Bride of the Mistletoe by James Lane Allen
EARTH SHIELD AND
I. THE MAN AND
II. THE TREE AND
LIGHTING OF THE
V. THE ROOM OF
VI. THE WHITE
THE BRIDE OF THE MISTLETOE
JAMES LANE ALLEN
AUTHOR OF “FLUTE AND VIOLIN,” “A KENTUCKY CARDINAL,” “AFTERMATH,”
TO ONE WHO KNOWS
Je crois que pour produire il ne faut pas trop raissoner. Mais il
faut regarder beaucoup et songer a ce qu'on a vu. Voir: tout est la, et
voir juste. J'entends, par voir juste, voir avec ses propres yeux et
non avec ceux des maitres. L'originalite d'un artiste s'indique d'abord
dans les petites choses et non dans les grandes.
Il faut trouver aux choses une signification qui n'a pas encore
decouverte et tacher de l'exprimer d'une facon personelle.
—GUY DE MAUPASSANT.
Any one about to read this work of fiction might properly be
apprised beforehand that it is not a novel: it has neither the
structure nor the purpose of The Novel.
It is a story. There are two characters—a middle-aged married
couple living in a plain farmhouse; one point on the field of human
nature is located; at that point one subject is treated; in the
treatment one movement is directed toward one climax; no external event
whatsoever is introduced; and the time is about forty hours.
A second story of equal length, laid in the same house, is expected
to appear within a twelvemonth. The same father and mother are
characters, and the family friend the country doctor; but subordinately
all. The main story concerns itself with the four children of the two
It is an American children's story:
“A Brood of The Eagle.”
During the year a third work, not fiction, will be published,
“The Christmas Tree: An Interpretation.”
The three works will serve to complete each other, and they complete
a cycle of the theme.
EARTH SHIELD AND EARTH FESTIVAL
I. THE MAN AND THE SECRET
II. THE TREE AND THE SUNSET
III. THE LIGHTING OF THE CANDLES
IV. THE WANDERING TALE
V. THE ROOM OF THE SILENCES
VI. THE WHITE DAWN
EARTH SHIELD AND EARTH FESTIVAL
A mighty table-land lies southward in a hardy region of our country.
It has the form of a colossal Shield, lacking and broken in some of its
outlines and rough and rude of make. Nature forged it for some crisis
in her long warfare of time and change, made use of it, and so left it
lying as one of her ancient battle-pieces—Kentucky.
The great Shield is raised high out of the earth at one end and sunk
deep into it at the other. It is tilted away from the dawn toward the
sunset. Where the western dip of it reposes on the planet, Nature,
cunning artificer, set the stream of ocean flowing past with restless
foam—the Father of Waters. Along the edge for a space she bound a
bright river to the rim of silver. And where the eastern part rises
loftiest on the horizon, turned away from the reddening daybreak, she
piled shaggy mountains wooded with trees that loose their leaves ere
snowflakes fly and with steadfast evergreens which hold to theirs
through the gladdening and the saddening year. Then crosswise over the
middle of the Shield, northward and southward upon the breadth of it,
covering the life-born rock of many thicknesses, she drew a tough skin
of verdure—a broad strip of hide of the ever growing grass. She
embossed noble forests on this greensward and under the forests drew
This she did in a time of which we know nothing—uncharted ages
before man had emerged from the deeps of ocean with eyes to wonder,
thoughts to wander, heart to love, and spirit to pray. Many a scene the
same power has wrought out upon the surface of the Shield since she
brought him forth and set him there: many an old one, many a new. She
has made it sometimes a Shield of war, sometimes a Shield of peace. Nor
has she yet finished with its destinies as she has not yet finished
with anything in the universe. While therefore she continues her will
and pleasure elsewhere throughout creation, she does not forget the
She likes sometimes to set upon it scenes which admonish man how
little his lot has changed since Hephaistos wrought like scenes upon
the shield of Achilles, and Thetis of the silver feet sprang like a
falcon from snowy Olympus bearing the glittering piece of armor to her
These are some of the scenes that were wrought on the shield of
Achilles and that to-day are spread over the Earth Shield Kentucky:
Espousals and marriage feasts and the blaze of lights as they lead
the bride from her chamber, flutes and violins sounding merrily. An
assembly-place where the people are gathered, a strife having arisen
about the blood-price of a man slain; the old lawyers stand up one
after another and make their tangled arguments in turn. Soft, freshly
ploughed fields where ploughmen drive their teams to and fro, the earth
growing dark behind the share. The estate of a landowner where laborers
are reaping; some armfuls the binders are binding with twisted bands of
straw: among them the farmer is standing in silence, leaning on his
staff, rejoicing in his heart. Vineyards with purpling clusters and
happy folk gathering these in plaited baskets on sunny afternoons. A
herd of cattle with incurved horns hurrying from the stable to the
woods where there is running water and where purple-topped weeds bend
above the sleek grass. A fair glen with white sheep. A dancing-place
under the trees; girls and young men dancing, their fingers on one
another's wrists: a great company stands watching the lovely dance of
Such pageants appeared on the shield of Achilles as art; as pageants
of life they appear on the Earth Shield Kentucky. The metal-worker of
old wrought them upon the armor of the Greek warrior in tin and silver,
bronze and gold. The world-designer sets them to-day on the throbbing
land in nerve and blood, toil and delight and passion. But there with
the old things she mingles new things, with the never changing the ever
changing; for the old that remains always the new and the new that
perpetually becomes old—these Nature allots to man as his two portions
wherewith he must abide steadfast in what he is and go upward or go
downward through all that he is to become.
But of the many scenes which she in our time sets forth upon the
stately grassy Shield there is a single spectacle that she spreads over
the length and breadth of it once every year now as best liked by the
entire people; and this is both old and new.
It is old because it contains man's faith in his immortality, which
was venerable with age before the shield of Achilles ever grew
effulgent before the sightless orbs of Homer. It is new because it
contains those latest hopes and reasons for this faith, which briefly
blossom out upon the primitive stock with the altering years and soon
are blown away upon the winds of change. Since this spectacle, this
festival, is thus old and is thus new and thus enwraps the deepest
thing in the human spirit, it is never forgotten.
When in vernal days any one turns a furrow or sows in the teeth of
the wind and glances at the fickle sky; when under the summer shade of
a flowering tree any one looks out upon his fatted herds and fattening
grain; whether there is autumnal plenty in his barn or autumnal
emptiness, autumnal peace in his breast or autumnal strife,—all days
of the year, in the assembly-place, in the dancing-place, whatsoever of
good or ill befall in mind or hand, never does one forget.
When nights are darkest and days most dark; when the sun seems
farthest from the planet and cheers it with lowest heat; when the
fields lie shorn between harvest-time and seed-time and man turns
wistful eyes back and forth between the mystery of his origin and the
mystery of his end,—then comes the great pageant of the winter
solstice, then comes Christmas.
So what is Christmas? And what for centuries has it been to
differing but always identical mortals?
It was once the old pagan festival of dead Nature. It was once the
old pagan festival of the reappearing sun. It was the pagan festival
when the hands of labor took their rest and hunger took its fill. It
was the pagan festival to honor the descent of the fabled inhabitants
of an upper world upon the earth, their commerce with common flesh, and
the production of a race of divine-and-human half-breeds. It is now the
festival of the Immortal Child appearing in the midst of mortal
children. It is now the new festival of man's remembrance of his errors
and his charity toward erring neighbors. It has latterly become the
widening festival of universal brotherhood with succor for all need and
nighness to all suffering; of good will warring against ill will and of
peace warring upon war.
And thus for all who have anywhere come to know it, Christmas is the
festival of the better worldly self. But better than worldliness, it is
on the Shield to-day what it essentially has been through many an age
to many people—the symbolic Earth Festival of the Evergreen; setting
forth man's pathetic love of youth—of his own youth that will not stay
with him; and renewing his faith in a destiny that winds its ancient
way upward out of dark and damp toward Eternal Light.
This is a story of the Earth Festival on the Earth Shield.
I. THE MAN AND THE SECRET
A man sat writing near a window of an old house out in the country a
few years ago; it was afternoon of the twenty-third of December.
One of the volumes of a work on American Forestry lay open on the
desk near his right hand; and as he sometimes stopped in his writing
and turned the leaves, the illustrations showed that the long road of
his mental travels—for such he followed—was now passing through the
Many notes were printed at the bottoms of the pages. They burned
there like short tapers in dim places, often lighting up obscure faiths
and customs of our puzzled human race. His eyes roved from taper to
taper, as gathering knowledge ray by ray. A small book lay near the
large one. It dealt with primitive nature-worship; and it belonged in
the class of those that are kept under lock and key by the libraries
which possess them as unsafe reading for unsafe minds.
Sheets of paper covered with the man's clear, deliberate handwriting
lay thickly on the desk. A table in the centre of the room was strewn
with volumes, some of a secret character, opened for reference. On the
tops of two bookcases and on the mantelpiece were prints representing
scenes from the oldest known art of the East. These and other prints
hanging about the walls, however remote from each other in the times
and places where they had been gathered, brought together in this room
of a quiet Kentucky farmhouse evidence bearing upon the same object:
the subject related in general to trees and in especial evergreens.
While the man was immersed in his work, he appeared not to be
submerged. His left hand was always going out to one or the other of
three picture-frames on the desk and his fingers bent caressingly.
Two of these frames held photographs of four young children—a boy
and a girl comprising each group. The children had the air of being
well enough bred to be well behaved before the camera, but of being
unruly and disorderly out of sheer health and a wild naturalness. All
of them looked straight at you; all had eyes wide open with American
frankness and good humor; all had mouths shut tight with American
energy and determination. Apparently they already believed that the New
World was behind them, that the nation backed them up. In a way you
believed it. You accepted them on the spot as embodying that marvellous
precocity in American children, through which they early in life become
conscious of the country and claim it their country and believe that it
claims them. Thus they took on the distinction of being a squad
detached only photographically from the rank and file of the white
armies of the young in the New World, millions and millions strong, as
they march, clear-eyed, clear-headed, joyous, magnificent, toward new
times and new destinies for the nation and for humanity—a kinder
knowledge of man and a kinder ignorance of God.
The third frame held the picture of a woman probably thirty years of
age. Her features were without noticeable American characteristics.
What human traits you saw depended upon what human traits you saw with.
The hair was dark and abundant, the brows dark and strong. And the
lashes were dark and strong; and the eyes themselves, so thornily
hedged about, somehow brought up before you a picture of autumn
thistles—thistles that look out from the shadow of a rock. They had a
veritable thistle quality and suggestiveness: gray and of the fields,
sure of their experience in nature, freighted with silence.
Despite grayness and thorniness, however, you saw that they were in
the summer of their life-bloom; and singularly above even their beauty
of blooming they held what is rare in the eyes of either men or
women—they held a look of being just.
The whole face was an oval, long, regular, high-bred. If the lower
part had been hidden behind a white veil of the Orient (by that little
bank of snow which is guardedly built in front of the overflowing
desires of the mouth), the upper part would have given the impression
of reserve, coldness, possibly of severity; yet ruled by that one
look—the garnered wisdom, the tempering justice, of the eyes. The
whole face being seen, the lower features altered the impression made
by the upper ones; reserve became bettered into strength, coldness
bettered into dignity, severity of intellect transfused into glowing
nobleness of character. The look of virgin justice in her was perhaps
what had survived from that white light of life which falls upon young
children as from a receding sun and touches lingeringly their smiles
and glances; but her mouth had gathered its shadowy tenderness as she
walked the furrows of the years, watching their changeful harvests,
eating their passing bread.
