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w..- something half fierce, now, in the way she caressed his face.
"Come on with the bucket, brother," the said, cheerfully, stamping the clogging snow from her shoes, shading her eyes with her hand, and looking over the white stretch to the black line of hills chopping the east. "More like a hail-gust than rain. But I was afraid of that, you see," as they went up the path. "There 'a an old saying, that trouble always comes with rain. And it did in my life — to me"
She was talking to herself. Jem whistled, pretending not to hear; but he peered sharply into her face, with the relish which all sickly, premature children have for a mystery or pain. Very seldom was there hint of either about Martha Yarrow. She was an Ohio woman, smallboned, muscular, with healthy, quick blood, not a scrofulous, ill-tempered drop in her veins; in her brain only a very few and obstinate opinions, maybe, but all of them lying open to the sight of anybody who cared to know them. Not long ago, she had been a pretty, bouncing country-belle; now, she was a hard-working housewife: a Whig, because all the Clarks (her own family) were Whigs: going to the Baptist church, with no clear ideas about close communion or immersion, because she had married a country-parson. With a consciousness that she had borne a heavier pain in her life than most women, and ought to feel scourged and sad, she did cry out with such feeling sometimes,—but with a keen, natural relish for apple-butter parings, or fair-days, or a neighbor dropping in to tea, or anything that would give the children and herself a chance to joke and laugh, and be like other people agair. Between the two feelings, her temper was odd and uncertain enough. But in this December air, now, her still rounded cheek grew red, her breast heaved, her eyes sparkled, glad as a child wonld be, simply because it was cold and Christmas was coming; while the child Jem, with his tougher, less sappy animal nature, jogged gravely beside her, head
and eyes down. As for her every-day life, nobody's fires burned, nobody's windows shone like Martha Yarrow's; not a pound of butter went to market with the creamy, clovery taste her fingers worked into hers. She put a flavor, an elastic spring, into every bit of work she did, making it play. The very nervousness of the woman, her sudden fits of laughter and tears, impressed you as the effervescence of a zest of life which began at her birth. Nobody ever got to the end, or expected to get to the end, of her stories and scraps of old songs. Then, every day some new plan, keeping the whole house awake and alive: when Tom's birthday came, a surprise-feast of raspberries and cake; when Jem's new trousers were produced, they had been made up over-night, a dead secret, ten shining dimes in the pocket, fresh from the mint; even the penny string of blue beads for Catty, bought of Sims the peddler, was hid under her plate, and made quite a jollification of that supper. You may be sure, the five years just gone in that house had been short and merry and cozy enough for the children. Before
that Here Jem's memory flagged: ho
had been a baby then; Catty just born; yet, somehow, he never thought of that unknown time without the furtive, keen glance into his mother's face, and a frightened choking in the heart under his puny chest. Somewhere, back yonder, or in the years coming, some vague horror waited for him to fight. To-night, (always at Christmas, although then the glow and comfort of all days reached its heat,) this unaccountable dread was on the boy; why, he never know. It might be that under the hurry and preparation of Martha Yarrow on that day some deeper meaning did lie, which his instinct had discerned: more probably, however, it was but the sickly vagary of a child grown old too fast.
They hurried along the path now to reach the house and shut the night outside, for every moment the cold and dark' were growing heavier; the snow rasping under their feet, as its crust cracked; overhead, the sky-air frozen thin and gray, holding dead a low, watery halfmoon; now and then a more earthy, thicker gust breaking sharply round the hill, taking their breath. It was only a step, however, and Tom was holding the house-door open, letting a ruddy light stream out, and with it a savory smell of supper. Tom halloed, and that blueeyed pudge of a Catty pounded on the window with her fat little fist.- How hot the fire glowed! Somehow all Christmas seemed waiting in there. It was time to hurry along. Even Ready came out, shaking his shaggy old sides impatiently in the snow, and began to dog them, snapping at Jem's heels. Like most old people, he liked his ease, and was apt to be out of sorts, if meals were kept waiting. Ready's whims always made Martha laugh as she did when she was a young girl: they knew each other then, long before Jem was born.
"Come on, old Truepenny," she said, going in.
