Story type: Literature
I was fourteen that Christmas:–all Veryan parish knows the date of the famous “Black Winter,” when the Johann brig came ashore on Kibberick beach, with a dozen foreigners frozen stiff and staring on her fore-top, and Lawyer Job, up at Ruan, lost all his lambs but two. There was neither rhyme nor wit in the season; and up to St. Thomas’s eve, when it first started to freeze, the folk were thinking that summer meant to run straight into spring. I mind the ash being in leaf on Advent Sunday, and a crowd of martins skimming round the church windows during sermon-time. Each morning brought blue sky, warm mists, and a dew that hung on the brambles till ten o’clock. The frogs were spawning in the pools; primroses were out by scores, and monthly roses blooming still; and Master shot a goat-sucker on the last day in November. All this puzzled the sheep, I suppose, and gave them a notion that their time, too, was at hand. At any rate the lambs fell early; and when they fell, it had turned to perishing cold.
That Christmas-eve, while the singers were up at the house and the fiddles going like mad, it was a dismal time for two of us. Laban Pascoe, the hind, spent his night in the upper field where the sheep lay, while I spent mine in the chall looking after Dinah, our Alderney, that had slipped her calf in the afternoon–being promised the castling’s skin for a Sunday waistcoat, if I took care of the mother. Bating the cold air that came under the door, I kept pretty cosy, what with the straw-bands round my legs and the warm breath of the cows: for we kept five. There was no wind outside, but moonlight and a still, frozen sky, like a sounding board: so that every note of the music reached me, with the bleat of Laban’s sheep far up the hill, and the waves’ wash on the beaches below. Inside the chall the only sounds were the slow chewing of the cows, the rattle of a tethering-block, now and then, or a moan from Dinah. Twice the uproar from the house coaxed me to the door to have a look at Laban’s scarlet lantern moving above, and make sure that he was worse off than I. But mostly I lay still on my straw in the one empty stall staring into the foggy face of my own lantern, thinking of the waistcoat, and listening.
I was dozing, belike, when a light tap on the door made me start up, rubbing my eyes.
“Merry Christmas, Dick!”
A little head, bright with tumbled curls, was thrust in, and a pair of round eyes stared round the chall, then back to me, and rested on my face.
“Merry Christmas, little mistress.”
“Dick–if you tell, I’ll never speak to you again. I only wanted to see if ’twas true.”
She stepped inside the chall, shutting the door behind her. Under one arm she hugged a big boy-doll, dressed like a sailor–from the Christmas-tree, I guessed–and a bright tinsel star was pinned on the shoulder of her bodice. She had come across the cold town-place in her muslin frock, with no covering for her shoulders; and the manner in which that frock was hitched upon her made me stare.
“I got out of bed again and dressed myself,” she explained. “Nurse is in the kitchen, dancing with the young man from Penare, who can’t afford to marry her for ever so long, father says. I saw them twirling, as I slipped out–“
“You have done a wrong thing,” said I: “you might catch your death.”
Her lip fell:–she was but five. “Dick, I only wanted to see if ’twas true.”
“What?” I asked, covering her shoulders with the empty sack that had been my pillow.
“Why, that the cows pray on Christmas-eve. Nurse says that at twelve o’clock to-night all the cows in their stalls will be on their knees, if only somebody is there to see. So, as it’s near twelve by the tall clock indoors, I’ve come to see,” she wound up.
“It’s quig-nogs, I expect. I never heard of it.”
“Nurse says they kneel and make a cruel moan, like any Christian folk. It’s because Christ was born in a stable, and so the cows know all about it. Listen to Dinah! Dick, she’s going to begin!”
But Dinah, having heaved her moan, merely shuddered and was still again.
“Just fancy, Dick,” the little one went on, “it happened in a chall like ours!” She was quiet for a moment, her eyes fixed on the glossy rumps of the cows. Then, turning quickly–“I know about it, and I’ll show you. Dick, you must be Saint Joseph, and I’ll be the Virgin Mary. Wait a bit–“
Her quick fingers began to undress the sailor-doll and fold his clothes carefully. “I meant to christen him Robinson Crusoe,” she explained, as she laid the small garments, one by one, on the straw; “but he can’t be Robinson Crusoe till I’ve dressed him up again.” The doll was stark naked now, with waxen face and shoulders, and bulging bags of sawdust for body and legs.
“Dick,” she said, folding the doll in her arms and kissing it– “St. Joseph, I mean–the first thing we’ve got to do is to let people know he’s born. Sing that carol I heard you trying over last week– the one that says ‘Far and far I carry it.’”
So I sang, while she rocked the babe:–
‘Naked boy, brown boy,
In the snow deep,
Folks out of sleep;
Little shoes, thin shoes,
Shoes so wet and worn’–
‘But I bring the merry news
–Christ is born!
Rise, pretty mistress,
In your smock of silk;
Give me for my good news
Bread and new milk.
Joy, joy in Jewry,
This very morn!
Far and far I carry it
–Christ is born!’
She heard me with a grave face to the end; then pulling a handful of straw, spread it in the empty manger and laid the doll there. No, I forget; one moment she held it close to her breast and looked down on it. The God who fashions children can tell where she learnt that look, and why I remembered it ten years later, when they let me look into the room where she lay with another babe in her clay-cold arms.
“Count forty,” she went on, using the very words of Pretty Tommy, our parish clerk: “count forty, and let fly with ‘Now draw around–‘”
“Now draw around, good Christian men,
And rest you worship-ping–“
We sang the carol softly together, she resting one hand on the edge of the manger.
“Dick, ain’t you proud of him? I don’t see the spiders beginning, though.”
“Dick, you’re very ig-norant. Everybody knows that, when Christ was laid in a manger, the spiders came and spun their webs over Him and hid Him. That’s why King Herod couldn’t find Him.”
“There, now! We live and learn,” said I.
“Well, now there’s nothing to do but sit down and wait for the wise men and the shepherds.”
It was a little while that she watched, being long over-tired. The warm air of the chall weighed on her eyelids; and, as they closed, her head sank on my shoulder. For ten minutes I sat, listening to her breathing. Dinah rose heavily from her bed and lay down again, with a long sigh; another cow woke up and rattled her rope a dozen times through its ring; up at the house the fiddling grew more furious; but the little maid slept on. At last I wrapped the sack closely round her, and lifting her in my arms, carried her out into the night. She was my master’s daughter, and I had not the courage to kiss so much as her hair. Yet I had no envy for the dancers, then.
As we passed into the cold air she stirred. “Did they come? And where are you carrying me?” Then, when I told her, “Dick, I will never speak to you again, if you don’t carry me first to the gate of the upper field.”
So I carried her to the gate, and sitting up in my arms she called twice:
“What cheer–O?” the hind called back. His lantern was a spark on the hill-side, and he could not tell the voice at that distance.
“Have you seen him?”
“The angel of the Lo-o-ord!”
“I’m afraid we can’t make him understand,” she whispered. “Hush; don’t shout!” For a moment, she seemed to consider; and then her shrill treble quavered out on the frosty air, my own deeper voice taking up the second line–
“The first’ Nowell’ the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds, in fields as they lay,
–In fields as they lay, a-tending their sheep,
On a cold winters night that was so deep–
Christ is born in Israel!”
Our voices followed our shadows across the gate and far up the field, where Laban’s sheep lay dotted. What Laban thought of it I cannot tell: but to me it seemed, for the moment, that the shepherd among his ewes, the dancers within the house, the sea beneath us, and the stars in their courses overhead moved all to one tune,–the carol of two children on the hill-side.