Polly, the Doctor’s old white mare, plodded slowly along the snowy country road by the picket fence, and turned in at the snow-capped posts. Ahead, roofed with the ragged ermine of a newly-fallen snow, the Doctor’s old-fashioned house loomed gray-white through the snow-fringed branches of the trees, a quaint iron lantern, which was picturesque by day and luminous and cheerful by night, hanging within the square, white-pillared portico at the side. That the many-paned, old-fashioned window on the right framed the snow-white head of Aunt Ellen Leslie, the Doctor’s wife, the old Doctor himself was comfortably aware—for his kindly eyes missed nothing.
He could have told you with a reflective stroke of his grizzled beard that the snow had stopped but an hour since, and that now through the white and heavy lacery of branches to the west glowed the flame-gold of a winter sunset, glinting ruddily over the box-bordered brick walk, the orchard and the comfortable barn which snugly housed his huddled cattle; that the grasslands to the south were thickly blanketed in white; that beyond in the evergreen forest the stately pines and cedars were marvelously draped and coiffed in snow. For the old Doctor loved these things of Nature as he loved the peace and quiet of his home.
So, as he turned in at the driveway and briskly resigned the care of Polly to old Asher, his seamed and wrinkled helper, the Doctor’s eyes were roving now to a corner, snug beneath a tattered rug of snow, where by summer Aunt Ellen’s petunias and phlox and larkspur grew—and now to the rose-bushes ridged in down, and at last to his favorite winter nook, a thicket of black alders freighted with a wealth of berries. How crimson they were amid the white quiet of the garden! And the brightly colored fruit of the barberry flamed forth from a snowy bush like the cheerful elf-lamps of a wood-gnome.
There was equal cheer and color in the old-fashioned sitting-room to which the Doctor presently made his way, for a wood fire roared with a winter gleam and crackle in the fireplace and Aunt Ellen Leslie rocked slowly back and forth by the window with a letter in her hand.
“Another letter!” exclaimed the Doctor, warming his hands before the blazing log. “God bless my soul, Ellen, we’re becoming a nuisance to Uncle Sam!” But for all the brisk cheeriness of his voice he was furtively aware that Aunt Ellen’s brown eyes were a little tearful, and presently crossing the room to her side, he gently drew the crumpled letter from her hand and read it.
“So John’s not coming home for Christmas either, eh?” he said at last. “Well, now, that is too bad! Now, now, now, mother,” as Aunt Ellen surreptitiously wiped her glasses, “we should feel proud to have such busy children. There’s Ellen and Margaret and Anne with a horde of youngsters to make a Christmas for, and John—bless your heart, Ellen, there’s a busy man! A broker now is one of the very busiest of men! And what with John’s kiddies and his beautiful society wife and that grand Christmas Eve ball he mentions—why—” the Doctor cleared his throat,—”why, dear me, it’s not to be wondered at, say I! And Philip and Howard—busy as—as—as architects and lawyers usually are at Christmas,” he finished lamely. “As for Ralph—” the Doctor looked away—”well, Ralph hasn’t spent a Christmas home since college days.”
“It will be the first Christmas we ever spent without some of them home,” ventured Aunt Ellen, biting her lip courageously, whereupon the old Doctor patted her shoulder gently with a cheery word of advice.
Now, there was something in the touch of the old Doctor’s broad and gentle hand that always soothed, wherefore Aunt Ellen presently wiped her troublesome glasses again and bravely tried to smile, and the Doctor making a vast and altogether cheerful to-do about turning the blazing log, began a brisk description of his day. It had ended, professionally, at a lonely little house in the heart of the forest, which Jarvis Hildreth, dying but a scant year since, had bequeathed to his orphaned children, Madge and Roger.
