Chapter XV--'The Feast O' the Babe'
 

It was sure to be a green Christmas in that sunny land, but not the sort of 'green Yule' that makes the 'fat kirkyard.' If the New Englanders who had been transplanted to that shore of the Pacific ever longed for a bracing snowstorm, for frost pictures on the window-panes, for the breath of a crystal air blown over ice-fields-- an air that nipped the ears, but sent the blood coursing through the veins, and made the turkey and cranberry sauce worth eating,--the happy children felt no lack, and basked contentedly in the soft December sunshine. Still further south there were mothers who sighed even more for the sound of merry sleigh-bells, the snapping of logs on the hearth, the cosy snugness of a fire-lit room made all the snugger by the fierce wind without: that, if you like, was a place to hang a row of little red and brown woollen stockings! And when the fortunate children on the eastern side of the Rockies, tired of resisting the Sand Man, had snuggled under the great down comforters and dropped off to sleep, they dreamed, of course, of the proper Christmas things--of the tiny feet of reindeer pattering over the frozen crust, the tinkle of silver bells on their collars, the real Santa Claus with icicles in his beard, with red cheeks, and a cold nose, and a powder of snow on his bearskin coat, and with big fur mittens never too clumsy to take the toys from his pack.

Here the air blew across orange groves and came laden with the sweetness of opening buds; here, if it were a sunny Christmas Day, as well it might be, the children came in to dinner tired with playing in the garden: but the same sort of joyous cries that rent the air three thousand miles away at sight of hot plum-pudding woke the echoes here because of fresh strawberries and loquats; and although, in the minds of the elders, who had been born in snowdrifts and bred upon icicles, this union of balmy air, singing birds, and fragrant bloom might strike a false note at Christmastide, it brought nothing but joy to the children. After all, if it were not for old associations' sake, it would seem that one might fitly celebrate the birthday of the Christ-child under sunshine as warm and skies of the same blue as those that sheltered the heavenly Babe in old Judea.

During the late days of October and the early days of November the long drought of summer had been broken, and it had rained steadily, copiously, refreshingly. Since then there had been day after day of brilliant, cloudless sunshine, and the moist earth, warmed gratefully through to the marrow, stirred and trembled and pushed forth myriads of tender shoots from the seeds that were hidden in its bosom; and the tender shoots themselves looked up to the sun, and, with their roots nestled in sweet, fragrant beds of richness, thought only of growing tall and green, dreamed only of the time when pink pimpernels would bloom between their waving blades, and when tribes of laughing children would come to ramble over the hillsides. The streets of the city were full of the fragrance of violets, for the flower-vendors had great baskets of them over their arms, and every corner tempted the passers-by with the big odorous purple bunches that offered a royal gift of sweetness for every penny invested.

Atlantic and Pacific Simonson had previously known little, and Marm Lisa less, of Christmas-time, but the whole month of December in Mistress Mary's garden was a continual feast of the new-born Babe. There was an almost oppressive atmosphere of secrecy abroad. Each family of children, working in the retirement of its particular corner, would shriek, 'Oh, don't come!' and hide small objects under pinafores and tables when Mary, Rhoda, Edith, or Helen appeared. The neophyte in charge was always in the attitude of a surprised hen, extending her great apron to its utmost area as a screen to hide these wonderful preparations. Edith's group was slaving over Helen's gift, Rhoda's over Edith's, and so on, while all the groups had some marvellous bit of co-operative work in hand for Mistress Mary. At the afternoon council, the neophytes were obliged to labour conscientiously on presents destined for themselves, rubbing off stains, disentangling knots, joining threads, filling up wrong holes and punching right ones, surreptitiously getting the offerings of love into a condition where the energetic infants could work on them again. It was somewhat difficult to glow and pale with surprise when they received these well-known and well-worn trophies of skill from the tree at the proper time, but they managed to achieve it.

Never at any other season was there such a scrubbing of paws, and in spite of the most devoted sacrifices to the Moloch of cleanliness the excited little hands grew first moist, and then grimy, nobody knew how. 'It must leak out of the inside of me,' wailed Bobby Baxter when sent to the pump for the third time one morning; but he went more or less cheerfully, for his was the splendid honour of weaving a frame for Lisa's picture, and he was not the man to grudge an inch or two of skin if thereby he might gain a glorious immortality.

