"B ERTIE," whispered seven-year-old Lily mysteriously, "I know where to find Santa Claus. Barbara told me."
"Where?" cried Bertie, dropping the block he was about adding to his house.
"Out on the hill," Lily went on eagerly. "Barbara says that Christmas eve the Christ Child comes down on the hill, with oh! lots and lots of presents, and picks them over and gives them to Santa Claus to take to the children."
"What hill?" asked Bertie, jumping up from the floor. "The one the moon comes over, Barbara says," answered Lily. "And I guess it's that one,"—pointing to the peak of a mountain miles and miles away. "Christmas eve's this very night," she went on earnestly. "Let's you and I go up there and see him and pick out our presents."
"Well," said Bertie, always ready to do what Lily suggested.
"We mustn't let Barbara see us, or she won't let us go," said Lily. "But I guess she'll be glad when we come back with lots of things."
"I'll bring her a horse," said Bertie,
"And I'll bring her a
"I wonder which way it is!" said Lily, when they had reached the walk. "Oh! I guess that way, 'cause there's the hill," and she turned the way that led from the village toward the woods.
The sun was just down, and away the eager children tramped, too much excited to feel cold, though they had nothing over them, and too much afraid of being overtaken by the nurse to linger. When they reached the woods it looked rather dark, and Bertie was afraid to go in. But Lily said they'd soon be there, she guessed; and the Christ Child would take care of them, 'cause he loved little children.
So hand in hand they entered the dreary wood. It looked much darker inside, and, in fact, the short winter day was about over and night was falling fast. Anxiously the two little wanderers hurried along, not saying much, now running when the ground was smooth, and stumbling along over roots and sticks when it was rough.
"I'm cold, 'n I want my Mamma," burst out Bertie at last.
"So am I cold," said Lily, "and I guess we must be most there; and then think how nice it'll be!"
"Will it be warm?" asked the anxious little voice.
"Oh! of course, and light," said Lily cheerfully, "and plenty of nice things to eat."
"I want something now," wailed Bertie, the tears rolling down his face.
"Well, don't cry," said Lily, in a soothing, motherly way. "We'll soon be there now." And on they trudged, through swamps half up to their knees, falling over logs, scratching their faces on bushes, hungry, cold, wet, and at last frightened when the snow began to come down thick and fast.
"I want to go home," sobbed Bertie.
"Well," said Lily, "we'll go," and they turned around and began to retrace their steps. But alas! they had not come straight, and they only went farther and farther from home.
The prospect of going home quieted Bertie for a while; but when some time had gone by, and it was almost totally dark, and they could see nothing, and ran against trees and hurt themselves, even Lily's courage began to fail, and the tears ran down her face, though she tried to choke them back. But still they stumbled on.
"Don't cry, Bertie," the brave little creature said after a while. "If we die out here in the woods, maybe the robin redbreasts'll come and cover us up with leaves, as they did the children in the woods in my book."
"I don't want to be covered up with leaves," sobbed Bertie, who couldn't see any consolation in that.
Just at that moment they came out from behind a rock, and they saw a light. Lily was ablaze in a minute.
"There it is! There they are!" she cried. "Look, Bertie! That must be the place!" And they hurried on, losing the light now and then, as a tree came in the way, and finding it again in a minute. When they drew near the light they saw that it came from a window, and when they got close to it there was a small house with a door beside the window. Lily knocked. In a moment it was opened by a negro,—old and bent and white-haired,—who gazed at the two weary children as though they were ghosts.
"Please, sir, are you Santa Claus?" asked Lily, with trembling lips and tears on her cheeks.
"Santa Claus!" said the bewildered negro. "Bless yo' heart, who's that? But come in out o' the storm. Yo' must be nigh froze to death. Who's come with yo'?" and he peered out into the darkness.
"No one," said Lily timidly, half afraid of his looks, yet reassured by his good-natured voice. "We came alone, to see Santa Claus. But I'm afraid we missed the way."
