Every one ought to be happy at Christmas. But there are many things which ought to be, and yet are not; and people are sometimes sad even in the Christmas holidays.
The Captain and his wife were sad, though it was Christmas Eve. Sad, though they were in the prime of life, blessed with good health, devoted to each other and to their children, with competent means, a comfortable house on a little freehold property of their own, and, one might say, everything that heart could desire. Sad, though they were good people, whose peace of mind had a firmer foundation than their earthly goods alone; contented people, too, with plenty of occupation for mind and body. Sad—and in the nursery this was held to be past all reason—though the children were performing that ancient and most entertaining play or Christmas Mystery of Good St. George of England, known as “The Peace Egg,” for their benefit and behoof alone.
The play was none the worse that most of the actors were too young to learn parts, so that there was very little of the rather tedious dialogue, only plenty of dress and ribbons, and of fighting with wooden swords. But though St. George looked bonny enough to warm any father’s heart, as he marched up and down with an air learned by watching many a parade in barrack-square and drill-ground, and though the Valiant Slasher did not cry in spite of falling hard and the Doctor treading accidentally on his little finger in picking him up, still the Captain and his wife sighed nearly as often as they smiled, and the mother dropped tears as well as pennies into the cap which the King of Egypt brought round after the performance.
Many, many years back the Captain’s wife had been a child herself, and had laughed to see the village mummers act “The Peace Egg,” and had been quite happy on Christmas Eve. Happy, though she had no mother. Happy, though her father was a stern man, very fond of his only child, but with an obstinate will that not even she dared thwart. She had lived to thwart it, and he had never forgiven her. It was when she married the Captain. The old man had a prejudice against soldiers, which was quite reason enough, in his opinion, for his daughter to sacrifice the happiness of her future life by giving up the soldier she loved. At last he gave her her choice between the Captain and his own favor and money. She chose the Captain, and was disowned and disinherited.
The Captain bore a high character, and was a good and clever officer, but that went for nothing against the old man’s whim. He made a very good husband, too; but even this did not move his father-in-law, who had never held any intercourse with him or his wife since the day of their marriage, and who had never seen his own grandchildren. Though not so bitterly prejudiced as the old father, the Captain’s wife’s friends had their doubts about the marriage. The place was not a military station, and they were quiet country folk who knew very little about soldiers, while what they imagined was not altogether favorable to “red-coats,” as they called them.
Soldiers are well-looking generally, it is true, and the Captain was more than well-looking—he was handsome; brave, of course it is their business, and the Captain had V. C. after his name and several bits of ribbon on his patrol jacket. But then, thought the good people, they are here to-day and gone to-morrow, you “never know where you have them;” they are probably in debt, possibly married to several women in several foreign countries, and, though they are very courteous in society, who knows how they treat their wives when they drag them off from their natural friends and protectors to distant lands, where no one can call them to account?
“Ah, poor thing!” said Mrs. John Bull, junior, as she took off her husband’s coat on his return from business, a week after the Captain’s wedding, “I wonder how she feels? There’s no doubt the old man behaved disgracefully; but it’s a great risk marrying a soldier. It stands to reason, military men aren’t domestic; and I wish—Lucy Jane, fetch your papa’s slippers, quick!—she’d had the sense to settle down comfortably among her friends with a man who would have taken care of her.”
“Officers are a wild set, I expect,” said Mr. Bull, complacently, as he stretched his limbs in his own particular arm-chair, into which no member of his family ever intruded. “But the red-coats carry the day with plenty of girls who ought to know better. You women are always caught by a bit of finery. However, there’s no use our bothering our heads about it. As she has brewed she must bake.”
The Captain’s wife’s baking was lighter and more palatable than her friends believed. The Captain, who took off his own coat when he came home, and never wore slippers but in his dressing-room, was domestic enough.
A selfish companion must, doubtless, be a great trial amid the hardships of military life, but when a soldier is kind-hearted, he is often a much more helpful and thoughtful and handy husband than any equally well-meaning civilian. Amid the ups and downs of their wanderings, the discomforts of shipboard and of stations in the colonies, bad servants, and unwonted sicknesses, the Captain’s tenderness never failed. If the life was rough, the Captain was ready. He had been, by turns, in one strait or another, sick-nurse, doctor, carpenter, nursemaid, and cook to his family, and had, moreover, an idea that nobody filled these offices quite so well as himself. Withal, his very profession kept him neat, well-dressed, and active. In the roughest of their ever-changing quarters he was a smarter man, more like the lover of his wife’s young days, than Mr. Bull amid his stationary comforts.