There was comfort. Nothing in that house, from the red woollen curtains to the bright poker, which did not have its part to play for Christmas. Nothing that did not say "Christmas," from Catty's eyes to the very supper-table. Of course, I don't mean the Christmas dinner, when I say supper. Tom could have told you. Somewhere in his paunchy little body he kept a perpetual bill of fare, checked off or unchecked. He based and stayed his mind now on preparations in the pantry. Something solid there! A haunch of venison, mince-meat, winter succotash, a roasted peahen,—and that is the top and crown of Nature's efforts in the way of fowls. For suppers, — pish! However, Tom ate with the rest. Mother was hungry; so they were very leisurely, and joked and laughed to that extent that even Catty was uproarious when they were through. Then Jem fell to work at the great coals, and battered them into a rousing fire.
"I 'll go and fasten the shutters," said Tom.
Martha Yarrow's back was to the win
dow. She turned shai-ply. The si'.kly white moon lighted up the snow-waste out there ; some one might be out in those frozen fields, — some one who was coming home,—who had been pone for years, — years. Jem was watching her.
"Leave the windows alone, Tom," he said. "It won't hurt the night to see my fire."
He pulled his cricket close up to her, and took her hand to pet. It was cold, and her teeth chattered. However, they were all so snug and close together, and Christmas, that great warm-hearted day, was so near upon them, as full of love and hearty, warm enjoyment as the living God could send it, that its breath filled all their hearts; and presently Martha Yarrow's face was brighter than Catty's. They were noisy and busy enough. The programme for to-morrow was to make out; that put all heads to work to plan: the stockings to be opened, and dinner, and maybe a visit to the menagerie in the afternoon. That was Martha's surprise, and she was not disappointed in the applause it brought. It made the tears come to her eyes, an hour after, when she was going to bed, remembering it.
"It takes such a little thing to make them happy," she said to herself, — "or me, either," with a somewhat silly face.
She tried to thank God for giving them so much, but only sobbed. After the confusion about the show was over, and Catty had been wakened into a vague jungle of tigers and lions and Shetland ponies, and put to sleep again, they subsided enough to remember the winding-up of the day. Quiet that was to be; the children from Shag's Point were coming up, some half-dozen in all, for their share of Christmas. Poorer than the Yarrows, you understand? though but a little; in fact, there were not many steps farther down: peahens and cranberries were not for every day. Well, to-morrow evening Jem would tell them the story of the Stable and the Child, and how that the Child was with us yet, if we could only see. Jem was always his mother's spokesman, and put the meaning of Christmas into words: she never talked of such things. Yet they always watched her face, when they spoke of them, — watched it now, and looked, as she did, into the little room beyond the kitchen where they sat, their eyes growing still and brighter. There might have been a tinge of the savage or the Frenchman in Martha Yarrow's nature, she had so strong a propensity to make real, apparent to the senses, what few ideas she had, even her religion. A good skill to do it, too. The recess out of the kitchen was only a small closet, but, with the aid of a softly tinted curtain or two, and the nebulous light of a concealed lamp, she had contrived to give it an air of distance and reserve. Within were green wreaths hung over the white washed walls, and an altar-shaped little white table, covered with heaps of crimson leaves and bright berries, such as grow in the snow; only a few flowers, but enough to fill the air with fragrance; the children's Christmas gifts, and wax-lights burning before a picture, the child Jesus, looking down on them with a smile as glad as their own. A thoroughly real person to the boys, this Christ for childhood; for she built the little altar before this picture on all their holidays: something in the woman herself needing the story of the Stable and the Child. If she were doing a healthier work on the souls of that morbid Jem and glutton Tom than could a thousand after-sermons, she did not know it: never guessed, either, when they absorbed day by day hardly enough the force of her toughmuscled endurance and wholesome laugh, that she prepared the way of the Lord and made His paths straight. Yet what matter who knew?
