T HE day before Christmas broke cold and clear; and almost before the sun had crested the hill three fur-clad figures were abroad. Two were large and one was small; each carried a post across his shoulders, while the foremost swung an ax in his free hand. They first took the trail for the trapper's, and a dozen yards from the hut they planted one post, knocking it firmly into the snow with the flat of the ax. There it stood straight as could be and about the height of a little lad, with its white sign pointing up the trail they had come and its bands of Christmas green and red—painted by Mr. Peter at the top—warranted to attract attention.
David cast a backward glance of admiration upon it as they turned to cross-cut the ravine and climb the foot-hill that led to the South-Americans' cottage. Yes, it certainly did look fine! And how well the black letters stood out against the white background! With a heart almost bursting with the fullness of contentment David read the sign for the hundredth time:
THIS WAY TO CHRISTMAS
And the hand pointed straight to the hilltop and the lodge. Another sign was planted by the cottage, and a third by the lumber-camp. Then the trio climbed the hill again. At the lodge Barney picked up a fourth post. He was going down to the village for some necessary supplies and he had been appointed to leave the sign for the flagman.
"There's just one thing that's the matter," said David, as he and Mr. Peter started out with knives and bags to hunt for ground-pine and other Christmas greens. "It's the South-Americans. I don't see how they could possibly get here. Why, the sick boy has hardly enough strength to walk across the room. And you couldn't expect a lady to climb a mountain on snow-shoes, just for Christmas."
Mr. Peter laughed.
"You can never tell what's going to happen Christmas Eve. Maybe the fairy will loan them his wishing-cap. Or Santa, himself, may swing round here on his way to the city and bring them along. I wouldn't begin to worry about who's not coming until it's too late for them to get here."
All through that crisp winter morning David and Mr. Peter plowed back and forth between the woods and the lodge, carrying green of every description, with intervals spent beside the kitchen stove, warming up. And early in the afternoon they started decorating the hall and living-room, while Johanna and Barney concentrated their efforts in the kitchen. Barney had succeeded in rooting out untold treasures from the shelves of the "variety store" in the village; and he had brought home several cans of silver paint and rolls of red tissue-paper, besides some white and red candles.
With these Mr. Peter and David created miracles. They silvered bunches of the pine-cones and hung them on their drooping green branches above the doorways and windows. They trailed the ground-pine across the ceiling from corner to corner, and about the mantel, hanging from it innumerable tiny red bells fashioned from the red paper. They stood two tall young spruces on either side of the window niche and these they trimmed with strips of pop-corn, silvered nuts and pine-cones and red and white candles. And every window had a hemlock wreath made gay with cranberries.
And Barney and Johanna? They were likewise performing miracles. When David and Mr. Peter had finished and given their work a last survey and exchanged a final round of mutual congratulations they went into the kitchen to behold the others' handiwork.
There was the table lengthened out and covered with a snowy-white cloth. In the center, surrounded by a wreath of green, stood the mammoth Christmas cake; and at the four corners stood tall white candles in crystal candlesticks. At one end was a cold baked ham resplendent with its crust of sugar and cloves and its paper frill of red and white. At the other was a red Japanese bowl filled with the vegetable salad that had made Johanna famous; while dotted all about the table were delectable dishes of all sorts—jams and jellies, nuts, raisins, savory pickles, and a pyramid of maple-sugar cream. But it was from the stove that the appetizing odors came: rolls baking, coffee steaming, and chicken frying slowly in the great covered pan.
"It smells too good to be true," cried Mr. Peter, clapping his hands. "Never was there such a Christmas supper! Come, David, boy, we will have to scramble into some festal raiment to do honor to Johanna's cooking, although I am not quite sure that I have anything to dress up in but a pair of gold sleeve-links and a red necktie."
"Ye might be making a prayer while ye're dressing that somebody will come to help eat it up. I've said to Barney a score o' times since dinner that there's just as much likelihood that not a mortal soul will show his face here this night."
"Why, Johanna!" David protested.
"I know, laddy. But mind, ye've not seen one of them but once, yourself, and I'm a stranger to them. Never matter; only if no one comes ye'll all be eating ham and fried chicken for the rest o' the year." And Johanna ended with a good-humored laugh.
Before six they were gathered in the living-room with the candles lighted and the fire blazing uproariously on the hearth.