Then if the Captain’s wife was—as her friends said—”never settled,” she was also forever entertained by new scenes; and domestic mischances do not weigh very heavily on people whose possessions are few and their intellectual interests many.
It is true that there were ladies in the Captain’s regiment who passed by sea and land from one quarter of the globe to another, amid strange climates and customs, strange trees and flowers, beasts and birds, from the glittering snow of North America to the orchids of the Cape, from beautiful Pera to the lily-covered hills of Japan, and who in no place rose above the fret of domestic worries, and had little to tell on their return but of the universal misconduct of servants, from Irish “helps” in the colonies to compradors and China-boys at Shanghai. But it was not so with the Captain’s wife. Moreover, one becomes accustomed to one’s fate, and she moved her whole establishment from the Curragh to Corfu with less anxiety than that felt by Mrs. Bull over a port-wine stain on the best table-cloth.
And yet, as years went and children came, the Captain and his wife grew tired of travelling. New scenes were small comfort when they heard of the death of old friends. One foot of murky English sky was dearer, after all, than miles of the unclouded heavens of the South. The gray hills and overgrown lanes of her old home haunted the Captain’s wife by night and day, and homesickness, that weariest of all sicknesses, began to take the light out of her eyes before their time. It preyed upon the Captain, too. Now and then he would say, fretfully, “I should like an English resting-place, however small, before everybody is dead! But the children’s prospects have to be considered.” The continued estrangement from the old man was an abiding sorrow also, and they had hopes that, if only they could get to England, he might be persuaded to peace and charity this time.
At last they were sent home. But the hard old father still would not relent. He returned their letters unopened. This bitter disappointment made the Captain’s wife so ill that she almost died, and in one month the Captain’s hair became iron gray. He reproached himself for having ever taken the daughter from her father, “to kill her at last,” as he said. And, thinking of his own children, he even reproached himself for having robbed the old widower of his only child. After two years at home his regiment was ordered to India. He failed to effect an exchange, and they prepared to move once more,—from Chatham to Calcutta. Never before had the packing, to which she was so well accustomed, been so bitter a task to the Captain’s wife.
It was at the darkest hour of this gloomy time that the Captain came in, waving above his head a letter which changed all their plans.
Now close by the old home of the Captain’s wife there had lived a man, much older than herself, who yet had loved her with a devotion as great as that of the young Captain. She never knew it, for, when he saw that she had given her heart to his young rival, he kept silence, and he never asked for what he knew he might have had—the old man’s authority in his favor. So generous was the affection which he could never conquer, that he constantly tried to reconcile the father to his children while he lived, and, when he died, he bequeathed his house and small estate to the woman he had loved.
“It will be a legacy of peace,” he thought, on his death-bed. “The old man cannot hold out when she and her children are constantly in sight. And it may please God that I shall know of the reunion I have not been permitted to see with my eyes.”
And thus it came about that the Captain’s regiment went to India without him, and that the Captain’s wife and her father lived on opposite sides of the same road.
The eldest of the Captain’s children was a boy. He was named Robert, after his grandfather, and seemed to have inherited a good deal of the old gentleman’s character, mixed with gentler traits. He was a fair, fine boy, tall and stout for his age, with the Captain’s regular features, and, he flattered himself, the Captain’s firm step and martial bearing. He was apt—like his grandfather—to hold his own will to be other people’s law, and happily for the peace of the nursery this opinion was devoutly shared by his brother Nicholas. Though the Captain had sold his commission, Robert continued to command an irregular force of volunteers in the nursery, and never was a colonel more despotic. His brothers and sisters were by turn infantry, cavalry, engineers, and artillery, according to his whim, and when his affections finally settled upon the Highlanders of “The Black Watch,” no female power could compel him to keep his stockings above his knees, or his knickerbockers below them.
The Captain alone was a match for his strong-willed son.
“If you please, sir,” said Sarah, one morning, flouncing in upon the Captain, just as he was about to start for the neighboring town, “if you please, sir, I wish you’d speak to Master Robert. He’s past my powers.”
“I’ve no doubt of it,” thought the Captain; but he only said, “Well, what’s the matter?”
“Night after night do I put him to bed,” said Sarah, “and night after night does he get up as soon as I’m out of the room, and says he’s orderly officer for the evening, and goes about in his night-shirt and his feet as bare as boards.”
The Captain fingered his heavy moustache to hide a smile, but he listened patiently to Sarah’s complaints.
