"I don't see how it happened, for my part," Mrs. Childs said. "Paulina, you set the table."
"You counted up yesterday how many there'd be, and you said twelve; don't you know you did, mother? So I didn't count to-day. I just put on the plates," said Paulina, smilingly defensive.
Paulina had something of a helpless and gentle look when she smiled. Her mouth was rather large, and the upper jaw full, so the smile seemed hardly under her control. She was quite pretty; her complexion was so delicate and her eyes so pleasant. "Well, I don't see how I made such a blunder," her mother remarked further, as she went on pouring tea.
On the opposite side of the table were a plate, a knife and fork, and a little dish of cranberry sauce, with an empty chair before them. There was no guest to fill it.
"It's a sign somebody's comin' that's hungry," Mrs. Childs' brother's wife said, with soft effusiveness which was out of proportion to the words.
The brother was carving the turkey. Caleb Childs, the host, was an old man, and his hands trembled. Moreover, no one, he himself least of all, ever had any confidence in his ability in such directions. Whenever he helped himself to gravy, his wife watched anxiously lest be should spill it, and he always did. He spilled some to-day. There was a great spot on the beautiful clean table-cloth. Caleb set his cup and saucer over it quickly, with a little clatter because of his unsteady hand. Then he looked at his wife. He hoped she had not seen, but she had.
"You'd better have let John give you the gravy," she said, in a stern aside.
John, rigidly solicitous, bent over the turkey. He carved slowly and laboriously, but everybody had faith in him. The shoulders to which a burden is shifted have the credit of being strong. His wife, in her best black dress, sat smilingly, with her head canted a little to one side. It was a way she had when visiting. Ordinarily she did not assume it at her sister-in-law's house, but this was an extra occasion. Her fine manners spread their wings involuntarily. When she spoke about the sign, the young woman next her sniffed.
"I don't take any stock in signs," said she, with a bluntness which seemed to crash through the other's airiness with such force as to almost hurt itself. She was a distant cousin of Mr. Childs. Her husband and three children were with her. Mrs. Childs' unmarried sister, Maria Stone, made up the eleven at the table. Maria's gaunt face was unhealthily red about the pointed nose and the high cheek-bones; her eyes looked with a steady sharpness through her spectacles. "Well, it will be time enough to believe the sign when the twelfth one comes," said she, with a summary air. She had a judicial way of speaking. She had taught school ever since she was sixteen, and now she was sixty. She had just given up teaching. It was to celebrate that, and her final home-coming, that her sister was giving a Christmas dinner instead of a Thanksgiving one this year. The school had been in session during Thanksgiving week.
Maria Stone had scarcely spoken when there was a knock on the outer door, which led directly into the room. They all started. They were a plain, unimaginative company, but for some reason a thrill of superstitious and fantastic expectation ran through them. No one arose. They were all silent for a moment, listening and looking at the empty chair in their midst. Then the knock came again.
"Go to the door, Paulina," said her mother.
The young girl looked at her half fearfully, but she rose at once, and went and opened the door. Everybody stretched around to see. A girl stood on the stone step looking into the room. There she stood, and never said a word. Paulina looked around at her mother, with her innocent, half-involuntary smile.
"Ask her what she wants," said Mrs. Childs.
What do you want?" repeated Paulina, like a sweet echo.
Still the girl said nothing. A gust of north wind swept into the room. John's wife shivered, then looked around to see if any one had noticed it.
"You must speak up quick an' tell what you want, so we can shut the door; it's cold," said Mrs. Childs.
The girl's small sharp face was sheathed in an old worsted hood; her eyes glared out of it like a frightened cat's. Suddenly she turned to go. She was evidently abashed by the company.
"Don't you want somethin' to eat?" Mrs. Childs asked, speaking up louder.
"It ain't no matter." She just mumbled it.
She would not repeat it. She was quite off the step by this time.
"You make her come in, Paulina," said Maria Stone, suddenly. "She wants something to eat, but she's half scared to death. You talk to her."
"Hadn't you better come in, and have something to eat?" said Paulina, shyly persuasive.
"Tell her she can sit right down here by the stove, where it's warm, and have a good plate of dinner," said Maria.
Paulina fluttered softly down to the stone step. The chilly snow-wind came right in her sweet, rosy face. "You can have a chair by the stove, where it's warm, and a good plate of dinner," said she.