But to go on with our story. There were times — once or twice to-night, for instance — when she ceased doing even her unconscious work. Assuredly, somewhere back in her life, something had gone amiss with this silly, helpful creature, and left a taint on her brain. The hearty, pretty smile would go suddenly
from her face, something foreign looking out of it, instead, as if a pestilent thought had got into her soul; she would rise uneasily, going to the window, looking out, her forehead leaning on the glass, her body twitching weakly. One would think from her face she saw some woik in the world which God had forgotten. What could it matter to her? Whatever hurt her, it was the one word which her garrulous lips never hinted. Once to-night she spoke more plainly than Jem had ever known her to do in all his life. It was after the children had gone to bed, which they did, shouting and singing, and playing circus-riders over the pillows, their mother leaning her elbows on the foot-board, laughing, in the mean time. Jem got up, after the others were asleep, and stole after her, in his little flannel drawers, back to the kitchen. By the window again, as he had feared, the woollen sock which she was knitting for Tom in her hand, the yarn all tangled and broken. Ready was by her knees, winking sleepily. The old dog was growing surlywith his years, as we said : Jem remembered when he used to romp and tussle with him, but that was long ago: f he lay in the chimney-corner always now, growling at Martha herself even, if her singing or laugh disturbed his nap. But when these strange moods came on her, Jem noticed that the yellow old beast seemed conscious of it sooner than any one beside, crept up to her, stood by her: that she clung to him, not to her children. He was licking her hand now, his red eye, drowsy though it was, watching her as if danger were nigh. A dog you would not slight. Inside of his hot-headedness and courage there was that reserved look in his eyes, which some men and brutes have, that says they have a life of their own to live separate from yours, and they know it. The boy crept up jealously, thrust his nnmB fingers into his mother's hand. She started, looking down.
"It grows into a clear winter's night, Jemmy," trying to speak carelessly.
So they stood looking out together. The fire had burned down into a great bed of flameless coals, the kitchen glowed warm and red, throwing out even a patch of ruddy light on the snow-covered yard without. A cold, but comfortable bome-look out there: the bit of garden, fences, cow-house, pump, heaped with the snow; old Dolly asleep in her stable: Jem wrapped himself in his mother's skirt with ,1 sudden relish of warm snugness. What made her pull at Ready's neck with such nervous jerks? She saw nothing beyond? Jem stood on tiptoe, peering out . There was no hint of the hailt f . n I> they had prophesied, in the night: the moon stood lower now in the sky, filling the air with a yellow, frosty brilliance. Yet something strangely cold, dead, unfamiliar, in the night yonder, chilled him. Neither sound nor motion there; hills, river, and fields, distinct, sharply cut in pallor, but ghost-like: it made him afraid. There seemed to be no end of them; the hills to the north ran low, and beyond them he could see more blue and cold and distance, going on — who could tell where? to the eternal ice and snow, it might be. She felt it, he knew. The boy was frightened, tried to pull her back to the fire, when something he saw outside made him stop suddenly. Shag's Hill, the nearest of the ledge to the house, ra a low, narrow cone, with a sharp rim against the sky; the moon had sunk half behind it, lighting the surface of drifted mow which faced them. Across this there suddenly fell a long, uncertain shadow, which belonged neither to bush nor tree: it might be the flicker of a cloud; or a man, passing across the top of the hill, would make it. It was nothing; tome of the coal-diggers from the Point going home; he pulled at her petticoat again.
"Come to the fire, dear," he said, looking up.
Her whole face'and neck were hot; she laughed and trembled as if some spasm were upon her.
"Do you see ' / " she cried, trying to force the window open. "Oh, Jemmy, it might be! it might! "•
Jem was used to his mother's unaccountable whims of mood. Ready, however, startled him. The dog pricked up his ears, sniffed the air once or twice, then, after a grave pause of a minute, with a sharp howl, such as Jem had not heard him give for years, dashed through the kitchen into the wash-shed and out across ^the fields. Martha Yarrow turned away from the window, and leaned her head against the dresser - shelves: standing quite still, only that she clutched Jem'a band. The clock ticked noisily as a half-hour went by; the fi-.o burned lower and dark. The dog came back at last, dragging his feet heavily, came up close to her, and crouched down with a half human moan> After a long time he got up, went out into the wash-kitchen in a spiritless way, and did not return again that night. She did not move. It seemed a long time to the child before she turned, her face wet with tears, and took him up in her arms, chafing his cold fuet.