“And, Ellen,” finished the Doctor, soberly, “there he sits by the window, day by day, poor lame little lad!—staring away so wistfully at the forest, and Madge, bless her brave young heart!—she bastes and stitches and sews away, all the while weaving him wonderful yarns about the pines and cedars to amuse him—all out of her pretty head, mind you! A lame brother and a passion for books—” said the Doctor, shaking his head, “a poor inheritance for the lass. They worry me a lot, Ellen, for Madge looks thin and tired, and today—” the Doctor cleared his throat, “I think she had been crying.”
“Crying!” exclaimed Aunt Ellen, her kindly brown eyes warm with sympathy. “Dear, dear!—And Christmas only three days off! Why, John, dear, we must have them over here for Christmas. To be sure! And we’ll have a tree for little Roger and a Christmas masquerade and such a wonderful Christmas altogether as he’s never known before!” And Aunt Ellen, with the all-embracing motherhood of her gentle heart aroused, fell to planning a Christmas for Madge and Roger Hildreth that would have gladdened the heart of the Christmas saint himself.
Face aglow, the old Doctor bent and patted his wife’s wrinkled hand.
“Why, Ellen,” he confessed, warmly, “it’s the thing I most desired! Dear me, it’s a very strange thing indeed, my dear, how often we seem to agree. I’ll hitch old Billy to the sleigh and go straight after them now while Annie’s getting supper!” And at that instant one glance at Aunt Ellen Leslie’s fine old face, framed in the winter firelight which grew brighter as the checkerboard window beside her slowly purpled, would have revealed to the veriest tyro why the Doctor’s patients liked best to call her “Aunt” Ellen.
So, with a violent jingle of sleigh-bells, the Doctor presently shot forth again into the white and quiet world, and as he went, gliding swiftly past the ghostly spruces by the roadside, oddly enough, despite his cheerful justification to Aunt Ellen, he was fiercely rebelling at the defection of his children. John and his lovely wife might well have foregone their fashionable ball. And Howard and Philip—their holiday-keeping Metropolitan clubs were shallow artificialities surely compared with a home-keeping reunion about the Yule log. As for the children of Anne and Ellen and Margaret—well, the Doctor could just tell those daughters of his that their precious youngsters liked a country Christmas best—he knew they did!—not the complex, steam-heated hot-house off-shoot of that rugged flower of simpler times when homes were further apart, but a country Christmas of keen, crisp cold and merry sleigh-bells, of rosy cheeks and snow-balls, of skating on the Deacon’s pond and a jubilant hour after around the blazing wood-fire: a Christmas, in short, such as the old Doctor himself knew and loved, of simplicity and sympathy and home-keeping heartiness!
And then—there was Ralph—but here the Doctor’s face grew very stern. Wild tales came to him at times of this youngest and most gifted of his children—tales of intemperate living interlarded with occasional tales of brilliant surgical achievement on the staff of St. Michael’s. For the old Doctor had guided the steps of his youngest son to the paths of medicine with a great hope, long abandoned.
Ah—well! The Doctor sighed, abruptly turning his thoughts to Madge and Roger. They at least should know the heart-glow of a real Christmas! A masquerade party of his neighbors Christmas Eve, perhaps, such as Aunt Ellen had suggested, and a Yule log—but now it was, in the midst of his Christmas plans, that a daring notion flashed temptingly through the Doctor’s head, was banished with a shrug and flashed again, whereupon with his splendid capacity for prompt decision, the Doctor suddenly wheeled old Billy about and went sleighing in considerable excitement into the village whence a host of night-telegrams went singing over the busy wires to startle eventually a slumbering conscience or so. And presently when the Doctor drew up with a flourish before the lonely little house among the forest pines, his earlier depression had vanished.