“It ain’t so much him I should mind, sir,” she continued, “but he goes round the beds and wakes up the other young gentlemen and Miss Dora, one after another, and when I speak to him he gives me all the sauce he can lay his tongue to, and says he’s going round the guards. The other night I tried to put him back in his bed, but he got away and ran all over the house, me hunting him everywhere, and not a sign of him, till he jumps out on me from the garret-stairs and nearly knocks me down. ‘I’ve visited the outposts, Sarah,’ says he; ‘all’s well,’ and off he goes to bed as bold as brass.”
“Have you spoken to your mistress?” asked the Captain.
“Yes, sir,” said Sarah. “And misses spoke to him, and he promised not to go round the guards again.”
“Has he broken his promise?” asked the Captain, with a look of anger and also surprise.
“When I opened the door last night, sir,” continued Sarah, in her shrill treble, “what should I see in the dark but Master Robert a-walking up and down with the carpet-brush stuck in his arm. ‘Who goes there?’ says he. ‘You owdacious boy!’ says I. ‘Didn’t you promise your ma you’d leave off them tricks?’ ‘I’m not going round the guards,’ says he; ‘I promised not. But I’m for sentry-duty to-night.’ And say what I would to him, all he had for me was, ‘You mustn’t speak to a sentry on duty.’ So I says, ‘As sure as I live till morning, I’ll go to your pa,’ for he pays no more attention to his ma than me, nor to any one else.”
“Please to see that the chair-bed in my dressing-room is moved into your mistress’s bed-room,” said the Captain. “I will attend to Master Robert.”
With this Sarah had to content herself, and she went back to the nursery. Robert was nowhere to be seen, and made no reply to her summons. On this the unwary nursemaid flounced into the bed-room to look for him, when Robert, who was hidden beneath a table, darted forth and promptly locked her in.
“You’re under arrest,” he shouted through the keyhole.
“Let me out!” shrieked Sarah.
“I’ll send a file of the guard to fetch you to the orderly-room by-and-by,” said Robert, “for ‘preferring frivolous complaints,’” and he departed to the farmyard to look at the ducks.
That night, when Robert went up to bed, the Captain quietly locked him into his dressing-room, from which the bed had been removed.
“You’re for sentry-duty to-night,” said the captain, “The carpet-brush is in the corner. Good-evening.”
As his father anticipated, Robert was soon tired of the sentry game in these new circumstances, and long before the night had half worn away he wished himself safely undressed and in his own comfortable bed. At half-past twelve o’clock he felt as if he could bear it no longer, and knocked at the Captain’s door.
“Who goes there?” said the Captain.
“Mayn’t I go to bed, please?” whined poor Robert.
“Certainly not,” said the Captain. “You’re on duty.”
And on duty poor Robert had to remain, for the Captain had a will as well as his son. So he rolled himself up in his father’s railway rug and slept on the floor.
The next night he was glad to go quietly to bed, and remain there.
The Captain’s children sat at breakfast in a large, bright nursery. It was the room where the old bachelor had died, and now her children made it merry. This is just what he would have wished.
They all sat round the table, for it was breakfast-time. There were five of them, and five bowls of boiled bread-and-milk smoked before them. Sarah, a foolish, gossiping girl, who acted as nurse till better could be found, was waiting on them, and by the table sat Darkie, the black retriever, his long, curly back swaying slightly from the difficulty of holding himself up, and his solemn hazel eyes fixed very intently on each and all of the breakfast bowls. He was as silent and sagacious as Sarah was talkative and empty-headed. The expression of his face was that of King Charles I. as painted by Vandyke. Though large, he was unassuming. Pax, the pug, on the contrary, who came up to the first joint of Darkie’s leg, stood defiantly on his dignity and his short stumps. He always placed himself in front of the bigger dog, and made a point of hustling him in door-ways and of going first down stairs. He strutted like a beadle, and carried his tail more tightly curled than a bishop’s crook. He looked as one may imagine the frog in the fable would have looked had he been able to swell himself rather nearer to the size of the ox. This was partly due to his very prominent eyes, and partly to an obesity favored by habits of lying inside the fender, and of eating meals proportioned more to his consequence than to his hunger. They were both favorites of two years’ standing, and had very nearly been given away, when the good news came of an English home for the family, dogs and all.
Robert’s tongue was seldom idle, even at meals. “Are you a Yorkshire woman, Sarah?” he asked, pausing, with his spoon full in his hand.
“No, Master Robert,” said Sarah.
