HE next morning was bright and clear, and the sunshine sparkled over the freshly fallen snow and touched all the icicles with rainbow light.
Karen and her Grandmother were astir early. The little girl fetched down some wood from the small attic, over the living-room, where they kept their precious supply for the winter; and then she set the table as Grandmother prepared the porridge for their breakfast.
After breakfast Grandmother took her lace-pillow and began arranging her pins and bobbins for another piece of work; and when Karen had dusted the simple furniture and swept the snow from the doorstep, she put on her knitted hood and shawl, and pinning together the napkin in which Grandmother had placed the piece of lace, she set out for the home of Madame Koerner.
Down the narrow street she passed, and then across an old stone bridge that spanned one of the lazy canals that wandered through the city. The ice had spread a thin sheet over this, and the beautiful white swans that swam about on it in the summer-time had gone into the shelter of their little wooden house, which stood on the bank under a snowy willow tree. One of the great shining birds, looking herself like a drift of snow, stood at the door of the little shelter house preening her feathers in the sunlight, and Karen waved her hand to her with a smiling "Good-morning, Madame Swan!" for she loved the beautiful creatures, numbers of which are still seen on all the water-ways of Bruges, and she always spoke to them, and sometimes brought them crumbs from her bits of coarse bread at home.
Beyond the bridge she sped on past rows of tall brown houses with here and there a little shop crowded in between, and presently her way led across the Grande Place, a large, irregular square in the center of the city. Here there were many shops, and people passing to and fro; and among them went numbers of great shaggy dogs harnessed to little carts filled with vegetables or tall copper milk cans, and these they tugged across the cobblestones to the ancient Market Halles from which towered the wonderful belfry of which every one in Bruges was so proud.
Karen paused to listen while the silvery chimes rang out, as they had rung every quarter hour for more than three hundred years.
Then she passed on into a long, quiet street where the houses stood farther apart and had rows of trees in front of them. Some of them had high walls adjoining them, and behind these were pretty gardens, though now, of course, all were covered with the wintry snow.
Presently Karen stopped at a wooden gate leading into one of these gardens, and pushing it open made her way along a winding path to the door of a tall house with many gables and adorned with rare old carvings. This was the home of Madame Koerner; the house really faced on the street, but the little girl did not like to go to the more stately entrance, and so chose the smaller one that opened into the garden. She knocked timidly, for she was a little in awe of Madame Koerner, who seemed to her a very grand lady. But the maid who opened the door knew Karen and led her in and took her at once to the upstairs room where Madame Koerner sat with a fine piece of needlework in her lap.
Madame Koerner smiled kindly at the little girl, who had several times before brought Grandmother's lace to her. "Good-morning, Karen," she said, "I am so glad to have the lace, for now I can finish this cap, which I want for a Christmas gift." And then as she unfolded the napkin and looked at the lace, "O," she cried, "how lovely it is! No one in all Bruges does more beautiful work than thy Grandmother, little one! And some day, I dare say, thou, too, wilt do just as well, for I know thou art learning fast." And she smiled again, and patted Karen's hands as the little girl held out the lace for her to see.
Karen colored with pleasure to hear Grandmother's work praised, as indeed it deserved; for the delicate scrolls and flowers and leaves of it looked as if made of frost and caught in a net of pearly cobwebs.
Madame Koerner was so pleased with it that when the little girl laid it down, she looked in her purse and gave her a generous gold piece for Grandmother, and then she added a smaller piece of silver for Karen herself; "That is for thee, little one," she said. "And I hope thou wilt have a very happy Christmas."
Karen thanked her shyly, and as with shining eyes she turned to go, Madame Koerner said, "Go out through the kitchen, child, and tell Marie, the cook, to fill thy napkin with some of the little cakes she is baking."
So when once more Karen tripped out into the street, her heart was very light and her mind full of happy thoughts as she tightly clasped in one hand the gold piece for Grandmother, and in the other the franc of silver which Madame Koerner had given for her own, and the napkin filled with the Christmas cakes. These were the kind that all Flemish children delight in, and were made of fine gingerbread and filled with candied orange peel and red cherries.
As Karen came near the Grande Place and saw the Market Halles, her eyes fairly danced, for she knew the Christmas market was going on there, and all the way from Madame Koerner's she had kept saying to herself: "Now I can buy a present for the Christ-child and one for Grandmother!"
Outside the Halles the cobblestones had been swept clean of snow, and a few hardy dealers had placed their wares for sale out of doors. But these were chiefly sellers of leather harnesses for the patient Flemish dogs, of wooden shoes and coarse baskets; and some had piled in front of them small bundles of fire-wood and fagots. But none of these wares interested Karen, and so she stepped inside the Halles where one might find all manner of things for sale. Here were stalls piled with different colored cloths, with kerchiefs and laces; in others were displayed great earthen pots and pans and other gear for the kitchen. And there were sellers of Christmas trinkets, and wax candles, and what not; of the milk in the tall copper cans the dogs had drawn thither in their little carts; of winter vegetables, and food and sweetmeats of various kinds.