"Come alone, this yere cold night, from the village?" he ejaculated in amazement. "Did yo' Ma know?"
"No," said Lily, casting down her eyes. "We didn't tell her."
"Well, come in by the fire," said he, drawing them in and closing the door. "What yo' s'pose yer Ma'll say when she finds yo' done runned away?"
Bertie burst into loud crying, and Lily sobbed: "Oh! please won't you show us the way back? I didn't think of that."
"Well, well, don't cry," said he. "Yo' must get warm and have a bite to eat, and then I'll see about getting on yo' home. I ain't so young as I was once, and it's no fool of a tramp through these yere woods after night, I kin tell ye."
It was a droll little place that the children had come into. The whole house consisted of one room, roughly built, evidently by old Philip himself. On one side was a rude lounge-frame, holding some sort of a coarse bed and a blanket or two; on the other a table, made by turning a packing-box on one end. The third side was given up to the rickety old stove, the pipe of which went out through a hole in the side of the shanty, and a rough shelf behind it, on which were a plate or two, as many cups, a package or two of corn-meal, tobacco, and other necessaries, with a lighted tallow candle, stuck into a hollowed-out potato. There were no chairs, but a soap-box by the stove looked as though it was used for that purpose. A saw and sawbuck in the corner by the door and an old coat and hat hanging up completed the furniture of the dwelling.
But, if the house was odd, it was warm, and the two half-frozen children eagerly crowded up to the stove.
"Pore chillen!" said their tender-hearted host. "It's a miracle yo' didn't freeze to death out in them woods."
"We did most," said Lily, with quivering lip. "And oh, dear! how can we get home again?"
"Don't you fret yo'r heart, my little lady," said old Philip kindly. "I see about that 'ar. 'Pears to me yo'd 'mazin'ly like a hot 'tater, now, wouldn't yo', my little man?"
"Yes," said Bertie, who was more than half afraid of him.
Philip opened the door of his stove, raked away the ashes, and there were two nice potatoes, baked to a lovely brown. He took them out, carefully brushed off the ashes, laid them on the table, brought out a cracked teacup with salt in it, and an old knife, and told the children to come up and eat.
"If I'd a know'd I was gwine to have company to tea," he said, laughing, "I'd a got up a supper in style. But eat the 'taters and I'll bake yo' a oncommon nice hoecake. Yo' like hoecake?"
"I don't know," said Lily, who stood irresolute before the table, not knowing just how to begin such a meal. "How do you eat these? They're hot."
"Sure 'nuff," said Philip. "I done forgot yo' wasn't used to my sort o' eatin'. I jest cut off the end, drop a pinch o' salt in, and dig out the inside."
"Oh!" said Lily, hastening to follow his directions for herself. As for Bertie, he had already half eaten his potato without salt.
Philip now brought out a bowl and mixed up some corn-meal in it; then brushing off the hot griddle of his stove, he poured the mixture on. In a few minutes he turned it over with a knife, and in a short time he handed it in the same way onto a plate and put it on the table. It was brown and smelt good, and the hungry children eagerly devoured it, while Philip made another.
When they had eaten as much as they could, and drank some water out of teacups, Philip gave Lily a seat on the soap-box, while he turned a big stick of wood up on end and sat down on that himself. He then took Bertie, who had got over his fright, onto his lap and proceeded to take off the soaked shoes and stockings and warm the little cold red feet. Lily meantime did the same for hers, which ached with the cold.
"Now tell me how yo' comed to run away," said Philip, when they were more comfortable.
"We came out to find the Christ Child," said Lily. "Barbara says he comes on Christmas eve down on a hill and gives the presents to Santa Claus; and we wanted to pick ours out."
"Yes, I want a horse 't I can ride," said Bertie, who had recovered his spirits, now that he was warm and fed.
"Pore little things!" said Philip compassionately. "Yo' mus' have had a dreffle tramp! I'll see how the weather is."