“But you understand Yorkshire, don’t you? I can’t, very often; but mamma can, and can speak it, too. Papa says mamma always talks Yorkshire to servants and poor people. She used to talk Yorkshire to Themistocles, papa said, and he said it was no good; for, though Themistocles knew a lot of languages, he didn’t know that. And mamma laughed, and said she didn’t know she did. Themistocles was our man-servant in Corfu,” Robin added, in explanation. “He stole lots of things, Themistocles did; but papa found him out.”
Robin now made a rapid attack on his bread-and-milk, after which he broke out again,—
“Sarah, who is that tall gentleman at church, in the seat near the pulpit? He wears a cloak like what the Blues wear, only all blue, and is tall enough for a Life-guardsman. He stood when we were kneeling down, and said, ‘Almighty and most merciful Father,’ louder than anybody.”
Sarah knew who the old gentleman was, and knew also that the children did not know, and that their parents did not see fit to tell them as yet. But she had a passion for telling and hearing news, and would rather gossip with a child than not gossip at all. “Never you mind, Master Robin,” she said, nodding sagaciously. “Little boys aren’t to know everything.”
“Ah, then, I know you don’t know,” replied Robert; “if you did, you’d tell. Nicholas, give some of your bread to Darkie and Pax. I’ve done mine. For what we have received, the Lord make us truly thankful. Say your grace, and put your chair away, and come along. I want to hold a court-martial.” And, seizing his own chair by the seat, Robin carried it swiftly to its corner. As he passed Sarah, he observed, tauntingly, “You pretend to know, but you don’t.”
“I do,” said Sarah.
“You don’t,” said Robin.
“Your ma’s forbid you to contradict, Master Robin,” said Sarah; “and if you do, I shall tell her. I know well enough who the old gentleman is, and perhaps I might tell you, only you’d go straight off and tell again.”
“No, no, I wouldn’t!” shouted Robin. “I can keep a secret; indeed, I can! Pinch my little finger, and try. Do, do tell me, Sarah; there’s a dear Sarah, and then I shall know you know.” And he danced round her, catching at her skirts.
To keep a secret was beyond Sarah’s powers.
“Do let my dress be, Master Robin,” she said; “you’re ripping out all the gathers, and listen while I whisper. As sure as you’re a living boy, that gentleman’s your own grandpapa.”
Robin lost his hold on Sarah’s dress; his arm fell by his side, and he stood with his brows knit, for some minutes, thinking. Then he said, emphatically,—
“What lies you do tell, Sarah!”
“Oh, Robin!” cried Nicholas, who had drawn near, his thick curls standing stark with curiosity; “mamma said ‘lies’ wasn’t a proper word, and you promised not to say it again.”
“I forgot,” said Robin. “I didn’t mean to break my promise. But she does tell—ahem!—you know what.”
“You wicked boy!” cried the enraged Sarah; “how dare you say such a thing, and everybody in the place knows he’s your ma’s own pa.”
“I’ll go and ask her,” said Robin, and he was at the door in a moment; but Sarah, alarmed by the thought of getting into a scrape herself, caught him by the arm.
“Don’t you go, love; it’ll only make your ma angry. There; it was all my nonsense.”
“Then it’s not true?” said Robin, indignantly. “What did you tell me so for?”
“It was all my jokes and nonsense,” said the unscrupulous Sarah. “But your ma wouldn’t like to know I’ve said such a thing. And Master Robert wouldn’t be so mean as to tell tales, would he, love?”
“I’m not mean,” said Robin, stoutly; “and I don’t tell tales; but you do, and you tell—you know what—besides. However, I won’t go this time; but I’ll tell you what,—if you tell tales of me to papa any more, I’ll tell him what you said about the old gentleman in the blue cloak.” With which parting threat Robin strode off to join his brothers and sister.
Sarah’s tale had put the court-martial out of his head, and he leaned against the tall fender, gazing at his little sister, who was tenderly nursing a well-worn doll. Robin sighed.
“What a long time that doll takes to wear out, Dora!” said he. “When will it be done?”
“Oh, not yet, not yet!” cried Dora, clasping the doll to her, and turning away. “She’s quite good, yet.”
“How miserly you are,” said her brother; “and selfish, too; for you know I can’t have a military funeral till you’ll let me bury that old thing.”
Dora began to cry.
“There you go, crying!” said Robin, impatiently. “Look here: I won’t take it till you get the new one on your birthday. You can’t be so mean as not to let me have it then!”
But Dora’s tears still fell. “I love this one so much,” she sobbed. “I love her better than the new one.”
