Chapter LX. Christmas Lights and Shadows
 

Leonard had long since gone to the depot, and now the chimes of his returning bells announced that Burt and Gertrude were near. To them both it was in truth a coming home. Gertrude rushed in, followed by the exultant Burt, her brilliant eyes and tropical beauty rendered tenfold more effective by the wintry twilight without; and she received a welcome that accorded with her nature. She was hardly in Amy's room, which she was to share, before she looked in eager scrutiny at her friend. "What's in the air?" she asked. "What has transfigured Webb? Oh, you little wild-flower, you've found out that he is saying his prayers to you at last, have you? Evidently he hasn't said them in vain. You are very happy, dear?"

"Yes, happier than you are."

"I deny that point-blank. Oh, Amy darling, I was true to you and didn't lose Burt either."

Maggie had provided a feast, and Leonard beamed on the table and on every one, when something in Webb and Amy's manner caught his attention. "This occasion," he began, "reminds me of a somewhat similar one a year ago to-morrow night. It is my good fortune to bring lovely women into this household. My first and best effort was made when I brought Maggie. Then I picked up a little girl at the depot, and she grew into a tall, lovely creature on the way home, didn't she, Johnnie? And now to-night I've brought in a princess from the snow, and one of these days poor Webb will be captured by a female of the MacStinger type, for he will never muster up courage enough--What on earth are you all laughing about?"

"Thank you," said Amy, looking like a peony.

"You had better put your head under Maggie's wing and subside," Webb added. Then, putting his arm about Amy, he asked, "Is this a female of the MacStinger type?"

Leonard stared in blank amazement. "Well," said he, at last, "when did this happen? I give up now. The times have changed. When I was courting, the whole neighborhood was talking about it, and knew I was accepted long before I did. Did you see all this going on, Maggie?"

"Certainly," she answered.

"Now, I don't believe Amy saw it herself," cried Leonard, half desperately, and laughter broke out anew.

"Oh, Amy, I'm so glad!" said Burt, and he gave her the counterpart of the embrace that had turned the bright October evening black to Webb.

"To think that Webb should have got such a prize!" ejaculated Leonard. "Well, well, the boys in this family are in luck."

"It will be my turn next," cried Johnnie.

"No, sir; I'm the oldest," Alf protested.

"Let's have supper," Ned remarked, removing his thumb from his mouth.

"Score one for Ned," said Burt. "There is at least one member of the family whose head is not turned by all these marvellous events."

Can the sunshine and fragrance of a June day be photographed? No more can the light and gladness of that long, happy evening be portrayed. Mrs. Clifford held Gertrude's hand as she had Amy's when receiving her as a daughter. The beautiful girl, whose unmistakable metropolitan air was blended with gentle womanly grace, had a strong fascination for the invalid. She kindled the imagination of the recluse, and gave her a glimpse into a world she had never known.

"Webb," said Amy, as they were parting for the night, "I can see a sad, pale orphan girl clad in mourning. I can see you kissing her for the first time. Don't you remember? I had a strange little thrill at heart then, and you said, 'Come to me, Amy, when you are in trouble.' There is one thing that troubles me to-night. All whom I so dearly love know of my happiness but papa. I wish he knew."

"Tell it to him, Amy," he answered, gently, "and tell it to God."

There were bustle and renewed mystery on the following day. Astonishing-looking packages were smuggled from one room to another. Ned created a succession of panics, and at last the ubiquitous and garrulous little urchin had to be tied into a chair. Johnnie and Alf were in the seventh heaven of anticipation, and when Webb brought Amy a check for fifty dollars, and told her that it was the proceeds of his first crop from his brains, and that she must spend the money, she went into Mr. Clifford's room waving it as if it were a trophy such as no knight had ever brought to his lady-love.

"Of course, I'll spend it," she cried. "I know just how to spend it. It shall go into books that we can read together. What's that agricultural jargon of yours, Webb, about returning as much as possible to the soil? We'll return this to the soil," she said, kissing his forehead, "although I think it is too rich for me already."