A handful of some of the green things of winter lay before her
picture: holly boughs with their bold, upright red berries; a spray of
the cedar of the Kentucky yards with its rosary of piteous blue. When
he had come in from out of doors to go on with his work, he had put
them there—perhaps as some tribute. After all his years with her, many
and strong, he must have acquired various tributes and interpretations;
but to-day, during his walk in the woods, it had befallen him to think
of her as holly which ripens amid snows and retains its brave freshness
on a landscape of departed things. As cedar also which everywhere on
the Shield is the best loved of forest-growths to be the companion of
household walls; so that even the poorest of the people, if it does not
grow near the spot they build in, hunt for it and bring it home:
everywhere wife and cedar, wife and cedar, wife and cedar.
The photographs of the children grouped on each side of hers with
heads a little lower down called up memories of Old World pictures in
which cherubs smile about the cloud-borne feet of the heavenly Hebrew
maid. Glowing young American mother with four healthy children as her
gifts to the nation—this was the practical thought of her that riveted
As has been said, they were in two groups, the children; a boy and
girl in each. The four were of nearly the same age; but the faces of
two were on a dimmer card in an older frame. You glanced at her again
and persuaded yourself that the expression of motherhood which
characterized her separated into two expressions (as behind a thin
white cloud it is possible to watch another cloud of darker hue).
Nearer in time was the countenance of a mother happy with happy
offspring; further away the same countenance withdrawn a little into
shadow—the face of the mother bereaved—mute and changeless.
The man, the worker, whom this little flock of wife and two
surviving children now followed through the world as their leader, sat
with his face toward his desk In a corner of the room; solidly squared
before his undertaking, liking it, mastering it; seldom changing his
position as the minutes passed, never nervously; with a quietude in him
that was oftener in Southern gentlemen in quieter, more gentlemanly
times. A low powerful figure with a pair of thick shoulders and
tremendous limbs; filling the room with his vitality as a heavy
passionate animal lying in a corner of a cage fills the space of the
cage, so that you wait for it to roll over or get up on its feet and
walk about that you may study its markings and get an inkling of its
Meantime there were hints of him. When he had come in, he had thrown
his overcoat on a chair that stood near the table in the centre of the
room and had dropped his hat upon his coat. It had slipped to the floor
and now lay there—a low, soft black hat of a kind formerly much worn
by young Southerners of the countryside,—especially on occasions when
there was a spur of heat in their mood and going,—much the same kind
that one sees on the heads of students in Rome in winter; light, warm,
shaping itself readily to breezes from any quarter, to be doffed or
donned as comfortable and negligible. It suggested that he had been a
country boy in the land, still belonged to the land, and as a man kept
to its out-of-door habits and fashions. His shoes, one of which you saw
at each side of his chair, were especially well made for rough-going
feet to tramp in during all weathers.
A sack suit of dark blue serge somehow helped to withdraw your
interpretation of him from farm life to the arts or the professions.
The scrupulous air of his shirt collar, showing against the clear-hued
flesh at the back of his neck, and the Van Dyck-like edge of the shirt
cuff, defining his powerful wrist and hand, strengthened the notion
that he belonged to the arts or to the professions. He might have been
sitting before a canvas instead of a desk and holding a brush instead
of a pen: the picture would have been true to life. Or truer yet, he
might have taken his place with the grave group of students in the
Lesson in Anatomy left by Rembrandt.
Once he put down his pen, wheeled his chair about, and began to read
the page he had just finished: then you saw him. He had a big,
masculine, solid-cut, self-respecting, normal-looking, executive
head—covered with thick yellowish hair clipped short; so that while
everything else in his appearance indicated that he was in the prime of
manhood, the clipped hair caused him to appear still more youthful; and
it invested him with a rustic atmosphere which went along very
naturally with the sentimental country hat and the all-weather shoes.
He seemed at first impression a magnificent animal frankly loved of the
sun—perhaps too warmly. The sun itself seemed to have colored for him
his beard and mustache—a characteristic hue of men's hair and beard in
this land peopled from Old English stock. The beard, like the hair, was
cut short, as though his idea might have been to get both hair and
beard out of life's daily way; but his mustache curled thickly down
over his mouth, hiding it. In the whole effect there was a suggestion
of the Continent, perhaps of a former student career in Germany,
memories of which may still have lasted with him and the marks of which
may have purposely been kept up in his appearance.
But such a fashion of beard, while covering a man's face, does much
to uncover the man. As he sat amid his papers and books, your thought
surely led again to old pictures where earnest heads bend together over
some point on the human road, at which knowledge widens and suffering
begins to be made more bearable and death more kind. Perforce now you
interpreted him and fixed his general working category: that he was
absorbed in work meant to be serviceable to humanity. His house, the
members of his family, the people of his neighborhood, were meantime
forgotten: he was not a mere dweller on his farm; he was a discoverer
on the wide commons where the race forever camps at large with its
problems, joys, and sorrows.
He read his page, his hand dropped to his knee, his mind dropped its
responsibility; one of those intervals followed when the brain rests.
The look of the student left his face; over it began to play the soft
lights of the domestic affections. He had forgotten the world for his
own place in the world; the student had become the husband and
house-father. A few moments only; then he wheeled gravely to his work
again, his right hand took up the pen, his left hand went back to the
The silence of the room seemed a guarded silence, as though he were
being watched over by a love which would not let him be disturbed. (He
had the reposeful self-assurance of a man who is conscious that he is
Matching the silence within was the stillness out of doors. An
immense oak tree stood just outside the windows. It was a perpetual
reminder of vanished woods; and when a windstorm tossed and twisted it,
the straining and grinding of the fibres were like struggles and
outcries for the wild life of old. This afternoon it brooded
motionless, an image of forest reflection. Once a small black-and-white
sapsucker, circling the trunk and peering into the crevices of the bark
on a level with the windows, uttered minute notes which penetrated into
the room like steel darts of sound. A snowbird alighted on the
window-sill, glanced familiarly in at the man, and shot up its crest;
but disappointed perhaps that it was not noticed, quoted its resigned
gray phrase—a phrase it had made for itself to accompany the score of
gray whiter—and flitted on billowy wings to a juniper at the corner of
the house, its turret against the long javelins of the North.
Amid the stillness of Nature outside and the house-silence of a love
guarding him within, the man worked on.
A little clock ticked independently on the old-fashioned Parian
marble mantelpiece. Prints were propped against its sides and face,
illustrating the use of trees about ancient tombs and temples. Out of
this photographic grove of dead things the uncaring clock threw out
upon the air a living three—the fateful three that had been measured
for each tomb and temple in its own land and time.
A knock, regretful but positive, was heard, and the door opening
into the hall was quietly pushed open. A glow lit up the student's face
though he did not stop writing; and his voice, while it gave a welcome,
unconsciously expressed regret at being disturbed:
“I am in!”
He lifted his heavy figure with instant courtesy—rather obsolete
now—and bowing to one side, sat down again.
“So I see,” he said, dipping his pen into his ink.
“Since you did not turn around, you would better have said 'So I
hear.' It is three o'clock.”
“So I hear.”
“You said you would be ready.”
“I am ready.”
“You said you would be done.”
“I am done—nearly done.”
“By to-morrow—to-morrow afternoon before dark. I have reached the
end, but now it is hard to stop, hard to let go.”
His tone gave first place, primary consideration, to his work. The
silence in the room suddenly became charged. When the voice was heard
again, there was constraint in it:
“There is something to be done this afternoon before dark, something
I have a share in. Having a share, I am interested. Being interested, I
am prompt. Being prompt, I am here.”
He waved his hand over the written sheets before him—those cold
Alps of learning; and asked reproachfully:
“Are you not interested in all this, O you of little faith?”
“How can I say, O me of little knowledge!”
As the words impulsively escaped, he heard a quick movement behind
him. He widened out his heavy arms upon his manuscript and looked back
over his shoulder at her and laughed. And still smiling and holding his
pen between his fingers, he turned and faced her. She had advanced into
the middle of the room and had stopped at the chair on which he had
thrown his overcoat and hat. She had picked up the hat and stood
turning it and pushing its soft material back into shape for his
head—without looking at him.
The northern light of the winter afternoon, entering through the
looped crimson-damask curtains, fell sidewise upon the woman of the
Years had passed since the picture had been made. There were changes
in her; she looked younger. She had effaced the ravages of a sadder
period of her life as human voyagers upon reaching quiet port repair
the damages of wandering and storm. Even the look of motherhood, of the
two motherhoods, which so characterized her in the photograph, had
disappeared for the present. Seeing her now for the first time, one
would have said that her whole mood and bearing made a single
declaration: she was neither wife nor mother; she was a woman in love
with life's youth—with youth—youth; in love with the things that
youth alone could ever secure to her.
The carriage of her beautiful head, brave and buoyant, brought
before you a vision of growing things in nature as they move towards
their summer yet far away. There still was youth in the round white
throat above the collar of green velvet—woodland green—darker than
the green of the cloth she wore. You were glad she had chosen that
color because she was going for a walk with him; and green would
enchain the eye out on the sere ground and under the stripped trees.
The flecklessness of her long gloves drew your thoughts to winter
rather—to its one beauteous gift dropped from soiled clouds. A slender
toque brought out the keenness in the oval of her face. From it rose
one backward-sweeping feather of green shaded to coral at the tip; and
there your fancy may have cared to see lingering the last radiance of
He kept his seat with his back to the manuscript from which he had
repulsed her; and his eyes swept loyally over her as she waited. Though
she could scarcely trust herself to speak, still less could she endure
the silence. With her face turned toward the windows opening on the
lawn, she stretched out her arm toward him and softly shook his hat at
“The sun sets—you remember how many minutes after four,” she said,
with no other tone than that of quiet warning. “I marked the minutes in
the almanac for you the other night after the children had gone to bed,
so that you would not forget. You know how short the twilights are even
when the day is clear. It is cloudy to-day and there will not be any
twilight. The children said they would not be at home until after dark,
but they may come sooner; it may be a trick. They have threatened to
catch us this year in one way or another, and you know they must not do
that—not this year! There must be one more Christmas with all its old
ways—even if it must be without its old mysteries.”
He did not reply at once and then not relevantly:
“I heard you playing.”
He had dropped his head forward and was scowling at her from under
his brows with a big Beethoven brooding scowl. She did not see, for she
held her face averted.
The silence in the room again seemed charged, and there was greater
constraint in her voice when it was next heard:
“I had to play; you need not have listened.”
“I had to listen; you played loud—”
“I did not know I was playing loud. I may have been trying to drown
other sounds,” she admitted.
“What other sounds?” His voice unexpectedly became inquisitorial: it
was a frank thrust into the unknown.
“What discords?” His thrust became deeper.
She turned her head quickly and looked at him; a quiver passed
across her lips and in her eyes there was noble anguish.
But nothing so arrests our speech when we are tempted to betray
hidden trouble as to find ourselves face to face with a kind of
burnished, radiant happiness. Sensitive eyes not more quickly close
before a blaze of sunlight than the shadowy soul shuts her gates upon
the advancing Figure of Joy.
It was the whole familiar picture of him now—triumphantly painted
in the harmonies of life, masterfully toned to subdue its
discords—that drove her back into herself. When she spoke next, she
had regained the self-control which under his unexpected attack she had
come near losing; and her words issued from behind the closed gates—as
through a crevice of the closed gates:
“I was reading one of the new books that came the other day, the
deep grave ones you sent for. It is written by a deep grave German, and
it is worked out in the deep grave German way. The whole purpose of it
is to show that any woman in the life of any man is merely—an
Incident. She may be this to him, she may be that to him; for a briefer
time, for a greater time; but all along and in the end, at bottom, she
is to him—an Incident.”