“You want both; that’s it,” said Robin, angrily. “Dora, you’re the meanest girl I ever knew!”
At which unjust and painful accusation Dora threw herself and her doll upon their faces, and wept bitterly. The eyes of the soft-hearted Nicholas began to fill with tears, and he squatted down before her, looking most dismal. He had a fellow-feeling for her attachment to an old toy, and yet Robin’s will was law to him.
“Couldn’t we make a coffin, and pretend the body was inside?” he suggested.
“No, we couldn’t,” said Robin. “I wouldn’t play the ‘Dead March’ after an empty candle-box. It’s a great shame,—and I promised she should be chaplain in one of my night-gowns, too.”
“Perhaps you’ll get just as fond of the new one,” said Nicholas, turning to Dora.
But Dora only cried, “No, no! He shall have the new one to bury, and I’ll keep my poor, dear, darling Betsey.” And she clasped Betsey tighter than before.
“That’s the meanest thing you’ve said yet,” retorted Robin; “for you know mamma wouldn’t let me bury the new one.” And, with an air of great disgust, he quitted the nursery.
Nicholas had sore work to console his little sister, and Betsey’s prospects were in a very unfavorable state, when a diversion was caused in her favor by a new whim which put the military funeral out of Robin’s head.
After he left the nursery he strolled out of doors, and, peeping through the gate at the end of the drive, he saw a party of boys going through what looked like a military exercise with sticks and a good deal of stamping; but instead of mere words of command, they all spoke by turns, as in a play. In spite of their strong Yorkshire accent, Robin overheard a good deal, and it sounded very fine.
Not being at all shy, he joined them, and asked so many questions that he soon got to know all about it. They were practising a Christmas mumming-play, called “The Peace Egg.” Why it was called that they could not tell him, as there was nothing whatever about eggs in it, and, so far as its being a play of peace, it was made up of a series of battles between certain valiant knights and princes, of whom St. George of England was chief and conqueror. The rehearsal being over, Robin went with the boys to the sexton’s house, (he was father to the “King of Egypt,”) where they showed him the dresses they were to wear. These were made of gay-colored materials, and covered with ribbons, except that of the “Black Prince of Paradine,” which was black, as became his title. The boys also showed him the book from which they learned their parts, and which was to be bought for one penny at the post-office shop.
“Then are you the mummers who come round at Christmas, and act in people’s kitchens, and people give them money, that mamma used to tell us about?” said Robin.
St. George of England looked at his companions as if for counsel as to how far they might commit themselves, and then replied, with Yorkshire caution, “Well, I suppose we are.”
“And do you go out in the snow from one house to another at night; and, oh, don’t you enjoy it?” cried Robin.
“We like it well enough,” St. George admitted.
Robin bought a copy of “The Peace Egg.” He was resolved to have a nursery performance, and to act the part of St. George himself. The others were willing for what he wished, but there were difficulties.
In the first place, there are eight characters in the play, and there were only five children. They decided among themselves to leave out the “Fool,” and mamma said that another character was not to be acted by any of them, or, indeed, mentioned; “the little one who comes in at the end,” Robin explained. Mamma had her reasons, and these were always good. She had not been altogether pleased that Robin had bought the play. It was a very old thing, she said, and very queer; not adapted for a child’s play.
If mamma thought the parts not quite fit for the children to learn, they found them much too long; so, in the end, she picked out some bits for each, which they learned easily, and which, with a good deal of fighting, made quite as good a story of it as if they had done the whole. What may have been wanting otherwise was made up for by the dresses, which were charming.
Robin was St. George, Nicholas the Valiant Slasher, Dora the Doctor, and the other two Hector and the King of Egypt. “And now we’ve no Black Prince!” cried Robin, in dismay.
“Let Darkie be the Black Prince,” said Nicholas. “When you have your stick he’ll jump for it, and then you can pretend to fight with him.”
“It’s not a stick, it’s a sword,” said Robin “However, Darkie may be the Black Prince.”
“And what’s Pax to be?” asked Dora; “for you know he will come if Darkie does, and he’ll run in before everybody else, too.”
“Then he must be the Fool,” said Robin; “and it will do very well, for the Fool comes in before the rest, and Pax can have his red coat on, and the collar with the little bells.”
Robin thought that Christmas would never come. To the Captain and his wife it seemed to come too fast. They had hoped it might bring reconciliation with the old man, but it seemed they had hoped in vain.
There were times, now, when the Captain almost regretted the old bachelor’s bequest. The familiar scenes of her old home sharpened his wife’s grief. To see her father every Sunday in church, with marks of age and infirmity upon him, but with not a look of tenderness for his only child, this tried her sorely.