In the afternoon she and Webb, with a sleigh well laden, drove into the mountains on a visit to Lumley. He had repaired the rough, rocky lane leading through the wood to what was no longer a wretched hovel. The inmates had been expecting this visit, and Lumley rushed bareheaded out-of-doors the moment he heard the bells. Although he had swept a path from his door again and again, the high wind would almost instantly drift in the snow. Poor Lumley had never heard of Sir Walter Raleigh or Queen Elizabeth, but he had given his homage to a better queen, and with loyal impulse he instantly threw off his coat, and laid it on the snow, that Amy might walk dry-shod into the single room that formed his home. She and Webb smiled significantly at each other, and then the young girl put her hand into that of the mountaineer as he helped her from the sleigh, and said "Merry Christmas!" with a smile that brought tears into the eyes of the grateful man.

"Yer making no empty wish, Miss Amy. I never thought sich a Christmas 'ud ever come to me or mine. But come in, come in out of the cold wind, an' see how you've changed everything. Go in with her, Mr. Webb, and I'll tie an' blanket your hoss. Lord, to think that sich a May blossom 'ud go into my hut!"

They entered, and Mrs. Lumley, neatly clad in some dark woollen material, made a queer, old-fashioned courtesy that her husband had had her practice for the occasion. But the baby, now grown into a plump, healthy child, greeted her benefactress with nature's own grace, crowing, laughing, and calling, "Pitty lady; nice lady," with exuberant welcome. The inmates did not now depend for precarious warmth upon two logs, reaching across a dirty floor and pushed together, but a neat box, painted green, was filled with billets of wood. The carpeted floor was scrupulously clean, and so was the bright new furniture. A few evergreen wreaths hung on the walls with the pictures that Amy had given, and on the mantel was her photograph--poor Lumley's patron saint.

Webb brought in his armful of gifts, and Amy took the child on her lap and opened a volume of dear old "Mother Goose," profusely illustrated in colored prints--that classic that appeals alike to the hearts of children, whether in mountain hovels or city palaces. The man looked on as if dazed. "Mr. Webb," he said, in his loud whisper, "I once saw a picter of the Virgin and Child. Oh, golly, how she favors it!"

"Mrs. Lumley," Amy began, "I think your housekeeping does you much credit. I've not seen a neater room anywhere."

"Well, mum, my ole man's turned over a new leaf sure nuff. There's no livin' with him unless everythink is jesso, an, I guess it's better so, too. Ef I let things git slack, he gits mighty savage."

"You must try to be patient, Mr. Lumley. You've made great changes for the better, but you must remember that old ways can't be broken up in a moment."

"Lor' bless yer, Miss Amy, there's no think like breakin' off short, there's nothink like turnin' the corner sharp, and fightin' the devil tooth and nail. It's an awful tussle at first, an' I thought I was goin' to knuckle under more'n once. So I would ef it hadn't 'a ben fer you, but you give me this little ban', Miss Amy, an' looked at me as if I wa'n't a beast, an' it's ben a liftin' me up ever sence. Oh, I've had good folks talk at me an' lecter, an' I ben in jail, but it all on'y made me mad. The best on 'em wouldn't 'a teched me no more than they would a rattler, sich as we killed on the mountain. But you guv me yer han', Miss Amy, an' thar's mine on it agin; I'm goin' to be a man."

She took the great horny palm in both her hands. "You make me very happy," she said, simply, looking at him above the head of his child, "and I'm sure your wife is going to help you. I shall enjoy the holidays far more for this visit. You've told us good news, and we've got good news for you and your wife. Tell him, Webb."

"Yes, Lumley," said Webb, clapping the man on the shoulder, "famous news. This little girl has been helping me just as much as she has you, and she has promised to help me through life. One of these days we shall have a home of our own, and you shall have a cottage near it, and the little girl here that you've named Amy shall go to school and have a better chance than you and your wife have had."

"Oh, goshwalader!" exclaimed the man, almost breaking out into a hornpipe. "The Lord on'y knows what will happen ef things once git a goin' right! Mr. Webb, thar's my han' agin'. Ef yer'd gone ter heaven fer her, yer couldn't 'a got sich a gell. Well, well, give me a chance on yer place, an' I'll work fer yer all the time, even nights an' Sundays."