"It's all so fine and like mother used to have. I believe I shall be wishing somebody 'Merry Christmas' before I know it," shouted Mr. Peter. Then he held up a warning finger. "Hush! What's that?"
They all listened. There was certainly a noise outside; it sounded as if some one was feeling for the knob. David was away like a flash to the hall and had flung open the door wide. The next moment his voice came back to the others, ringing with gladness:
"Uncle Joab! Oh, Uncle Joab! This is just bully!"
The bent figure of the old darky stumbled in out of the night. He carried two bundles under his arm, each wrapped in layers of gunny-sack; and he blinked, open-mouthed, at the lights and the faces that gathered about him.
"It sure is a befo'-de-war Chris'mus!" he ejaculated. Then he sniffed the air like an old dog on a scent. " 'Pon ma soul, dat's fried chick'n or Uncle Joab's no sinner!"
They all laughed; and one by one they shook Uncle Joab's hand as David introduced them. Once divested of his outside things, the old man turned his attention to his bundles and unwrapped them with great care. The first turned out to be his fiddle and he patted it lovingly.
"When I fust cotch sight o' dat yeah post dis mo'nin' I wa'n't sure dat de sign was meant fo' no ole nigger like Uncle Joab. Den I look 'round, but dere doan't 'pear to be nobody else. So I brings along de ole fiddle, 'ca'se I reckon dat dey'll be glad to see him if dey 'ain't got no welcome fer me."
"Sure, we're hearty glad to see the both o' ye." And Barney spoke out for them all.
The old man beamed his gratitude as he unwrapped his second bundle. It held a paper sack; and Uncle Joab viewed the contents with approval before he handed it to David.
"M'lasses corn-balls; Chris'mus gif' fo' li'l' boy," he chuckled.
David's thanks were cut short by the stamping of feet outside and a clang of the knocker. Again he flew to the door and found the eyes of the trapper looking down upon him with grave pleasure.
"Nicholas Bassaraba, my friend," he said, proudly, and this was the way he made the trapper known to the others.
The flagman came next, the icicles hanging to his scrubby mustache, his little blue eyes dancing with anticipation. He was quite out of breath and it was some minutes before he could respond properly to his warm welcome.
"Zo, Fritz Grossman has some friends this Chreestmas; eet es goot!" And his eyes danced harder than ever. He felt down in the pockets of his greatcoat and brought out his hands full of red apples. Their glossy skins bespoke much careful polishing. "Chreestmas apples for the knabelein. He remembers the tale? Ja!"
The stillness outside was suddenly broken by the jingle of bells—sleigh-bells coming nearer and nearer. This time it was Mr. Peter who reached the door first; he had taken down the hall lantern and was holding it high above his head as he peered out.
"Whoa, there!" came a voice from the dark. "That you, Mr. Peter? I ca'late I wouldn't ha' broken through no road like this for no one else. But here we be, all hunky-dory!"
"Well, I ca'late there isn't another man who could have done it. You bring in the lad and I'll see to the lady." And Mr. Peter went out into the darkness, lantern in hand.
The next moment David knew his cup of happiness had filled to the brim; for in strode the village stage-driver with Alfredo in his arms, while behind them came Mr. Peter supporting the mother.
"It's splendid! It's perfectly splendid!" David said over and over again, as he helped to unbundle the South-Americans and make the sick boy comfortable in the great lounging-chair by the fire.
"It is wonderful," said the mother, softly. "To have the aloneness and heart-hunger and then to find the friend!" And her arm slipped about David's shoulders in a way his own mother had.
"Supper's ready," called Johanna from the kitchen. "And, Barney, suppose ye and Mr. Peter fetch out the lad, just as he is in his big chair."
They put Alfredo at one end of the table, while Johanna sat at the other behind the great, steaming coffee-pot. Uncle Joab insisted on serving every one, bustling back and forth from the stove to the kitchen, his black face radiating his pleasure.
"Lordy gracious!" he would burst forth every few minutes. "Dis yeah nigger hasn't served a supper like dis not since he was back in ole Virginy. Jes' smell dat fried chicken! Humm!" And they could not persuade him to take his place among them until every one else's plate was full.
What a supper it was! The men who had been shifting for themselves alone in their cabins or huts, the South-Americans who had been living on food put up in cans and tins, were quite sure they had never tasted such a Christmas feast. And every one had stories to tell, memories of his own homeland which brought a flush to his cheeks and a sparkling moisture to his eyes. Only David was silent, his ears too full of what he was hearing, his heart too full of what he was feeling, yes, and maybe his mouth too full of Christmas cheer for him to talk.
