Christmas Eve Again
S Grandmother and Karen still sat in the firelight, dreaming their dreams and thinking of many things, not far away, along The Little Street Of The Holy Ghost, a man was walking rapidly. Of course there was nothing odd about that, but it was curious that this man was the very same one who had hurried down that very street exactly a year before—and yet any one who had seen him then would never have believed that it could possibly be the same.
For instead of Hans the Robber, unkempt and ragged, walking stealthily and keeping a constant sharp lookout lest he be surprised in some of his evil doing, this man Hans was decently clad and bore himself fearlessly. He carried something in his hands, and he seemed to be looking for some place.
Presently he came to the corner where stood the little yellow house, and there he paused for a moment and a look of disappointment came into his face; for there seemed to be no light in the house and it looked as if no one were home. But as Hans came opposite to one of the little windows, he glanced in and could see Grandmother and Karen sitting hand in hand by the hearth. Then he looked carefully about him and noticed across the street a narrow passageway that lay in the shadow between two rambling old houses, and he gave a little smile of satisfaction.
The next thing he did was to place the objects he had been carrying in his hands in a row on the doorstep, close in front of the door, so that any one opening it could not help but see them—that is, if the room within had been light, for otherwise the deep, old-fashioned doorway was quite in shadow. There was no street lamp near, and, though the snow had ceased, the night was moonless and the stars partly hidden by clouds. A few lights shone faintly from some of the houses opposite, but these did not help any, as they did not touch the doorstep; and as Hans realized that the things he had placed there could thus scarcely be seen, he looked troubled for a moment, but suddenly he broke into a low laugh as he said to himself: "Lucky I thought to put in candles!"
And then, fumbling in his pockets, at last he found a bit of paper which had been wrapped around his tobacco; for his pipe was the one indulgence that Hans allowed himself, and this he seldom left behind if he could help it. Having found the bit of paper, he hastily twisted it into a tiny taper, and then he looked up and down the street to be sure it was quite deserted, for he wanted to have things to himself for a few minutes.
There was no one in sight, and he could hear no footfalls; so quickly thrusting the taper into the bowl of his pipe, he held his hand around it and blew softly on the glowing coals till in a moment the taper caught fire. Then, instantly, he stooped and laid it to the tips of two tall, shimmering white objects in the row he had set on the step, and which proved to be candles held in a pair of brass candlesticks. Hans had little trouble in lighting them, for the air was perfectly still and the space in front of the door deep enough to shelter the candles well. When the tiny golden flames sprang up, they showed that between them on the step was what seemed to be a little bowl with blue handles, only instead of being full of sweetmeats, as one might perhaps expect on Christmas eve, it was filled with something that glistened with a silvery light.
But Hans did not stop to look at these things, for the moment the candles began to burn he gave a knock on the door, and then, quick as a flash, he darted across the narrow street, and drew back in the dark shadow of the passageway he had noticed. For, while he did not wish to be seen, he wanted to watch and be sure that the things he had brought were safely received and not stolen by some night prowler such as he himself had been a year before.
Hans had scarcely hidden himself when he heard Karen tugging to unbar the door; and, in another moment, as she pulled it open, he saw her stand perfectly still in the golden candlelight, clasping her hands in utter amazement, while the startled wonder grew in her blue eyes as she stared down at the things at her feet.
Then presently, "Grandmother! Grandmother!" she cried excitedly in a high, sweet voice, "come quickly and see what the Christ-child has brought!"
Hans could see Grandmother hurry to Karen as the little girl knelt on the floor and lifting up the lighted candles exclaimed, "Look, Grandmother! Here are Christmas candles in our very own brass candlesticks!"
And then as Grandmother, speechless with amazement, took the candles from her and Karen lifted up the dish that had stood between them, "Why—why, it is full of silver money!" she cried in bewilderment; and then, as she looked at the blue handles and the stripe of color around its edge, she exclaimed, "And oh, Grandmother, I do believe this is the very porringer I gave the Christ-child last Christmas!"
She rose to her feet and carried the porringer over to the table where Grandmother had already set the candles, and Hans heard no more.
Indeed, at that moment Hans was standing up very straight with a startled look growing on his own face, and with Karen's words still ringing in his ears.
"What?" he repeated to himself. "The very porringer she gave the Christ-child?" and he began to think very hard.
In a moment it all straightened itself out in his mind. Hans drew a deep breath, and then he said to himself slowly: "So that was why it was outside on the doorstep! And it was no gift some one had brought her—but a present from her to the Christ-child!—And—and—I took it!" And Hans gasped and turned pale; for even in his worst robber days he would as soon have thought of stealing something from the cathedral as the Christ-child's porringer, had he known what it was.
"And to think," he went on to himself, with a horrified look in his face, "that I tried to break it, and to sell it at the thieves' market, and then kept it all this while—and what if I had not brought it back!" Here Hans fairly shivered with fear; for he felt that he had been guilty of a particularly dreadful sin when he took that little porringer, and he began to wonder what punishment he would receive for it.
But all at once he heard Karen's happy laughter ring out from the little house, for in their excitement the door still stood partly open. And then a ray of light from a lamp in one of the brown houses beside him shone out through a window, and, crossing the narrow street, touched the front of the little yellow house, and wavered, and presently flitted for a moment into the little shrine up in the corner; and, as Hans looked, it beamed over the face of the Christ-child, who seemed to be gazing down right into the eyes of Hans and smiling happily. And at that moment, Hans could not have told why, but all his fear vanished and he began to smile happily himself.
As he came from his hiding-place and started off briskly down the street, and up in the beautiful belfry the chimes played sweetly through the frosty air, he found himself whistling softly a little tune keeping time with the bells; and he knew his heart had not been so light since he was a little boy in Quiberon.