The Little Friend
"Oh! I am so cold, so cold!" sobbed little Pierre, as he stumbled through the snow which was drifting deep upon the mountain side. "Oh, I am so cold! The snow bites my face and blinds me, so that I cannot see the road. Where are all the Christmas candle-lights? The people of the village must have forgotten. The little Jesus will lose His way to-night. I never forgot to set our window at home full of lights on Christmas Eve. But now it is Christmas Eve, and there is no home any more. And I am so cold, so cold!"
Little Pierre sobbed again and stumbled in the snow, which was drifting deeper and deeper upon the mountain side. This was the stormiest Christmas Eve which had been seen for years, and all the little boys who had good homes were hugging themselves close to the fire, glad that they were not out in the bleak night. Every window was full of flickering tapers to light the expected Holy Child upon His way through the village to the church. But little Pierre had strayed so far from the road that he could not see these rows and rows of tiny earth-stars, any more than he could see through the snow the far-off sky-stars which the angels had lighted along the streets of heaven.
Pierre was on his way to the village from the orphan boys' home at the Abbé's charity school. And that was not like a happy real home, for the little Brothers were rough and rude and far from loving one another. He had started at dusk from the school, hoping to be at the village church before curfew. For Pierre had a sweet little voice, and he was to earn a few pennies by singing in the choir on Christmas morning. But it was growing late. The church would be closed and the Curé gone home before Pierre could reach it; and then what should he do?
The snow whirled faster and faster, and Pierre's legs found it harder and harder to move themselves through the great drifts. They seemed heavy and numb, and he was growing oh, so tired! If he could but lie down to sleep until Christmas Day! But he knew that he must not do that. For those who choose this kind of soft and tempting bed turn into ice-people, and do not wake up in the morning. So he bent his head and tried to plough on through the drifts.
Whish! A soft white thing flapped through the snow and struck Pierre in the face, so that he staggered and almost lost his balance. The next moment he had caught the thing as it fell and was holding it tenderly in his numb hands. It was a beautiful dove, white as the snow from which it seemed to come. It had been whirled about by the storm until it had lost strength to fly, and it now lay quite still, with closed eyes. Pierre stroked the ruffled feathers gently and blew upon its cold body, trying to bring it back to life.
"Poor bird!" he said softly. "You are lost in the snow, like me. I will try to keep you warm, though I am myself a cold little body." He put the bird under his jacket, holding it close to his heart. Presently the dove opened its eyes and stirred feebly, giving a faint "Coo!"
"I wish I had something for you to eat, poor bird," said Pierre, forgetting his own cold and hunger. "If I could but take you into my own house and feed you as I used to feed the birds upon Christmas Eve! But now I have no home myself, and I can scarcely keep you warm."
Pierre shivered and tried to move forward. But the storm seemed to grow even fiercer, and the wind blew so keenly in his face that he could scarcely stand. "I cannot go another step," he said, and down he sank in the snow, which began to cover him with a downy blanket, pretending to be a careful mother. He hugged the bird closer and began to feel afraid. He knew that he was in great danger. "Dear Dove," he whispered, "I am sorry that I cannot save you. We shall turn into ice-images together. But I will keep you warm as long as I can." Then he closed his eyes, for he was very sleepy.
In a little while something made Pierre open his eyes. At first he could see only the whirling snow, which seemed to be everywhere. But presently he found that some one was bending over him, with face close to his; some one chubby and rosy and young,—a child like himself, but more beautiful than any child whom Pierre had ever seen. He stared hard at the face which seemed to smile at him through the snow, not minding the cold.
"You have my dove inside your coat," said the Child, pointing. "I lost her in the storm. Give her to me."
Pierre held his coat the closer. "She was cold," he answered. "She was dying in the snow. I am trying to keep her warm."