It was not until the last crumb of the Christmas cake had been eaten and the last drop of coffee been drained by Uncle Joab and they had gathered about the fire once more, that David spoke.
"First, let's have Uncle Joab play some of his jigs and sing with his fiddle just as I heard him that day at the camp. Then let's have Johanna tell us a story. She's the only one who hasn't told a Christmas story."
So of course David had his wish. Uncle Joab tuned up and played all the rollicking airs he knew, following them with the old plantation songs so dear to the hearts of even those who have only sojourned in the South. And when he was tired and insisted that "de ole fiddle must rest" Johanna drew her chair closer to the hearth and began the story of St. Bridget.
In Ireland St. Bridget is sometimes called "St. Bridhe of the Mantle," and that is because the people of the hills would not be forgetting the way she came to be at Bethlehem when Our Lord was born, or the rest of the miracle:
It was to the little island of Iona that she came when she was naught but a child, and her coming there was strange. Her father was Doughall Donn, a prince of Ireland; but because of a sin, which he swore was not his, he was banished from his Green Isle. He took the child and left at night in a small boat; and the winds blew and the waves carried them toward Alba. But when they were still a long way off the winds blew into a storm and the waves reared themselves into a tempest and the boat was dashed upon the rocks. It was the dawn of that day that Cathal, the arch-druid of Iona, looked down from his holy hill where he had been lighting the sacrificial fire to the Sun God, for in those days it was before the Lord had walked the earth; and he saw below him on the beach the figure of a man washed up by the storm and lying as if dead. He hurried to the place and found not only the man, but a wee girl child, and she beside him, playing with the shells and digging her pink toes into the wet sand. The man was not dead, only stupid with the sea-water; and Cathal brought them both to a herdsman's hut and saw that they were fed and cared for.
That night he had a strange vision concerning the child; he dreamed that spirits from heaven descended to watch over her while she slept; and when he was for knowing why they should guard her with celestial care they made this answer:
"Know ye, she is holy and blest above all maidens. For some day it shall come to pass that she shall cradle the King of Love upon her breast and guard the Lord of Creation while He sleeps."
And when the vision broke it was Cathal himself that came and watched beside the herdsman's hut where the child slept. So Doughall Donn was made welcome in Iona for the sake of the child; and the druids gave him a hut and herd of his own and saw to it that neither he nor the child should want for anything.
It was midsummer and the day of Bridget's birth, marking the twenty-first year; and at ring o' day while the dew still clung to the grass Bridget left her father's hut and climbed the holy hill. Of all the dwellers on Iona she alone was let watch the lighting of the sacrificial fire and she alone was let hear the chanting of the druid's hymn to the Sun God. This day she was clad in white with a wreath of the rowan berries on her hair and a girdle of them about her waist; and she looked fair as the flowers of the dawn.
As she climbed the hill the wild creatures came running to her for a caress and the birds hovered above her head or perched on her shoulder. She listened to the chanting of the hymn; she bided till the flames of the fire met and mingled with the shafts of the sun. Then a white bird called from the thicket and she followed. She followed him over the crest of the hill; and behold! when she came out to the other slope, 'twas another country she was seeing!
Here were no longer the green fields and the pastures filled with sheep, or the sea lying beyond. It was a country of sand and hot sun; and the trees and the houses about her were strange. She found herself standing by a well with a strangely fashioned jug in her hand, and her father beside her.
"Bridhe," said he, "ye are a strange lass. Are ye not knowing that the well has not held a drop of water for a fortnight, and did ye think to fill your pitcher now?"
She smiled faintly.
"I was not remembering."
Her father drew her away toward the village that lay beneath them, the village of Bethlehem.
"Bridhe," said he again, "the drouth has been upon us these many months. The wells are empty, even the wine is failing, and the creatures are dying on our hands. I shall leave the inn this night in your care while I take the camels and the water-skins and ride for succor. There is a well, they tell me, in a place they call the Mount of Olives which is never dry; and 'tis a three days' journey or more there and back."
"And what is it that I should be doing, with ye away?" asked Bridget.
They had reached the door of the inn by now, and Doughall Donn opened it for her to pass through.
