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A Still Christmas Post by :Eric_Hall Category :Short Stories Author :Agnes Repplier Date :September 2010 Read :3176

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A Still Christmas

It was Christmas eve in the year of our Lord 1653. The snow, which had fallen fitfully throughout the day, shrouded in white the sloping roofs and narrow London streets, and lay in little, sparkling heaps on every jutting cornice or narrow window-ledge where it could find a resting-place. But in the west the setting sun shone clearly, firing the steeples into sudden glory and gilding every tiny pane of glass that faced its dying splendor. The thoroughfares were strangely silent and deserted. The roving groups that had been wont at this season to fill them with boisterous merriment, the noise, the bustle, the good cheer of Christmas--all were lacking. No maskers roamed from street to street, jingling their bells, beating their mighty drums, and bidding the delighted crowd to make way for the Lord of Misrule. No shouts of "Noel! Noel!" rang through the frosty air. No children gathered round their neighbors' doors, singing quaint carols and forgotten glees, and bearing off rich guerdon in the shape of apples, nuts, and substantial Christmas buns. In place of the old-time gayety a dreary silence reigned through the deserted highways, and down the narrow footwalk, with even step and half-shut eyes, tramped the Puritan herald, ringing his bell and proclaiming ever and anon in measured tones, "No Christmas! No Christmas!"

In sober and sad-hued garments was the herald arrayed, with leathern boots that defied the snow and a copious mantle enveloping his sturdy frame. Now and then he stopped to warn a couple of belated idlers that they would do well to separate and go quietly to their homes. Now and then a little child peeped at him timorously from a doorway, and, overawed by his sombre aspect and heavy frown, retreated rapidly to hide its fears in the safe shelter of its mother's gown. Men shook their heads as he went by, and muttered something that was not always complimentary to his presence; and women shrugged their shoulders and sighed, and thought, perchance, of other Christmases in the past, with Yule-logs burning on the hearth and stray kisses snatched beneath the mistletoe. From a latticed window a girl's face peered at him with such a light of laughing malice in the brown eyes that the Puritan, catching sight of their wicked gleam, paused a moment, as though to reprove the maiden for her forwardness, or to inquire what mischief was afoot under this humble roof. But the night was growing chill, and he had still far to go. It might not be worth while to waste words of counsel on one so evidently godless; and, with a heavier scowl than usual, he tramped on, swinging his bell with lusty force. "No Christmas! No Christmas!" echoed through the darkening streets, and, as he passed, the girl contracted her features into a grimace that would have done credit to the wide-mouthed gargoyle of a Gothic cathedral.

"Cicely, Cicely!" cried a voice, at this juncture, from within, "close the shutters, do, and come and help me."

Cicely, who had been inclined to stare out a little longer, shot the heavy oaken bolt into its socket, and, opening a door leading to the inner room, disclosed a scene whose ruddy cheerfulness shone all the brighter in contrast to the dreary streets outside. A mighty bunch of fagots blazed and crackled on the hearth, and above the carved chimney-place hung branches of holly, their scarlet, berries glowing deeply in the firelight. In one corner, half-veiled by a tapestry curtain, a waxen Bambino nestled in its little manger, while before it burned a small copper lamp. Wreaths of holly and ivy bedecked the doors, and, standing tip-toed on a tall wooden chair, a young girl was even now striving to fasten these securely with the aid of a very old and wrinkled woman, who seemed more competent to admire than to assist the undertaking.

"Some bigger berries, pray, Catherine," she said, impatiently; "and, Cicely, if you feel you have loitered enough, hand me those two long ivy branches. They should droop gracefully--so! And now stand off a little way and tell me how it looks."

The younger sister obeyed, and, stationing herself in the middle of the room, surveyed the whole effect with much approval. Annis, her fair face flushed with the exertion, balanced herself on her lofty perch and gazed complacently upon her handiwork; while even Mistress Vane, who had been seated quietly on a deep chair by the fireplace, roused herself as from a reverie, and looked half-wistfully around the cheerful room. "What bell was that I heard just now?" she asked.

"The herald's, proclaiming a still Christmas," answered Cicely, promptly; "and he watched me as sourly as though he knew that we were plotting treason."

"Cecil, Cecil!" remonstrated her mother, in alarm. "Surely you did nothing imprudent."

"I?" returned Cicely, apparently oblivious as to what she had done. "I cast up the whites of my eyes, as though repeating psalms for mine own inward sustainment; and seeing me so piously disposed, he was fain to pass on to the correction of greater sinners."