"But she is warm when she is with me, though I have no coat to wrap her in," said the Child. And, indeed, he was clad only in a little shirt, with his rosy legs quite bare. Yet he looked not cold. A brightness glowed about him, and his breath seemed to warm the air. Pierre saw that, though it was still snowing beyond them, there were no whirling flakes between him and the Child.
The little Stranger held out his hand once more. "Please give me the dove," he begged. "I must hasten on my way to the village yonder. The dove strayed from my bosom and was lost. You found her here, far from the road. Thank you, little boy. Are you often so kind to poor lost birds!"
"Why, they are the Lord's own birds!" cried little Pierre. "How should one not be kind and love them dearly? On the Lord's birthday eve, too! It is little that I could do for this one,—I who have saved and fed so many on other Christmas Eves. Alas, I wish I was back in those good old days of the wheat-sheaf and the full pan of milk and the bright warm fire!" Pierre's eyes filled with tears.
"What! Did you set a sheaf of wheat for the birds on Christmas Eve?" asked the Child, drawing closer and bending kindly eyes upon Pierre.
Now the boy saw that where the Stranger stood the snow had melted all away, so that they were inclosed in a little space like a downy nest, which seemed almost warm to his limbs.
"Yes, I set out a wheat-sheaf," said Pierre simply. "Why not? I love all the little creatures whom our Lord Himself so dearly loved, and to whom He bade us be kind. On Christmas Eve especially I always tried to make happy those which He sent in my way,—poor little wanderers as well as our own friends at home."
The Child drew yet closer and sat down in the snow beside Pierre. His beautiful eyes shone like stars, and his voice was like sweet music. "What," he said, "you are the boy who stood in the doorway with a pan of bread and milk,—part of your own supper,—and called the hungry kitten to feast? You are the same who tossed a bone to the limping dog and made him a bed in the stable? You stroked the noses of the ox and the ass and said gentle things to them, because they were the first friends of the little Jesus? You set the sheaf of wheat for the snow-birds, and they lighted upon your hands and shoulders and kissed your lips in gratitude? You are that boy, friend of God's friends. No wonder that my white dove flew to you out of the storm. She knew, she knew!"
The Child bent near and kissed Pierre on the cheeks, so that they grew rosy, and the warm blood went tingling through his little cold limbs. Sitting up, he said: "Yes, I am that boy who last year was so happy because he could do these pleasant things. But how do you know, little Stranger? How did you see?"
"Oh, I know, I saw!" cried the Child, gleefully clapping his hands as a child will. "I was there. I passed through the village last Christmas Eve, and I saw it all. But tell me now, how do you come here, dear boy? Why are you not in that happy home this stormy night, once more making the Lord's creatures happy?"
Pierre told all to the Child: how his dear father and mother had died and left him alone in the world; how the home had been sold, and now he lived in the charity school kept by the good Abbé; how he had learned of the chance to earn a few pennies by singing on Christmas Day in the neighboring village church, which lacked a voice among the choir-boys; how he was on his way thither when the storm had hidden the road, and he had grown so cold, so cold!
"Then your dove came to me, little Stranger," Pierre concluded. "She came, and I folded her in my jacket to keep her warm. But, do you know, it must be that she has kept me warm. Although I could walk no further, I am not cold at all, nor frightened, and no longer hungry. Sit close to me, little Stranger. You shall share my jacket, too, and we will all three warm one another."
The Child laughed again, a low, soft, silvery laugh, like a happy brook slipping over the pebbles. "I am not cold," he said. "I cannot stay with you. I must go yonder." And he pointed through the snow.
"Whither, oh, whither?" cried Pierre eagerly. "Let me go with you. I am lost; but if you know the way we can go together, hand in hand."
The Child shook his head. "Not so," he said. "I do not follow the path, and your feet would stumble. I shall find a way without sinking in the snow. I must go alone. But there is a better way for you. I leave my dove with you: she will keep you warm until help comes. Farewell, friend of the Lord's friends." Stooping the Child kissed Pierre once more, upon the forehead. Then, before the boy saw how he went, he had vanished from the little nest of snow, without leaving a footprint behind.