The girl looked at her.
"Won't you come in?" said Paulina, of her own accord, and always smiling.
The stranger made a little hesitating movement forward.
"Bring her in, quick! and shut the door," Maria called out then. And Paulina entered with the girl stealing timidly in her wake.
"Take off your hood an' shawl," Mrs. Childs said, "an' sit down here by the stove, an' I'll give you some dinner." She spoke kindly. She was a warm-hearted woman, but she was rigidly built, and did not. relax too quickly into action.
But the cousin, who had been observing, with head alertly raised, interrupted. She cast a mischievous glance at John's wife--the empty chair was between them. "For pity's sake!" cried she; "you ain't goin' to shove her off in the corner? Why, here's this chair. She's the twelfth one. Here's where she ought to sit." There was a mixture of heartiness and sport in the young woman's manner. She pulled the chair back from the table. "Come right over here," said she.
There was a slight flutter of consternation among the guests. They were all narrow-lived country people. Their customs had made deeper grooves in their roads; they were more fastidious and jealous of their social rights than many in higher positions. They eyed this forlorn girl, in her in her faded and dingy woollens which fluttered airily and showed their pitiful thinness.
Mrs. Childs stood staring at the cousin. She did not think she could be in earnest.
But she was. "Come," said she; "put some turkey in this plate, John."
"Why, it's jest as the rest of you say," Mrs. Childs said, finally, with hesitation. She looked embarrassed and doubtful.
"Say! Why, they say just as I do," the cousin went on. "Why shouldn't they? Come right around here." She tapped the chair impatiently.
The girl looked at Mrs. Childs. "You can go an' sit down there where she says," she said, slowly, in a constrained tone.
"Come," called the cousin again. And the girl took the empty chair, with the guests all smiling stiffly.
Mrs. Childs began filling a plate for the new-comer.
Now that her hood was removed, one could see her face more plainly. It was thin, and of that pale brown tint which exposure gives to some blond skins. Still there was a tangible beauty which showed through all that. Her fair hair stood up softly, with a kind of airy roughness which caught the light. She was apparently about sixteen.
"What's your name?" inquired the school-mistress sister, suddenly.
The girl started. "Christine," she said, after a second.
A little thrill ran around the table. The company looked at each other. They were none of them conversant with the Christmas legends, but at that moment the universal sentiment of them seemed to seize upon their fancies. The day, the mysterious appearance of the girl, the name, which was strange to their ears--all startled them, and gave them a vague sense of the supernatural. They, however, struggled against it with their matter-of-fact pride, and threw it off directly.
"Christine what?" Maria asked further.
The girl kept her scared eyes on Maria's face, but she made no reply.
"What's your other name? Why don't you speak?"
Suddenly she rose.
"What are you goin' to do?"
"I'd--ruther--go, I guess."
"What are you goin' for? You ain't had your dinner."
"I--can't tell it," whispered the girl.
"Can't tell your name?"
She shook her head.
"Sit down, and eat your dinner," said Maria.
There was a strong sentiment of disapprobation among the company. But when Christine's food was actually before her, and she seemed to settle down upon it, like a bird, they viewed her with more toleration. She was evidently half starved. Their discovery of that fact gave them at once a fellow-feeling toward her on this feast-day, and a complacent sense of their own benevolence.
As the dinner progressed the spirits of the party appeared to rise, and a certain jollity which was almost hilarity prevailed. Beyond providing the strange guest plentifully with food, they seemed to ignore her entirely. Still nothing was more certain than the fact that they did not. Every outburst of merriment was yielded to with the most thorough sense of her presence, which appeared in some subtle way to excite it. It was as if this forlorn twelfth guest were the foreign element needed to produce a state of nervous effervescence in those staid, decorous people who surrounded her. This taste of mystery and unusualness, once fairly admitted, although reluctantly, to their unaccustomed palates, served them as wine with their Christmas dinner.
It was late in the afternoon when they arose from the table. Christine went directly for her hood and shawl, and put them on. The others, talking among themselves, were stealthily observant of her. Christine began opening the door.
"Are you goin' home now?" asked Mrs. Childs.
"I ain't got any."
"Where did you come from?"
The girl looked at her. Then she unlatched the door.
"Stop!" Mrs. Childs cried, sharply. "What are you goin' for? Why don't you answer?"