He did not take his eyes from hers and his smile slowly broadened.
“Were those the discords?” he asked gently.
She did not reply.
He turned in his chair and looking over his shoulder at her, he
raised his arm and drew the point of his pen across the backs of a
stack of magazines on top of his desk.
“Here is a work,” he said, “not written by a German or by any other
man, but by a woman whose race I do not know: here is a work the sole
purpose of which is to prove that any man is merely an Incident in the
life of any woman. He may be this to her, he may be that to her; for a
briefer time, for a greater time; but all along and in the end, beneath
everything else, he is to her—an Incident.”
He turned and confronted her, not without a gleam of humor in his
“That did not trouble me,” he said tenderly. “Those were not
discords to me.”
Her eyes rested on his face with inscrutable searching. She made no
His own face grew grave. After a moment of debate with himself as to
whether he should be forced to do a thing he would rather not do, he
turned in his chair and laid down his pen as though separating himself
from his work. Then he said, in a tone that ended playfulness:
“Do I not understand? Have I not understood all the time? For a year
now I have been shutting myself up at spare hours in this room and at
this work—without any explanation to you. Such a thing never occurred
before in our lives. You have shared everything. I have relied upon you
and I have needed you, and you have never failed me. And this
apparently has been your reward—to be rudely shut out at last. Now you
come in and I tell you that the work is done—quite finished—without a
word to you about it. Do I not understand?” he repeated. “Have I not
understood all along? It is true; outwardly as regards this work you
have been—the Incident.”
As he paused, she made a slight gesture with one hand as though she
did not care for what he was saying and brushed away the fragile web of
his words from before her eyes—eyes fixed on larger things lying clear
before her in life's distance.
He went quickly on with deepening emphasis:
“But, comrade of all these years, battler with me for life's
victories, did you think you were never to know? Did you believe I was
never to explain? You had only one more day to wait! If patience, if
faith, could only have lasted another twenty-four hours—until
It was the first time for nearly a year that the sound of those
words had been heard in that house. He bent earnestly over toward her;
he leaned heavily forward with his hands on his knees and searched her
features with loyal chiding.
“Has not Christmas Eve its mysteries?” he asked, “its secrets for
you and me? Think of Christmas Eve for you and me! Remember!”
Slowly as in a windless woods on a winter day a smoke from a
woodchopper's smouldering fire will wander off and wind itself about
the hidden life-buds of a young tree, muffling it while the atmosphere
near by is clear, there now floated into the room to her the tender
haze of old pledges and vows and of things unutterably sacred.
He noted the effect of his words and did not wait. He turned to his
desk and, gathering up the sprigs of holly and cedar, began softly to
cover her picture with them.
“Stay blinded and bewildered there,” he said, “until the hour comes
when holly and cedar will speak: on Christmas Eve you will understand;
you will then see whether in this work you have been—the Incident.”
Even while they had been talking the light of the short winter
afternoon had perceptibly waned in the room.
She glanced through the windows at the darkening lawn; her eyes were
tear-dimmed; to her it looked darker than it was. She held his hat up
between her arms, making an arch for him to come and stand under.
“It is getting late,” she said in nearly the same tone of quiet
warning with which she had spoken before. “There is no time to lose.”
He sprang up, without glancing behind him at his desk with its
interrupted work, and came over and placed himself under the arch of
her arms, looking at her reverently.
But his hands did not take hold, his arms hung down at his
sides—the hands that were life, the arms that were love.
She let her eyes wander over his clipped tawny hair and pass
downward over his features to the well-remembered mouth under its
mustache. Then, closing her quivering lips quickly, she dropped the cat
softly on his head and walked toward the door. When she reached it, she
put out one of her hands delicately against a panel and turned her
profile over her shoulder to him:
“Do you know what is the trouble with both of those books?” she
asked, with a struggling sweetness in her voice.
He had caught up his overcoat and as he put one arm through the
sleeve with a vigorous thrust, he laughed out with his mouth behind the
“I think I know what is the trouble with the authors of the books.”
“The trouble is,” she replied, “the trouble is that the authors are
right and the books are right: men and women are only Incidents
to each other in life,” and she passed out into the hall.
“Human life itself for that matter is only an incident in the
universe,” he replied, “if we cared to look at it in that way; but we'd
He was standing near the table in the middle of the room; he
suddenly stopped buttoning his overcoat. His eyes began to wander over
the books, the prints, the pictures, embracing in a final survey
everything that he had brought together from such distances of place
and time. His work was in effect done. A sense of regret, a rush of
loneliness, came over him as it comes upon all of us who reach the
happy ending of toil that we have put our heart and strength in.
“Are you coming?” she called faintly from the hall.
“I am coming,” he replied, and moved toward the door; but there he
stopped again and looked back.
Once more there came into his face the devotion of the student; he
was on the commons where the race encamps; he was brother to all
brothers who join work to work for common good. He was feeling for the
moment that through his hands ran the long rope of the world at which
men—like a crew of sailors—tug at the Ship of Life, trying to tow her
into some divine haven.
His task was ended. Would it be of service? Would it carry any
message? Would it kindle in American homes some new light of truth,
with the eyes of mothers and fathers fixed upon it, and innumerable
children of the future the better for its shining?
“Are you coming?” she called more quiveringly.
“I am coming,” he called back, breaking away from his revery, and
raising his voice so it would surely reach her.
II. THE TREE AND THE SUNSET
She had quitted the house and, having taken a few steps across the
short frozen grass of the yard as one walks lingeringly when expecting
to be joined by a companion, she turned and stood with her eyes fixed
on the doorway for his emerging figure.
“To-morrow night,” he had said, smiling at her with one meaning in
his words, “to-morrow night you will understand.”
“Yes,” she now said to herself, with another meaning in hers,
“to-morrow night I must understand. Until to-morrow night, then,
blinded and bewildered with holly and cedar let me be! Kind ignorance,
enfold me and spare me! All happiness that I can control or conjecture,
come to me and console me!”
And over herself she dropped a vesture of joy to greet him when he
should step forth.
It was a pleasant afternoon to be out of doors and to go about what
they had planned; the ground was scarcely frozen, there was no wind,
and the whole sky was overcast with thin gray cloud that betrayed no
movement. Under this still dome of silvery-violet light stretched the
winter land; it seemed ready and waiting for its great festival.
The lawn sloped away from the house to a brook at the bottom, and
beyond the brook the ground rose to a woodland hilltop. Across the
distance you distinguished there the familiar trees of blue-grass
pastures: white ash and black ash; white oak and red oak; white walnut
and black walnut; and the scaly-bark hickory in his roughness and the
sycamore with her soft leoparded limbs. The black walnut and the
hickory brought to mind autumn days when children were abroad,
ploughing the myriad leaves with booted feet and gathering their
harvest of nuts—primitive food-storing instinct of the human animal
still rampant in modern childhood: these nuts to be put away in garret
and cellar and but scantily eaten until Christmas came.
Out of this woods on the afternoon air sounded the muffled strokes
of an axe cutting down a black walnut partly dead; and when this fell,
it would bring down with it bunches of mistletoe, those white pearls of
the forest mounted on branching jade. To-morrow eager fingers would be
gathering the mistletoe to decorate the house. Near by was a thicket of
bramble and cane where, out of reach of cattle, bushes of holly
thrived: the same fingers would be gathering that.
Bordering this woods on one side lay a cornfield. The corn had just
been shucked, and beside each shock of fodder lay its heap of ears
ready for the gathering wagon. The sight of the corn brought freshly to
remembrance the red-ambered home-brew of the land which runs in a
genial torrent through all days and nights of the year—many a
full-throated rill—but never with so inundating a movement as at this
season. And the same grain suggested also the smokehouses of all farms,
in which larded porkers, fattened by it, had taken on posthumous honors
as home-cured hams; and in which up under the black rafters home-made
sausages were being smoked to their needed flavor over well-chosen
Around one heap of ears a flock of home-grown turkeys, red-mottled,
rainbow-necked, were feeding for their fate.
On the other side of the woods stretched a wheat-field, in the
stubble of which coveys of bob-whites were giving themselves final
plumpness for the table by picking up grains of wheat which had dropped
into the drills at harvest time or other seeds which had ripened in the
Farther away on the landscape there was a hemp-field where
hemp-breakers were making a rattling reedy music; during these weeks
wagons loaded with the gold-bearing fibre begin to move creaking to the
towns, helping to fill the farmer's pockets with holiday largess.
Thus everything needed for Christmas was there in sight: the
mistletoe—the holly—the liquor of the land for the cups of hearty
men—the hams and the sausages of fastidious housewives—the turkey and
the quail—and crops transmutable into coin. They were in sight
there—the fair maturings of the sun now ready to be turned into
offerings to the dark solstice, the low activities of the soil uplifted
to human joyance.
One last thing completed the picture of the scene.
The brook that wound across the lawn at its bottom was frozen to-day
and lay like a band of jewelled samite trailed through the olive
verdure. Along its margin evergreens grew. No pine nor spruce nor larch
nor fir is native to these portions of the Shield; only the wild cedar,
the shapeless and the shapely, belongs there. This assemblage of
evergreens was not, then, one of the bounties of Nature; they had been
It was the slender tapering spires of these evergreens with their
note of deathless spring that mainly caught the eye on the whole
landscape this dead winter day. Under the silvery-violet light of the
sky they waited in beauty and in peace: the pale green of larch and
spruce which seems always to go with the freshness of dripping Aprils;
the dim blue-gray of pines which rather belongs to far-vaulted summer
skies; and the dark green of firs—true comfortable winter coat when
snows sift mournfully and icicles are spearing earthward.
These evergreens likewise had their Christmas meaning and finished
the picture of the giving earth. Unlike the other things, they
satisfied no appetite, they were ministers to no passions; but with
them the Christmas of the intellect began: the human heart was to drape
their boughs with its gentle poetry; and from their ever living spires
the spiritual hope of humanity would take its flight toward the
Thus then the winter land waited for the oncoming of that strange
travelling festival of the world which has roved into it and encamped
gypsy-like from old lost countries: the festival that takes toll of
field and wood, of hoof and wing, of cup and loaf; but that, best of
all, wrings from the nature of man its reluctant tenderness for his
fellows and builds out of his lonely doubts regarding this life his
faith in a better one.
And central on this whole silent scene—the highest element in
it—its one winter-red passion flower—the motionless woman waiting
outside the house.
At last he came out upon the step.
He cast a quick glance toward the sky as though his first thought
were of what the weather was going to be. Then as he buttoned the top
button of his overcoat and pressed his bearded chin down over it to
make it more comfortable under his short neck, with his other hand he
gave a little pull at his hat—the romantic country hat; and he peeped
out from under the rustic brim at her, smiling with old gayeties and
old fondnesses. He bulked so rotund inside his overcoat and looked so
short under the flat headgear that her first thought was how slight a
disguise every year turned him into a good family Santa Claus; and she
smiled back at him with the same gayeties and fondnesses of days gone
by. But such a deeper pang pierced her that she turned away and walked
hurriedly down the hill toward the evergreens.
He was quickly at her side. She could feel how animal youth in him
released itself the moment he had come into the open air. There was
brutal vitality in the way his shoes crushed the frozen ground; and as
his overcoat sleeve rubbed against her arm, there was the same leaping
out of life, like the rubbing of tinder against tinder. Halfway down
the lawn he halted and laid his hand heavily on her wrist.
“Listen to that!” he said. His voice was eager, excited, like a
On the opposite side of the house, several hundred yards away, the
country turnpike ran; and from this there now reached them the rumbling
of many vehicles, hurrying in close procession out of the nearest town
and moving toward smaller villages scattered over the country; to its
hamlets and cross-roads and hundreds of homes richer or poorer—every
vehicle Christmas-laden: sign and foretoken of the Southern Yule-tide.