Now the dove, clasped close to Pierre's heart, seemed to warm him like a little fire within; and the Child's kiss on his forehead made him so happy, but withal so drowsy, that he smiled as he closed his eyes once more repeating, "'Until help comes.' 'There is a better way' for me."
On the side of the mountain, away from the village street, perched the little hut of Grandfather Viaud. And here, on Christmas Eve, sat the old man and his wife, looking very sad and lonely. For there was no sound of childish laughter in the little hut, no patter of small feet, no whispering of Christmas secrets. The little Viauds had long since grown up and flown away to build nests of their own in far-off countries. Poor Josef Viaud and old Bettine were quite alone this Christmas Eve, save for the Saint Bernard who was stretched out before the fire, covering half the floor with his huge bulk, like a furry rug. He was the very Prince of dogs, as his name betokened, and he was very good to Grandfather and Grandmother, who loved him dearly. But on Christmas Eve even the littlest cottage, crowded with the biggest tenants, seems lonely unless there are children in the corners.
The Viauds sat silently gazing into the fire, with scarcely a word for each other, scarcely a caress for faithful Prince. Indeed, the great dog himself seemed to know that something was lacking, and every once in a while would lift his head and whine wistfully.
In each of the two small windows burned a row of candles, flickering in the draught that blew down the great chimney and swept through the little chamber. And these, with the crackling blaze upon the hearth, sent queer shadows quivering up the smoky walls.
Grandfather Viaud looked over his shoulder as a great gust blew the ashes into the room. "Hey!" he cried. "I almost fancied the shadow of one looking in at the window. Ha, ha! What foolishness! Eh! but it is a fearsome storm. Pray the good Lord that there may be no poor creatures wandering on the mountain this night."
"The Lord's birthday, too!" said Grandmother Bettine. "The dear little Child has a cold way to come. Even He might become confused and be driven to wander by such a whirl of snow. I am glad that we set the tapers there, Josef, even though we be so far from the village street down which they say He passes. How pleasant to think that one might give light to His blessed feet if they were wandering from the way,—the dear little Child's feet, so rosy and soft and tender!" And good Grandmother Viaud dropped a tear upon her knitting; for she remembered many such little feet that had once pattered about the cottage floor. Prince lifted his head and seemed to listen, then whined as he had done before.
"You are lonely, old fellow, are you not?" quavered old Josef. "You are waiting for the children to come back and make it merry, as it used to be in the old days when you were a pup. Heigho! Those were pleasant days, but they will never come again, Prince. We are all growing old, we three together."
"Ah, peace, Josef, peace!" cried old Bettine, wiping her eyes again. "It is lonely enough and sad enough, God knows, without speaking of it. What use to sigh for that which cannot be? If the good Lord wished us to have a comforter in our old age, doubtless He would send us one. He knows how we have longed and prayed that a child's feet might echo through our house once more: how we have hoped from year to year that one of the grandchildren might return to bless us with his little presence." At this moment Prince jumped to his feet with a low bark, and stood trembling, with pointed ears.
"What dost thou hear, old dog?" asked the Grandfather carelessly. "There is naught human abroad this night, I warrant you. All wise folk are hugging the fire like us. Only those bad spirits of Christmas Eve are howling about for mischief, they say. Best keep away from the door, old Prince, lest they nip your toes or bite your nose for spite."
"Hush!" cried the Grandmother, laying her hand upon his arm. "You forget: there is the Other One abroad. It may be that He—"
She was interrupted by Prince, who ran eagerly to the door and began sniffing at the latch in great excitement. Then he gave a long, low howl. At the same moment the latch rattled, and the Viauds distinctly heard a little voice cry, "Open, open, good people!"