So he sat Bertie on the lounge-bed and went to the door. A fierce blast came in as he opened it, with a putting out the light. He shut it quickly, and stood a few moments with a look of perplexity on his face.
"I'll tell you what," he said at length, in answer to Lily's anxious look, "it's teetotally umpossible to go through the woods to-night. I wouldn't 'tempt it in this yere storm myself, let alone toting two chillen. I'll fix yo' up as comf'able as I can hyere to-night, an' soon as it's light I'll go to the village an' tell y'r folks, an' they'll come with a sleigh. There's a wood-road round a little piece down here."
Bertie's lip went up for a cry; but Lily took him in her arms in a motherly way, and said: "Never mind, Bertie, dear; it'll soon be morning, and we'll go home in a sleigh, maybe. And then it'll be Christmas, you know."
They talked a little more, and then Philip fixed a place for them to sleep. He shook up the bed till it was high and round, laid one blanket over it, put the now half-asleep children in it, and covered them up as snug as he could with the other blanket.
Having fixed them as nicely as he could, shaded his light so it would not shine in their eyes, and replenished his stove, old Philip sat down on his soap-box, and fell to talking to himself, as he often did out there in the woods, for want of other company.
"Pore creeturs!" he said, looking at the sleeping children. "What a marcy that they got sight o' my light. They'd be done dead by this time. An' to think the little innocents come out this-a-way to find Santa Claus. Pore things! Little 'nuff Christmas they'll have, I 'se a thinkin'. I wonder what they 'r a-doing down to their house. Tearin' round fit to kill, I reckon. They 'r somebody's darlin's I see plain 'nuff. Won't they be powerful glad to see this nigga in the mornin'? Yah! yah!" he laughed softly to himself. "I reckon they never so glad to see this chile afore. Pore things!" he went on after a little, "come out yere to see Santa Claus an' get some presents. Golly!" he exclaimed, as a new thought struck him. "I wonder if I couldn't hunt up somethin' 'r other to make a Christmas mornin' bright. They'll be powerful forlorn when they wakes up."
He was silent some time, scratched his head, whistled a little; and after a while he got up softly and hung their stockings up to dry. "I know what Ize gwine to do," he said. "I'll give 'em some nuts and pop-corn, anyway."
He drew a box from under the foot of the bed, opened it, and took out some beechnuts—delicious little three-cornered things that he had gathered in the woods. From the same box he took two or three ears of small popping-corn. As he attempted to push it back it hit something, and he put in his hand and drew out a stick.
"Golly!" said he again, "if there ain't the very stick fur a hoss fur that boy, that he wants so bad. I didn't 'spect, when I done shoved it in under there fur a walking-stick, what I'd want it fur."
It was a piece of a branch of a tree, and on one end it was bent over so as to make a natural sort of a handle. It would do very well for a horse's head, too. So Philip got out his old jack-knife, cut a sort of a mouth for the horse, dug holes in the bark to represent the eyes, made a sort of a bridle of string, whittled the end off smooth, and there was as fine a riding-horse as any boy of five could ask for.
"There," said Philip, "that'll do fur the boy; now what kin I find fur the gal?" A long time he puzzled over this, till he remembered some birds' eggs that had been in his shanty for months. He took down the old coat that hung on the wall, and there they were, very dusty now, but not broken. Carefully he took them down and washed them clean, breaking one or two, but on the whole succeeding very well. Then he strung them on a clean string, and they looked very pretty indeed.
"Little curly head'll like that 'ar, I know," said he, with a grin of pleasure on his black face; "an I'll learn her the name of every kind."
Next the droll old Santa Claus proceeded to prepare his pop-corn. He took out from some dark corner a sort of iron saucepan, and put it on the stove while he shelled the corn. When it was hot he dropped in the corn, covered it up, and began to shake it about, first slowly, and then faster and faster as the corn popped off in little explosions inside, every few seconds looking at the sleepers to see that they didn't wake up. They were far too tired to wake, and when he had poured the beautiful white shower out on the table they had not stirred once.
