The old, white-bearded man came in just at dusk last night; all the sunset glow had faded away, and in the quiet sky one star after another had come out. Over the hill which lies to the eastward I could just begin to see Orion. Do you know Orion, who marches across the sky every night with his starry belt and shield and sword? Ask your father to show him to you some night just before you go to bed; and once seeing, I think you will not fail to remember and know him again.
Higher up are the Pleiades, seven starry sisters, whom you would soon learn to know,—six of them at least,—and we can always imagine the seventh, who is said to be lost, as still hiding somewhere among the others.
Now that I have begun, I quite long to tell you about the stars themselves, but that was not what my old friend told me last night; and I am to give you his stories, not my own; so we will wait for another time to hear of the stars.
"They look down upon us like so many bright eyes," said he as we turned to go into the house. "Do you know what they would see to-night if they were eyes?"
I knew now that he had something to tell; for he knows what none of us can know, and I sometimes fancy that he must have traveled over all lands, in his younger days at least, if not lately.
"They would see a great way," he said musingly, "as far, I should think, as the great Siberian plains, where hunters are out on the snow, chasing with dogs the swift-footed ermine (but for his black-tipped tail it would be hard to see him on the snow), and digging traps for the graceful dark-furred sable. He, poor fellow, because he wears so beautiful a fur coat, must be killed and give up his skin for muffs and capes.
"They can see the fishermen, too, on the Norway coast, gliding out of their rocky bays, with waving lights to lure the fish and ice-sheathed lines to catch them, so cold are these winter nights in the north.
"And they see the silver fox, howling to the moon, as he struggles in the snare which the Labrador Esquimaux laid so cunningly for him; and the martens and minks out on the snow; and seals, which the hunters are seeking, with blazing torches and heavy clubs.
"Pleasanter sights than these, however, the stars may see. At early morning, long before sunrise, they may see the Dutch women buckle on their skates and, with pails and baskets on their heads, with little, jaunty, close-fitting jackets, and short, clean skirts, skate down the frozen canal,—which you know is their street,—on the way to market.
"Mountain cottagers are out to milk their cows by starlight, and to look at the growth of the great glacier, that icy river that lies on the mountain side, growing with every winter's snow, and gliding, so slowly, every summer a little farther towards the valley. Some day there may come a terrible slide of this ice stream; and when it comes the stars, too, will see that. Take care, mountain cottager, that you, and the hut which holds your wife and babies, be not in its path.
"The stars might see themselves in the clear mirror of frozen lakes,—lakes in lonely places, crossed only by the bear and the fox. The silver light shimmers on the frozen pillars and turrets where waterfalls have left their summer work, at the bidding of the north wind, and given all their strength and skill to build new palaces and temples, changing every day in grace and beauty.
"In thick woods, where the ground is still bare, and whirling snowstorms cannot penetrate; in the dark shelter of great tree roots, thrust out of the earth like giant limbs, struggling for a foot-hold; the beautiful rose-colored cups of fungi still brave the cold. And on decaying stumps, delicate mushroms, like butterflies' wings, cluster and flourish in all their exquisite life, as if frost never laid a finger upon them.
"But it is n't often the stars can peep so deep into the forests; they rather rejoice and smile upon great, tossing pines, and hemlocks singing for joy in the night wind, sheltering the crow and the jay among their branches through the whole year, when other birds have flown to warmer lands. And sometimes, through the forests, they catch glimpses of the railroad night trains, rushing along with panting, fiery breath, and red glow cast on the snowy path. They are so full of strength and life that we can scarcely imagine the sleepy passengers, who are falling against each other at every jolt in the track and rousing themselves at last to look out for the morning star,—the only star in fact that many of them wish to see.
"As swift as the night express train, but not as noisy, is this flock of snowbirds, so timid that they dare not fly in the daytime, hurrying night after night on their southward journey. For the snowbirds, whose summer home is in countries colder than this, are quite satisfied with our winters and find comfortable lodgings in many a haystack.
"Oh, the stars see many things which are hidden from the great, bright eye of the sun; many sad things and much that is beautiful. They see great ships, ice-bound in northern seas, full of men who long and pray for the sun, which they have not seen for weeks; travelers toiling in snow and darkness over unknown roads; homeless children in great cities seeking shelter in gateways and on doorsteps, and falling asleep on the hard stones. Through chamber windows, too, they look on little white-covered cribs where children sleep, kissed and tucked up by loving mothers; but the cold child on the pavement is as dear to the stars as is the warm one in the crib."
Here the old man stopped. What was he thinking of, that he sat, musing on, by the fire, speaking not a word? Did he remember any young children who had watched the winter stars with him?
The fire burned low. It was the last night of the old year; a night when children can hardly keep asleep for thinking of the presents that are to come with the morning, and a night when we who are older have much to remember and think about.
"It is almost twelve o'clock," said he, lifting his chin from the staff where it had been resting; "shall I tell you a New Year's story?
"Do you hear what a noise the wind is making with the tree boughs and window blinds on the north side of the hoise? I can tell you something about that wind."
Turn over the page, dear children, and you may read the story of—