"Ye are to stay here, birdeen, and keep the door barred against my return. Not a soul is to pass over the threshold while I am gone. Ye are not to open to the knock of man, woman, or child—mind that!"
"But, father, what if some one should come in mortal need—famished with the hunger or faint with the thirst?"
He led her to the rude cupboard and pointed to the nearly empty shelves.
"There is a cruiskeen of ale and a cup o' water, a handful o' dry dates and some oaten cake; that is all of food or drink left in the inn. 'Twill no more than last ye till I return, and if ye fed another ye would starve. So mind the promise I put on ye this night. Ye are to shelter no one in the inn while I am gone."
Bridget watched her father drive the camels out of the courtyard; she barred the door on his going and for two days no foot crossed the threshold of the inn. But on the night of the third day, as Bridget was making ready for bed, she heard the sound of knocking on the door.
"Who is it and what is it ye are wanting this night?" called Bridget from within, keeping the door fast.
"God's blessing on this house!" came in a man's voice out of the dark. "I am Joseph, a carpenter of Arimathea, and this is Mary who is after needing a woman's help this night. She is spent and can go no farther. Will ye give us shelter?"
"That I cannot. The promise is laid on me to give neither food nor shelter to living soul till my father comes hither. Were it not for that 'tis a glad welcome I'd be giving the both of ye."
And then a woman's voice came out of the darkness, a voice that set her breasts to be trembling and her heart to be leaping with joy.
"Are ye forgetting me, Bridhe astore?" said the voice.
Bridget opened the grating in the door and looked out. There she saw a great-shouldered giant of a man, covered with beard, and beside him was a wee gray donkey, and on the donkey rode a woman, who turned her face to Bridget and smiled. And the wonder of that smile drew Bridget's hand to the latch.
She opened the door wide and bade them enter. She laid before them what ale and dates and oaten cake was left, and watched them eat in silence.
Then she beckoned them to the courtyard.
"Yonder is the byre clean with fresh straw; and the creatures are gentle. Half the promise have I broken this night; I have given ye food. But shelter ye must take outside the inn. Come!"
She led the way to the byre and left them there, hurrying back to bar the door of the inn again. But as she was fastening the latch she heard the sound of much travel abroad, and looking out she saw it was her father's camels returning. There was great gladness in her welcome—aye, and there was sadness for the breaking of the promise.
"See," said she, drawing her father in. "I gave them food—only food. They are resting in the byre." But when she went to gather up the dish that had been empty, behold it was filled with dates and oaten cake! And the cruiskeen was filled with ale!
" 'Tis a miracle!" said Bridget, the breath leaving her; and even as she spoke the strange thing happened.
Outside came the sound of falling rain, not gentle as a passing shower, but the steady beat, beat, beat of the rainy season.
"The drouth is broken," said Doughall Donn, adding, with wonder in his voice: "What manner of folk are those yonder? Are ye not minding the prophesy: 'The King of Love, Ruler of the World and All Time, shall be born on the first night of rain following the great drouth; and He shall be born in a byre outside an inn.' Come, let us see!"
He drew Bridget with him across the courtyard, but before ever they entered the byre they saw the holy light and heard singing that was not of this earth. And when they came inside there was Mary upon the hay, and beside her lay a new-born child.
"Aigh! the blessed wee one!" whispered Bridget, kneeling down beside them. "I am thinking ye had better rest, Mary astore; give me the birdeen to nurse while ye sleep." And with hunger-arms she reached out for the Holy Child and wrapped it in the white mantle that she wore.
"Aye, take Him," said Mary. "I would I might, in the years to come, give my babe to every barren breast. But ye, Bridget, are alone blest."
And through the long night Bridget cradled the Child while Mary slept and the kine looked on, kneeling in their stalls. And when day broke, Bridget closed her eyes and slept, too, for the weariness was upon her.
It was the call of a white bird that wakened her. She started up with a cry of fear and her arms reached over her breast for the Child, but the Child was gone. And when she looked about her she saw she was standing on the crest of the holy hill, while beyond her lay green fields and pastures full of sheep, and her father's hut, and the blue bay of Iona at her feet.
" 'Tis all a dream," she said, the wonder on her. And then she looked at the mantle she wore. It was woven with golden threads into marvelous pictures of birds and beasts and angels. And Bridget went slowly down the holy hill, the mantle about her; and when she came to her father's hut she found she had been gone for a year and six months.