“She felt it less abroad,” thought the Captain. “An English home, in which she frets herself to death, is, after all, no great boon.”
Christmas Eve came.
“I’m sure it’s quite Christmas enough, now,” said Robin. “We’ll have ‘The Peace Egg’ to-night.”
So, as the Captain and his wife sat sadly over their fire, the door opened, and Pax ran in, shaking his bells, and followed by the nursery mummers. The performance was most successful. It was by no means pathetic, and yet, as has been said, the Captain’s wife shed tears.
“What is the matter, mamma?” said St. George, abruptly dropping his sword and running up to her.
“Don’t tease mamma with questions,” said the Captain; “she is not very well, and rather sad. We must all be very kind and good to poor, dear mamma;” and the Captain raised his wife’s hand to his lips as he spoke. Robin seized the other hand and kissed it tenderly. He was very fond of his mother. At this moment Pax took a little run and jumped on to mamma’s lap, where, sitting facing the company, he opened his black mouth and yawned with a ludicrous inappropriateness worthy of any clown. It made everybody laugh.
“And now we’ll go and act in the kitchen,” said Nicholas.
“Supper at nine o’clock, remember,” shouted the Captain. “And we are going to have real frumenty and Yule-cakes, such as mamma used to tell us of when we were abroad.”
“Hurray!” shouted the mummers, and they ran off, Pax leaping from his seat just in time to hustle the Black Prince in the doorway.
When the dining-room door was shut, St. George raised his hand, and said, “Hush!”
The mummers pricked their ears, but there was only a distant harsh and scraping sound, as of stones rubbed together.
“They’re cleaning the passages,” St. George went on; “and Sarah told me they meant to finish the mistletoe, and have everything cleaned up by supper-time. They don’t want us, I know. Look here; we will go real mumming, instead. That will be fun!”
The Valiant Slasher grinned with delight.
“But will mamma let us?” he inquired.
“Oh, it will be all right if we are back by supper-time,” said St. George, hastily. “Only, of course, we must take care not to catch cold. Come and help me to get some wraps.”
The old oak chest in which spare shawls, rugs, and coats were kept was soon ransacked, and the mummers’ gay dresses hidden by motley wrappers. But no sooner did Darkie and Pax behold the coats, etc., than they at once began to leap and bark, as it was their custom to do when they saw any one dressing to go out.
Robin was sorely afraid that this would betray them; but, though the Captain and his wife heard the barking, they did not guess the cause. So, the front door being very gently opened and closed, the nursery mummers stole away.
It was a very fine night. The snow was well trodden on the drive, so that it did not wet their feet, but on the trees and shrubs it hung soft and white.
“It’s much jollier being out at night than in the daytime,” said Robin.
“Much,” responded Nicholas, with intense feeling.
“We’ll go a wassailing next week,” said Robin. “I know all about it; and perhaps we shall get a good lot of money, and then we’ll buy tin swords with scabbards for next year. I don’t like these sticks. Oh, dear, I wish it wasn’t so long between one Christmas and another.”
“Where shall we go first?” asked Nicholas, as they turned into the high-road. But before Robin could reply, Dora clung to Nicholas, crying, “Oh, look at those men!”
The boys looked up the road, down which three men were coming in a very unsteady fashion, and shouting as they rolled from side to side.
“They’re drunk,” said Nicholas; “and they’re shouting at us.”
“Oh, run, run!” cried Dora; and down the road they ran, the men shouting and following them. They had not run far, when Hector caught his foot in the Captain’s great-coat which he was wearing, and came down headlong in the road. They were close by a gate, and when Nicholas had set Hector on his legs, St. George hastily opened it.
“This is the first house,” he said. “We’ll act here;” and all, even the Valiant Slasher, pressed in as quickly as possible. Once safe within the grounds, they shouldered their sticks and resumed their composure.
“You’re going to the front door,” said Nicholas. “Mummers ought to go to the back.”
“We don’t know where it is,” said Robin, and he rang the front-door bell. There was a pause. Then lights shone, steps were heard, and at last a sound of much unbarring, unbolting, and unlocking. It might have been a prison. Then the door was opened by an elderly, timid-looking woman, who held a tallow candle above her head.
“Who’s there,” she said, “at this time of night?”
“We’re Christmas mummers,” said Robin, stoutly; “we didn’t know the way to the back door, but——”
“And don’t you know better than to come here?” said the woman. “Be off with you, as fast as you can!”