She stood still, but did not speak.
"Well, shut the door up, an' wait a minute," said Mrs. Childs.
She stood close to a window, and she stared out scrutinizingly. There was no house in sight. First came a great yard, then wide stretches of fields; a desolate gray road curved around them on the left. The sky was covered with still, low clouds; the sun had not shone out that day. The ground was all bare and rigid. Out in the yard some gray hens were huddled together in little groups for warmth; their red combs showed out. Two crows flew up, away over on the edge of the field.
"It's goin' to snow," said Mrs. Childs.
"I'm afeard it is," said Caleb, looking at the girl.
He gave a sort of silent sob, and brushed some tears out of his old eyes with the back of his hands.
"See here a minute, Maria," said Mrs. Childs.
The two women whispered together; then Maria stepped in front of the girl, and stood, tall and stiff and impressive.
"Now see here," said she; "we want you to speak up and tell us your other name, and where you came from, and not keep us waiting any longer."
"I--can't." They guessed what she said from the motion of her head. She opened the door entirely then and stepped out.
Suddenly Maria made one stride forward and seized her by her shoulders, which felt like knife-blades through the thin clothes. "Well," said she, " we've been fussing long enough; we've got all these dishes to clear away. It's bitter cold, and it's going to snow, and you ain't going out of this house one step to-night, no matter what you are. You'd ought to tell us who you are, and it ain't many folks that would keep you if you wouldn't; but we ain't goin' to have you found dead in the road, for our own credit. It ain't on your account. Now you just take those things off again, and go and sit down in that chair."
Christine sat in the chair. Her pointed chin dipped down on her neck, whose poor little muscles showed above her dress, which sagged away from it. She never looked up. The women cleared off the table, and cast curious glances at her.
After the dishes were washed and put away, the company were all assembled in the sitting-room for an hour or so; then they went home. The cousin, passing through the kitchen to join her husband, who was waiting with his team at the door, ran hastily up to Christine.
"You stop at my house when you go to-morrow morning," said she. "Mrs. Childs will tell you where 'tis-half a mile below here."
When the company were all gone, Mrs. Childs called Christine into the sitting-room. "You'd better come in here and sit now," said she. "I'm goin' to let the kitchen fire go down; I ain't goin' to get another regular meal; I'm jest goin' to make a cup of tea on the sittin'-room stove by-an'-by."
The sitting-room was warm, and restrainedly comfortable with its ordinary village furnishings--its ingrain carpet, its little peaked clock on a corner of the high black shelf, its red-covered card-table, which had stood in the same spot for forty years. There was a little newspaper-covered stand, with some plants on it, before a window. There was one red geranium in blossom.
Paulina was going out that evening. Soon after the company went she commenced to get ready, and her mother and aunt seemed to be helping her. Christine was alone in the sitting-room for the greater part of an hour.
Finally the three women came in, and Paulina stood before the sitting-room glass for a last look at herself. She had on her best red cashmere, with some white lace around her throat. She had a red geranium flower with some leaves in her hair. Paulina's brown hair, which was rather thin, was very silky. It was apt to part into little soft strands on her forehead. She wore it brushed smoothly back. Her mother would not allow her to curl it.
The two older women stood looking at her. "Don't you think she looks nice, Christine?" Mrs. Childs asked, in a sudden overflow of love and pride, which led her to ask sympathy from even this forlorn source.
"Yes, marm." Christine regarded Paulina, in her red cashmere and geranium flower, with sharp, solemn eyes. When she really looked at any one, her gaze was as unflinching as that of a child.
There was a sudden roll of wheels in the yard.
"Willard's come!" said Mrs. Childs. "Run to the door an' tell him you'll be right out, Paulina, an' I'll get your things ready."
After Paulina had been helped into her coat and hood, and the wheels had bowled out of the yard with a quick dash, the mother turned to Christine.
"My daughter's gone to a Christmas tree over to the church," said she. "That was Willard Morris that came for her. He's a real nice young man that lives about a mile from here."
Mrs. Childs' tone was at once gently patronizing and elated.
When Christine was shown to a little back bedroom that night, nobody dreamed how many times she was to occupy it. Maria and Mrs. Childs, who after the door was closed set a table against it softly and erected a tiltish pyramid of milkpans, to serve as an alarm in case the strange guest should try to leave her room with evil intentions, were fully convinced that she would depart early on the following morning.