"It could not be! I knew that, Jemmy. I was n't a fool. But I thought
Oh, Pet, I 've waited such a long while!"
He patted her checks, soothing her,— the more effectually, perhaps, that he did not know what troubled her.
"Why, it 's Christmas, mother," he said.
"I know that. You see, I thought," her eyes fastened on his in an appealing sort of way, " that, being Christmas, if there should be any lost body wandering out on the fields that God had forgotten
. What then?" all the blood gone
from her face. "Why, what then, Jem? No home, no one to say to him, 'Here 's home, here's wife and children a-waiting to love you,—oh, sick with waiting to love you!' No one to say that, Jem. And him wandering out in the cold, going quick back to the mouth of hell, not knowing how God loved him."
"If there is such a one," Jem said, steadily, though his lip trembled, " God will let him know."
"There is no such one," sharply. "There is no one vonder but knows hit home, and is nearer to his God than you or I, James Yarrow." .
The boy made no reply, — sat on her knees looking earnestly into the fire. He had more nearly guessed her secret than the knew, — near enough to know how to comfort her. After a while, when she was quiet, he turned, and put his thin arms about her neck, smiling.
"Take me into your bed, mother. 1 -in !-" coldl Let me into old Catty's place this once."
She nodded, pleased, and, putting him to bed, soon followed him. When she held him snugly in her arms, the replenished fire making hot, flickering shadows from the next room, he whispered, —
"Next Christmas, mother I Only one year more I"
Again the quick shiver of her body; but this time her breath was gentle, a soft light in her eyes.
"Well, and then, my son?"
"Why, some one else then will call me son. How long he has been gone, dear I so long that I never saw him nnce I was a bit of a baby."
"Five years. Yes. Well, dear?" anxiously.
Her eyes were shut, he stroked the lids softly, thinking how moist and red her lips were: never as beautiful a face as the little mother's; for so Jem, feeling quite grown up in his heart, called her there.
"Well, then, no more trouble, but somebody to take care of us all the time. Whenever I see a preacher, now, I think
of father" stopping abruptly, with
that anxious, incisive look so sad to see on a child's face.
She did not reply at first; then, —
"He preached God's word as he knew it," she said, dryly.
"And whenever I hear of a good, brave man, I think, 'That's like father I'"
Her eyes opened now.
"That's true, Jemmy \ God knows that 's true I So proud my boy will be of his father \"
She Hid not say anything more, but began playing with his hair, her mouth
unsteady, and a bashful, dreamy smile in her eyes. She looked very young and girlish in the mellow light.
"He's not coarse like me, Jem," she said at last. "Even more like a woman in some ways. He always came nearer to you children, for instance; I mind how you always used to creep away from me close to him at night . He hates noise, Stephen does, — and mean, scraping ways, such as we 're used to, being poor. My boy 'll mind that? We 'll keep anything shabby out of his sight, when he comes back."
"I'll mind," said Jem, dryly. "But
Well, no matter. We're to try
and be like him, Tom and 1? 1 understand."
She drew down her head suddenly into the pillow. Jem had been growing sleepy, but he started wide awake now, trying to see her face: the pretty pink color his questions had brought was gone from it.
"Did you speak, mother?"
"I said we are to be men like him, Tom and I, if we can?"
He knew he had touched her to the quick somehow: his heart beat thick with the old childish terror, as he waited for her answer.
"Yes, you are to try, my son."
Martha Yarrow's frivolous chirruping voice was altered, with meaning in it he never had heard before, as if her answer came out of some depth where God had faced her soul, and forced it to speak truth. But when, after that, the boy, curious to know more, went on with his questions, she quieted him gravely, kissed him good-night, and turned over, — to sleep, he concluded, from her regular breathing. However, when Jem, after a while, began to snore, she got up and went to the kitchen-fire^ kneeling down on the stone hearth: her head was on fire, and her body cold.
"So they shall be like him \" she whispered, with a fierce, baited look, as if by her wife's trust in him she defied the whole world. "I have kept my word.