“You’re only the servant,” said Robin. “Go and ask your master and mistress if they wouldn’t like to see us act. We do it very well.”
“You impudent boy, be off with you!” repeated the woman. “Master’d no more let you nor any other such rubbish set foot in this house——”
“Woman!” shouted a voice close behind her, which made her start as if she had been shot, “who authorizes you to say what your master will or will not do, before you ask him? The boy is right. You are the servant, and it is not your business to choose for me whom I shall or shall not see.”
“I meant no harm, sir, I’m sure,” said the house-keeper; “but I thought you’d never——”
“My good woman,” said her master, “if I had wanted somebody to think for me, you’re the last person I should have employed. I hire you to obey orders, not to think.”
“I’m sure, sir,” said the house-keeper, whose only form of argument was reiteration, “I never thought you would have seen them——”
“Then you were wrong,” shouted her master. “I will see them. Bring them in.”
He was a tall, gaunt old man, and Robin stared at him for some minutes, wondering where he could have seen somebody very like him. At last he remembered. It was the old gentleman of the blue cloak.
The children threw off their wraps, the house-keeper helping them, and chatting ceaselessly, from sheer nervousness.
“Well, to be sure,” said she, “their dresses are pretty, too, and they seem quite a better sort of children; they talk quite genteel. I might ha’ knowed they weren’t like common mummers, but I was so flustered hearing the bell go so late, and——”
“Are they ready?” said the old man, who had stood like a ghost in the dim light of the flaring tallow candle, grimly watching the proceedings.
“Yes, sir. Shall I take them to the kitchen sir——”
“For you and the other idle hussies to gape and grin at? No. Bring them to the library,” he snapped, and then he stalked off, leading the way.
The house-keeper accordingly led them to the library and then withdrew, nearly falling on her face as she left the room by stumbling over Darkie, who clipped in last like a black shadow.
The old man was seated in a carved oak chair by the fire.
“I never said the dogs were to come in,” he said.
“But we can’t do without them, please,” said Robin, boldly. “You see, there are eight people in ‘The Peace Egg,’ and there are only five of us; and so Darkie has to be the Black Prince, and Pax has to be the Fool, and so we have to have them.”
“Five and two make seven,” said the old man, with a grim smile; “what do you do for the eighth?”
“Oh, that’s the little one at the end,” said Robin, confidentially. “Mamma said we weren’t to mention him, but I think that’s because we’re children. You’re grown up, you know, so I’ll show you the book, and you can see for yourself,” he went on, drawing “The Peace Egg” from his pocket. “There, that’s the picture of him on the last page; black, with horns and a tail.”
The old man’s stern face relaxed into a broad smile as he examined the grotesque wood-cut; but, when he turned to the first page, the smile vanished in a deep frown, and his eyes shone like hot coals, with anger. He had seen Robin’s name.
“Who sent you here?” he asked, in a hoarse voice. “Speak, and speak the truth! Did your mother send you here?”
Robin thought the old man was angry with them for playing truant. He said slowly, “N—no. She didn’t exactly send us; but I don’t think she’ll mind our having come if we get back in time for supper. Mamma never forbid our going mumming, you know.”
“I don’t suppose she ever thought of it,” Nicholas said, candidly, wagging his curly head from side to side.
“She knows we’re mummers,” said Robin, “for she helped us. When we were abroad, you know, she used to tell us about the mummers acting at Christmas when she was a little girl. And so we acted to papa and mamma, and so we thought we’d act to the maids, but they were cleaning the passages, and so we thought we’d really go mumming; and we’ve got several other houses to go to before supper-time. We’d better begin, I think,” said Robin, and without more ado he began to march round and round, raising his sword and shouting,—
“I am St. George, who from Old England sprung,
My famous name throughout the world hath rung.”
And the performance went off quite as creditably as before.
As the children acted, the old man’s anger wore off. He watched them with an interest he could not repress. When Nicholas took some hard thwacks from St. George without flinching, the old man clapped his hands; and, after the encounter between St. George and the Black Prince, he said he would not have the dogs excluded on any consideration. It was just at the end, when they were all marching round and round, holding on by each other’s swords “over the shoulder,” and singing “A mumming we will go, etc.,” that Nicholas suddenly brought the circle to a stand-still by stopping dead short and staring up at the wall before him.
“What are you stopping for?” said St. George, turning indignantly round.
“Look there!” cried Nicholas, pointing to a little painting which hung above the old man’s head.
Robin looked, and said, abruptly, “It’s Dora.”