There were matters and usages in those American carriages and buggies
and wagons and carts the history of which went back to the England of
the Georges and the Stuarts and the Henrys; to the England of
Elizabeth, to the England of Chaucer; back through robuster Saxon times
to the gaunt England of Alfred, and on beyond this till they were lost
under the forest glooms of Druidical Britain.
They stood looking into each other's eyes and gathering into their
ears the festal uproar of the turnpike. How well they knew what it all
meant—this far-flowing tide of bounteousness! How perfectly they saw
the whole picture of the town out of which the vehicles had come: the
atmosphere of it already darkened by the smoke of soft coal pouring
from its chimneys, so that twilight in it had already begun to fall
ahead of twilight out in the country, and lamp-posts to glimmer along
the little streets, and shops to be illuminated to the delight of
window-gazing, mystery-loving children—wild with their holiday
excitements and secrecies. Somewhere in the throng their own two
children were busy unless they had already started home.
For years he had held a professorship in the college in this town,
driving in and out from his home; but with the close of this academic
year he was to join the slender file of Southern men who have been
called to Northern universities: this change would mean the end of life
here. Both thought of this now—of the last Christmas in the house; and
with the same impulse they turned their gaze back to it.
More than half a century ago the one starved genius of the Shield, a
writer of songs, looked out upon the summer picture of this land, its
meadows and ripening corn tops; and as one presses out the spirit of an
entire vineyard when he bursts a solitary grape upon his tongue, he,
the song writer, drained drop by drop the wine of that scene into the
notes of a single melody. The nation now knows his song, the world
knows it—the only music that has ever captured the joy and peace of
American home life—embodying the very soul of it in the clear amber of
This house was one of such homesteads as the genius sang of: a low,
old-fashioned, brown-walled, gray-shingled house; with chimneys
generous, with green window-shutters less than green and white
window-sills less than white; with feudal vines giving to its walls
their summery allegiance; not young, not old, but standing in the
middle years of its strength and its honors; not needy, not wealthy,
but answering Agar's prayer for neither poverty nor riches.
The two stood on the darkening lawn, looking back at it.
It had been the house of his fathers. He had brought her to it as
his own on the afternoon of their wedding several miles away across the
country. They had arrived at dark; and as she had sat beside him in the
carriage, one of his arms around her and his other hand enfolding both
of hers, she had first caught sight of it through the forest
trees—waiting for her with its lights just lit, its warmth, its
privacies: and that had been Christmas Eve!
For her wedding day had been Christmas Eve. When she had announced
her choice of a day, they had chidden her. But with girlish wilfulness
she had clung to it the more positively.
“It is the most beautiful night of the year!” she had replied,
brushing their objection aside with that reason alone. “And it is the
happiest! I will be married on that night, when I am happiest!”
Alone and thinking it over, she had uttered other words to
herself—yet scarce uttered them, rather felt them:
“Of old it was written how on Christmas Night the Love that cannot
fail us became human. My love for him, which is the divine thing in my
life and which is never to fail him, shall become human to him on that
When the carriage had stopped at the front porch, he had led her
into the house between the proud smiling servants of his establishment
ranged at a respectful distance on each side; and without surrendering
her even to her maid—a new spirit of silence on him—he had led her to
her bedroom, to a place on the carpet under the chandelier.
Leaving her there, he had stepped backward and surveyed her waiting
in her youth and loveliness—for him; come into his house, into
his arms—his; no other's—never while life lasted to be
another's even in thought or in desire.
Then as if the marriage ceremony of the afternoon in the presence of
many had meant nothing and this were the first moment when he could
gather her home to him, he had come forward and taken her in his arms
and set upon her the kiss of his house and his ardor and his duty. As
his warm breath broke close against her face, his lips under their
mustache, almost boyish then, had thoughtlessly formed one little
phrase—one little but most lasting and fateful phrase:
“Bride of the Mistletoe!”
Looking up with a smile, she saw that she stood under a bunch of
mistletoe swung from the chandelier.
Straightway he had forgotten his own words, nor did he ever
afterwards know that he had used them. But she, out of their very
sacredness as the first words he had spoken to her in his home, had
remembered them most clingingly. More than remembered them: she had set
them to grow down into the fibres of her heart as the mistletoe roots
itself upon the life-sap of the tree. And in all the later years they
had been the green spot of verdure under life's dark skies—the undying
bough into which the spirit of the whole tree retreats from the ice of
“Bride of the Mistletoe!“
Through the first problem of learning to weld her nature to his
wisely; through the perils of bearing children and the agony of seeing
some of them pass away; through the ambition of having him rise in his
profession and through the ideal of making his home an earthly
paradise; through loneliness when he was away and joy whenever he came
back,—upon her whole life had rested the wintry benediction of that
“Bride of the Mistletoe!“
* * * * *
She turned away now, starting once more downward toward the
evergreens. He was quickly at her side.
“What do you suppose Harold and Elizabeth are up to about this
time?” he asked, with a good-humored jerk of his head toward the
“At least to something mischievous, whatever it is,” she replied.
“They begged to be allowed to stay until the shop windows were lighted;
they have seen the shop windows two or three times already this week:
there is no great marvel for them now in shop windows. Permission to
stay late may be a blind to come home early. They are determined, from
what I have overheard, to put an end this year to the parental house
mysteries of Christmas. They are crossing the boundary between the
first childhood and the second. But if it be possible, I wish
everything to be kept once more just as it has always been; let it be
so for my sake!”
“And I wish it for your sake,” he replied heartily; “and for my
After a moment of silence he asked: “How large a Tree must it be
“It will have to be large,” she replied; and she began to count
those for whom the Tree this year was meant.
First she called the names of the two children they had lost. Gifts
for these were every year hung on the boughs. She mentioned their names
now, and then she continued counting:
“Harold and Elizabeth are four. You and I make six. After the family
come Herbert and Elsie, your best friend the doctor's children. Then
the servants—long strong bottom branches for the servants! Allow for
the other children who are to make up the Christmas party: ten children
have been invited, ten children have accepted, ten children will
arrive. The ten will bring with them some unimportant parents; you can
“That will do for size,” he said, laughing. “Now the kind:
spruce—larch—hemlock—pine—which shall it be?”
“It shall be none of them!” she answered, after a little waiting.
“It shall be the Christmas Tree of the uttermost North where the
reindeer are harnessed and the Great White Sleigh starts—fir. The old
Christmas stories like fir best. Old faiths seem to lodge in it
longest. And deepest mystery darkens the heart of it,” she added.
“Fir it shall be!” he said. “Choose the tree.”
“I have chosen.”
She stopped and delicately touched his wrist with the finger tips of
one white-gloved hand, bidding him stand beside her.
“That one,” she said, pointing down.
The brook, watering the roots of the evergreens in summer
gratefully, but now lying like a band of samite, jewel-crusted, made a
loop near the middle point of the lawn, creating a tiny island; and on
this island, aloof from its fellows and with space for the growth of
its boughs, stood a perfect fir tree: strong-based, thick-set, tapering
faultlessly, star-pointed, gathering more youth as it gathered more
years—a tame dweller on the lawn but descended from forests blurred
with wildness and lapped by low washings of the planet's primeval
At each Christmas for several years they had been tempted to cut
this tree, but had spared it for its conspicuous beauty at the edge of
“That one,” she now said, pointing down. “This is the last time. Let
us have the best of things while we may! Is it not always the perfect
that is demanded for sacrifice?”
His glance had already gone forward eagerly to the tree, and he
started toward it.
Descending, they stepped across the brook to the island and went up
close to the fir. With a movement not unobserved by her he held out his
hand and clasped three green fingers of a low bough which the fir
seemed to stretch out to him recognizingly. (She had always realized
the existence of some intimate bond between him and the forest.) His
face now filled with meanings she did not share; the spell of the
secret work had followed him out of the house down to the trees;
incommunicable silence shut him in. A moment later his fingers parted
with the green fingers of the fir and he moved away from her side,
starting around the tree and studying it as though in delight of fresh
knowledge. So she watched him pass around to the other side.
When he came back where he had started, she was not there. He looked
around searchingly; her figure was nowhere in sight.
The valley had memories, what memories! The years came close
together here; they clustered as thickly as the trees themselves.
Vacant spots among them marked where the Christmas Trees of former
years had been cut down. Some of the Trees had been for the two
children they had lost. This wandering trail led hither and thither
back to the first Tree for the first child: he had stooped down and cut
that close to the ground with his mere penknife. When it had been
lighted, it had held only two or three candles; and the candle on the
top of it had flared level into the infant's hand-shaded eyes.
He knew that she was making through the evergreens a Pilgrimage of
the Years, walking there softly and alone with the feet of life's
Pities and a mother's Constancies.
He waited for her—motionless.
The stillness of the twilight rested on the valley now. Only from
the trees came the plaintive twittering of birds which had come in from
frozen weeds and fence-rows and at the thresholds of the boughs were
calling to one another. It was not their song, but their speech; there
was no love in it, but there was what for them perhaps corresponds to
our sense of ties. It most resembled in human life the brief things
that two people, having long lived together, utter to each other when
together in a room they prepare for the night: there is no
anticipation; it is a confession of the unconfessed. About him now
sounded this low winter music from the far boundary of other lives.
He did not hear it.
The light on the landscape had changed. The sun was setting and a
splendor began to spread along the sky and across the land. It laid a
glory on the roof of the house on the hill; it smote the edge of the
woodland pasture, burnishing with copper the gray domes; it shone
faintly on distant corn shocks, on the weather-dark tents of the hemp
at bivouac soldierly and grim. At his feet it sparkled in rose gleams
on the samite of the brook and threw burning shafts into the gloom of
the fir beside him.
He did not see it.
He did not hear the calling of the birds about his ears, he did not
see the sunset before his eyes, he did not feel the fir tree the boughs
of which stuck against his side.
He stood there as still as a rock—with his secret. Not the secret
of the year's work, which was to be divulged to his wife and through
her to the world; but the secret which for some years had been growing
in his life and which would, he hoped, never grow into the open—to be
seen of her and of all men.
The sentimental country hat now looked as though it might have been
worn purposely to help out a disguise, as the more troubled man behind
the scenes makes up to be the happier clown. It became an absurdity, a
mockery, above his face grave, stern, set of jaw and eye. He was no
longer the student buried among his books nor human brother to toiling
brothers. He had not the slightest thought of service to mankind left
in him, he was but a man himself with enough to think of in the battle
between his own will and blood.
And behind him among the dark evergreens went on that Pilgrimage of
the Years—with the feet of the Pities and the Constancies.
Moments passed; he did not stir. Then there was a slight noise on
the other side of the tree, and his nature instantly stepped back into
his outward place. He looked through the boughs. She had returned and
was standing with her face also turned toward the sunset; it was very
pale, very still.
Such darkness had settled on the valley now that the green she wore
blent with the green of the fir. He saw only her white face and her
white hands so close to the branches that they appeared to rest upon
them, to grow out of them: he sadly thought of one of his prints of
Egypt of old and of the Lady of the Sacred Tree. Her long
backward-sweeping plume of green also blent with the green of the
fir—shade to shade—and only the coral tip of it remained strongly
visible. This matched the last coral in the sunset; and it seemed to
rest ominously above her head as a finger-point of the fading light of
He went quickly around to her. He locked his arms around her and
drew her close and held her close; and thus for a while the two stood,
watching the flame on the altar of the world as it sank lower, leaving
emptiness and ashes.
