Christmas Time Again for Louise
YOU all remember the beautiful Christmas time in the happy home by the river Rhine, and the long, hard journey afterwards to the new home in the Western forest.
Do you want to go with me now, and take a peep at Louise and Fritz, and Gretchen and little Hans?
We left them in a log house, didn't we? But see; they have now built a larger and more comfortable one; not like the beautiful old home by the Rhine, but simple almost as the log one, only it has more rooms, better fireplaces, and more convenient furniture.
Louise and Gretchen have a little room to themselves, and last summer a morning-glory vine climbed all about their window, and opened its lovely blossoms to the morning sun. Up in that room today Louise sits down by the sunny window to think for a minute. She has just made her bed and put her room in order, and in five minutes more she ought to be down stairs sweeping the little sitting room. Besides, there is another reason for not stopping long, for this November day, even if the sun does shine, it is not warm enough in that fireless room for any one to sit still long.
What do you suppose she is thinking about? What do you begin to think about when November is almost gone, and December is coming? "Christmas, Christmas!" I hear all the little voices answering. Yes, that is what Louise is thinking about. She is not wondering what she will have in her stocking, nor what she shall buy for papa and mamma, or all the brothers and sisters; but the question has popped itself into her head, "Could I, could I, make a little Christmas tree, such as we used to have at home by the beautiful river Rhine—a Christmas tree to surprise them all?" And she is sitting down for just a minute to think how it would be possible to do this without telling any one of the family.
But to this difficult question no answer presents itself, and she mustn't linger when there is so much work to be done. So with the sense of a delightful secret in her mind, she runs down to sweep the sitting room, while Gretchen amuses little Hans in one corner of the kitchen, and her good mother puts the bread into the pans and sees that the oven is ready for baking.
Sometimes I believe our best thoughts come when we are busiest; and I don't wonder that Louise gave a little jump for joy in the midst of her work, when it suddenly occurred to her that Jeannette, the little neighbor who had come last year to live at the nearest farm, would help her, and that Jeannette's tall brother Joseph would certainly bring them a tree from the woods.
Now, I know that she wants to put on her hat, and run over to Jeannette's house to ask her about it at once, but she can't do that, or who will mend the stockings, and set the dinner table, and wash the dishes, and sweep the kitchen floor when all is done? So she works on, singing softly to herself, although she hardly knows what she is singing until her mother says: "What makes you so happy, dear? and why do you sing the Christmas hymn?"
Louise laughs, and answers: "Why, was I singing the Christmas hymn? I didn't know it."
It is three o'clock, and at last the day's work is finished; and, "Mother, may I take my sewing and go to Jeannette's?" asks Louise. And there is such a tone of satisfaction in the child's words that her mother looks up at her, glad to see her so happy, and says: "Certainly."
Jeannette lives in a log house hardly better than the one in which we left Louise when you knew her long ago. But Joseph has made some comfortable benches, and one with a very high back that stands always beside the fireplace and is called the settle. Into the corner of this settle cuddle the two little girls, and it isn't many minutes before Jeannette is as happy as Louise over the delightful secret.
Jeannette has no little brothers and sisters to surprise on Christmas, but she already loves Gretchen and Fritz and Hans, and she enters into the plan most heartily. Of course Joseph will get the tree; Joseph will do anything for his little sister; and, if there is time, he will also make some little toys of wood to put upon it. And Jeannette herself can help in a delightful way, for she can do something that few little girls of my acquaintance know how to. Shall I tell you what it is?
Her father and brothers began two months ago, after their grain was harvested, to dig a cellar for the new house that they mean to build in the spring. In digging out the earth, they came to a bed of red and brown clay, not very hard, and just sticky enough for moulding into shape. At first the children played with it in a rough way, making balls, and sometimes dishes or pans. But one day Jeannette patted into shape a little cat that looked so much like her own cat, Sandwich, that all the children exclaimed at it with delight, and, lest it should crumble to pieces, she set it in a warm place in the chimney corner, and baked it until it was hard. From that day Jeannette spent all her playtime in the clay bed; and sometimes it was the old shepherd dog who sat for his picture, with a grave face, and a tail that wanted to wag but wouldn't, as if he knew what it was all about and was keeping still on purpose. Sometimes it was Bossy, or Brindle, or Cowslip, on their way home from pasture; and at last, when her hands grew skillful with much practice, she tried the shy antelopes that would not stop half a minute to be looked at.