The old couple looked at each other; the cheeks of one flushed, and the other's paled. At the same moment they rose stiffly from their chairs by the fire. But Grandmother Bettine was first at the door. She lifted the latch, the door blew open violently, and with a loud bark Prince dashed out into the storm.
"What is it? Who is there?" cried Josef Viaud, peering over his wife's shoulder. But no one answered save the rough storm, which fiercely blew into the faces of the old couple, whirling and screaming about their heads. "H'm! It was only a fancy," muttered the old man. "Come in, Mother. Come, Prince!" and he whistled out into the storm. But the wind whistled too, drowning his voice, and Prince did not return. "He is gone!" cried Josef impatiently. "It is some evil spirit's work."
"Nay, Father!" and, as she spoke, the door banged violently in Josef's face, as if to emphasize the good wife's rebuke. "It was a little child; I heard it," insisted Bettine, as they staggered back to the fire and sank weakly into their chairs. "Perhaps it was the Holy Child Himself, who knows? But why would He not enter? Why, Josef! Oh, I fear we were not good enough!"
"I only know that we have perhaps lost our good dog. Why did you open the door, Bettine?" grumbled Josef sleepily.
"Prince is not lost. For what was he bred a snow-dog upon the mountains if a storm like this be danger to him? He is of the race that rescues, that finds and is never lost. Mayhap the Holy Child had work for him this night. Ah, the Little One! If I could but have seen Him for one moment!" And good Bettine's head nodded drowsily on her chair-back. Presently the old couple were fast asleep.
Now when they had been dreaming strange things for some time, there came a scratching at the door, and a loud bark which woke them suddenly.
"What was that?" exclaimed Grandfather, starting nervously. "Ho, Prince! Are you without there?" and he ran to the door, while Grandmother was still rubbing from her eyes the happy dream which had made them moist,—the dream of a rosy, radiant Child who was to be the care and comfort of a lonely cottage. And then, before she had fairly wakened from the dream, Prince bounded into the room and laid before the fire at her feet a soft, snow-wrapped bundle, from which hung a pale little face with golden hair.
"It is the Child of my dream!" cried Bettine. "The Holy One has come back to us."
"Nay, this is no dream-child, mother. This is a little human fellow, nearly frozen to death," exclaimed Josef Viaud, pulling the bundle toward the fire. "Come, Bettine, let us take off his snow-stiff clothes and get some little garments from the chests yonder. I will give him a draught of something warm, and rub the life into his poor little hands and feet. We have both been dreaming, it seems. But certainly this is no dream!"
"Look! The dove!" cried Grandmother, taking the bird from the child's bosom, where it still nestled, warm and warming. "Josef! I believe it is indeed the Holy Child Himself," she whispered. "He bears a dove in his bosom, like the image in the Church." But even as she spoke the dove fluttered in her fingers, then, with a gentle "Coo-roo!" whirled once about the little chamber and darted out at the door, which they had forgotten quite to close. With that the child opened his eyes.
"The dove is gone!" he cried. "Yet I am warm. Why—has the little Stranger come once more?" Then he saw the kind old faces bent over him, and felt Prince's warm kisses on his hands and cheeks, with the fire flickering pleasantly beyond.
"It is like coming home again!" he murmured, and with his head on Bettine's shoulder dropped comfortably to sleep.
On the morrow all the village went to see the image of the Christ Child lying in a manger near the high altar of the church. It was a sweet little Child in a white shirt, clasping in his hands a dove. They believed him to have come in the stormy night down the village street. And they were glad that their pious candles in the windows had guided Him safely on the road. But little Pierre, while he sang in the choir, and his adopted parents, the Viauds, kneeling happily below, had sweet thoughts of a dream which had brought them all together.
Who knows but that Prince at home happily guarding Pierre's snow-wet old shoes—who knows but that Prince was dreaming the happiest dream of all? For only Prince knew how and where and under what guidance he had found the little friend of the Lord's friends sleeping in the snow, with but a white dove in his bosom to keep him from becoming a boy of ice.