"I dun know but I've run an awful risk keeping her, " Mrs. Childs said. "I don't like her not tellin' where she come from. Nobody knows but she belongs to a gang of burglars, an' they've kind of sent her on ahead to spy out things an' unlock the doors for 'em."
"I know it," said Maria. "I wouldn't have had her stay for a thousand dollars if it hadn't looked so much like snow. Well, I'll get up an' start her off early in the morning."
But Maria Stone could not carry out this resolution. The next morning she was ill with a sudden and severe attack of erysipelas. Moreover, there was a hard snow-storm, the worst of the season; it would have been barbarous to have turned the girl out-of-doors on such a morning. Moreover, she developed an unexpected capacity for usefulness. She assisted Pauline about the housework with timid alacrity, and Mrs. Childs could devote all her time to her sister.
"She takes right hold as if she was used to it," she told Maria. "I'd rather keep her a while than not, if I only knew a little more about her."
"I don't believe but what I could get it out of her after a while if I tried," said Maria, with her magisterial air, which illness could not subdue.
However, even Maria, with all her well-fostered imperiousness, had no effect on the girl's resolution; she continued as much of a mystery as ever. Still the days went on, then the weeks and months, and she remained in the Childs family.
None of them could tell exactly how it had been brought about. The most definite course seemed to be that her arrival had apparently been the signal for a general decline of health in the family. Maria had hardly recovered when Caleb Childs was laid up with the rheumatism; then Mrs. Childs had a long spell of exhaustion from overwork in nursing. Christine proved exceedingly useful in these emergencies. Their need of her appeared to be the dominant, and only outwardly evident, reason for her stay; still there was a deeper one which they themselves only faintly realized--this poor young girl, who was rendered almost repulsive to these honest downright folk by her persistent cloak of mystery, had somehow, in a very short time, melted herself, as it were, into their own lives. Christine asleep of a night in her little back bedroom, Christine of a day stepping about the house in one of Paulina's old gowns, became a part of their existence, and a part which was not far from the nature of a sweetness to their senses.
She still retained her mild shyness of manner, and rarely spoke unless spoken to. Now that she was warmly sheltered and well fed, her beauty became evident. She grew prettier every day. Her cheeks became softly dimpled; her hair turned golden. Her language was rude and illiterate, but its very uncouthness had about it something of a soft grace.
She was really prettier than Paulina.
The two young girls were much together, but could hardly be said to be intimate. There were few confidences between them, and confidences are essential for the intimacy of young girls.
Willard Morris came regularly twice a week to see Paulina, and everybody spoke of them as engaged to each other.
Along in August Mrs. Childs drove over to town one afternoon and bought a piece of cotton cloth and a little embroidery and lace. Then some fine sewing went on, but with no comment in the household. Mrs. Childs had simply said, "I guess we may as well get a few things made up for you, Paulina, you're getting rather short." And Paulina had sewed all day long, with a gentle industry, when the work was ready.
There was a report that the marriage was to take place on Thanksgiving Day. But about the first of October Willard Morris stopped going to the Childs house. There was no explanation. He simply did not come as usual on Sunday night, nor the following Wednesday, nor the next Sunday. Paulina kindled her little parlor fire, whose sticks she had laid with maiden preciseness; she arrayed herself in her best gown and ribbons. When at nine o'clock Willard had not come, she blew out the parlor lamp, shut up the parlor stove, and went to bed. Nothing was said before her, but there was much talk and surmise between Mrs. Childs and Maria, and a good deal of it went on before Christine.
It was a little while after the affair of Cyrus Morris's note, and they wondered if it could have anything to do with that. Cyrus Morris was Willard's uncle, and the note affair had occasioned much distress in the Childs family for a month back. The note was for twenty-five hundred dollars, and Cyrus Morris had given it to Caleb Childs. The time, which was two years, had expired on the first of September, and then Caleb could not find the note.
He had kept it in his old-fashioned desk, which stood in one corner of the kitchen. He searched there a day and half a night, pulling all the soiled, creasy old papers out of the drawers and pigeonholes before he would answer his wife's inquiries as to what be had lost.
Finally he broke down and told. "I've lost that note of Morris's," said he. "I dun know what I'm goin' to do."
He stood looking gloomily at the desk with its piles of papers. His rough old chin dropped down on his breast.
