HEN the messenger reached the courtyard of the castle, he found peasant Viaud awaiting him there. The poor man looked very pale and wan from his imprisonment, and his face pitifully showed what anxiety he had suffered in thinking about his family left with no one to help them. His clothes, too, were thin and worn, and he shivered in the cold December wind. Noticing this, the messenger at once sent word to Count Pierre that he was sure King Louis would be highly gratified, if, in further honour of his coming marriage, the count would supply peasant Viaud with a warm suit of clothes before leaving the castle.
This message was almost too much for Count Pierre to bear, but he did not dare to refuse. And the messenger smiled to himself when, by and by, a page came and called Gabriel's father into the castle, from which, in a little while, he came out, warmly clad, and quite bewildered at all that was happening to him.
As they set out together for the Viaud cottage, peasant Viaud walking, and the messenger riding very slowly, the latter explained to him all about Gabriel's little prayer in the beautiful book, and how Lady Anne had sent it to King Louis, to whom he owed his release from prison. But the messenger added that, aside from the lad's father and mother, the king did not wish any one, not even Gabriel himself, to know how it had all come about.
For King Louis declared that he himself did not deserve any thanks, but that the good God had only chosen the Lady Anne and himself and Count Pierre (though the latter did not know it) as the means of answering Gabriel's prayer, and of helping the Christ-child bring happiness at the blessed Christmas-time. For King Louis had not forgotten that the great day was near at hand.
Of the promised return of the sheep, and the buying of the farm by the king, the messenger said nothing then; and when they had nearly reached the cottage, he took leave of peasant Viaud and rode back to the Abbey. For, having finished the king's errand, before going away, he wanted to say good-bye to the Abbot and brothers of St. Martin's, and also to get some of his belongings which he had left at the Abbey.
A few minutes after the messenger had left him, peasant Viaud reached the cottage and raised the latch,—but then it is no use trying to tell how surprised and happy they all were! how they hugged and kissed each other, and laughed and cried!
And then, when the first excitement was over, they began soberly to wonder what they would do next; for they still feared the displeasure of Count Pierre, and still did not know where to turn to raise the tax, or to help their poverty.
"If only he had not taken the sheep," said Gabriel's mother, sadly, "at least I could have spun warm clothes for all of us!"
But even as she spoke, a loud "Baa! Baa!" sounded from up the road, and presently along came a large flock of sheep followed by one of Count Pierre's shepherds, who, without saying a word to any one, skilfully guided them into the Viaud sheepfold, and there safely penned them in; then, still without a word, he turned about and went off in the direction of the castle.
Gabriel's father and mother, who from the cottage window had watched all this in silent amazement, looked at each other, too bewildered to speak. Then they went out together to the sheepfold, and peasant Viaud, who began to realize that this, too, must be part of King Louis's orders, explained to his wife that which the messenger had told him. When he had finished, they went back, hand in hand, to the house, their eyes filled with happy tears, and in their hearts a great tenderness for the little son who had brought help to them.
Just before dark, that same afternoon, the king's messenger, having taken leave of the Abbey folk, once more passed along the highroad. On his way, he was particular to stop at the Viaud cottage, where he contrived to have a few minutes' talk alone with Gabriel's mother, and then wishing her a merry Christmas, he spurred his horse, and rode along on his journey back to Paris.
As he neared San Martin's village, he passed a little peasant boy, in a worn blouse, walking toward the country; and had he known that this sad lad was the Gabriel because of whom, at King Louis's order, he had ridden all the way from Paris, he would certainly have looked at the boy with keen interest.
While for his part, had Gabriel known that the strange horseman was a messenger from the king, and that he had that day played a very important part in the affairs of the Viaud family,—he surely would have stood stock-still and opened his eyes wide with amazement!
But the messenger was absorbed in his own thoughts, and so rode swiftly on; while poor Gabriel was too sad and wretched to pay much attention to any one.
As the lad drew near home, however, all at once he fancied he heard the bleating of sheep. At this he pricked up his ears and began to run, his heart suddenly beating very fast with excitement!
When he reached the sheepfold, sure enough, there was no mistaking the sounds within. He opened the door and hurried through the thatched shed, noting with delight the rows of woolly backs glistening in the twilight, and then, bursting into the cottage, rushed up to his father and kissed and hugged him with all his might!
Indeed, Gabriel was so happy and excited that he did not realize that he was not at all surprised with their good fortune. For miserable as he had been for weeks, and though he had thought that he had quite despaired of his prayer being answered, yet deep down in his heart, without knowing it, all the while he had cherished a strong hope that it would be.