"See!" called a white-capped woman, who sat behind a stall heaped with little cakes, "here are caraway cookies fit for the king's children, and only four sous the dozen!"
But Karen felt very rich with the Christmas cakes in her napkin, and so was not to be tempted. As she stepped slowly along, looking first at one side and then the other, presently she came to a stall where colored beads and trinkets of many kinds were arranged on a long strip of scarlet cloth. As she saw these, she could not help but stop and look longingly at a little necklace of blue beads, the very kind she had wanted for so long a time!
At this stall sat another white-capped woman dealer, who, seeing the wistful look in Karen's face, said: "Well, my child, if thou canst give me ten sous, thou canst take home with thee this pretty trinket. 'Tis a fair match for thine eyes, little maid!"
Karen's blue eyes began to brim with tears, for she knew ten sous were only half a franc, and she did want the beads so very, very much! But after one more longing look she resolutely passed on, still tightly holding her silver franc; for, much as she wanted the necklace, she was determined that the Christ-child and Grandmother should have their gifts, and she was afraid even her wonderful franc might not be enough for all.
So she went on, still looking carefully at each stall she passed, and all the while growing more and more perplexed trying to decide which were the very prettiest things she could buy. She had gone more than half the length of the market, and was becoming bewildered and a little frightened as she hugged her shawl about her and made her way as best she could among the different groups of buyers and sellers. And then, by and by, her face lighted up with pleasure as she stopped in front of a pottery dealer's stall. This was presided over by a kindly faced man in a workman's blouse. On a smooth board in front of him were all kinds of the coarser wares of Flanders, and also some pieces made by the peasant folk of Normandy and Brittany, countries not far away; and among these smaller pieces Karen had spied a little porringer. It was just an humble little earthen dish such as the peasants of Brittany make for their children to use for their bread and milk; but it was gayly painted, and Karen thought it the most beautiful porringer she had ever seen. Its flat handles were colored a bright yet soft blue, and around the inner edge of its bowl were bands of blue and red, and right in the bottom was painted a little peasant girl; she wore a blue dress and a white and orange colored apron, and on her head was a pointed white cap. She carried in one hand a red rose, and on either side of her was a stiff little rose-tree with red blossoms. It was all crudely done, yet had a quaint charm of its own, a charm lacked by many a more finely finished piece; and it stood there leaning against a tall brown jar behind it, the little girl in the porringer seemed to smile back at Karen as she paused, rapt in admiration.
For Karen was quite sure that at last she had found the very thing for the blessed Christ-child. Indeed, she felt it was the one thing of all the things she had seen, that she most wanted to buy for him. And then, too, just beyond the porringer, a little farther down on the board, she saw a small, green jug that she was sure Grandmother would like. She wondered if they cost very much, and hardly dared to ask the pottery dealer. But presently she summoned up her courage, and, pointing to the little porringer and the jug, she said in a timid voice, "Please, sir, tell me, can I buy these for my franc?" And she held out to him her little palm, where lay the silver franc all warm and moist from the tight clasp of her rosy fingers.
The dealer looked at her anxious face and smiled at her as he said: "Dost thou want them so very much, little one? Truly thou canst have them for thy franc. My price would be some fifteen sous more, but for the sake of thy sweet face and the blessed Christmas time thou shalt have them." And he put them into Karen's arms as she smiled her delight.
The little girl was so happy that she fairly skimmed over the snowy cobblestones. When she came to the old bridge spanning the icy canal, the white swan was still standing on the bank blinking in the sunlight, and Karen called out merrily, "Dear Madame Swan, I have bought the most wonderful things!" And then she laughed a little silvery laugh, for her heart was so light it was fairly bubbling over with happiness.
When she reached the little yellow house she bounded up the step, and, standing on the sill close to the door, she called "Grandmother! Grandmother! Please let me in! I cannot open the door!"
Grandmother, hearing her, hurried to unlatch it, and Karen burst in with "Oh, Grandmother, see these beautiful Christmas cakes that Marie gave me! And here is a gold piece for your lace!"
And then having freed one hand, she pulled her shawl tightly together over the other things, and smiling delightedly, cried "And Madame Koerner gave me a silver franc for my very own, and I spent it in the Market Halles!"
"Thou hast already spent it?" asked Grandmother reprovingly. "Karen! Karen! wilt thou never learn to save thy pennies? What hast thou bought?"
"Oh," answered Karen, as her face fell, "I wanted one of them to be a secret till to-morrow! They are Christmas presents! But I wanted to show the other"—here she broke off confusedly; she had meant to say she wanted to show the porringer to Grandmother, but now she had not the heart. "But, Grandmother," she went on earnestly, "it was my own franc, and I love to buy gifts! And you know I couldn't last year because I had no pennies."
"Well, well, child," said Grandmother softening, "thou hast a generous heart, only thou shouldst not have spent all thy franc; thou hadst done better to put some by for another time."
