Chapter V. Christmas Eve and Morning
 

Old Mrs. Clifford now created a diversion by asking: "How about our plants to-night, Maggie? Ought we not to take some precautions? Once before when it was as cold as this we lost some, you know"

"Leonard," said his wife, in response to the suggestion, "it will be safer for you to put a tub of water in the flower-room; that will draw the frost from the plants. Mother is the queen of the flowers in this house," continued Mrs. Leonard, turning to Amy, "and I think she will be inclined to appoint you first lady in attendance. She finds me cumbered with too many other cares. But it doesn't matter. Mother has only to look at the plants to make them grow and bloom."

"There you are mistaken," replied the old lady, laughing. "Flowers are like babies. I never made much of a fuss over my babies, but I loved them, and saw that they had just what they needed at the right time."

"That accounts for Webb's exuberant growth and spirit, and the ethereal beauty of Len's mature blossoming," remarked Burt.

"You are a plant that never had enough pruning," retorted his portly eldest brother.

"I shall be glad to help you, if you will teach me how," Amy said to Mrs. Clifford.

"In the pruning department?" asked Burt, with assumed dismay.

"Possibly," was the reply, with an arch little look which delighted the young fellow.

"Come, Maggie," said Mrs. Clifford, "sing a Christmas carol before we separate. It will be a pleasant way of bringing our happy evening to a close."

Mrs. Leonard went to the piano. "Amy," she asked, "can't you help me?"

"I'll do my best, if you will choose something I know."

A selection was soon made, and Amy modestly blended a clear, sweet voice with the air that Mrs. Leonard sang, and as the sympathetic tones of the young girl swelled the rich volume of song the others exchanged looks of unaffected pleasure.

"Oh, Amy, I am so glad you can sing!" cried Mrs. Clifford, "for we have always made so much of music in our home."

"Papa," she replied, with moist eyes, "felt as you do, and he had me sing for him ever since I can remember."

"Amy dear," said Mrs. Leonard, in a low voice, "suppose you take the soprano and I the alto in the next stanza."

They were all delighted with the result, and another selection was made, in which Burt's tenor and Webb's bass came in with fine effect.

"Amy, what a godsend you are to us all!" said Leonard, enthusiastically. "I am one of the great army of poets who can't sing, but a poet nevertheless."

"Yes, indeed, Len," added Burt; "it needs but a glance to see that you are of that ethereal mold of which poets and singers are made. But isn't it capital! We now have all the four parts."

"Amy," said Mr. Clifford, "do you know an old Christmas hymn that your father and I loved when we were as young as you are?" and he named it.

"I have often sung it for him, and he usually spoke of you when I did so"; and she sang sweet, undying words to a sweet, quaint air in a voice that trembled with feeling.

The old gentleman wiped his eyes again and again. "Ah!" he said, "how that takes me back into the past! My friend and I knew and loved that air and hymn over sixty years ago. I can see him now as he looked then. God bless his child, and now my child!" he added, as he drew Amy caressingly toward him. "A brief evening has made you one of us. I thank God that he has sent one whom it will be so easy for us all to love; and we gratefully accept you as a Christmas gift from Heaven."

Then, with the simplicity of an ancient patriarch, he gathered his household around the family altar, black Abram and two maids entering at his summons, and taking seats with an air of deference near the door. Not long afterward the old house stood silent and dark in the pallid landscape.

Though greatly wearied, Amy was kept awake during the earlier part of the night by the novelty of her new life and relations, and she was awakened in the late dawn of the following day by exclamations of delight from Mrs. Leonard's room. She soon remembered that it was Christmas morning. The children evidently had found their stockings, for she heard Johnnie say, "Oh, mamma, do you think Aunt Amy is awake? I would so like to take her stocking to her!"

"Yes," cried Amy, "I'm awake"; and the little girl, draped in white, soon pushed open the door, holding her own and Amy's stockings in hands that trembled with delightful anticipation.

"Jump into bed with me," said Amy, "and we will empty our stockings together."

The years rolled back, the previous months of sorrow and suffering were forgotten; the day, the hour, with its associations, the eager child that nestled close to her, made her a child again. She yielded wholly to her mood; she would be a little girl once more, Johnnie's companion in feeling and delight; and the morning of her life was still so new that the impulses of that enchanted age before the light of experience has defined the world into its matter-of-fact proportions came back unforced and unaffected. Her voice vied with Johnnie's in its notes of excitement and pleasure, and to more than one who heard her it seemed that their first impression was correct, that a little child had come to them, and that the tall, graceful maiden was a myth.

"Merry Christmas, Amy!" cried the voice of Webb on the stairs.

The child vanished instantly, and a blushing girl let fall the half-emptied stocking. Something in that deep voice proved that if she were not yet a woman, she had drawn so near that mystery of life that its embarrassing self-consciousness was beginning to assert itself. "How silly he will think me!" was her mental comment, as she returned his greeting in a voice that was rather faint.

The "rising bell" now resounded through the house, and she sprang up with the purpose of making amends by a manner of marked dignity. And yet there remained with her a sense of home security, of a great and new-found happiness, which the cold gray morning could not banish. The air-tight stove glowed with heat and comfort, and she afterward learned that Mrs. Leonard had replenished the fire so noiselessly as not to awaken her. The hearty Christmas greetings of the family as she came into the breakfast-room were like an echo of the angels' song of "good-will." The abounding kindliness and genuine pleasure at her presence made the feeling that she had indeed become one of the household seem the most natural thing in the world, instead of a swiftly wrought miracle.

Little Ned had in his arms one of the rabbits that had been shot on the previous evening, and to him it was more wonderful than all his toys. "You should have seen him when he awoke," said his mother, "and saw the poor little thing propped up at the foot of his crib. His eyes grew wider and rounder, and at last he breathed, in an awed whisper, 'Br'er Rabbit.' But he soon overcame his surprise, and the jargon he talked to it made our sides ache with laughing."

The gifts that had been prepared for the supposed child were taken by Amy in very good part, but with the tact of a well-bred girl who would not spoil a jest, rather than with the undisguised delight of Johnnie.

"Only Johnnie and I have seen little Amy," said Leonard--"I at the depot before she grew up; and this morning she became a little girl again as a Christmas wonder for my little girl. Johnnie's faith and fairy lore may make the transformation possible to her again, but I fear the rest of us will never catch another glimpse of the child we expected"; for Amy's grown-up air since she had appeared in the breakfast-room had been almost a surprise to him after hearing through the partition her pretty nonsense over her stocking.

"I fear you are right," said Amy, with a half-sigh; "and yet it was lovely to feel just like Johnnie once more;" and she stole a shy glance at Webb, who must have heard some of her exclamations. The expression of his face seemed to reassure her, and without further misgiving she joined in a laugh at one of Burt's sallies.