Nor was Brother Stephen surprised either, when, at barely daybreak the next morning, before going to his work, Gabriel hurried up to the Abbey and told him all about it. His face beamed with delight, however, and he seemed almost as happy over it all as Gabriel himself. He smiled, too, but said nothing, as the lad wondered over and over what God had done to Count Pierre, to make him willing to free his father and restore the sheep! He only said, as he gently patted Gabriel's hair:
"There, there, little one! the good God hath many ways of softening men's hearts, and never thou mind in what manner he hath chosen to manage the Count Pierre!"
Just then one of the monks went past the open door, his arms full of evergreens, and carrying in his hand a pot of the pretty white flowers that the Norman peasant folk call Christmas roses. Seeing him, Brother Stephen told Gabriel that he must go and help the brothers trim the Abbey church for the joyous service of the morrow; and so with another affectionate little pat, he went out to do his part in arranging the holiday greens and garlands and tall wax candles, while Gabriel hurried off to his work in the village.
The little boy was so happy, though, over the things that had happened at home, that he went about all day in a sort of wondering dream. And that evening as he went home from his work, very tired, but still dreaming, the early Christmas-eve stars shone and twinkled so radiantly over his head and the snow sparkled so brightly under his feet, that he fairly tingled through and through with the nameless, magic happiness of the blessed season!
And when he reached home, and sat down next to his father while they ate their scanty supper, they all felt so glad to be together again that nobody minded that the pieces of black bread were smaller than ever, and that when the cold wind blew through the crevices of the cottage walls, there was not enough fire on the hearth to keep them from shivering.
Indeed, they were all so much happier than they had been for many weeks, that when Gabriel and the younger children went to bed, the latter, with many little gurgles of laughter, arranged their little wooden shoes on the hearth, just as they had always done on Christmas eve.
For they said to each other, Jean, and Margot, and little Guillaume, that surely the good God had not forgotten them after all! Had he not brought back their father and the sheep? And surely he would tell the little Christ-child to bring them a few Christmas apples and nuts!
Gabriel, however, took no part in their talk, and he did not set his shoes on the hearth with the others; not that he feared they would be forgotten, but rather because he thought that he had already asked for so much and been so generously answered, that he had had his share of Christmas happiness.
His father was freed from prison, and the flock of sheep, with fifty more than they had had before, were back in the fold; and though they were not yet relieved from the tax, nor was their land restored to them, as he had prayed, yet he felt sure that these, too, would come about in some way.
And so, considering all these things, he did not quite like to set out his wooden shoes, and thus invite the Christ-child to give him more; for he knew the Christ-child had a great many shoes to attend to that night. So Gabriel, as he made himself ready for bed, pretended not to hear the chatter of his little brothers and sister, nor to notice what they were doing.
When peasant Viaud, however, saw them standing their little empty shoes in front of the meagre fire, he bowed his head on his hands, and the tears trickled through his fingers. But the mother smiled softly to herself, as she kissed each of the children and tucked them into their worn sheepskin covers.
Next morning, at the first peep of day, every one in the cottage was wide awake; and as soon as they opened their eyes, the children all jumped out of bed and ran to the hearth with little screams of delight. For there stood the little wooden shoes,—Gabriel's, too, though he had not put them there,—and even a larger one apiece for the father and mother, and the blessed Christ-child had not forgotten one!
Only instead of apples and nuts, they were filled with the most wonderful bonbons; strange sugar birds, and animals, and candied fruits such as no peasant child in Normandy had ever before seen; for they were sweetmeats that no one but the cooks of old Paris knew just how to make.
And then, as with eager fingers the children drew out these marvels, down in the toe of each shoe they found a little porcupine of white sugar with pink quills tipped with a tiny, gilded, candy crown; and last of all, after each little porcupine, out tumbled a shining yellow gold piece stamped with the likeness of King Louis.
Even the larger shoes were filled with bonbons, too, and from the toe of the mother's out dropped a gold piece, like the others, only larger. But when the father, with clumsy hands, emptied his shoe, instead of a gold piece, there fell out a small parchment roll fastened with a silken cord, and showing at one corner a wax seal bearing the print of the little royal porcupine and crown.
Peasant Viaud gazed at it for a few minutes, in utter bewilderment, and then handing it to Gabriel, who was standing by, he said:
"Here, child, 'tis a bit of writing, and thou art the only one of us who can read. See if Brother Stephen's lessons have taken thee far enough to make out the meaning of this!"