The principal conversation during this festival time consisted of phrases like: 'I know what you're goin' to have, Miss Edith, but I won't tell!' 'Miss Mary, Sally 'most told Miss Rhoda what she was makin' for her.' 'Miss Helen, Pat Higgins went right up to Miss Edith and asked her to help him mend the leg of his clay frog, and it's his own Christmas present to her!'

The children could not for the life of them play birds, or butterflies, or carpenter, or scissors-grinder, for they wanted to shout the live-long day -

'Christmas bells are ringing sweet,
We too the happy day must greet';

or -

   'Under the holly, now,
   Sing and be jolly, now,
Christmas has come and the children are glad';

or -

   'Hurrah for Santa Claus!
Long may he live at his castle in Somewhere-land!'

There was much whispering and discussion about evergreens and garlands and wreaths that were soon to come, and much serious planning with regard to something to be made for mother, father, sister, brother, and the baby; something, too, now and then, for a grandpapa in Sweden, a grandmamma in Scotland, a Norwegian uncle, an Irish aunt, and an Italian cousin; but there was never by chance any cogitation as to what the little workers themselves might get. In the happier homes among them, there was doubtless the usual legitimate speculation as to doll or drum, but here in this enchanted spot, this materialised Altruria, the talk was all of giving, when the Wonderful Tree bloomed in their midst--the Wonderful Tree they sang about every morning, with the sweet voice

   'telling its branches among
Of shepherd's watch and of angel's song,
Of lovely Babe in manger low, -
The beautiful story of long ago,
When a radiant star threw its beams so wide
To herald the earliest Christmastide.'

The Tree was coming--Mistress Mary said so; and bless my heart, you might possibly meddle with the revolution of the earth around the sun, or induce some weak-minded planet to go the wrong way, but you would be helpless to reverse one of Mistress Mary's promises! They were as fixed and as unchangeable as the laws of the Medes and Persians, and there was a record of their fulfilment indelibly written in the memories of two hundred small personages--personages in whom adult caprice and flexibility of conduct had bred a tendency to suspicion.

The Tree, therefore, had been coming for a fortnight, and on the 22nd it came! Neither did it come alone, for it was accompanied by a forest of holly and mistletoe, and ropes of evergreen, and wreaths and garlands of laurel, and green stars by the dozen. And in a great box, at present hidden from the children, were heaps of candles, silver and crystal baubles, powdered snowflakes, glass icicles, gilded nuts, parti-coloured spheres, cornucopias full of goodies, and, above all, two wonderful Christmas angels, and a snow-white dove!

Neither tree, nor garlands, nor box contained any hint of the donor, to the great disappointment of the neophytes. Rhoda had an idea, for Cupid had 'clapped her i' the shoulder,' and her intuitions were preternaturally keen just now. Mary almost knew, though she had never been in love in her life, and her faculties were working only in their every-day fashion; but she was not in the least surprised when she drew a letter from under the white dove's wing. Seeing that it was addressed to her, she waited until everybody had gone, and sat under the pepper-tree in the deserted playground, where she might read it in solitude.

'DEAR MISTRESS MARY,' it said, 'do you care to hear of my life?

"Pas Ewig-Weibliche
Zieht uns hinan,"

and I am growing olives. Do you remember what the Spanish monk said to the tree that he pruned, and that cried out under his hook? "It is not beauty that is wanted of you, nor shade, but olives." The sun is hot, and it has not rained for many a long week, it seems to me, but the dew of your influence falls ever sweet and fresh on the dust of my daily task.

'Enclosed please find the wherewithal for Lisa's next step higher. As she needs more it will come. I give it for sheer gratitude, as the good folk gave their pennies to Pastor Von Bodelschwingh. Why am I grateful? For your existence, to be sure! I had lived my life haunted by the feeling that there was such a woman, and finally the mysterious wind of destiny blew me to her, "as the tempest brings the rose-tree to the pollard willow."

'Do not be troubled about me, little mother-of-many! There was once upon a time a common mallow by the roadside, and being touched by Mohammed's garment as he passed, it was changed at once into a geranium; and best of all, it remained a geranium for ever after.

'YOUR SOLITARY.'