"That were well-nigh impossible," said her sister, laughing; but Mistress Vane only looked anxious and disturbed. The sense of insecurity to which Annis was indifferent, and which Cicely at fourteen found absolutely amusing, weighed heavily on the older woman, who had a better understanding of the danger, and who had suffered cruelly in the past. Husband and son had fallen for a lost cause, confiscation had devoured the larger portion of her once fair inheritance; and now, with her two young daughters, she found herself beset by perils, harassed by stringent laws, and at the mercy of any ill-wind fate might blow her. Cromwell's mighty arm held the fretful country in subjection, making the name of England great and terrible abroad, and silencing every whisper of disaffection at home. The Puritans, in their hour of triumph, stamped upon the land the impress of their strong and bitter individuality; and a morose asceticism, part real and part affected, crushed out of life all the innocent pleasure of living. With every man determined to be better than his neighbor, the competition in saintliness ran high. Under its vigorous stimulus the May-pole and the Yule-log were alike branded as heathenish observances, the Christmas-pie became a "pye of abomination," and all amusements, from the drama to bear-baiting, were censured with impartial severity. Feast-days were abolished, and even to display the emblems of the Nativity was held to be sedition. The Established Church, cowed and shorn of its splendor, was treated with surly contempt; the Catholics were altogether beyond the pale of charity. It was not a time calculated to promote festivity; yet, while the heralds proclaimed through the frosty streets that Christmas at last was dead, Annis Vane, with holly and ivy, with Yule-dough and Babie-cake, was making all things ready for its mysterious birth. And as she worked she sang softly under breath the refrain of a carol she had learned at her nurse's knee,--

"This endris night
I saw a sight,
A star as bright as day;
And ever among
A maiden sung
Lullay, by-by, lullay."

"Is it not strange, mother," she said, breaking suddenly off, "that men should deem it a mark of holiness to cast derision on the birth-night of their Saviour?"

"Let us be just even to our enemies," replied Mistress Vane, gently. "They think not to deride the Nativity, so much as to condemn the riotous fashion in which Christians were wont to keep the feast. There have been times, Annis, when the Lord of Misrule did more discredit to this holy season than does the Puritan to-day."

Annis opened her blue eyes to their very utmost. This view of the matter was one she was hardly prepared to accept. "Why, dearest mother," she protested, "when should we venture to be happy, if not on Christmas-day? And how can we show ourselves too joyful for our salvation? And did not his most blessed majesty King Charles knight with his own royal hand a Lord of Misrule who held court in the Middle Temple?"

Mistress Vane smiled at her daughter's vehemence. She knew more about these jovial monarchs and their courts than Annis did, and it may even be that his most blessed majesty's approval carried less weight to her experienced mind. But in these dark and chilly days a little enthusiasm was helpful in keeping one's heart warm, and she was far too wise a mother to disparage it. "Truly they made a brave show then upon Christmas-day," she admitted, "for the lord mayor and his corporation, a goodly company of gentlemen, rode in procession to the church of St. Thomas Acon, and thence to dine together with many pleasant ceremonies. And stoups of wine and huge venison pasties were despatched to the Temple for the stay and comfort of the mock-court, who made merry all day long. And the streets were crowded, far into the night, with maskers and revellers; and even the poor might for once forget their poverty, and were welcome to the brawn and plum-broth of their richer neighbors."

"And now we have nothing of all this!" cried Cicely, with passionate regret. "Nothing to look at and nothing to hear save the cracked bell of a dingy herald, who does not even ride a hobby-horse like the merry heralds of old. In truth, Master Prynne hath made good his own words when he holds that Christmas should be rather a day of mourning than one of rejoicing."

"Not so thought my godfather, kind Master Breton," said Annis, thoughtfully. "For he hath written that it is the duty of Christians to rejoice for the remembrance of Christ and for the maintenance of good-fellowship. 'I hold it,' he hath said, 'a memory of the Heaven's love and the world's peace, the mirth of the honest and the meeting of the friendly.'"

Cicely's eyes danced with glee. "That were well remembered," she said, mockingly; "if, now, you can but tell us in turn what your godfather's nephew, Captain Rupert Breton, hath thought upon the matter."