Gabriel took the roll and eagerly untied the cord, and then he carefully spelled out every word of the writing, which was signed by Count Pierre de Bouchage.
For it was the very same parchment which King Louis's messenger had made Count Pierre sign to prove that he had sold to the king, for a certain sum of gold, the old Viaud farm, together with a piece of good land adjoining it; and then, at the end of the deed, as the writing was called, there were a few lines from King Louis himself, which said that in honour of the blessed Christmas-time the king took pleasure in presenting to peasant Viaud, and his heirs for ever, everything that he had bought from Count Pierre.
When Gabriel had finished reading, no one spoke for a little while; it was so hard to realize the crowning good fortune that had befallen them. Peasant Viaud looked fairly dazed, and the mother laughed and cried as she snatched Gabriel to her and kissed him again and again. The younger children did not understand what it all meant, and so went on munching their sweetmeats without paying much attention to the little piece of parchment which Gabriel still held in his hand.
As for Gabriel, he really had had no idea that any one could possibly be so happy as he himself was at that moment! He had not the least notion of how it had all come about; he only knew that his heart was fairly bursting with gratitude to the dear God who had answered his little prayer so much more joyously and wonderfully than he had ever dared to dream of!
In his excitement he ran out of the house and hurried into the sheepfold, where he patted the soft woolly backs of each of the sheep, and then he raced around the snowy meadows trying to realize that all these belonged to his family for ever! And that Count Pierre could never again imprison his father or worry him with heavy taxes!
But the wonders of this wonderful day were not yet over; for presently, as Gabriel raised his eyes, he saw a strange horseman coming down the road and looking inquiringly in the direction of the Viaud cottage. Then seeing the boy standing in the meadow, the horseman called out:
"Ho, lad! Is this the farm of the peasant Viaud?"
"Yes, sir," answered Gabriel, coming up to the road; and then,
"Art thou Gabriel?" asked the rider, stopping and looking curiously at the little boy.
When again Gabriel wonderingly answered, "Yes, sir," the stranger dismounted, and, after tying his horse, began deliberately unfastening the two fat saddlebags hanging over the back of the latter; and loading himself with as much as he could carry, he gave Gabriel an armful, too, and walked toward the cottage.
To the surprised looks and questions of Gabriel's father and mother, he only said that the Christ-child had been in the castle of the Lady Anne of Bretagne, and had ordered him to bring certain things to the family of a Norman peasant boy named Gabriel Viaud.
And such delightful things as they were! There was a great roll of thick, soft blue cloth, so that they could all be warmly clad without waiting for the mother to spin the wool from sheep's backs. There were nice little squirrel-fur caps for all the children; there were more yellow gold pieces; and then there was a large package of the most enchanting sweetmeats, such as the Bretons make at Christmas-time; little "magi-cakes," as they were called, each cut in the shape of a star and covered with spices and sugar; curious old-fashioned candies and sugared chestnuts; and a pretty basket filled with small round loaves of the fine, white bread of Bretagne; only instead of the ordinary baking, these loaves were of a special holiday kind, with raisins, and nuts, and dried sweet-locust blossoms sprinkled over the top.
Indeed, perhaps never before had so marvelous a feast been spread under a peasant roof in Normandy! All were beside themselves with delight; and while the younger children were dancing round and round in happy bewilderment, Gabriel snatched up a basket, and hurriedly filling it with some of the choicest of the sweetmeats, started off at a brisk run for the Abbey; for he wanted to share some of his Christmas happiness with Brother Stephen.
When he reached the Abbey, his eyes bright with excitement, and his cheeks rosy from the crisp cold air, and poured out to Brother Stephen the story of their fresh good fortune, the monk laughed with delight, and felt that he, too, was having the happiest Christmas he had ever known.
And then, by and by, when he took Gabriel by the hand and led him into the Abbey church for the beautiful Christmas service, as the little boy knelt on the stone floor and gazed around at the lovely garlands of green, and the twinkling candles and white Christmas roses on the altar, half-hidden by the clouds of fragrant incense that floated up from the censers the little acolytes were swinging to and fro,—as he listened to the glorious music from the choir, and above all, as he thought of how the dear God had answered his prayer, the tears sprang to his eyes from very joy and gratitude! And perhaps that Christmas morning no one in all France, not even King Louis himself, was quite so happy as the little peasant boy, Gabriel Viaud.