The women were all in the kitchen, and they stopped and stared.
"Why, father," said his wife, "where have you put it?"
"I put it here in this top drawer, and it ain't there."
"Let me look," said Maria, in a confident tone. But even Maria's energetic and self-assured researches failed. "Well, it ain't here," said she. "I don't know what you've done with it."
"I don't believe you put it in that drawer, father," said his wife.
"It was in there two weeks ago. I see it."
"Then you took it out afterwards."
"I ain't laid hands on't."
"You must have; it couldn't have gone off without hands. You know you're kind of forgetful, father."
"I guess I know when I've took a paper out of a drawer. I know a leetle somethin' yit."
"Well, I don't suppose there'll be any trouble about it, will there?" said Mrs. Childs. "Of course he knows he give the note, an' had the money."
"I dun know as there'll be any trouble, but I'd ruther give a hundred dollar than had it happen."
After dinner Caleb shaved, put on his other coat and hat, and trudged soberly up the road to Cyrus Morris's. Cyrus Morris was an elderly man, who had quite a local reputation for wealth and business shrewdness. Caleb, who was lowly-natured and easily impressed by another's importance, always made a call upon him quite a formal affair, and shaved and dressed up. He was absent about an hour to-day. When he returned he went into the sitting-room, where the women sat with their sewing. He dropped into a chair, and looked straight ahead, with his forehead knitted.
The women dropped their work and looked at him, and then at each other.
"What did he say, father?" Mrs. Childs asked at length.
"Say! He's a rascal, that's what he is, an' I'll tell him so, too."
"Ain't he goin' to pay it?"
"No, he ain't."
"Why, father, I don't believe it! You didn't get hold of it straight," said his wife.
"Why, what did he say?"
"He didn't say anything."
"Doesn't he remember he had the money and gave the note, and has been paying interest on it?" queried Maria.
"He jest laughed, an' said 'twa'n't accordin' to law to pay unless I showed the note an' give it up to him. He said he couldn't be sure but I'd want him to pay it over ag'in. I know where that note is!"
Caleb's voice had deep meaning in it. The women stared at him.
"It's in Cyrus Morris's desk--that's where it is."
"Why, father, you're crazy!"
"No, I ain't crazy, nuther. I know what I'm talkin' about. I--"
"It's just where you put it," interrupted Maria, taking up her sewing with a switch; "and I wouldn't lay the blame onto anybody else."
"You'd ought to ha' looked out for a paper like that," said his wife. "I guess I should if it had been me. If you've gone an' lost all that money through your carelessness, you've done it, that's all I've got to say. I don't see what we're goin' to do."
Caleb bent forward and fixed his eyes upon the women. He held up his shaking hand impressively. "If you'll stop talkin' just a minute," said he, "I'll tell you what I was goin' to. Now I'd like to know just one thing: Wa'n't Cyrus Morris alone in that kitchen as much as fifteen minutes a week ago to-day? Didn't you leave him there while you went to look arter me? Wa'n't the key in the desk? Answer me that!"
His wife looked at him with cold surprise and severity.
"I wouldn't talk in any such way as that if I was you, father," said she. "It don't show a Christian spirit. It's jest layin' the blame of your own carelessness onto somebody else. You're all the one that's to blame. An' when it comes to it, you'd never ought to let Cyrus Morris have the money anyhow. I could have told you better. I knew what kind of a man he was."
"He's a rascal," said Caleb, catching eagerly at the first note of foreign condemnation in his wife's words. "He'd ought to be put in state's-prison. I don't think much of his relations nuther. I don't want nothin' to do with 'em, an' I don't want none of my folks to."
Paulina's soft cheeks flushed. Then she suddenly spoke out as she had never spoken in her life.
"It doesn't make it out because he's a bad man that his relations are," said she. "You haven't any right to speak so, father. And I guess you won't stop me having anything to do with them, if you want to."
She was all pink and trembling. Suddenly she burst out crying, and ran out of the room.
"You'd ought to be ashamed of yourself, father," exclaimed Mrs. Childs.
"I didn't think of her takin' on it so," muttered Caleb, humbly. "I didn't mean nothin'."
