I T was a bright, sunshiny day at Christmas-tide, when, once upon a time, two little girls were sitting on their mamma's sick-bed. One was a very little thing, who could only just talk, and she was leaning her curly head against the bed-post. The other, some two or three years older, was sitting on a pillow near her mother.
The children were not talking much, for there was a new baby in the house, and everybody was very quiet, though very happy; and these two little sisters of the new-comer had only been admitted to see poor mamma, on condition that they would be very good and make no noise.
But the active spirits of young animals cannot be long kept under; and so it happened that a strong gleam of winter sunshine, entering into the room through a half-opened shutter, shot right across the middle of the bed, and attracted the eyes and attention of both the children; for up and down in this narrow strip of light danced innumerable sparkling motes.
The elder child, the Kate of our story, had a little open box in her hand, and she stretched it out, up and down, into the beam, and whispered in a half-giggle of delight, "I'll catch the stars." Her mamma looked on and smiled, for the merry Kate made the play very amusing to herself. She pretended to catch the shining motes in the empty box; and then put on a face of mock surprise and disappointment at finding nothing inside when she peeped to see. Moreover, she kept up a little talk all the time: "There's one:—oh, he's such a beauty!—I must have him!" and then she dashed the box once more into the streak of light.
But this sport and the smiles on mamma's face soon became irresistible to the little Undine child by the bed-post, and she said, very gently, "Give me some, too."
"Some 'what?', my little Undine?" asked mamma: "what are they?"
Undine glanced at her mother, and then at the motes, and then she said, "Stars;"—but there was a misgiving look on her face as she spoke.
"No, they're not stars,—are they, Mamma?" observed the wiser Kate: "they're nothing but dust;"—and the box danced about quicker than ever.
"They're not dust," pouted the offended little one: "they're stars!"
"Well then, here, you shall have a boxful," cried Kate, thrusting the box on to Undine's lap, and covering it over with her pinafore: "Take care of them—take care of them—or they'll all go out."
Very carefully and slowly did Undine uncover the box, and with a very grave and enquiring face did she examine it both inside and out, in search of the stars; and then, in one of those freaks of change so common to children, she burst into a gay laugh, tossed the box up like a ball, and cried out, "They're nothing but dust—nothing but nasty, dirty dust! There they go!"
And, "There they go!" echoed Kate; and forthwith the children commenced a jumping and noise, which quickly brought the nurse to the room, and an order for the removal of the riotous little damsels.
"But, Mamma," enquired Kate, in a grave whisper, before she went away, "why does the dust look so like stars?"
"Because the sun sent his light upon it," answered mamma. "Sunshine is like love, Kate,—it makes everything shine with its own beauty. You and Undine," added she, kissing her little girl's fat cheek, "are stars in my eyes, because I see you in the sunshine of love."
"But we're not 'nothing but nasty, dirty dust,' in reality," observed Kate, shaking her head very knowingly, as she led her little sister from the room.
Those of my young readers who have lived in the North of England, will remember the fine old Christmas hymn that is sung in that part of the country. They will remember the many happy snowy Christmas-eves on which they went to bed, delighted at the thought of hearing it in the night; and how a curious thrill of pleasure came over them when they really were roused from sleep by the solemn and beautiful sounds of—
"Christians awake! salute the happy morn
Whereon the Saviour of mankind was born;"
—sung by the village waits, usually the church singers of the place. As I think of these things myself, I almost hear the grand old melody; and can just fancy some little urchin, more hardy than the rest of his companions, creeping out of his snug bed to peep behind the blind at the well-known old men and girls, all wrapped up in great coats and cloaks, to protect them from the stormy December night.
I can fancy, too, how, after feeling very chilly as he stood at the window, he would go back to the warm bed, and say how cold the poor waits must be! and how, between whispering about the waits and listening to the music, those children would while away one of the happiest hours of merry Christmas; and then, after hearing the sounds revive and die away in other more distant parts of the village, would drop asleep as easily as tired labourers at night.
Well! you wonder what this Christmas hymn has to do with my story of Kate and Undine? Merely this,—that one of the verses begins thus:—
"Oh may we keep and ponder in our mind,
God's wondrous love in saving lost mankind."
And this is taken from a passage in Scripture, to which I want to call your attention—namely, that wherein it is said of the Virgin Mary, that she "kept and pondered in her heart" the wonderful things the shepherds had told her of our Saviour.
Other people talked about them, and made a fuss about them, and then very likely forgot them; but Mary "pondered them in her heart;" a practice which has, alas! gone sadly too much out of fashion; for everybody nowadays is so busy either learning or talking, that for "pondering things in the heart" there seems to be neither time nor inclination.
Nevertheless, mothers are still more apt to do it than anybody else. Indeed, they are constantly pondering in their minds the things that their children say, or the things that people say of them. Sometimes they may ponder foolishly, but I hope not often, especially if they ponder in their hearts, and not in their heads only.
Now the mother of Kate and Undine was a great ponderer; and as she had, especially just then, nothing else to do, you may be sure how she pondered over the pretty scene of her two little ones and the motes in the sunbeam. And the dust did look very like stars, she confessed to herself, as she lay looking up at the light.
"But how wise," thought she, "the sober Kate felt at her own superior knowledge! how proud to recognise dust for dust, even under its most sunny aspect! And yet how often, before life is ended, may she not make Undine's mistake herself, and take even dust for stars, merely because the sun shines upon it!"
And here the poor mamma uttered a short prayer that she might be enabled to instil good principles into her children's minds, that so Kate, and Undine too, might know dust for dust whenever they saw it, let the outward world shine upon it never so brightly.
And then she looked up at the sunbeam, as it streamed across her sick-bed, till she thought it was like so many things, she felt her head becoming quite confused.
It was like love, as she had said—yes; but it was like cheerfulness—like good-temper—like the Gospel charity: for do not the commonest things of life, and the dullest duties of life, shine, star-like, under their rays? Yes; but it was most of all like "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding;" for that lightens up the dark career of earthly existence, and leads the soul upward along the bright path of its rays, till it reaches the everlasting home of light itself.
"Ay, ay," thought the mother, as she looked once more: "Motes in the sunbeam as we are—miserable dust and ashes in ourselves—the light streams down upon us and transfigures us: we follow the light upwards, and become the children of light ourselves."
Her head had indeed become confused amidst similes, and fancies, and half-waking dreams; but before she could think the matter over, clearly and distinctly, she had fallen fast asleep.