken a very heavy cold. I shall send at once for the doctor. And, of course, she has to be disappointed in her expectations for this evening."

"Then, let us all stay at home," returned Violet promptly. "I could not enjoy myself, leaving the poor darling at home, sick. Besides," glancing from the window, "do you see? it is snowing fast, and I should not like to expose baby to the storm. So I propose that we change our plans entirely, and have a private Christmas of our own," she went on in a lively tone. "What do you say to it, my dear?"

They discussed the idea for some minutes, presently growing quite enthusiastic over it.

Their plans were nearly matured when the breakfast-bell rang; and, shortly after leaving the table, they began carrying them out.

Max was taken into their confidence, and allowed to assist; and a proud and happy boy was he, going about with an air of mystery, as one to whom secret and important business is intrusted.

The little girls, shut up in their own apartments,--Grace reclining on a couch, Lulu with her as constant companion, and making every exertion for her entertainment, while papa, mamma, and Maxie came running in now and then to ask how she was,--knew nothing of messages sent back and forth through the telephone, of packages of various shapes and sizes brought into the house, of mysterious goings and comings, and much time spent by papa, mamma, Maxie, Christine, and others in a certain large room, hitherto but little used.

Grace frequently fell asleep: then Lulu would darken the room, go into the adjoining one, leaving the door ajar, so that she could hear the slightest movement her little sick sister might make on waking, and amuse herself with a book or her own thoughts.

Their meals were brought to them, and set out in their sitting-room upon a little round table, covered with a snowy damask cloth, whereon were arranged a set of dainty china dishes of a size just suited to the occasion, and toothsome viands such as "papa" deemed they might eat and enjoy without danger to health.

It was very nice, they thought; almost nicer, just for a change, than going to the larger table down-stairs with the rest of the family.

Soon after they had had their supper, their father came in, bringing the doctor with him, for his second visit that day.

"Ah! she is a good deal better," Dr. Conly said, when he had examined his little patient. "Hardly well enough yet to go to Ion," he added with a humorous look and smile; "but I think, if well wrapped up, she may venture a trip down-stairs in papa's arms, and even stay a little while, if she finds the change to the parlor a pleasant one."

"Should you like it, papa's dear pet?" the captain asked, leaning over her.

"Yes, sir, if you and my doctor think it will be good for me," was the reply, in a submissive and rather languid tone, "and if my Lulu is to come too," she added, with a loving look at her sister.

"Oh, yes, indeed! we would not think of going without Lulu!" their father said, smiling affectionately upon her also.

So a large shawl was brought, and carefully wrapped about Gracie's little slender figure; and she made the short journey in her father's strong arms, the doctor and Lulu going on before, hand in hand, chatting and laughing merrily.

Max heard them, and threw open the parlor-door just as they reached it.

Then what a surprise for the little girls! A large, handsome Christmas-tree, loaded with beautiful things, burst upon their astonished sight, and was greeted by them with exclamations of wonder and delight.

"Oh! oh! oh! it's the very prettiest Christmas-tree we ever saw! And we didn't know we were to have any at all! And how many, many lovely things are on it! Papa, papa, how good and kind you are to us!"

He looked as if he enjoyed their surprise and delight quite as much as they did the tree.

"Other folks have been kind to you, too, my darlings," he said, seating himself, with Gracie still in his arms, "as you will see presently, when the gifts are distributed."

"Who, papa?" asked Gracie, laying her head on his shoulder, and gazing with delighted eyes, beginning to single out one beautiful object from another as she sent her glances up and down, here and there.

"Grandma Elsie, and everybody else in the Ion family, I believe; the Oaks and Laurels and Fairview friends; and Roselands people too; to say nothing of mamma and Maxie."

"They're ever so good and kind! they always are," she said in grateful tones. "Oh!" for the first time perceiving that Violet stood near her with the baby in her arms, "mamma and baby too! and how pleased baby looks at the tree!" for the little one was stretching her arms toward it, and cooing and smiling, her pretty blue eyes shining with delight.

When all, children and servants,--for the latter had been called in to enjoy the sight also,--had looked to their full, the gifts were distributed.

They were very numerous,--nearly everybody having given to nearly everybody else,--and many of those received by the parents and children were very handsome. But their father's gift--a tiny watch to each, to help them to be punctual with all their duties, he said--was what gave the greatest amount of pleasure to Lulu and Grace.

Both they and their brother went to bed that night, and woke the next morning, very happy children.

The weather being still too severe for the little ones to be taken out, the captain and Violet went to Ion only for a call, and returned early in the day, bringing a portion of the party that usually gathered there, to dine with them at Woodburn.

Among these, to Lulu's extreme satisfaction, was Evelyn. She staid till after tea; and all the afternoon, there was much passing to and fro of the different members of the large family connection.

Evelyn was to be at the Oaks for the next few days, with the other young people, and regretted greatly that Lulu was not to go too.

But Lulu's rebellious feeling about it was a thing of the past. She told Evelyn frankly her father's reason for refusing his consent, adding that she felt that he was right, and that he was so dear, so kind and indulgent in every thing that he thought best to allow, that she was now entirely satisfied to stay at home; particularly as Gracie was not well, and needed her nursing.

Grace went early to bed and to sleep. Max and Evelyn had gone to the Oaks: there were only grown people in the parlors now; and Lulu did not care to be there, even if she had not wanted to be near her sleeping sister.

There was an open, glowing fire in their little sitting-room, a high fender of polished brass obviating all danger from it to the children's skirts. Lulu seated herself in an easy-chair beside it, and fell into a reverie, unusually deep and prolonged for her.

She called to mind all the Christmases she could remember,--not very many,--the last two spent very pleasantly with her new mamma's relatives; the two previous ones passed not half so agreeably, in the poor apology for a home that had been hers and Grade's before their father's second marriage.

But what a change for the better that had brought! What forlorn little things she and Gracie were then! and what favored children now! What a sweet, sweet home of their very own, with their father in it!--as she had said to Eva that afternoon, "such a dear, kind father; interested in every thing that concerned his children; so thoughtful about providing pleasures for them, as well as needful food, shelter, and clothing; about their health, too, and the improvement of their minds; reading with them, even in other than school-hours; talking with them of what they read, and explaining so clearly and patiently any thing they did not quite understand; but, above all, striving to lead them to Christ, and train them for his service in this world and the next."

He had read with them that morning the story of our Saviour's birth, and spoken feelingly to them of God's wonderful love shown in the "unspeakable gift" of his dear Son.

"Certainly, there could not be in all the world a better, dearer father, than theirs. How strange that she could ever grieve him by being naughty, rebellious, passionate! Oh, if she could only be good! always a comfort and blessing to him! she would try, she would, with all her might!"

Just then the door opened softly; and he came in, came noiselessly to her side, lifted her in his arms, and sat down with her on his knee.

"What has my little girl been thinking of sitting here all by herself?" he asked, pressing his lips to her cheek.

She told him in a few words, finishing with her longing desire to be to him a better child, a comfort and blessing.

"Indeed I ought to be, papa," she said; "and you are such a dear, kind father! you have given me--and all of us--such a lovely home, and such a happy, happy Christmas,--the very happiest we have ever known!"

"And it is God our heavenly Father who has put it in my power to do all that I have done for you, and for all my darlings," he said with emotion, drawing her closer, and holding her tenderly to his heart; "and, O my dear child! if I could know that you had begun this day to truly love and serve him, it would be to me the happiest Christmas that I have ever known."