And now Jeannette is planning just what she will make for each one, and Louise, who has not such skillful hands but just as loving a heart, is trying to think what there is that can be made without costing any money at all.
There are different kinds of presents in the world, you know. Some of them have cost a great deal of money, and some have cost a great deal of love, and thought, and work. This last is the kind I like best myself, and this is the kind that Louise must make. Every day while she is about her work, her mind is actively thinking, thinking always, and first one thing suggests itself, and then another.
"If we had a feather duster, how convenient it would be to brush off the ashes!" said her mother one day, when a fresh log of wood thrown on to the fire set the ashes flying even up to the high mantle shelf. And the little girl could hardly help exclaiming, "O mother! I will make you one for Christmas," for it quickly flashed into her head that the yard was strewn with turkey feathers, and why wouldn't they make a good duster?
It is easier to plan than to execute. But that same afternoon she picked up all the longest and best of the feathers—the stouter, stiffer ones for the middle part of the brush, and plenty of soft, downy, fluffy ones for the outside. Jeannette's brother Joseph whittled out a smooth, pretty handle for her, with a notch near the end, so that she could tie her feathers firmly on, and she worked all her spare time for two days before they were tied on evenly and well. Even then the ends stuck up clumsily around the handle, and she couldn't think what would make it look any better.
Now somebody is going to help her. Who can it be? A little far-away sister whom she has never seen.
Do you remember how carefully Pen-se tended the silkworms, and gathered up the cocoons, and learned to wind off the silk? Some of that very silk has been woven into a pretty blue ribbon—a ribbon that the kind cousin Mr. Meyer bought in New York, and sent in a letter, that Louise might have, as he said,
That night, after Louise is in bed and almost asleep, she suddenly thinks: "Why, I will tie a piece of my blue ribbon round the ends of the feathers, and that will finish it off beautifully!" So the next day the feather duster was finished—the first present of all, and it was marked "Liebe Mutter" (Dear Mother) and was hidden away in a little chest down at Jeannette's house, for it would spoil everything to have it seen before the time.
But do you think that Louise is the only one who has remembered that Christmas is coming?
If the little girl had not been so busy herself, and so anxious to get away into some obscure corner to do her work unobserved, she would certainly have noticed that her mother had a curious way of slipping something into a drawer which she shut quickly, when any of the children came in. And she might also have wondered what Christian was scribbling at so busily at his corner of the table in the evening, but, when Christmas time is near, you should not ask too many questions, and you should not be surprised at very mysterious answers.
"Dear Christian," said Louise one day, when she saw her brother preparing to go to town with a load of wood, "if mother can spare me, may I go with you?" Louise had an idea in her head, and she wanted very much to get, in the town, some materials wherewith to carry it out; and the chance to ride there on the load of wood was delightful. Her mother was willing and glad to have her go, but hesitated a minute over the old worn hat and shabby little sack. Then suddenly she exclaimed: "Why, the dear child shall wear my eider down pelisse."
Who remembers the bag of eider down that Agoonack's mother brought to the Kudlunahs in exchange for needles and thread? Didn't this warm garment come from Agoonack's land, or from some other land very much like it?
It was a curious old garment, this pelisse. Perhaps you have never heard of a pelisse, but I can remember, when I was a child, an old lady who had just such a pelisse as this. It was made of silk and wadded with eider down, and it was as soft and warm and light as a bird's coat of feathers. It was a garment like this that Louise's mother now took out from one of those great linen-chests that you remember, and she wrapped it carefully about her little daughter. It reached almost to her feet, and the sleeves covered her hands. "But you will be all the warmer for that," said the "liebe Mutter."
Christian has prepared for her a cozy seat among the logs, and away they go. It is rather a hard and uneven road, but the snow has improved it, and the heavy runners of the wood-sled make smooth, broad tracks over the as yet unbroken way.
It is a great pleasure to Louise to go to the town. When one stays at home day after day, and week after week, the change of seeing a new place is very delightful, and Louise has rarely been even to the town, and only once has she taken a journey since she first came to America. That was the journey to New York with her father, when he went on business, and happened to be just in time to welcome the cousin home from his long, strange voyage on the ice island.