It was hard for them to get away. The child dropped her books and toys, and clung to Amy. "She knows yer; she knows all about yer," said the delighted father. "Well, ef yer must go, yer'll take suthin' with us;" and from a great pitcher of milk he filled several goblets, and they all drank to the health of little Amy. "Yer'll fin' half-dozen pa'triges under the seat, Miss Amy," he said, as they drove away. "I was bound I'd have some kind of a present fer yer."

She waved her hand back to him, and saw him standing bareheaded in the cutting wind, looking after her.

"Poor old Lumley was right," said Webb, drawing her to him; "I do feel as if I had received my little girl from heaven. We will give those people a chance, and try to turn the law of heredity in the right direction."

In the twilight of that evening, Mr. Alvord sat over his lonely hearth, his face buried in his hands. The day had been terribly long and torturing; memory had presented, like mocking spectres, his past and what it might have been. A sense of loneliness, a horror of great darkness, overwhelmed him. Nature had grown cold and forbidding, and was losing its power to solace. Johnnie, absorbed in her Christmas preparations, had not been to see him for a long time. He had gone to inquire after her on the previous evening, and through the lighted window of the Clifford home had seen a picture that had made his own abode appear desolate indeed. In despairing bitterness he had turned away, feeling that that happy home was no more a place for him than was heaven. He had wandered out into the storm for hours, like a lost spirit, and at last had returned and slept in utter exhaustion. On the morning preceding Christmas memory awoke with him, and as night approached he was sinking into sullen, dreary apathy.

There was a light tap at the door, but he did not hear it. A child's face peered in at his window, and Johnnie saw him cowering over his dying fire. She had grown accustomed to his moods, and had learned to be fearless, for she had banished his evil spells before. Therefore she entered softly, laid down her bundles and stood beside him.

"Mr. Alvord!" she said, laying her hand on his shoulder. He started up, and at the same moment a flickering blaze rose on the hearth, and revealed the sunny-haired child standing beside him. If an angel had come, the effect could not have been greater. Like all who are morbid, he was largely under the dominion of imagination; and Johnnie, with her fearless, gentle, commiserating eyes, had for him the potency of a supernatural visitor. But the healthful, unconscious child had a better power. Her words and touch brought saneness as well as hope.

"Why, Mr. Alvord," she cried, "were you asleep? See! your fire is going out, and your lamp is not lighted, and there is nothing ready for your supper. What a queer man you are, for one who is so kind! Mamma said I might come and spend a little of Christmas-eve with you, and bring my gifts, and then that you would bring me home. I know how to fix up your fire and light your lamp. Then we'll get supper together. Won't that be fun?" and she bustled around, the embodiment of beautiful life.

"Oh, Johnnie!" he said, taking her sweet face in his hands, and looking into her clear eyes, "Heaven must have sent you. I was so lonely and sad that I wished I had never lived."

"Why, Mr. Alvord! and on Christmas-eve, too? See what I've brought you," and she opened a book with the angels' song of "peace and good-will" illustrated. "Mamma says that whoever believes that ought to be happy," said the child. "Don't you believe it?"

"Yes, it's true for those who are like you and your mother."

She leaned against him, and looked over his shoulder at the pictures. "Mr. Alvord, mamma said the song was for you, too. Of course, mamma's right. What else did He come for but to help people who are in trouble? I read stories about Him every Sunday to mamma, and He was always helping people who were in trouble, and who had done wrong. That's why we are always glad on Christmas. You look at the book while I set your table."

He did look at it till his eyes were blinded with tears, and like a sweet refrain came the words. "A little child shall lead them."

Half an hour later Leonard, with a kindly impulse, thought he would go to take by the hand Johnnie's strange friend, and see how the little girl was getting on. The scene within, as he passed the window, checked his steps. Johnnie sat at the foot of Mr. Alvord's table, pouring tea for him, chattering meanwhile with a child's freedom, and the hermit was looking at her with such a smile on his haggard face as Leonard had never seen there. He walked quietly home, deferring his call till the morrow, feeling that Johnnie's spell must not be broken.

