Chapter X. Christmas.
 

Long before the Christmas dawn was bright enough to bring the blue parrots into plain view on the walls of Joyce's room, she had climbed out of bed to look for her "messages from Noel." The night before, following the old French custom, she had set her little slippers just outside the threshold. Now, candle in hand, she softly slipped to the door and peeped out into the hall. Her first eager glance showed that they were full.

Climbing back into her warm bed, she put the candle on the table beside it, and began emptying the slippers. They were filled with bonbons and all sorts of little trifles, such as she and Jules had admired in the gay shop windows. On the top of one madame had laid a slender silver pencil, and monsieur a pretty purse. In the other was a pair of little wooden shoes, fashioned like the ones that Jules had worn when she first knew him. They were only half as long as her thumb, and wrapped in a paper on which was written that Jules himself had whittled them out for her, with Henri's help and instructions.

"What little darlings!" exclaimed Joyce. "I hope he will think as much of the scrap-book that I made for him as I do of these. I know that he will be pleased with the big microscope that Cousin Kate bought for him."

She spread all the things out on the table, and gave the slippers a final shake. A red morocco case, no larger than half a dollar, fell out of the toe of one of them. Inside the case was a tiny buttonhole watch, with its wee hands pointing to six o'clock. It was the smallest watch that Joyce had ever seen, Cousin Kate's gift. Joyce could hardly keep back a little squeal of delight. She wanted to wake up everybody on the place and show it. Then she wished that she could be back in the brown house, showing it to her mother and the children. For a moment, as she thought of them, sharing the pleasure of their Christmas stockings without her, a great wave of homesickness swept over her, and she lay back on the pillow with that miserable, far-away feeling that, of all things, makes one most desolate.

Then she heard the rapid "tick, tick, tick, tick," of the little watch, and was comforted. She had not realized before that time could go so fast. Now thirty seconds were gone; then sixty. At this rate it could not be such a very long time before they would be packing their trunks to start home; so Joyce concluded not to make herself unhappy by longing for the family, but to get as much pleasure as possible out of this strange Christmas abroad.

That little watch seemed to make the morning fly. She looked at it at least twenty times an hour. She had shown it to every one in the house, and was wishing that she could take it over to Jules for him to see, when Monsieur Ciseaux's carriage stopped at the gate. He was on his way to the Little Sisters of the Poor, and had come to ask Joyce to drive with him to bring his sister home.

He handed her into the carriage as if she had been a duchess, and then seemed to forget that she was beside him; for nothing was said all the way. As the horses spun along the road in the keen morning air, the old man was busy with his memories, his head dropped forward on his breast. The child watched him, entering into this little drama as sympathetically as if she herself were the forlorn old woman, and this silent, white-haired man at her side were Jack.

Sister Denisa came running out to meet them, her face shining and her eyes glistening with tears. "It is for joy that I weep," she exclaimed, "that poor madame should have come to her own again. See the change that has already been made in her by the blessed news."

Joyce looked down the corridor as monsieur hurried forward to meet the old lady coming towards them, and to offer his arm. Hope had straightened the bowed figure; joy had put lustre into her dark eyes and strength into her weak frame. She walked with such proud stateliness that the other inmates of the home looked up at her in surprise as she passed. She was no more like the tearful, broken-spirited woman who had lived among them so long, than her threadbare dress was like the elegant mantle which monsieur had brought to fold around her.

Joyce had brought a handful of roses to Sister Denisa, who caught them up with a cry of pleasure, and held them against her face as if they carried with them some sweetness of another world.

Madame came up then, and, taking the nun in her arms, tried to thank her for all that she had done, but could find no words for a gratitude so deep, and turned away, sobbing.

They said good-by to Sister Denisa,--brave Little Sister of the Poor, whose only joy was the pleasure of unselfish service; who had no time to even stand at the gate and be a glad witness of other people's Christmas happiness, but must hurry back to her morning task of dealing out coffee and clean handkerchiefs to two hundred old paupers. No, there were only a hundred and ninety-nine now. Down the streets, across the Loire, into the old village and out again, along the wide Paris road, one of them was going home.

The carriage turned and went for a little space between brown fields and closely clipped hedgerows, and then madame saw the windows of her old home flashing back the morning sunlight over the high stone wall. Again the carriage turned, into the lane this time, and now the sunlight was caught up by the scissors over the gate, and thrown dazzlingly down into their faces.

Monsieur smiled as he looked at Joyce, a tender, gentle smile that one would have supposed never could have been seen on those harsh lips. She was almost standing up in the carriage, in her excitement.

"Oh, it has come true!" she cried, clasping her hands together, "The gates are really opening at last!"