Caleb did not seem like himself through the following days. His simple old face took on an expression of strained thought, which made it look strange. He was tottering on a height of mental effort and worry which was almost above the breathing capacity of his innocent and placid nature. Many a night he rose, lighted a candle, and tremulously fumbled over his desk until morning, in the vain hope of finding missing note.
One night, while he was so searching, some one touched him softly on the arm.
He jumped and turned. It was Christine. She had stolen in silently.
"Oh, it's you!" said he.
"Ain't you found it?"
"Found it? No; an' I sha'n't, nuther." He turned away from her and pulled out another drawer. The girl stood watching him wistfully. "It was a big yellow paper," the old man went on--"a big yellow paper, an' I'd wrote on the back on't, 'Cyrus Morris's note.' An' the interest he'd, paid was set down on the back on't, too."
"It's too bad you can't find it," said she.
"It ain't no use lookin'; it ain't here, an' that's the hull on't. It's in his desk. I ain't got no more doubt on't than nothin' at all."
"Where--does he keep his desk?"
"In his kitchen; it's jest like this one."
"Would this key open it?"
"I dun know but 'twould. But it ain't no use. I s'pose I'll have to lose it." Caleb sobbed silently and wiped his eyes.
A few days later he came, all breathless, into the sitting room. He could hardly speak; but he held out a folded yellow paper, which fluttered and blew in his unsteady hand like a yellow maple-leaf in an autumn gale.
"Look-a-here!" he gasped--"look-a-here!"
"Why, for goodness' sake, what's the matter?" cried Maria. She and Mrs. Childs and Paulina were there, sewing peacefully.
"Why, for mercy's sake, what is it, father? Are you crazy?"
"What note? Don't get so excited, father."
"Cyrus Morris's note. That's what note 'tis. Look-a-here!"
The women all arose and pressed around him, to look at it.
"Where did you find it, father?" asked his wife, who was quite pale.
"I suppose it was just where you put it," broke in Maria, with sarcastic emphasis.
"No, it wa'n't. No, it wa'n't, nuther. Don't you go to crowin' too quick, Maria. That paper was just where I told you 'twas. What do you think of that, hey?"
"Oh, father, you didn't!"
"It was layin' right there in his desk. That's where 'twas. Jest where I knew--" "Father, you didn't go over there an' take it!"
The three women stared at him with dilated eyes.
"No, I didn't."
The old man jerked his head towards the kitchen door. "She."
"How did she get it?" asked Maria, in her magisterial manner, which no astonishment could agitate.
"She saw Cyrus and Mis' Morris ride past, an' then she run over there, an' she got in through the window an' got it; that's how." Caleb braced himself like a stubborn child, in case any exception were taken to it all.
"It beats everything I ever heard," said Mrs. Childs, faintly.
"Next time you'll believe what I tell you!" said Caleb.
The whole family were in a state of delight over the recovery of the note; still Christine got rather hesitating gratitude. She was sharply questioned, and rather reproved than otherwise.
This theft, which could hardly be called a theft, aroused the old distrust of her.
"It served him just right, and it wasn't stealing, because it didn't belong to him; and I don't know what you would have done if she hadn't taken it," said Maria; "but, for all that, it went all over me."
"So it did over me," said her sister. " I felt just as you did, an' I felt as if it was real ungrateful too, when the poor child did it just for us."
But there were no such misgivings for poor Caleb, with his money, and his triumph over iniquitous Cyrus Morris. He was wholly and unquestioningly grateful.
"It was a blessed day when we took that little girl in," he told his wife.
"I hope it'll prove so," said she.
Paulina took her lover's desertion quietly. She had just as many soft smiles for every one; there was no alteration in her gentle, obliging ways. Still her mother used to listen at her door, and she knew that she cried instead of sleeping many a night. She was not able to eat much, either, although she tried to with pleasant willingness when her mother urged her.
After a while she was plainly grown thin, and her pretty color had faded. Her mother could not keep her eyes from her.
"Sometimes I think I'll go an' ask Willard myself what this kind of work means," she broke out with an abashed abruptness one afternoon. She and Paulina happened to be alone in the sitting-room.
"You'll kill me if you do, mother," said Paulina. Then she began to cry.
"Well, I won't do anything you don't want me to, of course," said her mother. She pretended not to see that Paulina was crying.
Willard had stopped coming about the first of October; the time wore on until it was the first of December, and he had not once been to the house, and Paulina had not exchanged a word with him in the meantime.