Annis flushed scarlet, and the quick tears welled into her eyes as she turned them reproachfully upon her sister. It was not easy for her to think of her absent lover and maintain the cheerful frame of mind she deemed appropriate to the season. The shores of France seemed very far away that night, and the long months that had elapsed since the defeat at Worcester stretched backward like a lifetime, as she recalled his last hurried farewell. He had ridden hard and risked much for those few words, and patiently and bravely she had waited ever since, hoping, praying, turning her face steadily to the brighter side, and keeping ever in mind the happy hour which should reunite them to each other. Now, in silence, she bound together the last green boughs and put all in order for the night. Old Catherine had long since gone off, yawning and blinking, to bed, and Cicely, half-asleep, nodded over the dying fire. Only her mother watched her, with eyes of loving scrutiny, and Annis smiled brightly as she kissed the careworn face. "I shall not cry myself to sleep to-night," she said, resolutely. "This is a time for gladness; for the star of Bethlehem is shining in the sky, and the birth of the Lord is at hand."

* * * * *

Bright glowed the Christmas-logs on the capacious hearth till every pointed leaf and scarlet holly-berry shone in the generous firelight.

"Whosoever against holly doth cry,
In a rope shall be hung full high."

For, when the oak and ash trees babbled to the wind, and betrayed the Saviour's hiding-place, the holly, the ivy, and the pine kept the secret hidden in their silent hearts; and for this good deed they stand green and living under winter's icy breath, while their companions shiver naked in the blast. Not till the risen sun has danced on Easter morn shall the oak adorn a Christian household and prove itself forgiven. The Christmas-pie--the Christ-cradle, as the Saxons used to call it--had been baked in its oblong dish in memory of the manger at Bethlehem, with the star of the Magi cut deeply in the swelling crust. The Yule-dough, cunningly moulded into the likeness of a little babe, had been carefully laid by as a sovereign protector from the evils of fire, floods, carnage, and--so say some ancient writers--from the bite of rabid dogs. Annis Vane, decked out in the bravest array her altered fortunes would permit, knelt by the blazing hearth. Her ruff was of the finest lace, and a row of milk-white pearls clasped her slender throat. She shaded her face from the fire, and piled up shining cones of bright-brown nuts that seemed to tempt the flames.

(Illustration: The Cavalier From France)

"All we lack now is the mistletoe," she said, half-despondently. "It was no easy task to find the holly and bring it home unnoticed; but we cannot gather mistletoe near London, and there is none for sale throughout the city."

"Of what use is the mistletoe," said the practical Cicely, "when we are but three women here alone? We can kiss each other as readily under a sprig of ivy, and we can fire our nuts without the help of man or lad, provided only we keep one in our minds. Of whom shall I think, Annis?" she queried, wrinkling up her pretty forehead in anxious perplexity over so disturbing a doubt.

"You are far too young to think of men at all," answered Annis, reprovingly, and with all the conscious superiority of age. "Nor do you know enough as yet to make such pastime profitable."

Cicely's brows drew together with a frown which plainly indicated the nature of the retort upon her lips, but a glance from her mother checked her. "The word uttered in vexation is better left unspoken," said Mistress Vane, with gentle authority. "And I am waiting here, not to listen to disputes, which in these stormy times have grown wearisome, but to hear the Christmas carol promised me to-night."

Annis, with flushed cheeks, took down from the wall a little mandolin of Spanish workmanship, and, striking a few chords, began the carol, in which Cicely, after sacrificing some moments to ill-temper, concluded presently to join, her clear flute-notes rising high above her sister's weaker tones,--

"When Christ was born of Mary free,
In Bethlehem, in that fair citie,
Angels sungen with mirth and glee,
In Excelsis Gloria!

"Herdsmen beheld these angels bright
To them appeared with great light,
And said, God's Son is born this night,
In Excelsis Gloria!

"The King is comen to save kind,
Even in Scripture as we find;
Therefore this song have we in mind,
In Excelsis Gloria!

"Then, dear Lord, for thy great grace,
Grant us in bliss to see thy face,
Where we may sing to thee solace,
In Excelsis Gloria!"

As the sounds died into silence there stood one in the icy streets and listened. No self-elected saint was he, scenting out treason to the Commonwealth, but a cavalier from France, with his love-locks shorn for sweet prudence's sake, and a mighty mantle enveloping him from head to foot. If Annis Vane had waited, and hoped, and built up her faith in the cheer of Christmas-night, the joy she coveted was very near at last. After lingering a few moments, as though on the chance of hearing more, the stranger advanced and knocked sharply at the heavily-barred door. It was opened in due season and with great caution by old Catherine, who evidently thought the hour ill-chosen for a new-comer, and mistrusted sorely the purpose of his visit. He allowed her scant time, however, to threaten or expostulate, but, putting her gently on one side, stepped to the inner room. There, pale with anxiety and terror, Mistress Vane leaned forward in her chair, while Cicely, half-frightened, half-defiant, grasped her mother's skirt. Before the fire stood Annis, her blue eyes shining like stars, a round, red spot burning feverishly in each cheek, her lace ruff rising and falling distressfully with the heaving bosom within. The mandolin had fallen from her hands; the ruddy firelight lit up her slight figure and fair, disordered curls. She stood thus for a moment, swaying breathless betwixt hope and fear, then, with a low, joyous cry, sprang forward into her lover's arms.