But what can Louise get
Perhaps you thought she was going to buy a little steam engine for Fritz, and a wax doll for Gretchen. Not at all. You will hardly imagine what she can do with the little scraps of black kid and white that she has timidly begged of the old shoemaker, who was about to throw them away.
This old shoemaker, with his spectacles pushed up on his forehead, and his leather apron tied round his waist, had always been kind to Louise ever since her father took her to his shop last summer to be measured for a pair of shoes. He had looked at the little worn shoe that she took off, and had said inquiringly: "That shoe is not made in this country?" "No," answered the father, "that shoe came from Germany," and the old man laid his rough hand caressingly over the worn leather, and answered: "I, too, came from the fatherland, but it is now more than fifty years since I saw the Rhine."
That made them friends at once, and when the little girl in her long pelisse appeared today at his door, old Hans Stoker pushed back his spectacles and smiled with pleasure. And in response to her timid question about the scraps of leather, he pulled forward an old box full and said heartily: "Help yourself, my little lady, help yourself; they are all at your service."
Louise chose long, narrow strips, four of them white and four black; but while she was busy over the box, old Hans had opened the drawer under his bench, and, after measuring and calculating a minute over a pretty piece of red morocco, he cut off two or three corners and bits of that. Tossing them into the boa, he said: "They would go in tomorrow at any rate, so let them go today instead, and take them if you like, my dear."
Louise started with pleasure, and in the joy of her heart she looked up in the old wrinkled face and decided to tell him her Christmas secret.
"I am going to make a ball for my baby brother. It is to be a Christmas present, and I don't want any one to know. It was going to be only black and white, but the red stripes will make it just lovely. I thank you so much for them!"
The kind old man was as pleased as a child would be with the little plan, and he offered to cut the leather for her with his knife, if she could tell him how she wanted it done. So presently they together contrived a paper pattern of a long piece tapering at both ends, like the pieces we sometimes take off in peeling an orange, and the shoemaker promised to cut them while Louise went with Christian to buy yarn for her mother. On their return he came out to the sled with a neat little package all ready for her.
"What have you bought of the shoemaker?" asked Christian as they drove away, while Louise looked back to nod and smile at the friendly old face in the doorway of the little shop.
"I didn't buy anything," she answered, "but questions are not good at Christmas time"; and she looked up into his face and laughed.
Christian laughed, too, and then they both became so lost in Christmas thoughts that neither of them spoke for a long time. Just before the lights in their own windows came in sight Louise said: "Don't tell anybody that I went to the shoemaker's." "Trust me for that," said Christian, stooping to kiss her red lips; and in another minute they were at the door.
Now, what do you suppose the "liebe Mutter" had been doing all day long? There had been work enough, you may be sure, but little Gretchen was anxious to fill her sister's place as well as she could, and to save the dear mother as much work as possible, and Hans had a pile of blocks on the kitchen floor, and built houses and castles all the morning. And so it was that the mother found time to take out of the great chest the pretty chinchilla muff that she had brought with her across the seas, because it had been a Christmas present years ago from her own dear mother.
But what is she going to do with the muff? She, too, has a Christmas thought, and her skillful fingers will obey that thought, and make out of the muff a pretty chinchilla cap for Louise—just such a cap as I had when I was a little girl. Before the children have come home it is finished and safely hidden away. So you see a good deal of Christmas work was accomplished on that day.
Louise kept her package of kid in her pocket. It was only when she went up to bed and found Gretchen fast asleep that she ventured to open it. There were four beautiful pieces of red, and as many of the black and the white. It wasn't many days before the pretty ball was finished and stuffed with lamb's wool. It was a beauty. Can't you imagine how it looked, and how pleased little Hans will be with it?
But if I tell you all beforehand, you won't enjoy the surprise of the tree half so much. I must leave a great deal untold, and take a long leap over to the day before Christmas.
Just one thing I will let you have a peep at—a box which arrived by express at the town, ten miles away, and was brought over by Jeannette's brother Joseph, who left it down at his house and came up and told Louise's father privately, for he imagined it might have something to do with Christmas. Don't you remember the uncles that they left in the old home by the Rhine—the uncles who wanted Christian to stay with them, when his father decided to go away? They are good, kind uncles, and they remember Christmas time. Perhaps you will hear more of that box when the right time comes.
The day before Christmas—what a busy day that was!