Once she put out a hand and with a gesture full of majesty and
nobleness waved farewell to the dying fire.
Still without a word he took his arms from around her and turned
energetically to the tree.
He pressed the lowest boughs aside and made his way in close to the
trunk and struck it with a keen stroke.
The fir as he drew the axe out made at its gashed throat a sound
like that of a butchered, blood-strangled creature trying to cry out
too late against a treachery. A horror ran through the boughs; the
thousands of leaves were jarred by the death-strokes; and the top of it
rocked like a splendid plume too rudely treated in a storm. Then it
fell over on its side, bridging blackly the white ice of the brook.
Stooping, he lifted it triumphantly. He set the butt-end on one of
his shoulders and, stretching his arms up, grasped the trunk and held
the tree straight in the air, so that it seemed to be growing out of
his big shoulder as out of a ledge of rock. Then he turned to her and
laughed out in his strength and youth. She laughed joyously back at
him, glorying as he did.
With a robust re-shouldering of the tree to make it more comfortable
to carry, he turned and started up the hill toward the house. As she
followed behind, the old mystery of the woods seemed at last to have
taken bodily possession of him. The fir was riding on his shoulder, its
arms met fondly around his neck, its fingers were caressing his hair.
And it whispered back jeeringly to her through the twilight:
“Say farewell to him! He was once yours; he is yours no longer. He
dandles the child of the forest on his shoulder instead of his children
by you in the house. He belongs to Nature; and as Nature calls, he will
always follow—though it should lead over the precipice or into the
flood. Once Nature called him to you: remember how he broke down
barriers until he won you. Now he is yours no longer—say good-by to
With an imbued terror and desolation, she caught up with him. By a
movement so soft that he should not be aware, she plucked him by the
coat sleeve on the other side from the fir and held on to him as he
strode on in careless joy.
Halfway up the hill lights began to flash from the windows of the
house: a servant was bringing in the lamps. It was at this hour, in
just this way, that she had first caught sight of them on that
Christmas Eve when he had brought her home after the wedding.
She hurried around in front of him, wishing to read the expression
of his eyes by the distant gleams from the windows. Would they have
nothing to say to her about those winter twilight lamps? Did he, too,
His head and face were hidden; a thousand small spears of Nature
bristled between him and her; but he laughed out to her from behind the
rampart of the green spears.
At that moment a low sound in the distance drew her attention, and
instantly alert she paused to listen. Then, forgetting everything else,
she called to him with a rush of laughter like that of her
“Quick! There they are! I heard the gate shut at the turnpike! They
must not catch us! Quick! Quick!”
“Hurry, then!” he cried, as he ran forward, joining his laughter to
hers. “Open the door for me!”
After this the night fell fast. The only sounds to be heard in the
valley were the minute readjustments of the ice of the brook as it
froze tighter and the distressed cries of the birds that had roosted in
So the Tree entered the house.
III. THE LIGHTING OF THE CANDLES
During the night it turned bitter cold. When morning came the sky
was a turquoise and the wind a gale. The sun seemed to give out light
but not heat—to lavish its splendor but withhold its charity. Moist
flesh if it chanced to touch iron froze to it momentarily. So in whiter
land the tongue of the ermine freezes to the piece of greased metal
used as a trap and is caught and held there until the trapper returns
or until it starves—starves with food on its tongue.
The ground, wherever the stiff boots of a farmhand struck it,
resisted as rock. In the fetlocks of farm horses, as they moved
shivering, balls of ice rattled like shaken tacks. The little
roughnesses of woodland paths snapped off beneath the slow-searching
hoofs of fodder-seeking cattle like points of glass.
Within their wool the sheep were comforted.
On higher fields which had given back their moisture to the
atmosphere and now were dry, the swooping wind lifted the dust at
intervals and dragged it away in flaunting yellow veils. The picture it
made, being so ill-seasoned, led you to think of August drought when
the grasshopper stills itself in the weeds and the smell of grass is
hot in the nostrils and every bird holds its beak open and its wings
lifted like cooling lattices alongside its breast. In these veils of
dust swarms of frost crystals sported—dead midgets of the dead North.
Except crystal and dust and wind, naught moved out there; no field
mouse, no hare nor lark nor little shielded dove. In the naked trees of
the pasture the crow kept his beak as unseen as the owl's; about the
cedars of the yard no scarlet feather warmed the day.
The house on the hill—one of the houses whose spirit had been blown
into the amber of the poet's song—sent festal smoke out of its
chimneys all day long. At intervals the radiant faces of children
appeared at the windows, hanging wreaths of evergreens; or their
figures flitted to and fro within as they wove garlands on the walls
for the Christmas party. At intervals some servant with head and
shoulders muffled in a bright-colored shawl darted trippingly from the
house to the cabins in the yard and from the cabins back to the
house—the tropical African's polar dance between fire and fire. By
every sign it gave the house showed that it was marshalling its whole
One thing only seemed to make a signal of distress from afar. The
oak tree beside the house, whose roots coiled warmly under the
hearth-stones and whose boughs were outstretched across the roof,
seemed to writhe and rock in its winter sleep with murmurings and
tossings like a human dreamer trying to get rid of an unhappy dream.
Imagination might have said that some darkest tragedy of forests long
since gone still lived in this lone survivor—that it struggled to give
up the grief and guilt of an ancient forest shame.
The weather moderated in the afternoon. A warm current swept across
the upper atmosphere, developing everywhere behind it a cloud; and
toward sundown out of this cloud down upon the Shield snow began to
fall. Not the large wet flakes which sometimes descend too late in
spring upon the buds of apple orchards; nor those mournfuller ones
which drop too soon on dim wild violets in November woods, but winter
snow, stern sculptor of Arctic solitudes.
* * * * *
It was Christmas Eve. It was snowing all over the Shield.
Softly the snow fell upon the year's footprints and pathways of
children and upon schoolhouses now closed and riotously deserted. More
softly upon too crowded asylums for them: houses of noonday darkness
where eyes eagerly look out at the windows but do not see; houses of
soundlessness where ears listen and do not hear any noise; houses of
silence where lips try to speak but utter no word.
The snow of Christmas Eve was falling softly on the old: whose eyes
are always seeing vanished faces, whose ears hear voices gentler than
any the earth now knows, whose hands forever try to reach other hands
vainly held out to them. Sad, sad to those who remember loved ones gone
with their kindnesses the snow of Christmas Eve!
But sadder yet for those who live on together after kindnesses have
ceased, or whose love went like a summer wind. Sad is Christmas Eve to
them! Dark its snow and blinding!
* * * * *
It was late that night.
She came into the parlor, clasping the bowl of a shaded lamp—the
only light in the room. Her face, always calm in life's wisdom, but
agitated now by the tide of deep things coming swiftly in toward her,
rested clear-cut upon the darkness.
She placed the lamp on a table near the door and seated herself
beside it. But she pushed the lamp away unconsciously as though the
light of the house were no longer her light; and she sat in the chair
as though it were no longer her chair; and she looked about the room as
though it were no longer hers nor the house itself nor anything else
that she cared for most.
Earlier in the evening they had finished hanging the presents on the
Tree; but then an interruption had followed: the children had broken
profanely in upon them, rending the veil of the house mysteries; and
for more than an hour the night had been given up to them. Now the
children were asleep upstairs, already dreaming of Christmas Morn and
the rush for the stockings. The servants had finished their work and
were gone to their quarters out in the yard. The doors of the house
were locked. There would be no more intrusion now, no possible
interruption; all the years were to meet him and her—alone. For Life
is the master dramatist: when its hidden tragedies are ready to utter
themselves, everything superfluous quits the stage; it is the essential
two who fill it! And how little the rest of the world ever hears of
what takes place between the two!
A little while before he had left the room with the step-ladder;
when he came back, he was to bring with him the manuscript—the silent
snowfall of knowledge which had been deepening about him for a year.
The time had already passed for him to return, but he did not come. Was
there anything in the forecast of the night that made him falter? Was
he shrinking—him shrink? She put away the thought as a strange
outbreak of injustice.
How still it was outside the house with the snow falling! How still
within! She began to hear the ticking of the tranquil old clock under
the stairway out in the hall—always tranquil, always tranquil. And
then she began to listen to the disordered strokes of her own
heart—that red Clock in the body's Tower whose beats are sent outward
along the streets and alleys of the blood; whose law it is to be
alternately wound too fast by the fingers of Joy, too slow by the
fingers of Sorrow; and whose fate, if it once run down, never
afterwards either by Joy or Sorrow to be made to run again.
At last she could hear the distant door of his study open and close
and his steps advance along the hall. With what a splendid swing and
tramp he brought himself toward her!—with what self-unconsciousness
and virile strength in his feet! His steps entered and crossed his
bedroom, entered and crossed her bedroom; and then he stood there
before her in the parlor doorway, a few yards off—stopped and regarded
her intently, smiling.
In a moment she realized what had delayed him. When he had gone away
with the step-ladder, he had on a well-worn suit in which, behind
locked doors, he had been working all the afternoon at the decorations
of the Tree. Now he came back ceremoniously dressed; the rest of the
night was to be in her honor.
It had always been so on this anniversary of their bridal night.
They had always dressed for it; the children now in their graves had
been dressed for it; the children in bed upstairs were regularly
dressed for it; the house was dressed for it; the servants were dressed
for it; the whole life of that establishment had always been made to
feel by honors and tendernesses and gayeties that this was the night on
which he had married her and brought her home.
As her eyes swept over him she noted quite as never before how these
anniversaries had not taken his youth away, but had added youth to him;
he had grown like the evergreen in the middle of the room—with
increase of trunk and limbs and with larger tides of strength surging
through him toward the master sun. There were no ravages of married
life in him. Time had merely made the tree more of a tree and made his
youth more youth.
She took in momentary details of his appearance: a moisture like
summer heat along the edge of his yellow hair, started by the bath into
which he had plunged; the freshness of the enormous hands holding the
manuscript; the muscle of the forearm bulging within the dress-coat
sleeve. Many a time she had wondered how so perfect an animal as he had
ever climbed to such an elevation of work; and then had wondered again
whether any but such an animal ever in life does so climb—shouldering
along with him the poise and breadth of health and causing the hot sun
of the valley to shine on the mountain tops.
Finally she looked to see whether he, thus dressed in her honor,
thus but the larger youth after all their years together, would return
her greeting with a light in his eyes that had always made them so
beautiful to her—a light burning as at a portal opening inward for her
His eyes rested on his manuscript.
He brought it wrapped and tied in the true holiday spirit—sprigs of
cedar and holly caught in the ribands; and he now lifted and held it
out to her as a jeweller might elevate a casket of gems. Then he
stepped forward and put it on the table at her elbow.
“For you!” he said reverently, stepping back.
There had been years when, returning from a tramp across the
country, he would bring her perhaps nothing but a marvellous thistle,
or a brilliant autumn leaf for her throat.
“For you!” he would say; and then, before he could give it to her,
he would throw it away and take her in his arms. Afterwards she would
pick up the trifle and treasure it.
“For you!” he now said, offering her the treasure of his year's toil
and stepping back.
So the weight of the gift fell on her heart like a stone. She did
not look at it or touch it but glanced up at him. He raised his finger,
signalling for silence; and going to the chimney corner, brought back a
long taper and held it over the lamp until it ignited. Then with a look
which invited her to follow, he walked to the Tree and began to light
He began at the lowest boughs and, passing around, touched them one
by one. Around and around he went, and higher and higher twinkled the
lights as they mounted the tapering sides of the fir. At the top he
kindled one highest red star, shining down on everything below. Then he
blew out the taper, turned out the lamp; and returning to the tree, set
the heavy end of the taper on the floor and grasped it midway, as one
might lightly hold a stout staff.