Then he went on to hang a stocking of each child on the wall near the bed; and then, tiptoeing around as though he were stepping on eggs, he went back and forth filling them. First down in the toe came beechnuts, filling all the foot; then popped corn stuffed the leg into a funny bunchy shape. Then over Lily's he hung the string of birds' eggs, and over Bertie's the comical horse.
All this work, varied by replenishing the fire, kept old Philip busy till nearly morning, and then he began to prepare breakfast. His potatoes were baked and his hoecakes mixed in the highest style of the art when Lily opened her eyes.
At first sight of Philip a look of fright came into her face, and then she remembered. "Oh!" said she, "I thought it was all a dream, and I was in my bed at home."
"But you isn't, honey. Yo's my guest this blessed Christmas mornin'. Wish yo' Merry Christmas. How do yo' feel?"
"I feel well enough," said Lily, sitting up. "Is this Christmas, really?"
"Yes," said old Philip. "See your stocking hanging up thar?"
Lily looked around quickly. "Oh! what a lovely string of eggs. Oh! where did you get it? Is it for me?" burst out of her eager lips.
"Course it's for yo'," said Philip, showing all his teeth. "Santa Claus mus' a know'd whar yo' was, an' done come down the chimbly an' leff it hyer fur yo'."
"Oh! Bertie, wake up!" cried Lily, shaking the sleepy boy. "It's Merry Christmas, and Santa Claus has been here."
Bertie was wide awake in a minute. "There's my horse," he shouted, as soon as he saw it. "Let me have a ride." And he snatched it down, got astride, and rode around the small room, perfectly happy.
"Let's see what else is in the stockings," said Lily, taking them down.
"Oh! pop-corn! Isn't it nice?" and they began to eat it at once.
"And what are these?" she asked, as she emptied the corn into her lap, and the nuts came down in a little brown shower.
"Le's see," said Philip, looking at them curiously, as though he had never seen them. "Why, them's beechnuts! Didn't you never see beechnuts afore? There's heaps in the woods."
"No, I never saw any," said Lily. "How do you open them?"
Philip showed her how to take out the delicate nut, and she declared it the most delicious nut in the world. "Santa Claus made them purpose for us, I guess," she said.
It was some time before Philip could get them to have their stockings and shoes on and eat their breakfast. But he hurried them by reminding them how anxious their mother would be; and as soon as he had seen them fed he got ready for his journey.
It did not look very promising outside. The snow was a foot deep, though it had stopped falling, and he resolved to start.
"Now mind yo' don't set the house afire," he said, as he put on his buckskin mittens and buttoned his one coat up tight to his chin. "Don't let the fire go out, nuther, or you'll freeze."
"I'll tend to it," said Lily.
"Good-by. I'll hurry fast as ever I kin," said Philip, and went out and shut the door, leaving them alone. But not sad. Far from it; they were as merry over their rude Christmas presents as though they had a room full of toys.
And how do you suppose the night had passed in the home of Lily and Bertie? Not so quietly as in the shanty in the woods. When their absence was discovered there was great excitement, deepening as the village was searched and no trace of them revealed, turning to horror as the storm came up and the hours went by and no children to be found, and settling into despair when the various parties who were out hunting returned with no trace. There was excitement all through the village; but in their home it was agony. The father spent the night in scouring the country, the mother in going from one fainting fit to another, till the doctor despaired of her life.
It was a welcome sound when old Philip's voice rang out at the door. "Done loss any chillen hyer?"
Mr. Deane, who had just returned, rushed out. "Yes. Do you bring any news?"
"Well, 'spects I does. Two chillen done spent the night in my cabin."
"Come in," cried the father, hastily drawing him in. "Where are they now? How did you find them? Where is your house? Bless you, I'll never forget this!" he poured out in a stream.