"May I have the sitting room all to myself, all day, dear mother?" asked Louise, early in the morning. Her mother looked surprised. She had guessed that the child was making presents of some kind, but the attempt to have a tree had not entered into her head. She wisely did not say a word about it, although she now felt quite sure of her little daughter's plan.
Jeannette came over, there was a mysterious consultation, and finally a strange and bulky bundle covered with a bed quilt was hurried into the room, and the door was quickly closed. Louise came out for a small washtub; Jeannette carried in a basket of bricks almost too heavy for her to lift. If you had listened outside the door, you would have heard many "Oh's!" and "Ah's!" but at last a little cry of delight, and, "There! it stands perfectly firm. Isn't it a beauty?"
You, dear children, know just as well as I do, how many mysterious runnings up and down stairs there were, and slippings in and out of that door. But you and I can't come in until the rest of the company do. We can only look with great curiosity at Louise as she comes out, about four o'clock, with flushed cheeks and smiling eyes, locks the door, and puts the key in her apron pocket with an air that shows us that her work is done, and well done, too.
Coming to her mother, who throws her white apron over her work as soon as the child approaches, she says: "Mother dear, when we lived at home by the Rhine, we always did something at Christmas time to make people poorer than ourselves happy. There is little Maggie O'Connell down at the new house in the clearing, and she has neither brother nor sister to help her keep a merry Christmas. May we ask her to come and keep it with us this evening?"
The mother smiled to see that it was the same Christmas spirit, independent of wealth or gifts, that shone in her little daughter's face. A Christmas spirit can come even without a Santa Claus. But perhaps Santa Claus has been here, too.
So Louise pinned her shawl over her head and ran down to the clearing for Maggie.
In Maggie's house there were Christmas candles, but no tree and no other children than the lonely little Maggie, whose two little sisters had died of fever a year ago. And her mother blessed Louise, who had come in a sister's place to try to make Christmas merry for her child.
It was almost dark when the two children reached the house, and Maggie was left in the kitchen with the little ones, while Jeannette and Louise, with an air of great importance, unlocked the sitting-room door and went in. It wasn't more than two minutes before they threw open the door and called to the expectant company that all was ready.
Don't laugh at the little tree standing in a washtub and supported by bricks. Don't laugh at the three lanterns—common stable lanterns—that are hung among its branches in an attempt to illuminate it. Don't laugh at anything, but think only of all the love, and the hard work, and the long planning that have gone into the preparation of this Christmas tree; and then it will seem beautiful to you, as it does to me, and did to all that happy little company when they saw before them the Christmas surprise on which those two little girls had employed themselves for the last month.
There were plenty of festoons of popped corn, and there were little tufts of white feathers, relieving here and there the dark green of the foliage; but, strictly speaking, it wasn't very brilliant. Instead of revealing all its beauties at once, it disclosed them slowly, and, indeed, some of them could only be found and carefully taken off by the very same fingers that had carefully tied them on.
You would have laughed with pleasure to see all the pretty animals that Jeannette had made; for each member of the family, his or her favorite animal. Here was old Major, the horse, made in the character of a paperweight; Gretchen's white kitty, and Fritz's dog; and, to the great surprise of Louise, a little brown owl for her.
I haven't told you how Louise had made from pasteboard a pretty chintz-covered arm-chair for her little sister's doll, and knitted warm wristers for Fritz and Christian.
Her father's present had been the hardest to make, or rather to plan, until one day her watchful ears caught the words: "There ought to be some safe place beyond the reach of little Hans for keeping the newspapers." You see newspapers were rare and precious in that Western home.
Now, if you look under that low bough of the Christmas tree, you will see the pretty birch-bark newspaper holder, with a bit of the Pen-se ribbon tied in to hang it by; and I think you and I can imagine how pleased her father is to see that his little girl has taken such thoughtful notice of his wishes.
But you know there are other presents besides those that the children have made. We have already heard of the chinchilla cap, and for each of the other children the good mother has contrived to produce some little treasure from her old-time stores. A white apron with pockets for Gretchen—she had always wanted pockets—new red mittens for Fritz, and a picture book pasted on cloth for Hans. His father has made a pretty sled of chestnut wood for Fritz, and he had unpacked treasures for all from the box that the uncles had sent from the Rhineland. And suddenly the tree began to produce fruits that Louise and Jeannette had not dreamed of, for both father and mother had entered heartily into the fun, and, hastily bringing out treasures from their hiding places, tied them on to the tree, and as quickly took them off to distribute among. the happy children.