So with a prodigious stamping of snow from his feet and a cheerful wave of his mittened hand to the boy by the window, the Doctor bustled cheerily indoors and with kindly eyes averted from the single tell-tale saucepan upon the fire, over which Madge Hildreth had bent with sudden color, fell to bustling about with a queer lump in his throat and talking ambiguously of Aunt Ellen’s Christmas orders, painfully conscious that the girl’s dark face had grown pitifully white and tense and that Roger’s wan little face was glowing. And when the fire was damped by the Doctor himself, and his Christmas guests hustled into dazed, protesting readiness, the Doctor deftly muffled the thin little fellow in blankets and gently carried him out to the waiting sleigh with arms that were splendid and sturdy and wonderfully reassuring.
“There, there, little man!” he said cheerfully. “We’ve not hurt the poor lame leg once, I reckon. And now we’ll just help Sister Madge blow out the lamp and lock the door and be off to Aunt Ellen!”
But, strangely enough, the Doctor halted abruptly in the doorway and turned his kindly eyes away to the shadowy pines. And Sister Madge, on her knees by Roger’s bed, sobbing and praying in an agony of relief, presently blew out the lamp herself and wiped her eyes. For nights among the whispering pines are sleepless and long when work is scarce and Christmas hovers with cold, forbidding eyes over the restless couch of a dear and crippled brother.
Round the Doctor’s house frolicked the brisk, cold wind of a Christmas Eve, boisterously rattling the luminous checkerboard windows and the Christmas wreaths, tormenting the cheerful flame in the old iron lantern and whisking away the snow from the shivering elms, whistling eerily down the Doctor’s chimney to startle a strange little cripple by the Doctor’s fire, who, queerly enough, would not be startled.
For to Roger there had never been a wind so Christmasy, or a fire so bright and warm, and his solemn black eyes glowed! Never a wealth of holly and barberry and alder-berries so crimson as that which rimmed the snug old house in Christmas flame! Never such evergreen wreaths, for, tucked up here in this very chair by Aunt Ellen, he had made them all himself of boughs from the evergreen forest! And never surely such enticing odors as had floated out for the last two days from old Annie’s pots and pans as she baked and roasted and boiled and stewed in endless preparation for Christmas day and the Christmas Eve party, scolding away betimes in indignant whispers at old Asher, who, by reason of a chuckling air of mystery, was in perpetual disgrace.
Wonderful days indeed for Roger, with Sister Madge’s smooth, pale cheeks catching the flaring scarlet of the holly, and Sister Madge’s slim and willing fingers so busy hanging boughs that she had forgotten to sigh; with motherly Aunt Ellen so warmly intent upon Roger’s comfort and plans for the masquerade that many a mysterious and significant occurrence slipped safely by her kindly eyes; and with the excited Doctor’s busy sleigh jingling so hysterically about on secret errands and his kindly face so full of boyish mystery that Roger, with the key to all this Christmas intrigue locked safely in his heart, had whispered a shy little warning in the culprit’s attentive ear.
And presently—Roger caught his breath and furtively eyed the grandfather’s clock, ticking boastfully through a welter of holly—presently it would be time for the Doctor’s masquerade, and later, when the clock struck twelve and the guests unmasked, that great surprise which the doctor had planned so carefully by telegram!
But now from the kitchen came the sound of the Doctor singing:
Come bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas log to the firing!
Roger clapped his thin little hands with a cry of delight, for old Asher and the Doctor were bringing in the Yule log to light it presently with the charred remains of the Christmas log of a year ago. Tomorrow another Yule log would crackle and blaze and shower on the hearth, for the old Doctor molded a custom to suit his fancy. And here was Annie splendidly aproned in white, following them in, and Aunt Ellen in a wonderful old brown-gold brocade disinterred for the doctor’s party from a lavender-sweet cedar chest in the garret. And Sister Madge!—Roger stared—radiant in old-fashioned crimson satin and holly, colorful foils indeed for her night-black hair and eyes! As for the doctor himself, Roger now began to realize that with his powdered wig, his satin breeches and gaily-flowered waistcoat—to say nothing of silken hose and silver buckles—he was by far the most gorgeous figure of them all!