One night she had a fainting-spell. She fell heavily while crossing the sitting-room floor. They got her on to the lounge, and she soon revived; but her mother had lost all control of herself. She came out into the kitchen and paced the floor.
"Oh, my darlin'!" she wailed. "She's goin' to die. What shall I do? All the child I've got in the world. An' he's killed her! That scamp! I wish I could get my hands on him. Oh, Paulina, Paulina, to think it should come to this!"
Christine was in the room, and she listened with eyes dilated and lips parted. She was afraid that shrill wail would reach Paulina in the next room.
"She'll hear you," she said, finally.
Mrs. Childs grew quieter at that, and presently Maria called her into the sitting-room.
Christine stood thinking for a moment. Then she got her hood and shawl, put on her rubbers, and went out. She shut the door softly, so nobody should hear. When she stepped forth she plunged knee-deep into snow. It was snowing hard, as it had been all day. It was a cold storm, too; the wind was bitter. Christine waded out of the yard and down the street. She was so small and light that she staggered when she tried to step firmly in some tracks ahead of her. There was a full moon behind the clouds, and there was a soft white light in spite of the storm. Christine kept on down the street, in the direction of Willard Morris's house. It was a mile distant. Once in a while she stopped and turned herself about, that the terrible wind might smite her back instead of her face. When she reached the house she waded painfully through the yard to the side-door and knocked. Pretty soon it opened, and Willard stood there in the entry, with a lamp in his hand.
"Good-evening," said he, doubtfully, peering out.
"Good-evenin'." The light shone on Christine's face.
The snow clung to her soft hair, so it was quite white. Her cheeks had a deep, soft color, like roses; her blue eyes blinked a little in the lamp-light, but seemed rather to flicker like jewels or stars. She panted softly through her parted lips. She stood there, with the snow-flakes driving in light past her, and "She looks like an angel," came swiftly into Willard Morris's head before he spoke.
"Oh, it's you," said he.
Then they stood waiting. "Why, won't you come in?" said Willard, finally, with an awkward blush. "I declare I never thought. I ain't very polite."
She shook her head. "No, thank you," said she.
"Did--you want to see mother?"
The young man stared at her in increasing perplexity. His own fair, handsome young face got more and more flushed. His forehead wrinkled. "Was there anything you wanted?"
"No, I guess not," Christine replied, with a slow softness.
Willard shifted the lamp into his other hand and sighed. "It's a pretty hard storm," he remarked, with an air of forced patience.
"Didn't you find it terrible hard walking?"
Willard was silent again. "See here, they're all well down at your house, ain't they?" said he, finally. A look of anxious interest had sprung into his eyes. He had begun to take alarm.
"I guess so."
Suddenly he spoke out impetuously. "Say, Christine, I don't know what you came here for; you can tell me afterwards. I don't know what you'll think of me, but-- Well, I want to know something. Say--well, I haven't been 'round for quite a while. You don't-suppose--they've cared much, any of them""
"I don't know."
"Well, I don't suppose you do, but--you might have noticed. Say, Christine, you don't think she--you know whom I mean--cared anything about my coming, do you?"
"I don't know," she said again, softly, with her eyes fixed warily on his face.
"Well, I guess she didn't; she wouldn't have said what she did if she had."
Christine's eyes gave a sudden gleam. " What did she say?"
"Said she wouldn't have anything more to do with me," said the young man, bitterly. "She was afraid I would be up to just such tricks as my uncle was, trying to cheat her father. That was too much for me. I wasn't going to stand that from any girl." He shook his head angrily.
"She didn't say it."
"Yes, she did; her own father told my uncle so. Mother was in the next room and heard it."
"No, she didn't say it," the girl repeated.
"How do you know?"
"I heard her say something different[,]" Christine told him.
"I'm going right up there," cried he, when he heard that.
"Wait a minute, and I'll go along with you."
"I dun know as you'd better--to-night," Christine said, looking out towards the road evasively. "She--ain't been very well to-night."
"Who? Paulina? What's the matter?"
"She had a faintin'-spell jest before I came out," answered Christine, with stiff gravity.
"Oh! Is she real sick?"
"She was some better."
"Don't you suppose I could see her just a few minutes? I wouldn't stay to tire her," said the young man, eagerly.
"I dun know."
"I must, anyhow."