"One at a time, Massa," said old Philip, going up to the stove in the hall and spreading out his black hands to the pleasant warmth. "My shanty is over in the woods a piece—nigh on to two miles from here, I reckon. An' them two chillen sot out, nigh's I kin make out, about sundown, to find Santa Claus. They see my light, an' come to my do' bout eight o'clock, I reckon, nigh about froze an' starved; the boy cryin', but the little gal brave an' peart to the last."
By the time the story was finished all the household had gathered around, and the father had Philip's rough hands in both of his. "Bless you, my man, I'll pay you for this."
"No, you won't," said Philip. "I don't want no pay. But them young ones is alone in the shanty, an' they mowt set it afire, though I charged the little gal to look out."
"Is there a road? Can I get there with a sleigh?" asked Mr. Deane.
"You kin go purty nigh," said Philip.
"Well, you get warm and have some breakfast. Cook," turning to her, "give him the best you can in five minutes, while I see about the horses. You, Barbara, get cloaks and things."
Seated by the kitchen table, Philip disposed of a cup or two of hot coffee and some cold meat and bread in a few minutes, and when the sleigh came up to the door he came out.
"Have you no overcoat for this weather?" asked Mr. Deane, as he put on his own in the hall.
"No, sir," said Philip. "The wood-sawin' business isn't over 'n above good since so many burns coal. I hasn't had an obercoat fur many a year."
Mr. Deane turned to the rack from which he had taken his. "Here's one for you," he said, handing him a heavy overcoat.
Philip was overcome. Something choked him so that he couldn't speak, but he speedily got into it and followed Mr. Deane out to the sleigh. He was already in, and he bade Philip get in by him, and they started off.
Of course, it did not take very long to reach the point nearest the shanty, though the road was not broken and it was rather hard pulling for the stout pair of horses.
When the father opened the door he found Bertie prancing around on his horse and Lily perfectly happy, studying out her birds' eggs.
"Oh! Papa," she exclaimed when she saw him, "Santa Claus came here and left us such beautiful things!"
"See my horse! "shouted Bertie. "Santa Claus bringed him!"
Mr. Deane looked around the room and understood the poverty of its owner, and a happy idea occurred to him.
"Philip," he said, "in the chamber of my barn is a comfortable room, built for a man, but my man don't occupy it. I'm going to have you move down there this very day and live in it. There's furniture enough about the house to make it comfortable, and I can find work enough for you to do all the year round. We burn lots of wood and have a garden in the summer; and, in fact, I take you into my employment from this hour, at the best wages going, to last your life. You needn't say anything," as Philip struggled to speak. "I can never repay you for what you have done for me; but I'll do what I can. Now, if you'll help me carry these little ones over to the sleigh, you shall have a team to come for your things."
Well, the children were soon in their mother's arms; and Mr. Deane, with the help of the whole household, spent the morning in furnishing up old Philip's room. A very cosy place it was when all was ready: a carpet; a new little cooking-stove; a nice bed, made up with white sheets and things; a table, a chair or two, including one rocking-chair; a cupboard, containing dishes, tin, and ironware enough to set up a family; jars of sugar and tea and coffee and meal; and, in fact, everything the combined household could think of to add to the old man's comfort—not forgetting a goodly array of half-worn garments from the family storeroom.
And Philip! Well, he stood and looked at it in silence, taking it in item by item, till he reached a picture which Lily had insisted on giving, hanging it up with her own hands, and then he just turned his face to the wall and covered it up with his hands.
And they all stole away and left him alone.
When Uncle Tom ended his story it was very still in the room for a minute; nobody seemed inclined to speak. At last Kristy cleared her throat and said:
"I knew you'd tell a tip-top story, Uncle Tom. It's lovely, and you must put it in a book for me."
"Humph!" said Uncle Tom. "We shall see, Miss Queeny! Your reign is over tonight. Now, Aunt Joe, it's your chance," said he, turning mockingly upon his neighbor.
"Well," said Aunt Joe quietly, "the strangest Christmas doings I know of happened a good many years ago."