Karen said nothing, though the tears of disappointment sprang to her eyes. She had wanted so much to show the porringer and share her joy in it with Grandmother. But now she felt that it would not be approved of since Grandmother thought her so foolish to spend all her franc, and especially since she had said that no one gave Christmas presents to the Christ-child. But though that had seemed to settle the matter for Grandmother, it only made Karen the more anxious to do so. She said to herself that if no one gave the Christ-child presents, it was all the more reason why she should—surely somebody ought to! And so she was not in the least sorry that she had not saved any of her franc. And she tried to think, too, that perhaps Grandmother would like a Christmas present herself, for all she said the money should not have been spent; perhaps when Grandmother saw the little green jug, she would think it so pretty that she would be glad that Karen had bought it. But she was not to see it till Christmas morning, for Karen meant to put it in her shoe just as the Christ-child did for children.
So presently her face brightening up, while Grandmother went on with her work, she ran into the other room and pulling open a deep drawer from a clothes-press that stood against the wall, she thrust the precious gifts under the folded clothes to stay hidden until she wanted them.
After dinner Grandmother began to prick the pattern for the new piece of lace she was beginning, and Karen knitted a while until it was time for the vesper service in the old cathedral of Saint Sauveur, whose tall tower rose above the steep housetops not far away.
When the bells began chiming, Grandmother and the little girl, laying aside their work, made themselves ready; and each carrying a white wax candle, which Grandmother had taken pains to provide some time before, they trudged off down the street.
When they reached the cathedral and entered through the great carved portal, the late afternoon light was falling in softly colored bars through the multitude of richly stained windows. As Karen gazed around at the many shrines where hundreds of wax tapers brought by other worshippers were already dotting the brightly colored air with their tiny golden flames, they looked so beautiful that for a moment she wondered if perhaps after all the Christ-child might not like the wax candles best. But the more she thought, she decided that he would surely be pleased to have something for really his own; for, of course, the candles were partly for God and the Blessed Virgin; and so she was glad she had the porringer that should be entirely his.
After the vesper service was over, and they were back again in the little house, the rest of the day passed very quickly for Karen. After supper Grandmother dozed a while in her chair beside the hearth; and then Karen ran into their sleeping-room and hurriedly took out the porringer and the green jug from their hiding-place in the clothes-press. Grandmother had put on some old slippers in place of the heavy wooden shoes she had worn all day, and these sabots were standing on the floor near her bed.
The room was dark, but Karen felt around till she found the sabots; and then she gave a little suppressed laugh of pleasure as she thrust the little green jug as far as it would go in one of them. She knew Grandmother would not find it till morning, for they never thought of having a light by which to go to bed; a candle for the living-room was all they could afford.
After placing the green jug in Grandmother's shoe, Karen stood for a moment thinking where she would put the porringer. She wanted the Christ-child to find it without any trouble; for he must be in a great hurry with so many children's houses to visit and sabots to fill. She thought first that when she took off hers for the night and stood them on the hearth to wait for him, she would set the porringer beside them. But then she remembered that at midnight, when he would come, the room would be quite dark; for Grandmother would put out the candle, and cover up the fire with ashes. And while, of course, the Christ-child expected sabots to be ready for him on the hearth and so could fill them in the dark, just as she had put the jug in Grandmother's, still, he might miss the porringer as that he would not be expecting, and so would not look for it.
Then, all at once, Karen remembered that out of doors it was moonlight; for, when she had fastened the wooden shutters at the front windows, the moon was rising round and silvery above the peaked roofs across the way. As she thought of this her perplexity vanished, and again a smile came to her lips as she said to herself: "I will set it outside on the doorstep, and the Christ-child will be sure to see it when he comes, and, of course, he will know it was meant for him, for he knows all about Christmas presents!"
Karen was greatly pleased with this plan; and so giving one more look at the little girl in the porringer, she took up two of the Christmas cakes from the dish on the table, and, squeezing them into its bowl, she went to the door and softly unbarred it; then, setting the porringer on the doorstep where the moonlight touched it, she again shut and fastened the door.
Grandmother roused from her doze before long, and sent Karen to bed, while she herself stayed up to knit to the end of her skein.
But long after the little girl lay in her cupboard bed her blue eyes were wide open with excitement. On the hearth in the living-room stood her little wooden shoes waiting for the visit of the Christ-child, and she longed with all her might to see him! And she longed, too, to know if he would be pleased with the porringer. But Grandmother had always told her that he did not like to be watched, and would not come till children were asleep.
By and by, after what seemed to Karen a very long time, her eyes began to blink, and she fell asleep and slept so soundly that she did not know when Grandmother put out the candle and covered up the fire and came to bed. Nor did she waken later on when peals of bells from the tall belfry and the cathedral and all the many churches of Bruges rang in the Christmas, and the sweet echoes of chanting voices and the songs of innumerable choristers floated over the city as the holy midnight mass was celebrated.
The rain of music thrilled and quivered through the frosty air, and then slowly it died away; and the Christmas stars shone and twinkled, and the great silver moon flooded the quiet night with a white radiance.