It was bitterly cold. The sky glittered with stars, and not a breeze stirred. "Bump,"—an old pot was thrown at a neighbor's door; and, "Bang! Bang!" went the guns, for they were greeting the New Year.
It was New Year's Eve, and the church clock was striking twelve. "Tan-ta-ra-ra, tan-ta-ra-ra!" sounded the horn, and the mail-coach came lumbering up. The clumsy vehicle stopped at the gate of the town; all the places had been taken, for there were twelve passengers in the coach.
"Hurrah! Hurrah!" cried the people in the town; for in every house the New Year was being welcomed; and, as the clock struck, they stood up, the full glasses in their hands, to drink success to the newcomer. "A happy New Year," was the cry; "a pretty wife, plenty of money, and no sorrow or care!"
The wish passed round, and the glasses clashed together till they rang again; while before the town-gate the mail-coach stopped with the twelve strange passengers. And who were these strangers? Each of them had his passport and his luggage with him; they even brought presents for me, and for you, and for all the people in the town. Who were they? What did they want? And what did they bring with them?
"Good-morning!" they cried to the sentry at the town-gate.
"Good-morning," replied the sentry, for the clock had struck twelve.
"Your name and profession?" asked the sentry of the one who alighted first from the carriage.
"See for yourself in the passport," he replied. "I am myself!"—and a famous fellow he looked, arrayed in bearskin and fur boots. "Come to me to-morrow, and I will give you a New Year's present. I throw shillings and pence among the people. I give balls every night, no less than thirty-one; indeed, that is the highest number I can spare for balls. My ships are often frozen in, but in my offices it is warm and comfortable. My name is January. I am a merchant, and I generally bring my accounts with me."
Then the second alighted. He seemed a merry fellow. He was a director of a theater, a manager of masked balls, and a leader of all the amusements we can imagine. His luggage consisted of a great cask.
"We'll dance the bung out of the cask at carnival-time," said he. "I'll prepare a merry tune for you and for myself, too. Unfortunately I have not long to live,—the shortest time, in fact, of my whole family,—only twenty-eight days. Sometimes they pop me in a day extra; but I trouble myself very little about that. Hurrah!"
"You must not shout so," said the sentry.
"Certainly I may shout," retorted the man. "I'm Prince Carnival, traveling under the name of February."
The third now got out. He looked the personification of fasting; but he carried his nose very high, for he was a weather prophet. In his button-hole he wore a little bunch of violets, but they were very small.
"March, March!" the fourth passenger called after him, slapping him on the shoulder, "don't you smell something good? Make haste into the guard-room, they are feasting in there. I can smell it already! Forward, Master March!'
But it was not true. The speaker only wanted to make an April Fool of him, for with that fun the fourth stranger generally began his career. He looked very jovial, and did little work.
"If the world were only more settled!" said he; "but sometimes I'm obliged to be in a good humor, and sometimes a bad one. I can laugh or cry according to circumstances. I have my summer wardrobe in this box here, but it would be very foolish to put it on now!"
After him a lady stepped out of the coach. She called herself Miss May. She wore a summer dress and overshoes. Her dress was light green, and there were anemones in her hair. She was so scented with wild thyme that it made the sentry sneeze.
"Your health, and God bless you!" was her greeting.
How pretty she was! and such a singer! Not a theater singer nor a ballad-singer; no, but a singer of the woods. For she wandered through the gay, green forest, and had a concert there for her own amusement.
Now comes the young lady," said those in the coach; and out stepped a young dame, delicate, proud, and pretty. It was Mistress June. In her service people become lazy and fond of sleeping for hours. She gives a feast on the longest day of the year, that there may be time for her guests to partake of the numerous dishes at her table. Indeed, she keeps her own carriage, but still she travels by the mail-coach with the rest because she wishes to show that she is not proud.
But she was not without a protector; her younger brother, July, was with her. He was a plump, young fellow, clad in summer garments, and wearing a straw hat. He had very little luggage because it was so cumbersome in the great heat. He had, however, swimming-trousers with him, which are nothing to carry.
Then came the mother herself, Madame August, a wholesale dealer in fruit, proprietress of a large number of fish-ponds, and a land-cultivator. She was fat and warm, yet she could use her hands well, and would herself carry out food to the laborers in the field. After work, came the recreations, dancing and playing in the greenwood, and the "harvest home." She was a thorough housewife.
After her a man stepped out of the coach. He is a painter, a master of colors, and is named September. The forest on his arrival has to change its colors, and how beautiful are those he chooses! The woods glow with red, and gold, and brown. This great master painter can whistle like a blackbird. There he stood with his color-pot in his hand, and that was the whole of his luggage.
A landowner followed, who in the month for sowing seed attends to his ploughing and is fond of field sports. Squire October brought his dog and his gun with him, and had nuts in his game-bag. "Crack! Crack!" He had a great deal of luggage, even a plough. He spoke of farming, but what he said could scarcely be heard for the coughing and sneezing of his neighbor.
It was November, who coughed violently as he got out. He had a cold, but he said he thought it would leave him when he went out woodcutting, for he had to supply wood to the whole parish. He spent his evenings making skates, for he knew, he said, that in a few weeks they would be needed.
At length the last passenger made her appearance,—Old Mother December! The dame was very aged, but her eyes glistened like two stars. She carried on her arm a flower-pot, in which a little fir tree was growing. "This tree I shall guard and cherish," she said, "that it may grow large by Christmas Eve, and reach from the floor to the ceiling, to be adorned with lighted candles, golden apples, and toys. I shall sit by the fireplace, and bring a story-book out of my pocket, and read aloud to all the little children. Then the toys on the tree will become alive, and the little waxen Angel at the top will spread out his wings of gold leaf, and fly down from his green perch. He will kiss every child in the room, yes, and all the little children who stand out in the street singing a carol about the 'Star of Bethlehem.' "
"Well, now the coach may drive away," said the sentry; "we will keep all the twelve months here with us."
"First let the twelve come to me," said the Captain on duty, "one after another. The passports I will keep here, each of them for one month. When that has passed, I shall write the behavior of each stranger on his passport. Mr. January, have the goodness to come here."
And Mr. January stepped forward.
When a year has passed, I think I shall be able to tell you what the twelve passengers have brought to you, to me, and to all of us. Just now I do not know, and probably even they do not know themselves, for we live in strange times.