The room, lighted now by the common glow of the candles, revealed
itself to be the parlor of the house elaborately decorated for the
winter festival. Holly wreaths hung in the windows; the walls were
garlanded; evergreen boughs were massed above the window cornices; on
the white lace of window curtains many-colored autumn leaves, pressed
and kept for this night, looked as though they had been blown there
scatteringly by October winds. The air of the room was heavy with
odors; there was summer warmth in it.
In the middle of the room stood the fir tree itself, with its top
close to the ceiling and its boughs stretched toward the four walls of
the room impartially—as symbolically to the four corners of the earth.
It would be the only witness of all that was to take place between
them: what better could there be than this messenger of silence and
wild secrecy? From the mountains and valleys of the planet its race had
looked out upon a million generations of men and women; and the
calmness of its lot stretched across the turbulence of human passion as
an ancient bridge spans a modern river.
At the apex of the Tree a star shone. Just beneath at the first
forking of the boughs a candle burned. A little lower down a cross
gleamed. Under the cross a white dove hung poised, its pinions
outstretched as though descending out of the infinite upon some earthly
object below. From many of the branches tiny bells swung. There were
little horns and little trumpets. Other boughs sagged under the weight
of silvery cornucopias. Native and tropical fruits were tied on here
and there; and dolls were tied on also with cords around their necks,
their feet dangling. There were smiling masks, like men beheaded and
smiling in their death. Near the base of the Tree there was a drum. And
all over the Tree from pinnacle to base glittered a tinsel like golden
fleece—looking as the moss of old Southern trees seen at yellow
He stood for a while absorbed in contemplation of it. This year at
his own request the decorations had been left wholly to him; now he
He turned to her eagerly.
“Do you remember what took place on Christmas Eve last year?” he
asked, with a reminiscent smile. “You sat where you are sitting and I
stood where I am standing. After I had finished lighting the Tree, do
you remember what you said?”
After a moment she stirred and passed her fingers across her brows.
“Recall it to me,” she answered. “I must have said many things. I
did not know that I had said anything that would be remembered a year.
Recall it to me.”
“You looked at the Tree and said what a mystery it is. When and
where did it begin, how and why?—this Tree that is now nourished in
the affections of the human family round the world.”
“Yes; I remember that.”
“I resolved to find out for you. I determined to prepare during what
hours I could spare from my regular college work the gratification of
your wish for you as a gift from me. If I could myself find the way
back through the labyrinth of ages, then I would return for you and
lead you back through the story of the Christmas Tree as that story has
never been seen by any one else. All this year's work, then, has been
the threading of the labyrinth. Now Christmas Eve has come again, my
work is finished, my gift to you is ready.”
He made this announcement and stopped, leaving it to clear the air
of mystery—the mystery of the secret work.
Then he resumed: “Have you, then, been the Incident in this toil as
yesterday you intimated that you were? Do you now see that you have
been the whole reason of it? You were excluded from any share in the
work only because you could not help to prepare your own gift! That is
all. What has looked like a secret in this house has been no secret.
You are blinded and bewildered no longer; the hour has come when holly
and cedar can speak for themselves.”
Sunlight broke out all over his face.
She made no reply but said within herself:
“Ah, no! That is not the trouble. That has nothing to do with the
trouble. The secret of the house is not a misunderstanding; it is life.
It is not the doing of a year; it is the undoing of the years. It is
not a gift to enrich me with new happiness; it is a lesson that leaves
He went on without pausing:
“It is already late. The children interrupted us and took up part of
your evening. But it is not too late for me to present to you some
little part of your gift. I am going to arrange for you a short story
out of the long one. The whole long story is there,” he added,
directing his eyes toward the manuscript at her elbow; and his voice
showed how he felt a scholar's pride in it. “From you it can pass out
to the world that celebrates Christmas and that often perhaps asks the
same question: What is the history of the Christmas Tree? But now my
story for you!”
“Wait a moment,” she said, rising. She left the package where it
was; and with feet that trembled against the soft carpet crossed the
room and seated herself at one end of a deep sofa.
Gathering her dignity about her, she took there the posture of a
listener—listening at her ease.
The sofa was of richly carved mahogany. Each end curved into a
scroll like a landward wave of the sea. One of her foam-white arms
rested on one of the scrolls. Her elbow, reaching beyond, touched a
small table on which stood a vase of white frosted glass; over the rim
of it profuse crimson carnations hung their heads. They were one of her
favorite winter flowers, and he had had these sent out to her this
afternoon from a hothouse of the distant town by a half-frozen
messenger. Near her head curtains of crimson brocade swept down the
wall to the floor from the golden-lustred window cornices. At her back
were cushions of crimson silk. At the other end of the sofa her piano
stood and on it lay the music she played of evenings to him, or played
with thoughts of him when she was alone. And other music also which she
many a time read; as Beethoven's Great Nine.
Now, along this wall of the parlor from window curtain to window
curtain there stretched a festoon of evergreens and ribands put there
by the children for their Christmas-Night party; and into this festoon
they had fastened bunches of mistletoe, plucked from the walnut tree
felled the day before—they knowing nothing, happy children!
There she reclined.
The lower outlines of her figure were lost in a rich blackness over
which points of jet flashed like swarms of silvery fireflies in some
too warm a night of the warm South. The blackness of her hair and the
blackness of her brows contrasted with the whiteness of her bare arms
and shoulders and faultless neck and faultless throat bared also. Not
far away was hid the warm foam-white thigh, curved like Venus's of old
out of the sea's inaccessible purity. About her wrists garlands of old
family corals were clasped—the ocean's roses; and on her breast,
between the night of her gown and the dawn of the flesh, coral buds
flowered in beauty that could never be opened, never be rifled.
When she had crossed the room to the sofa, two aged
house-dogs—setters with gentle eyes and gentle ears and gentle
breeding—had followed her and lain down at her feet; and one with a
thrust of his nose pushed her skirts back from the toe of her slipper
and rested his chin on it.
“I will listen,” she said, shrinking as yet from other speech. “I
wish simply to listen. There will be time enough afterwards for what I
have to say.”
“Then I shall go straight through,” he replied. “One minute now
while I put together the story for you: it is hard to make a good short
story out of so vast a one.”
During these moments of waiting she saw a new picture of him. Under
stress of suffering and excitement discoveries denied to calmer hours
often arrive. It is as though consciousness receives a shock that
causes it to yawn and open its abysses: at the bottom we see new
things: sometimes creating new happiness; sometimes old happiness is
As he stood there—the man beside the Tree—into the picture entered
three other men, looking down upon him from their portraits on the
One portrait represented the first man of his family to scale the
mountains of the Shield where its eastern rim is turned away from the
reddening daybreak. Thence he had forced his way to its central
portions where the skin of ever living verdure is drawn over the rocks:
Anglo-Saxon, backwoodsman, borderer, great forest chief, hewing and
fighting a path toward the sunset for Anglo-Saxon women and children.
With his passion for the wilderness—its game, enemies, campfire and
cabin, deep-lunged freedom. This ancestor had a lonely, stern, gaunt
face, no modern expression in it whatsoever—the timeless face of the
Near his portrait hung that of a second representative of the
family. This man had looked out upon his vast parklike estates hi the
central counties; and wherever his power had reached, he had used it on
a great scale for the destruction of his forests. Woods-slayer,
field-maker; working to bring in the period on the Shield when the hand
of a man began to grasp the plough instead of the rifle, when the
stallion had replaced the stag, and bellowing cattle wound fatly down
into the pastures of the bison. This man had the face of his caste—the
countenance of the Southern slave-holding feudal lord. Not the American
face, but the Southern face of a definite era—less than national, less
than modern; a face not looking far in any direction but at things
From a third portrait the latest ancestor looked down. He with his
contemporaries had finished the thinning of the central forest of the
Shield, leaving the land as it is to-day, a rolling prairie with
remnants of woodland like that crowning the hilltop near this house.
This immediate forefather bore the countenance that began to develop in
the Northerner and in the Southerner after the Civil War: not the
Northern look nor the Southern look, but the American look—a new thing
in the American face, indefinable but unmistakable.
These three men now focussed their attention upon him, the fourth of
the line, standing beside the tree brought into the house. Each of them
in his own way had wrought out a work for civilization, using the woods
as an implement. In his own case, the woods around him having
disappeared, the ancestral passion had made him a student of forestry.
The thesis upon which he took his degree was the relation of modern
forestry to modern life. A few years later in an adjunct professorship
his original researches in this field began to attract attention. These
had to do with the South Appalachian forest in its relation to South
Appalachian civilization and thus to that of the continent.
This work had brought its reward; he was now to be drawn away from
his own college and country to a Northern university.
Curiously in him there had gone on a corresponding development of an
ancestral face. As the look of the wilderness hunter had changed into
that of the Southern slave-holding baron, as this had changed into the
modern American face unlike any other; now finally in him the national
American look had broadened into something more modern still—the look
of mere humanity: he did not look like an American—he looked like a
man in the service of mankind.
This, which it takes thus long to recapitulate, presented itself to
her as one wide vision of the truth. It left a realization of how the
past had swept him along with its current; and of how the future now
caught him up and bore him on, part in its problems. The old passion
living on in him—forest life; a new passion born in him—human life.
And by inexorable logic these two now blending themselves to-night in a
story of the Christmas Tree.
But womanlike she sought to pluck out of these forces something
intensely personal to which she could cling; and she did it in this
In the Spring following their marriage, often after supper they
would go out on the lawn in the twilight, strolling among her flowers;
she leading him this way and that way and laying upon him beautiful
exactions and tyrannies: how he must do this and do that; and not do
this and not do that; he receiving his orders like a grateful slave.
Then sometimes he would silently imprison her hand and lead her down
the lawn and up the opposite hill to the edge of the early summer
evening woods; and there on the roots of some old tree—the shadows of
the forest behind them and the light of the western sky in their
faces—they would stay until darkness fell, hiding their eyes from each
The burning horizon became a cathedral interior—the meeting of
love's holiness and the Most High; the crescent dropped a silver veil
upon the low green hills; wild violets were at their feet; the mosses
and turf of the Shield under them. The warmth of his body was as the
day's sunlight stored in the trunk of the tree; his hair was to her
like its tawny bloom, native to the sun.
Life with him was enchanted madness.
He had begun. He stretched out his arm and slowly began to write on
the air of the room. Sometimes in earlier years she had sat in his
classroom when he was beginning a lecture; and it was thus, standing at
the blackboard, that he sometimes put down the subject of his lecture
for the students. Slowly now he shaped each letter and as he finished
each word, he read it aloud to her:
“A STORY OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE, FOR JOSEPHINE, WIFE OF FREDERICK”
IV. THE WANDERING TALE
He uttered her name with beautiful reverence, letting the sound of
it float over the Christmas Tree and die away on the garlanded walls of
the room: it was his last tribute to her, a dedication.
Then he began:
“Josephine, sometimes while looking out of the study window a spring
morning, I have watched you strolling among the flowers of the lawn. I
have seen you linger near a honeysuckle in full bloom and question the
blossoms in your questioning way—you who are always wishing to probe
the heart of things, to drain out of them the red drop of their
significance. But, gray-eyed querist of actuality, those fragrant
trumpets could blow to your ear no message about their origin. It was
where the filaments of the roots drank deepest from the mould of a dead
past that you would have had to seek the true mouthpieces of their
“So the instincts which blossom out thickly over the nature of
modern man to themselves are mute. The flower exhibits itself at the
tip of the vine; the instinct develops itself at the farthest outreach
of life; and the point where it clamors for satisfaction is at the
greatest possible distance from its birthplace. For all these instincts
send their roots down through the mould of the uncivilized, down
through the mould of the primitive, down into the mould of the
underhuman—that ancient playhouse dedicated to low tragedies.