An hour later Mr. Alvord put Johnnie down at her home, for he had insisted on carrying her through the snow, and for the first time kissed her, as he said:

"Good-by. You, to-night, have been like one of the angels that brought the tidings of 'peace and good-will.'"

"I'm sorry for him, mamma!" said the little girl, after telling her story, "for he's very lonely, and he's such a queer, nice man. Isn't it funny that he should be so old, and yet not know why we keep Christmas?"

Amy sang again the Christmas hymn that her own father and the father who had adopted her had loved so many years before. "My daughter," said Mr. Clifford, as he was fondly bidding her good-night, "how sweetly you have fulfilled the hopes you raised one year ago!"

Mrs. Clifford had gone to her room, leaning on the arm of Gertrude. As the invalid kissed her in parting, she said:

"You have beautiful eyes, my dear, and they have seen far more of the world than mine, but, thank God, they are clear and true. Keep them so, my child, that I may welcome you again to a better home than this"

Once more "the old house stood silent and dark in the pallid landscape." The winds were hushed, as if the peace within had been breathed into the very heart of Nature, and she, too, could rest in her wintry sleep. The moon was obscured by a veil of clouds, and the outlines of the trees were faint upon the snow. A shadowy form drew near; a man paused, and looked upon the dwelling. "If the angels' song could be heard anywhere to-night, it should be over that home," Mr. Alvord murmured; but, even to his morbid fancy, the deep silence of the night remained unbroken. He returned to his home, and sat down in the firelight. A golden-haired child again leaned upon his shoulder, and asked, "What else did He come for but to help people who are in trouble, and who have done wrong?" He started up. Was it a voice deep in his own soul that was longing to escape from evil? or was it a harmony far away in the sky, that whispered of peace at last? That message from heaven is clearest where the need is greatest.

Mr. Hargrove's home was almost a palace, but its stately rooms were desolate on Christmas-eve. He wandered restlessly through their magnificence. He paid no heed to the costly furniture and costlier works of art. "Trurie was right," he muttered. "What power have these things to satisfy when the supreme need of the heart is unsatisfied? It seems as if I could not sleep to-night without seeing her. There is no use in disguising the truth that I'm losing her. Even on Christmas-eve she is absent. It's late, and since I cannot see her, I'll see her gift;" and he went to her room, where she had told him to look for her remembrance.

To his surprise, he found that, according to her secret instructions, it was lighted. He entered the dainty apartment, and saw the glow of autumn leaves and the airy grace of ferns around the pictures and windows. He started, for he almost saw herself, so true was the life-size and lifelike portrait that smiled upon him. Beneath it were the words, "Merry Christmas, papa! You have not lost me; you have only made me happy."

The moon is again rising over old Storm King; the crystals that cover the white fields and meadows are beginning to flash in its rays; the great pine by the Clifford home is sighing and moaning. What heavy secret has the old tree that it can sigh with such a group near as is now gathered beneath it? Burt's black horse rears high as he reins him in, that Gertrude may spring into the cutter, then speeds away like a shadow through the moonlight Webb's steed is strong and quiet, like himself, and as tireless. Amy steps to Webb's side, feeling it to be her place in very truth. Sable Abram draws up next, with the great family sleigh, and in a moment Alf is perched beside him. Then Leonard half smothers Johnnie and Ned under the robes, and Maggie, about to pick her way through the snow, finds herself taken up in strong arms, like one of the children, and is with them. The chime of bells dies away in the distance. Wedding-bells will be their echo.

       *       *       *       *       *

The merry Christmas-day has passed. Dr. and Mrs. Marvin, the Kev. Mr. and Mrs. Barkdale, and other friends have come and gone with their greetings; the old people are left alone beside their cheery fire.

"Here we are, mother, all by ourselves, just as we were once before on Christmas night, when you were as fair and blooming as Amy or Gertrude. Well, my dear, the long journey seems short to-night. I suppose the reason is that you have been such good company."

"Dear old father, the journey would have been long and weary indeed, had I not had your strong arm to lean upon, and a love that didn't fade with my roses. There is only one short journey before us now, father, and then we shall know fully the meaning of the 'good tidings of great joy' forever."

THE END