“Which is Dora?” asked the old man, in a strange, sharp tone.
“Here she is,” said Robin and Nicholas in one breath, as they dragged her forward.
“She’s the Doctor,” said Robin; “and you can’t see her face for her things. Dor, take off your cap and pull back that hood. There! Oh, it is like her!”
It was a portrait of her mother as a child; but of this the nursery mummers knew nothing.
The old man looked as the peaked cap and hood fell away from Dora’s face and fair curls and then he uttered a sharp cry and buried his head upon his hands. The boys stood stupefied, but Dora ran up to him and, putting her little hands on his arms, said, in childish, pitying tones, “Oh, I am so sorry! Have you got a headache? May Robin put the shovel in the fire for you? Mamma has hot shovels for her headaches.” And, though the old man did not speak or move, she went on coaxing him and stroking his head, on which the hair was white. At this moment Pax took one of his unexpected runs and jumped on the old man’s knee, in his own particular fashion, and then yawned at the company. The old man was startled, and lifted his face suddenly.
It was wet with tears.
“Why, you’re crying!” exclaimed the children, with one breath.
“It’s very odd,” said Robin, fretfully. “I can’t think what’s the matter to-night. Mamma was crying, too, when we were acting; and papa said we weren’t to tease her with questions; and he kissed her hand, and I kissed her hand, too. And papa said we must all be very kind to poor, dear mamma; and so I mean to be, she’s so good. And I think we’d better go home, or perhaps she’ll be frightened,” Robin added.
“She’s so good, is she?” asked the old man. He had put Pax off his knee and taken Dora on to it.
“Oh, isn’t she!” said Nicholas, swaying his curly head from side to side as usual.
“She’s always good,” said Robin, emphatically; “and so’s papa. But I’m always doing something I oughtn’t to,” he added, slowly. “But then you know I don’t pretend to obey Sarah. I don’t care a fig for Sarah; and I won’t obey any woman but mamma.”
“Who’s Sarah?” asked the grandfather.
“She’s our nurse,” said Robin; “and she tells—I mustn’t say what she tells,—but it’s not the truth. She told one about you the other day,” he added.
“About me?” said the old man.
“She said you were our grandpapa. So then I knew she was telling ‘you know what.’”
“How did you know it wasn’t true?” the old man asked.
“Why, of course,” said Robin, “if you were our mamma’s father, you’d know her, and be fond of her, and come and see her. And then you’d be our grandfather, too, and you’d have us to see you, and perhaps give us Christmas-boxes. I wish you were,” Robin added, with a sigh; “it would be very nice.”
“Would you like it?” asked the old man of Dora.
And Dora, who was half asleep and very comfortable, put her little arms about his neck as she was wont to put them round the Captain’s, and said, “Very much.”
He put her down at last, very tenderly, almost unwillingly, and left the children alone. By-and-by he returned, dressed in the blue cloak, and took Dora up again.
“I will see you home,” he said.
The children had not been missed. The clock had only just struck nine when there came a knock on the door of the dining-room, where the Captain and his wife sat still by the Yule-log. She said “Come in,” wearily, thinking it was the frumenty and the Christmas cakes.
But it was her father, with her child in his arms!
Lucy Jane Bull and her sisters were quite old enough to understand a good deal of grownup conversation when they overheard it. Thus, when a friend of Mrs. Bull’s observed, during an afternoon call, that she believed that “officers wives were very dressy,” the young ladies were at once resolved to keep a sharp lookout for the Captain’s wife’s bonnet in church on Christmas day.
The Bulls had just taken their seats when the Captain’s wife came in. They really would have hid their faces, and looked at the bonnet afterwards, but for the startling sight that met the gaze of the congregation. The old grandfather walked into the church abreast of the Captain.
“They’ve met in the porch,” whispered Mr. Bull, under the shelter of his hat.
“They can’t quarrel publicly in a place of worship,” said Mrs. Bull, turning pale.
“She’s gone into his seat,” cried Lucy Jane, in a shrill whisper.
“And the children after her,” added the other sister, incautiously aloud.
There was no doubt about the matter. The old man, in his blue cloak, stood for a few moments politely disputing the question of precedence with his handsome son-in-law. Then the Captain bowed and passed in, and the old man followed him.
By the time that the service was ended everybody knew of the happy peace-making, and was glad. One old friend after another came up with blessings and good wishes. This was a proper Christmas, indeed, they said. There was a general rejoicing.
But only the grandfather and his children knew that it was hatched from “The Peace Egg.”