“While this may seem to you to be going far for a commencement of
the story, it is coming near to us. The kind of man and woman we are to
ourselves; the kind of husband and wife we are to each other; the kind
of father and mother we are to our children; the kind of human beings
we are to our fellow beings—the passions which swell as with sap the
buds of those relations until they burst into their final shapes of
conduct are fed from the bottom of the world's mould. You and I
to-night are building the structures of our moral characters upon
life-piles that sink into fathomless ooze. All we human beings dip our
drinking cups into a vast delta sweeping majestically towards the sea
and catch drops trickling from the springs of creation.
“It is in a vast ancestral country, a Fatherland of Old Desire, that
my story lies for you and for me: drawn from the forest and from human
nature as the two have worked in the destiny of the earth. I have
wrested it from this Tree come out of the ancient woods into the house
on this Night of the Nativity.”
He made the scholar's pause and resumed, falling into the tone of
easy narrative. It had already become evident that this method of
telling the story would be to find what Alpine flowers he could for her
amid Alpine snows.
He told her then that the oldest traceable influence in the life of
the human race is the sea. It is true that man in some ancestral form
was rocked in the cradle of the deep; he rose from the waves as the
islanded Greeks said of near Venus. Traces of this origin he still
bears both in his body and his emotions; and together they make up his
first set of memories—Sea Memories.
He deliberated a moment and then put the truth before her in a
single picturesque phrase:
“Man himself is a closed living sea-shell in the chambers of which
the hues of the first ocean are still fresh and its tempests still are
Next he told her how man's last marine ancestor quit one day the sea
never again to return to the deep, crossed the sands of the beach and
entered the forest; and how upon him, this living sea-shell, soft to
impressions, the Spirit of the Forest fell to work, beginning to shape
it over from sea uses to forest uses.
A thousand thousand ages the Spirit of the Forest worked at the
It remodelled the shell as so much clay; stood it up and twisted and
branched it as young pliant oak; hammered it as forge-glowing iron;
tempered it as steel; cast it as bronze; chiselled it as marble;
painted it as a cloud; strung and tuned it as an instrument; lit it up
as a life tower—the world's one beacon: steadily sending it onward
through one trial form after another until at last had been perfected
for it that angelic shape in which as man it was ever afterwards to sob
and to smile.
And thus as one day a wandering sea-shell had quit the sea and
entered the forest, now on another day of that infinite time there
reappeared at the edge of the forest the creature it had made. On every
wall of its being internal and external forest-written; and completely
forest-minded: having nothing but forest knowledge, forest feeling,
forest dreams, forest fancies, forest faith; so that in all it could do
or know or feel or dream or imagine or believe it was forest-tethered.
At the edge of the forest then this creature uncontrollably impelled
to emerge from the waving green sea of leaves as of old it had been
driven to quit the rolling blue ocean of waters: Man at the dawn of our
history of him.
And if the first set of race memories—Sea Memories—still endure
within him, how much more powerful are the second set—the Forest
So powerful that since the dawn of history millions have perished as
forest creatures only; so powerful that there are still remnant races
on the globe which have never yet snapped the primitive tether and will
become extinct as mere forest creatures to the last; so powerful that
those highest races which have been longest out in the open—as our own
Aryan race—have never ceased to be reached by the influence of the
woods behind them; by the shadows of those tall morning trees falling
across the mortal clearings toward the sunset.
These Master Memories, he said, filtering through the sandlike
generations of our race, survive to-day as those pale attenuated
affections which we call in ourselves the Love of Nature; these
affections are inherited: new feelings for nature we have none. The
writers of our day who speak of civilized man's love of nature as a
developing sense err wholly. They are like explorers who should mistake
a boundary for the interior of a continent. Man's knowledge of nature
is modern, but it no more endows him with new feeling than modern
knowledge of anatomy supplies him with a new bone or his latest
knowledge about his blood furnishes him with an additional artery.
Old are our instincts and passions about Nature: all are Forest
But among the many-twisted mass of them there is one, he said, that
contains the separate buried root of the story: Man's Forest Faith.
When the Spirit of the Forest had finished with the sea-shell, it
had planted in him—there to grow forever—the root of faith that he
was a forest child. His origin in the sea he had not yet discovered;
the science of ages far distant in the future was to give him that. To
himself forest-tethered he was also forest-born: he believed it to be
his immediate ancestor, the creative father of mankind. Thus the Greeks
in their oldest faith were tethered to the idea that they were
descended from the plane tree; in the Sagas and Eddas the human race is
tethered to the world-ash. Among every people of antiquity this forest
faith sprang up and flourished: every race was tethered to some
ancestral tree. In the Orient each succeeding Buddha of Indian
mythology was tethered to a different tree; each god of the later
classical Pantheon was similarly tethered: Jupiter to the oak, Apollo
to the laurel, Bacchus to the vine, Minerva to the olive, Juno to the
apple, on and on. Forest worship was universal—the most impressive and
bewildering to modern science that the human spirit has ever built up.
At the dawn of history began The Adoration of the Trees.
Then as man, the wanderer, walked away from his dawn across the ages
toward the sunset bearing within him this root of faith, it grew with
his growth. The successive growths were cut down by the successive
scythes of time; but always new sprouts were put forth.
Thus to man during the earliest ages the divine dwelt as a bodily
presence within the forest; but one final day the forest lost the
Immortal as its indwelling creator.
Next the old forest worshipper peopled the trees with an
intermediate race of sylvan deities less than divine, more than human;
and long he beguiled himself with the exquisite reign and proximity of
these; but the lesser could not maintain themselves in temples from
which the greater had already been expelled, and they too passed out of
sight down the roadway of the world.
Still the old forest faith would not let the wanderer rest; and
during yet later ages he sent into the trees his own nature so that the
woods became freshly endeared to him by many a story of how individuals
of his own race had succeeded as tenants to the erstwhile habitations
of the gods. Then this last panorama of illusion faded also, and
civilized man stood face to face with the modern woods—inhabitated
only by its sap and cells. The trees had drawn their bark close around
them, wearing an inviolate tapestry across those portals through which
so many a stranger to them had passed in and passed out; and henceforth
the dubious oracle of the forest—its one reply to all man's
questionings—became the Voice of its own Mystery.
After this the forest worshipper could worship the woods no more.
But we must not forget that civilization as compared with the duration
of human life on the planet began but yesterday: even our own
Indo-European race dwells as it were on the forest edge. And the forest
still reaches out and twines itself around our deepest spiritual
truths: home—birth—love—prayer—death: it tries to overrun them all,
to reclaim them. Thus when we build our houses, instinctively we
attempt by some clump of trees to hide them and to shelter ourselves
once more inside the forest; in some countries whenever a child is
born, a tree is planted as its guardian in nature; in our marriage
customs the forest still riots as master of ceremonies with garlands
and fruits; our prayers strike against the forest shaped hi cathedral
stone—memory of the grove, God's first temple; and when we die, it is
the tree that is planted beside us as the sentinel of our rest. Even to
this day the sight of a treeless grave arouses some obscure instinct in
us that it is God-forsaken.
Yes, he said, whatsoever modern temple man has anywhere reared for
his spirit, over the walls of it have been found growing the same leaf
and tendril: he has introduced the tree into the ritual of every later
world-worship; and thus he has introduced the evergreen into the ritual
This then is the meaning of the Christmas Tree and of its presence
at the Nativity. At the dawn of history we behold man worshipping the
tree as the Creator literally present on the earth; in our time we see
him using that tree in the worship of the creative Father's Son come to
earth in the Father's stead.
“On this evergreen in the room falls the radiance of these brief
tapers of the night; but on it rests also the long light of that
spiritual dawn when man began his Adoration of the Trees. It is the
forest taking its place once more beside the long-lost Immortal.”
Here he finished the first part of his story. That he should address
her thus and that she thus should listen had in it nothing unusual for
them. For years it had been his wont to traverse with her the ground of
his lectures, and she shared his thought before it reached others. It
was their high and equal comradeship. Wherever his mind could go hers
went—a brilliant torch, a warming sympathy.
But to-night his words had fallen on her as withered leaves on a
motionless figure of stone. If he was sensible of this change in her,
he gave no sign. And after a moment he passed to the remaining part of
“Thus far I have been speaking to you of the bare tree in wild
nature: here it is loaded with decorations; and now I want to show you
that they too are Forest Memories—that since the evergreen moved over
into the service of Christianity, one by one like a flock of birds
these Forest Memories have followed it and have alighted amid its
branches. Everything here has its story. I am going to tell you in each
case what that story is; I am going to interpret everything on the
Christmas Tree and the other Christmas decorations in the room.”
It was at this point that her keen attention became fixed on him and
never afterwards wavered. If everything had its story, the mistletoe
would have its; he must interpret that: and thus he himself
unexpectedly had brought about the situation she wished. She would meet
him at that symbolic bough: there be rendered the Judgment of the
Years! And now as one sits down at some point of a road where a
traveller must arrive, she waited for him there.
He turned to the Tree and explained briefly that as soon as the
forest worshipper began the worship of the tree, he began to bring to
it his offerings and to hang these on the boughs; for religion consists
in offering something: to worship is to give. In after ages when man
had learned to build shrines and temples, he still kept up his
primitive custom of bringing to the altar his gifts and sacrifices; but
during that immeasurable time before he had learned to carve wood or to
set one stone on another, he was bringing his offerings to the
grove—the only cathedral he had. And this to him was not decoration;
it was prayer. So that in our age of the world when we playfully
decorate the Christmas Tree it is a survival of grave rites in the
worship of primitive man and is as ancient as forest worship itself.
And now he began.
With the pointer in his hand he touched the star at the apex of the
fir. This, he said, was commonly understood to represent the Star of
Bethlehem which guided the wise men of the East to the manger on the
Night of the Nativity—the Star of the New Born. But modern discoveries
show that the records of ancient Chaldea go back four or five thousand
years before the Christian era; and as far back as they have been
traced, we find the wise men of the East worshipping this same star and
being guided by it in their spiritual wanderings as they searched for
the incarnation of the Divine. They worshipped it as the star of peace
and goodness and purity. Many a pious Wolfram in those dim centuries no
doubt sang his evening hymn to the same star, for love of some Chaldean
Elizabeth—both he and she blown about the desert how many centuries
now as dust. Moreover on these records the star and the Tree are
brought together as here side by side. And the story of the star leads
backward to one of the first things that man ever worshipped as he
looked beyond the forest: the light of the heavens floating in the
depth of space—light that he wanted but could not grasp.
He touched the next object on the Tree—the candle under the
star—and went on:
Imagine, he said, the forest worshipper as at the end of ages having
caught this light—having brought it down in the language of his myth
from heaven to earth: that is, imagine the star in space as having
become a star in his hand—the candle: the star worshipper had now
become also the fire worshipper. Thus the candle leads us back to the
fire worshippers of ancient Persia—those highlands of the spirit
seeking light. We think of the Christmas candle on the Tree as merely
borrowed from the candle of the altar for the purpose of illumination;
but the use of it goes back to a time when the forest worshipper, now
also the fire worshipper, hung his lights on the trees, having no other
altar. Far down toward modern times the temples of the old Prussians,
for example, were oak groves, and among them a hierarchy of priests was
ordained to keep the sacred fire perpetually burning at the root of the
He touched the third object on the tree—the cross under the
candle—and went on:
“To the Christian believer the cross signifies one supreme event:
Calvary and the tragedy of the Crucifixion. It was what the Marys saw
and the apostles that morning in Gethsemane. But no one in that age
thought of the cross as a Christian symbol. John and Peter and Paul and
the rest went down into their graves without so regarding it. The
Magdalene never clung to it with life-tired arms, nor poured out at the
foot of it the benizon of her tears. Not until the third century after
Christ did the Bishops assembled at Nice announce it a Christian
symbol. But it was a sacred emblem in the dateless antiquity of Egypt.