“I,” said the Doctor presently, striking the burning Yule log until the golden sparks flew out, “I charge thee, log, to burn out old wrongs and heart-burnings!” and then, in accordance with a cherished custom of his father’s he followed the words with a wish for the good of his household.
“And I,” said old Asher as he struck the log, “I wish for the good of the horses and cows and all the other live things and,” with a terrific chuckle of mystery, “I wish for things aplenty this night.”
“And I,” said old Annie, with a terrible look at her imprudent spouse as she took the poker, “I wish for the harvest—and wit for them that lack it!”
But Roger had the poker now, his black eyes starry.
“I—I wish for more kind hearts like Aunt Ellen’s and the Doctor’s,” he burst forth with a strangled sob as the sparks showered gold, “for more—more sisters like Sister Madge—” his voice quivered and broke—”and for—for all boys who cannot walk and run—” but Sister Madge’s arm was already around his shoulders and the old Doctor was patting his arm—wherefore he smiled bravely up at them through glistening tears.
“Now, now, now, little lad!” reminded the Doctor. “It’s Christmas Eve!” Whereupon he drew a chair to the fire and began a wonderful Christmas tale about Saint Boniface and Thunder Oak and the first Christmas tree. A wonderful old Doctor this—reflected Roger wonderingly. He knew so many different things—how to scare away tears and all about mistletoe and Druids, and still another story about a fir tree which Roger opined respectfully was nothing like so good as Sister Madge’s story of the Cedar King who stood outside his window.
“Very likely not!” admitted the Doctor gravely.
“I’ve nothing like the respect for Mr. Hans Andersen myself that I have for Sister Madge.”
“I thought,” ventured Roger shyly, slipping his hand suddenly into the Doctor’s, “that Doctors only knew how to cure folks!”
“Bless your heart, laddie,” exclaimed the Doctor, considerably staggered; “they know too little of that, I fear. My conscience!” as the grandfather’s clock came into the conversation with a throaty boom, “it’s half-past seven!” and from then on Roger noticed the Doctor was uneasy, presently opining, with a prodigious “Hum!” that Aunt Ellen looked mighty pale and tired and that he for one calculated a little sleigh ride would brace her up for the party. This Aunt Ellen immediately flouted and the Doctor was eventually forced to pathetic and frequent reference to his own great need of air.
“Very well, my dear,” said Aunt Ellen mildly, striving politely to conceal her opinion of his mental health, “I’ll go, since you feel so strongly about it, but a sleigh ride in such a wind and such clothes when one is expecting party guests—” but the relieved Doctor was already bundling the brown-gold brocade into a fur-lined coat and furtively winking at Roger! Thus it was that even as the Doctor’s sleigh flew merrily by the Deacon’s pond, far across the snowy fields to the north gleamed the lights of the 7:52 rushing noisily into the village.
By the Fire
How it was that the old Doctor somehow lost his way on roads he had traveled since boyhood was a matter of exceeding mystery and annoyance to Aunt Ellen, but lose it he did. By the time he found it and jogged frantically back home, the old house was already aswarm with masked, mysterious guests and old Asher with a lantern was peering excitedly up the road. Holly-trimmed sleighs full of merry neighbors in disguise were dashing gaily up—and in the midst of all the excitement the Doctor miraculously discovered his own mask and Aunt Ellen’s in the pocket of his great-coat. So hospitable Aunt Ellen, considerably perturbed that so many of her guests had arrived in her absence—an absence carefully planned by the Doctor—betook herself to the masquerade, and the Christmas party began with bandits and minstrels and jesters and all sorts of queer folk flitting gaily about the house. They paid gallant court to Roger in his great chair by the fire and presently began to present for his approval an impromptu Mummer’s play.