There was a little writing desk for Louise. Peep into it and see its treasures—the ivory-handled knife and paper cutter, the pens and the paper—everything in order. I am sure you remember where the ivory came from, but do you suppose that Louise knows anything about Manenko, from whose land it came? or did the little dark-skinned Manenko dream that the ivory tusks carried on her father's shoulders were going to help make a Christmas present for a fair-faced little sister thousands of miles away?
Then there were books, and pictures, too, just in the right time, for now they have walls whereon to hang them; the log walls of last year hardly afforded a place.
"It begins to seem like our old home," said the mother, as she looked at the beautiful old familiar picture from which the Madonna and Child had smiled down upon her when she was a little girl. It had been hard to part with that when they came away from the Rhineland, and now it had been saved, and sent back to her.
Presently Louise spied a little white card fluttering at the end of a branch, and, pulling it down, she read from it the verses that Christian had been writing on one of those busy evenings when no one asked the other, "What are you doing?"
He had ornamented a plain white card with a border of delicate-colored lines, and written on the back these loving words, "For my dear brothers and sisters," and on the other side the following little verses:—
This Fatherhood could not leave them wherever they might go, and I am glad that they felt their brotherhood and sisterhood, even so far away there in the Western world. It was that that made them so happy, I think.
Have you all the time forgotten little Maggie, who had come as a guest to the Christmas tree?
Weren't there any presents for her? Yes, indeed, there were. Louise had taken the last bit of her blue ribbon, folded it in a white paper, and written upon it: "A merry Christmas for Maggie." Jeannette had run home to look over her box of clay figures, and had chosen the prettiest little cow among them to mark with Maggie's name. And the thoughtful mother had taken the last new apron she had finished for Louise, and put it on the tree for the little neighbor.
It was a merry Christmas all round, wasn't it? It ended with music from Christian's violin, and then a hearty voice outside the window sung a merry mountain song. That must have been Joseph.
I wonder if they would have been any happier if they had been dressed in silk instead of calico, and had had a tree loaded with the richest presents.
Do you see that the seven little sisters are finding each other, sending each other presents, sometimes even without knowing it, and doing for each other many little services such as sisters are always glad to do?
Agoonack has learned from the Kudlunah, Manenko from the Bazungu, that in this great wide world there are many kinds of children, but that one loving Father takes care of them all.
Do you see that it has always been a white man who has brought them this knowledge of each other? It was the white captain that brought Agoonack to New York. It was the good Bazungu that carried the brown baby's medicine to the little sick Manenko, and it was the English lady who brought the same to our poor little Arab Gemila, who would have died if she had taken nothing but the fakir's curious draught.
It was an American ship that took the silk that Pen-se had wound off the cocoons, and carried it to the ribbon weavers who made the blue ribbon for Louise.
Most of you, dear children, who read this book, are children of the white man's part of our Father's great family. And yet I hope some little dark-faced sisters may read it, too. But to us of the white race some gifts have been given which as yet are not shared by our dark-skinned sisters.
You remember that neither Manenko, nor Gemila, nor Pen-se, nor Agoonack can read. No schools for them, no books, and nothing of all the happiness that comes to you through books. Think of it; not only in that respect, but in others besides, you have had more and greater gifts than they.
Now consider what you would do if some day, when you were at home with your brothers and sisters, a great bountiful basket of presents should come for you, and nothing for them.
I am sure I know what would be your first thought. And if, in the wider family of the world, you see yourself with gifts of knowledge or of happiness beyond those of your neighbors, you will know what to do.
But do not think that these little sisters have done nothing for you.
Did not Gemila's caravan carry the gum? Did not Agoonack's father build the snow houses and kill the seals, without which the white men would have died? And did not Manenko's people bring the great tusks of ivory? Does not Pen-se tend the silkworms carefully and well, and so have silk to make ribbons and dresses for you and your mammas?
They each work faithfully and well in their own way; and faithful work, be it the work of the wisest man or of a little child, is never wasted or lost.
They are all helping each other, as loving sisters should, and perhaps some day they will meet and will realize how each in her own little way has done some service fcr the others.