Welcome now the good cheer of Christmas-night! Welcome the Christmas-pie, the pasty of venison, the pudding stuffed with plums, and the flagon of old wine. Love is a brave appetizer when backed by long fasting and a ten hours' ride, and Captain Breton brought all the vigor of youth and happiness and of a noble hunger to bear upon the viands. The glow of the cheerful room was infinitely comforting to the tired traveller; the sight of Annis's happy face put fresh hope and courage in his heart. He had much to tell of the gay court of France, and of the royal exile, who should one day, God willing, sit on his father's throne. Nor were there lacking adventures and dangers of his own to give flavor to the narrative, nor plans for the future, colored with all the happy confidence of youth. He had come home to win his bride, and to carry her away to brighter scenes until this soured and gloomy England should be merrie England once more. "He who would keep a light heart within London walls," said he, "must needs be very sure of heaven, as are Master Prynne and Master Philip Stubbes, or very much in love, as am I. It lacks but a covered cart and a bell in every street to make one feel the Black Death is upon us. If you can laugh in such an atmosphere of melancholy, Annis, what will you do in France?"

"Mayhap if I laugh enough in sober London I shall grow too giddy and forward in foolish France," returned Annis, gayly; "unless----"

"Unless what, dear heart?"

"Unless while I am safe in Paris you are fighting the battles of the king in England. Then tears will come easier than laughter, as in truth they have done of late."

"Wherever I may be, your prayers will prove my bulwark," said Captain Breton, confidently. "It would take more than a silver bullet to find its way to my heart while you are besieging heaven's doors in the tumultuous fashion that only women can attain. I bear a charmed life as long as you remember your petitions."

Annis answered with a look, and Cicely, nestling by her mother's chair, watched her sister with wide, serious eyes. To the child standing on the threshold of womanhood the presence of love carries with it an intoxicating flavor of mystery. It is something that fills her alike with envy and a vague resentment, with wonder and an indefinable desire. Its commonest expression is a perverse antipathy to one of the lovers, with an irrational increase of affection for the other; and in this case Captain Breton came in for his full share of Cicely's smothered anger and disdain. He, meanwhile, in happy unconsciousness, chancing to meet the brown eyes lifted dreamily to his own, and noting the upward curve of the short, sweet lip, thought within himself that this elfish little Cicely was growing almost as pretty as her sister--a judgment which proves conclusively the blindness of love; for Annis, though fair and comely to look upon, came no nearer to her young sister's beauty than does the pink-tipped daisy to the half-opened rosebud uncurling slowly in the sun. At present, the girl, seeing that she was watched, turned away her head pettishly and eyed the leaping flames.

"Annis said to-night there was but one thing lacking to her Christmas cheer," she remarked, after a pause, and with the too evident intention of saying something vexatious.

"And that was I!" interposed the cavalier, with the ready assurance of a lover.

"It was not you at all," returned Cicely, "but the mistletoe. We gathered the other greens ourselves, but there was no mistletoe to be found within or without the gates of London."

"By a happy chance we can proceed as though we had it," said Captain Breton, contentedly, while Annis crimsoned like a rose. "It is a welcome little plant, and carries a merry message; but if it be banished in these saintly days, we obstinate sinners must kiss without its sanction."

"But the maid who is not kissed on Christmas-night beneath the mistletoe will never be a wife during the coming year," persisted Cicely, who had laid down her line of attack and was not to be driven therefrom.

"Now, will you wager your ring or your new ear-drop on that, little sister?" said the captain, laughing at the threat. "Or have you a trinket that you value less to risk in such a cause?"

Cicely, deeply affronted, puckered up her brow and drew closer to her mother; but Annis, far too happy to be vexed, leaned over and kissed the pouting lips. With her, joy meant thanksgiving, and her heart was singing--singing the song of the angel of Judea: "In Excelsis Gloria!"

_A Norseman's Saga._

"As he sat there with a sou'wester down over his ears, in a long pilot coat, his figure appeared to assume quite supernatural proportions, and you might almost imagine that you had one of the old Vikings before you."


(The end)
Agnes Repplier's short story: A Still Christmas

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