And now the lights were all out and a masked and courtly old gentleman in satin breeches was standing in the bright firelight pouring brandy into a giant bowl of raisins; and now he was gallantly bowing to Roger himself who was plainly expected to assist with a lighted match. He did this with trembling fingers and eyes so big and black and eloquent that the Doctor cleared his throat; and as the leaping flames from the snapdragon bowl flashed weirdly over the bizarre company in the shadows. Roger, eagerly watching them snatch the raisins from the fire, fell to trembling in an ecstasy of delight. Presently a slender arm in a crimson sleeve, whose wearer was never very far from Roger’s chair, slipped quietly about his shoulders and held him very tight. So, an endless round of merry Christmas games until, deep and mellow came at last the majestic boom of the grandfather’s clock striking twelve and with it a hearty babel of Christmas greetings as the Doctor, smiling significantly down into Roger’s excited eyes, gave the signal to unmask.
By the fire a mysterious little knot of guests had been silently gathering, and now as Aunt Ellen Leslie removed her mask, hand and mask halted in mid-air as if fixed by the stare of Medusa, and the face above the brown-gold brocade flamed crimson. For here in Puritan garb was John Leslie, Jr., and his radiant wife—and Philip and Howard, smiling Quakers, and Anne and Margaret and Ellen with a trio of husbands, and beyond a laughing jester in cap and bells, whose dark, handsome face was a little too reckless and tired about the eyes, Roger thought, for a really happy Christmas guest—young Doctor Ralph.
As Aunt Ellen’s startled eyes swept slowly from the smiling faces of her children to the proud and chuckling Doctor who had spent Heaven knows how many dollars in telegraphed commands—she laughed a little and cried a little and then mingled the two so queerly that she needs must wipe her eyes and catch at Roger’s chair for support, whereupon a kindly little hand slipped suddenly into hers and Roger looked up and smiled serenely.
“Don’t cry, Aunt Ellen!” he begged shyly. “I knew all about it too and the Doctor—he did it all!”
“And merry fits he gave us all by telegram, too, mother!” exclaimed Philip with a grin.
“Moreover,” broke in John, patting his mother’s shoulder, “there are eleven kids packed away upstairs like sardines—we hid ’em away while dad and you were lost, and—” but here with a deafening racket the stairs door burst wide open and with a swoop and a scream eleven pajama-ed young bandits with starry eyes bore down upon Aunt Ellen and the Doctor.
“Great Scott!” exclaimed John, thoroughly scandalized. “You disgraceful kids! Which one of you stirred this up?” But the guilty face at the tail of the romping procession was the face of old Asher.
Radiantly triumphant the old Doctor swung little John Leslie 3rd to his shoulder and faced his laughing family and as old Annie appeared with a steaming tray—he seized a mug of cider and held it high aloft.
“To the ruddy warmth of the Christmas log and the Christmas home spirit—” he cried—”to the home-keeping hearts of the country-side! Gentlemen—I give you—A Country home and a Country Christmas! May more good folk come to know them!” And little John Leslie cried hoarsely—
“Hooray, grandpop, hooray for a Country Christmas!”
Carelessly alive to the merry spirit of the night, the jester presently adjusted a flute which hung from his shoulder by a scarlet cord and lazily piping a Christmas air, wandered to another room—to come suddenly upon a forgotten playmate of his boyhood days.
“It—it can’t be!” he reflected in startled interest. “It surely can’t be Madge Hildreth!”
But Madge Hildreth it surely was, spreading the satin folds of his grandmother’s crimson gown in mocking courtesy. Moreover it was not the awkward, ragged elfish little gipsy who had tormented his debonair boyhood with her shy ardent worship of himself and his daring exploits, but instead a winsome vision of Christmas color and Christmas cheer, holly-red of cheek, with flashes of scarlet holly in her night black hair and eyes whose unfathomable dusk reflected no single hint of that old, wild worship slumbering still in the girl’s rebellious heart.
“And the symbolism of this stunning make-up?” queried Ralph after a while, lazily admiring.
The girl’s eyes flashed.