Yes, the Ogre, whatever may have been its name, no longer lived. Its spell was broken, for now the giant scissors no longer barred the way. Slowly the great gate swung open, and the carriage passed through. Joyce sprang out and ran on ahead to open the door. Hand in hand, just as when they were little children, Martin and Desire, this white-haired brother and sister went back to the old home together; and it was Christmas Day, in the morning.

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At five o'clock that evening the sound of Gabriel's accordeon went echoing up and down the garden, and thirty little children were marching to its music along the paths, between the rows of blooming laurel. Joyce understood, now, why the room where the Christmas tree stood had been kept so carefully locked. For two days that room had been empty and the tree had been standing in Monsieur Ciseaux's parlor. Cousin Kate and madame and Berthe and Marie and Gabriel had all been over there, busily at work, and neither she nor Jules had suspected what was going on down-stairs.

Now she marched with the others, out of the garden and across the road, keeping time to the music of the wheezy old accordion that Gabriel played so proudly. Surely every soul, in all that long procession filing through the gate of the giant scissors, belonged to the kingdom of loving hearts and gentle hands; for they were all children who passed through, or else mothers who carried in their arms the little ones who, but for these faithful arms, must have missed this Noel fete.

Jules had been carried down-stairs and laid on a couch in the corner of the room where he could see the tree to its best advantage. Beside him sat his great-aunt, Desire, dressed in a satin gown of silvery gray that had been her mother's, and looking as if she had just stepped out from the frame of the portrait up-stairs. She held Jules's hand in hers, as if with it she grasped the other Jules, the little brother of the olden days for whom this child had been named. And she told him stories of his grandfather and his father. Then Jules found that this Aunt Desire had known his mother; had once sat on the vine-covered porch while he ran after fireflies on the lawn in his little white dress; had heard the song the voice still sang to him in his dreams:

     "Till the stars and the angels come to keep
     Their watch where my baby lies fast asleep."

When she told him this, with her hand stroking his and folding it tight with many tender little claspings, he felt that he had found a part of his old home, too, as well as Aunt Desire.

One by one the tapers began to glow on the great tree, and when it was all ablaze the doors were opened for the children to flock in. They stood about the room, bewildered at first, for not one of them had ever seen such a sight before; a tree that glittered and sparkled and shone, that bore stars and rainbows and snow wreaths and gay toys. At first they only drew deep, wondering breaths, and looked at each other with shining eyes. It was all so beautiful and so strange.

Joyce flew here and there, helping to distribute the gifts, feeling her heart grow warmer and warmer as she watched the happy children. "My little daughter never had anything like that in all her life," said one grateful mother as Joyce laid a doll in the child's outstretched arms. "She'll never forget this to her dying day, nor will any of us, dear mademoiselle! We knew not what it was to have so beautiful a Noel!"

When the last toy had been stripped from the branches, it was Cousin Kate's turn to be surprised. At a signal from madame, the children began circling around the tree, singing a song that the sisters at the village school had taught them for the occasion. It was a happy little song about the green pine-tree, king of all trees and monarch of the woods, because of the crown he yearly wears at Noel. At the close every child came up to madame and Cousin Kate and Joyce, to say "Thank you, madame," and "Good night," in the politest way possible.

Gabriel's accordion led them out again, and the music, growing fainter and fainter, died away in the distance; but in every heart that heard it had been born a memory whose music could never be lost,--the memory of one happy Christmas.

Joyce drew a long breath when it was all over, and, with her arm around Madame Desire's shoulder, smiled down at Jules.

"How beautifully it has all ended!" she exclaimed. "I am sorry that we have come to the place to say 'and they all lived happily ever after,' for that means that it is time to shut the book."

"Dear heart," murmured Madame Desire, drawing the child closer to her, "it means that a far sweeter story is just beginning, and it is you who have opened the book for me."

Joyce flushed with pleasure, saying, "I thought this Christmas would be so lonely; but it has been the happiest of my life."

"And mine, too," said Monsieur Ciseaux from the other side of Jules's couch. He took the little fellow's hand in his. "They told me about the tree that you prepared for me. I have been up to look at it, and now I have come to thank you." To the surprise of every one in the room, monsieur bent over and kissed the flushed little face on the pillow. Jules reached up, and, putting his arms around his uncle's neck, laid his cheek a moment against the face of his stern old kinsman. Not a word was said, but in that silent caress every barrier of coldness and reserve was forever broken down between them. So the little Prince came into his kingdom,--the kingdom of love and real home happiness.

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It is summer now, and far away in the little brown house across the seas Joyce thinks of her happy winter in France and the friends that she found through the gate of the giant scissors. And still those scissors hang over the gate, and may be seen to this day, by any one who takes the trouble to walk up the hill from the little village that lies just across the river Loire, from the old town of Tours.

THE END.