Christine fixed her eyes on his with a solemn sharpness. "What makes you want to?"
"What makes me want to? Why, I'd give ten years to see her five minutes."
"Well, mebbe you could come over a few minutes."
"Wait a minute,!" cried Willard. "I'll get my hat."
"I'd better go first, I guess. The parlor fire'll be to light."
"Then had I better wait?"
"I guess so."
"Then I'll be along in about an hour. Say, you haven't said what you wanted."
Christine was off the step.
"It ain't any matter," murmured she.
"Say--she didn't send you?"
"No, she didn't."
"I didn't mean that. I didn't suppose she did," said Willard, with an abashed air. "What did you want, Christine?"
"There's somethin' I want you to promise," said she, suddenly.
"Don't you say anything about Mr. Childs."
"Why, how can I help it?"
"He's an old man, an' he was so worked up he didn't know what he was sayin'. They'll all scold him. Don't say anything."
"Well, I won't say anything. I don't know what I'm going to tell her, though."
Christine turned to go.
"You didn't say what 'twas you wanted," called Willard again.
But she made no reply. She was pushing through the deep snow out of the yard.
It was quite early yet, only a few minutes after seven. It was eight when she reached home. She entered the house without any one seeing her. She pulled off her snowy things, and went into the sitting-room.
Paulina was alone there. She was lying on the lounge. She was very pale, but she looked up and smiled when Christine entered.
Christine brought the fresh out-door air with her. Paulina noticed it. "Where have you been?" whispered she.
Then Christine bent over her, and talked fast in a low tone.
Presently Paulina raised herself and sat up. "Tonight?" cried she, in an eager whisper. Her cheeks grew red.
"Yes; I'll go make the parlor fire."
"It's all ready to light." Suddenly Paulina threw her arms around Christine and kissed her. Both girls blushed.
"I don't think I said one thing to him that you wouldn't have wanted me to," said Christine.
"You didn't--ask him to come?"
"No, I didn't, honest."
When Mrs. Childs entered, a few minutes later, she found her daughter standing before the glass.
"Why, Paulina!" cried she.
"I feel a good deal better, mother," said Paulina.
"Ain't you goin' to bed?"
"I guess I won't quite yet."
"I've got it all ready for you. I thought you wouldn't feel like sittin' up."
"I guess I will; a little while."
Soon the door-bell rang with a sharp peal. Everybody jumped--Paulina rose and went to the door.
Mrs. Childs and Maria, listening, heard Willard's familiar voice, then the opening of the parlor door.
"It's him!" gasped Mrs. Childs. She and Maria looked at each other.
It was about two hours before the soft murmur of voices in the parlor ceased, the outer door closed with a thud, and Paulina came into the room. She was blushing and smiling, but she could not look in any one's face at first.
"Well," said her mother, "who was it?"
"Willard. It's all right."
It was not long before the fine sewing was brought out again, and presently two silk dresses were bought for Paulina. It was known about that she was to be married on Christmas Day. Christine assisted in the preparation. All the family called to mind afterwards the obedience so ready as to be loving which she yielded to their biddings during those few hurried weeks. She sewed, she made cake, she ran of errands, she wearied herself joyfully for the happiness of this other young girl.
About a week before the wedding, Christine, saying good-night when about to retire one evening, behaved strangely. They remembered it afterwards. She went up to Paulina and kissed her when saying good-night. It was something which she had never before done. Then she stood in the door, looking at them all. There was a sad, almost a solemn, expression on her fair girlish face.
"Why, what's the matter?" said Maria.
"Nothin'," said Christine. "Good-night."
That was the last time they ever saw her. The next morning Mrs. Childs, going to call her, found her room vacant. There was a great alarm. When they did not find her in the house nor the neighborhood, people were aroused, and there was a search instigated. It was prosecuted eagerly, but to no purpose. Paulina's wedding evening came, and Christine was still missing.
Paulina had been married, and was standing beside her husband, in the midst of the chattering guests, when Caleb stole out of the room. He opened the north door, and stood looking out over the dusky fields. "Christiny!" he called; "Christiny!"
Presently he looked up at the deep sky, full of stars, and called again--"Christiny! Christiny!" But there was no answer save in light. When Christine stood in the sitting room door and said good-night, her friends had their last sight and sound of her. Their Twelfth Guest had departed from their hospitality forever.
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, 1889
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