“Tonight, if you please,” she said, “I am the spirit of the old-fashioned Christmas who dwells in the holly heart of the evergreen wood. A Country Christmas, ruddy-cheeked and cheerful and rugged like the winter holly—simple and old-fashioned and hallowed with memories like this bright soft crimson gown!”
Well, she had been a queer, fanciful youngster too, Doctor Ralph remembered, always passionately aquiver with a wild sylvan poetry and over-fond of book-lore like her father. Mischievously glancing at a spray of mistletoe above the girl’s dark head, he stepped forward with the careless gallantry that had won him many a kindly glance from pretty eyes and was strangely to fail him now. For at the look in Madge’s calm eyes, he drew back, stammering.
“I—I beg your pardon!” said Doctor Ralph.
Later as he stood thoughtfully by his bedroom window, staring queerly at the wind-beaten elms, he found himself repeating Madge Hildreth’s words. “Ruddy-cheeked and rugged and cheerful!”—indeed—this unforgettable Christmas Eve. Yes—she was right. Had he not often heard his father say that the Christmas season epitomized all the rugged sympathy and heartiness and health of the country year! Tonight the blazing Yule log, his mother’s face—how white her hair was growing, thought Doctor Ralph with a sudden tightening of his throat—all of these memories had strummed forgotten and finer chords. And darkly foiling the homely brightness came the picture of rushing, overstrung, bundle-laden city crowds, of shop-girls white and weary, of store-heaps of cedar and holly sapped by electric glare. Rush and strain and worry—yes—and a spirit of grudging! How unlike the Christmas peace of this white, wind-world outside his window! So Doctor Ralph went to bed with a sigh and a shrug—to listen while the sleety boughs tapping at his windows roused ghostly phantoms of his boyhood. Falling asleep, he dreamt that pretty Madge Hildreth had lightly waved a Christmas wand of crimson above his head and dispelled his weariness and discontent.
And in the morning—there was the royal glitter of a Christmas ice-storm to bring boyhood memories crowding again, boughs sheathed in crystal armor and the old barn roof aglaze with ice. Yes—Ralph thrilled—and there were the Christmas bunches of oats on the fences and trees and the roof of the barn—how well he remembered! For the old Doctor loved this Christmas custom too and never forgot the Christmas birds. And today—why of course—there would be double allowances of food for the cattle and horses, for old Toby the cat and Rover the dog. Hadn’t Ralph once performed this cherished Christmas task himself!
But now, clamoring madly at his door was a romping swarm of youngsters eager to show Uncle Ralph the Christmas tree which, though he had helped to trim it the night before, he inspected in great surprise. And here in his chair by another Yule log he found Roger, staring wide-eyed at the glittering tree with his thin little arms full of Christmas gifts. Near him was Sister Madge whose black eyes, Ralph saw with approval, were very soft and gentle, and beyond in the coffee-fragrant dining-room Aunt Ellen and old Annie conspired together over a mammoth breakfast table decked with holly.
“Oh, John, dear,” Ralph heard his mother say as the Doctor came in, “I’ve always said that Christmas is a mother’s day. Wasn’t the first Christmas a mother’s Christmas and the very first tree—a mother’s tree?” and then the Doctor’s scandalized retort—”Now—now, now, see here, Mother Ellen, it’s a father’s day, too, don’t you forget that!”
And so on to the Christmas twilight through a day of romping youngsters and blazing Yule logs, of Christmas gifts and Christmas greetings—of a haunting shame for Doctor Ralph at the memory of the wild Christmas he had planned to spend with Griffin and Edwards.
With the coming of the broad shadows which lay among the stiff, ice-fringed spruces like iris velvet, Doctor Ralph’s nieces and nephews went flying out to help old Asher feed the stock. By the quiet fire the Doctor beckoned Ralph.
“Suppose, my boy,” he said, “suppose you take a look at the little lad’s leg here. I’ve sometimes wondered what you would think of it.”
Coloring a little at his father’s deferential tone Ralph turned the stocking back from the pitiful shrunken limb and bent over it, his dark face keen and grave. And now with the surgeon uppermost, Roger fancied Doctor Ralph’s handsome eyes were nothing like so tired. Save for the crackle of the fire and the tick of the great clock, there was silence in the firelit room and presently Roger caught something in Doctor Ralph’s thoughtful face that made his heart leap wildly.
“An operation,” said the young Doctor suddenly—and halted, meeting his father’s eyes significantly.
“You are sure!” insisted the old Doctor slowly. “In my day, it was impossible—quite impossible.”
“Times change,” said the younger man. “I have performed such an operation successfully myself. I feel confident, sir—” but Roger had caught his hand now with a sob that echoed wildly through the quiet room.
“Oh, Doctor Ralph,” he blurted with blazing, agonized eyes, “you don’t—you can’t mean, sir, that I’ll walk and run like other boys—and—and climb the Cedar King—” his voice broke in a passionate fit of weeping.
“Yes,” said Doctor Ralph, huskily, “I mean just that. Dad and I, little man, we’re going to do what we can.”
By the window Sister Madge buried her face in her hands.
“Come, come, now Sister Madge,” came the Doctor’s kindly voice a little later, “you’ve cried enough, lass. Roger is fretting about you and Doctor Ralph here, he says he’s going to take you for a little sleigh-ride if you’ll honor him by going.”
Outside a Christmas moon rode high above a sparkling ice-bright world and as the sleigh shot away into its quiet glory, Ralph, meeting the dark, tear-bright eyes of Sister Madge, tucked the robes closer about her with a hand that shook a little.
“‘Gipsy’ Hildreth!” he said suddenly, smiling, but the hated nickname tonight was almost a caress. “Tell me,” Ralph’s voice was very grave—”You’ve been sewing? Mother spoke of it.”
“There was nothing else,” said Sister Madge. “I could not leave Roger.”
“And now Mother wants you to stay on with her. You—you’ll do that?”
“She is very lonely,” said Madge uncertainly and Ralph bit his lip.
“Mother lonely!” he said. “She didn’t tell me that.”
“Roger is wild to stay,” went on Madge, looking away—”but I—oh—I fear it is only their wonderful kindness. Still there’s the Doctor’s rheumatism—and he does need some one to keep his books.”
“Rheumatism!” said Ralph sharply.
“Yes,” nodded Madge in surprise—”didn’t you know. It’s been pretty bad this winter. He’s been thinking some of breaking in young Doctor Price to take part of his practice now and perhaps all of it later.”
“Price!” broke out Ralph indignantly. “Oh—that’s absurd! Price couldn’t possibly swing Dad’s work. He’s not clever enough.”
“He’s the only one there is,” said Madge and Ralph fell silent.
All about them lay a glittering moonlit country of peaceful, firelit homes and snowy hills—of long quiet roads and shadowy trees and presently Ralph spoke again.
“You like all this,” he said abruptly, “the quiet—the country—and all of it?”
Sister Madge’s black eyes glowed.
“After all,” she said, “is it not the only way to live? This scent of the pine, the long white road, the wild-fire of the winter sunset and the wind and the hills—are they not God-made messages of mystery to man? Life among man-made things—like your cities—seems somehow to exaggerate the importance of man the maker. Life among the God-made hills dwarfs that artificial sense of egotism. It teaches you to marvel at the mystery of Creation. Yesterday when the Doctor and I were gathering the Christmas boughs, the holly glade in the forest seemed like some ancient mystic Christmas temple of the Druids where one might tell his rosary in crimson holly beads and forget the world!”
Well—perhaps there was something fine and sweet and holy in the country something—a tranquil simplicity—a hearty ruggedness—that city dwellers forfeited in their head-long rush for man-made pleasure. After all, perhaps the most enduring happiness lay in the heart of these quiet hills.
“My chief is very keen on country life,” said Ralph suddenly. “He preaches a lot. Development of home-spirit and old-fashioned household gods—that sort of thing! He’s a queerish sort of chap—my chief—and a bit too—er—candid at times. He was dad’s old classmate, you know.” And Ralph fell silent again, frowning.
So Price was to take his father’s practise! How it must gall the old Doctor! And mother was lonely, eh?—and Dad’s rheumatism getting the best of him—Why Great Guns! mother and dad were growing old! And some of those snow-white hairs of theirs had come from worrying over him—John had said so. Ralph’s dark face burned in the chill night wind. Well, for all old John’s cutting sarcasm, his father still had faith in him and the trust in young Roger’s eloquent eyes had fairly hurt him. God! they did not know! And then this queer Christmas heart-glow. How Griffin and Edwards and the rest of his gay friends would mock him for it? Friends! After all—had he any friends in the finer sense of that finest of words? Such warm-hearted loyal friends for instance as these neighbors of his father’s who had been dropping in all day with a hearty smile and a Christmas hand-shake. And black-eyed Sister Madge—this brave, little fighting gipsy-poet here—where—But here Ralph frowned again and looked away and even when the cheerful lights of home glimmered through the trees he was still thinking—after an impetuous burst of confidence to Sister Madge.
So, later, when Doctor Ralph entered his father’s study—his chin was very determined.
“I was ashamed to tell you this morning, sir,” he said steadily, “but I—I’m no longer on the staff of St. Michael’s. My hand was shaking and—and the chief knew why. And, dad,” he faced the old Doctor squarely, “I’m coming back home to keep your practice out of Price’s fool hands. You’ve always wanted that and my chief has preached it too, though I couldn’t see it somehow until today. And presently, sir, when—when my hand is steadier, I’m going to make the little chap walk and run. I’ve—promised Sister Madge.” And the old Doctor cleared his throat and gulped—and finally he wiped his glasses and walked away to the window. For of all things God could give him—this surely was the best!
“Oh, grandpop,” cried little John Leslie 3rd, bolting into the study in great excitement—”Come see Roger! We kids have made him the Christmas King and he’s got a crown o’ holly on and—and a wand and he’s a-tappin’ us this way with it to make us knights. And I’m the Fir-Tree Knight—and Bob—he’s a Cedar Knight and Ned’s a spruce and Roger—he says his pretty sister tells him stories like that smarter’n any in the books. Oh—do hurry!”
The old Doctor held out his hand to his son.
“Well, Doctor Ralph,” he said huskily, “suppose we go tell mother.”
So while the Doctor told Aunt Ellen, Ralph bent his knee to this excited Christmas King enthroned in the heart of the fire-shadows.
“Rise—” said Roger radiantly, tapping him with a cedar wand, “I—I dub thee first of all my knights—the good, kind Christmas Knight!”
“And here,” said Ralph, smiling, “here’s Sister Madge. What grand title now shall we give to her?” But as Sister Madge knelt before him with firelit shadows dancing in her sweet, dark eyes, Roger dropped the wand and buried his face on her shoulder with a little sob.
“Nothing good enough for Sister Madge, eh?” broke in the old Doctor, looking up. “Well, sir, I think you’re right.”
Now in the silence Aunt Ellen spoke and her words were like a gentle Christmas benediction.
“‘Unto us,'” said Aunt Ellen Leslie as she turned the Christmas log, “‘this night a son is given!'”
But Ralph, by the window, had not heard. For wakening again in his heart as he stared at the peaceful, moonlit, “God-made” hills—was the old forgotten boyish love for this rugged, simple life of his father’s dwarfing the lure of the city and the mockery of his fashionable friends. And down the lane of years ahead, bright with homely happiness and service to the needs of others—was the dark and winsome face of Sister Madge, stirring him to ardent resolution.