To primitive man it stood for that sacred light and fire of life which
was himself. For he himself is a cross—the first cross he has ever
known. The faithful may truly think of the Son of Man as crucified as
the image of humanity. And thus ages before Christ, cross worship and
forest worship were brought together: for instance, among the Druids
who hunted for an oak, two boughs of which made with the trunk of the
tree the figure of the cross; and on these three they cut the names of
three of their gods and this was holy-cross wood.”
He moved the pointer down until he touched the fourth object on the
tree—the dove under the cross, and went on:
“In the mind of the Christian believer this represents the white
dove of the New Testament which descended on the Son of Man when the
heavens were opened. So in Parsifal the white dove descends,
overshadowing the Grail. But ages before Christ the prolific white dove
of Syria was worshipped throughout the Orient as the symbol of
reproductive Nature: and to this day the Almighty is there believed to
manifest himself under this form. In ancient Mesopotamia the divine
mother of nature is often represented with this dove as having actually
alighted on her shoulder or in her open hand. And here again forest
worship early became associated with the worship of the dove; for,
sixteen hundred years before Christ, we find the dove nurtured in the
oak grove at Dodona where its presence was an augury and its wings an
On he went, touching one thing after another, tracing the story of
each backward till it was lost in antiquity and showing how each was
entwined with forest worship.
He touched the musical instruments; the bell, the drum. The bell, he
said, was used in Greece by the Priests of Bacchus in the worship of
the vine. And vine worship was forest worship. Moreover, in the same
oak grove at Dodona bells were tied to the oak boughs and their
tinklings also were sacred auguries. The drum, which the modern boy
beats on Christmas Day, was beaten ages before Christ in the worship of
Confucius: the story of it dies away toward what was man's first
written music in forgotten China. In the first century of the Christian
era, on one of the most splendid of the old Buddhist sculptures, boys
are represented as beating the drum in the worship of the sacred
tree—once more showing how music passed into the service of forest
He touched the cornucopia; and he traced its story back to the ram's
horn—the primitive cup of libation, used for a drinking cup and used
also to pour out the last product of the vine in honor of the vine
itself—the forest's first goblet.
He touched the fruits and the flowers on the Tree: these were oldest
of all, perhaps, he said; for before the forest worshipper had learned
to shape or fabricate any offerings of his own skill, he could at least
bring to the divine tree and hang on it the flower of spring, the wild
fruit of autumn.
He kept on until only three things on the Tree were left
uninterpreted; the tinsel, the masks, and the dolls. He told her that
he had left these to the last for a reason: seemingly they were the
most trivial but really the most grave; for by means of them most
clearly could be traced the presence of great law running through the
progress of humanity.
He drew her attention to the tinsel that covered the tree, draping
it like a yellow moss. It was of no value, he said, but in the course
of ages it had taken the place of the offering of actual gold in forest
worship: a once universal custom of adorning the tree with everything
most precious to the giver in token of his sacrifice and
self-sacrifice. Even in Jeremiah is an account of the lading of the
sacred tree with gold and ornaments. Herodotus relates that when Xerxes
was invading Lydia, on the march he saw a divine tree and had it
honored with golden robes and gifts. Livy narrates that when Romulus
slew his enemy on the site of the Eternal City, he hung rich spoils on
the oak of the Capitoline Hill. And this custom of decorating the tree
with actual gold goes back in history until we can meet it coming down
to us in the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece and in that of the
Golden Apples of the Hesperides. Now the custom has dwindled to this
tinsel flung over the Christmas Tree—the mock sacrifice for the real.
He touched the masks and unfolded the grim story that lay behind
their mockery. It led back to the common custom in antiquity of
sacrificing prisoners of war or condemned criminals or innocent victims
in forest worship and of hanging their heads on the branches: we know
this to have been the practice among Gallic and Teuton tribes. In the
course of time, when such barbarity could be tolerated no longer, the
mock countenance replaced the real.
He touched the dolls and revealed their sad story. Like the others,
its long path led to antiquity and to the custom of sacrificing
children in forest worship. How common this custom was the early
literature of the human race too abundantly testifies. We encounter the
trace of it in Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac—arrested by the command of
Jehovah. But Abraham would never have thought of slaying his son to
propitiate his God, had not the custom been well established. In the
case of Jephthah's daughter the sacrifice was actually allowed. We come
upon the same custom in the fate of Iphigenia—at a critical turning
point in the world's mercy; in her stead the life of a lesser animal,
as in Isaac's case, was accepted. When the protective charity of
mankind turned against the inhumanity of the old faiths, then the
substitution of the mock for the real sacrifice became complete. And
now on the boughs of the Christmas Tree where richly we come upon
vestiges of primitive rites only these playful toys are left to suggest
the massacre of the innocent.
He had covered the ground; everything had yielded its story. All the
little stories, like pathways running backward into the distance and
ever converging, met somewhere in lost ages; they met in forest worship
and they met in some sacrifice by the human heart.
And thus he drew his conclusion as the lesson of the night:
“Thus, Josephine, my story ends for you and for me. The Christmas
Tree is all that is left of a forest memory. The forest worshipper
could not worship without giving, because to worship is to give:
therefore he brought his gifts to the forest—his first altar. These
gifts, remember, were never, as with us, decorations. They were his
sacrifices and self-sacrifices. In all the religions he has had since,
the same law lives. In his lower religions he has sacrificed the better
to the worse; in the higher ones he has sacrificed the worst to the
best. If the race should ever outgrow all religion whatsoever, it would
still have to worship what is highest in human nature and so
worshipping, it would still be ruled by the ancient law of sacrifice
become the law of self-sacrifice: it would still be necessary to offer
up what is low in us to what is higher. Only one portion of mankind has
ever believed in Jerusalem; but every religion has known its own
He turned away from the Tree toward her and awaited her
appreciation. She had sat watching him without a movement and without a
word. But when at last she asked him a question, she spoke as a
listener who wakens from a long revery.
“Have you finished the story for me?” she inquired.
“I have finished the story for you,” he replied without betraying
disappointment at her icy reception of it.
Keeping her posture, she raised one of her white arms above her
head, turning her face up also until the swanlike curve of the white
throat showed; and with quivering finger tips she touched some sprays
of mistletoe pendent from the garland on the wall:
“You have not interpreted this,” she said, her mind fixed on that
“I have not explained that,” he admitted.
She sat up, and for the first time looked with intense interest
toward the manuscript on the table across the room.
“Have you explained it there?”
“I have not explained it there.”
“But why?” she said with disappointment.
“I did not wish you to read that story, Josephine.”
“But why, Frederick?” she inquired, startled into wonderment.
He smiled: “If I told you why, I might as well tell you the story.”
“But why do you not wish to tell me the story?”
He answered with warning frankness: “If you once saw it as a
picture, the picture would be coming back to you at times the rest of
your life darkly.”
She protested: “If it is dark to you, why should I not share the
darkness of it? Have we not always looked at life's shadows together?
And thus seeing life, have not bright things been doubly bright to us
and dark things but half as dark?”
He merely repeated his warning: “It is a story of a crueler age than
ours. It goes back to the forest worship of the Druids.”
She answered: “So long as our own age is cruel, what room is left to
take seriously the mere stories of crueler ones? Am I to shrink from
the forest worship of the Druids? Is there any story of theirs not
printed in books? Are not the books in libraries? Are they not put in
libraries to be read? If others read them, may not I? And since when
must I begin to dread anything in books? Or anything in life? And since
when did we begin to look at life apart, we who have always looked at
it with four eyes?”
“I have always told you there are things to see with four eyes,
things to see with two, and things to see with none.”
With sudden intensity her white arm went up again and touched the
“Tell me the story of this!” she pleaded as though she demanded a
right. As she spoke, her thumb and forefinger meeting on a spray, they
closed and went through it like a pair of shears; and a bunch of the
white pearls of the forest dropped on the ridge of her shoulder and
were broken apart and rolled across her breast into her lap.
He looked grave; silence or speech—which were better for her?
Either, he now saw, would give her pain.
“Happily the story is far away from us,” he said, as though he were
half inclined to grant her request.
“If it is far away, bring it near! Bring it into the room as you
brought the stories of the star and the candle and the cross and the
dove and the others! Make it live before my eyes! Enact it before me!
Steep me in it as you have steeped yourself!”
He held back a long time: “You who are so safe in good, why know
“Frederick,” she cried, “I shall have to insist upon your telling me
this story. And if you should keep any part of it back, I would know.
Then tell it all: if it is dark, let each shadow have its shade; give
each heavy part its heaviness; let cruelty be cruelty—and truth be
He stood gazing across the centuries, and when he began, there was a
change in him; something personal was beginning to intrude itself into
the narrative of the historian:
“Imagine the world of our human nature in the last centuries before
Palestine became Holy Land. Athens stood with her marbles glistening by
the blue AEgean, and Greek girls with fillets and sandals—the living
images of those pale sculptured shapes that are the mournful eternity
of Art—Greek girls were being chosen for the secret rites in the
temple at Ephesus. The sun of Italy had not yet browned the little
children who were to become the brown fathers and mothers of the brown
soldiers of Caesar's legions; and twenty miles south of Rome, in the
sacred grove of Dodona,—where the motions of oak boughs were auguries,
and the flappings of the wings of white doves were divine messages, and
the tinkling of bells in the foliage had divine meanings,—in this
grove the virgins of Latium, as the Greek girls of Ephesus, were once a
year appointed to undergo similar rites. To the south Pompeii, with its
night laughter and song sounding far out toward the softly lapping
Mediterranean and up the slopes of its dread volcano, drained its
goblet and did not care, emptied it as often as filled and asked for
nothing more. A little distance off Herculaneum, with its tender dreams
of Greece but with its arms around the breathing image of Italy,
“Beyond Italy to the north, on the other side of the eternal
snowcaps, lay unknown Gaul, not yet dreaming of the Caesar who was to
conquer it; and across the wild sea opposite Gaul lay the wooded isle
of Britain. All over that island one forest; in that forest one
worship; in that worship one tree—the oak of England; and on that oak
one bough—the mistletoe.”
He spoke to her awhile about the oak, describing the place it had in
the early civilizations of the human race. In the Old Testament it was
the tree of the Hebrew idols and of Jehovah. In Greece it was the tree
of Zeus, the most august and the most human of the gods. In Italy it
was the tree of Jove, great father of immortals and of mankind. After
the gods passed, it became the tree of the imperial Caesars. After the
Caesars had passed, it was the oak that Michael Angelo in the Middle
Ages scattered over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel near the creation
of man and his expulsion from Paradise—there as always the chosen tree
of human desire. In Britain it was the sacred tree of Druidism: there
the Arch Druid and his fellow-priests performed none of their rites
without using its leaves and branches: never anywhere in the world was
the oak worshipped with such ceremonies and sacrifices as there.
Imagine then a scene—the chief Nature Festival of that forest
worship: the New Year's day of the Druids.
A vast concourse of people, men and women and children, are on their
way to the forest; they are moving toward an oak tree that has been
found with mistletoe growing on it—growing there so seldom. As the
excited throng come in sight of it, they hail it with loud cries of
reverence and delight. Under it they gather; there a banquet is spread.
In the midst of the assemblage one figure towers—the Arch Druid. Every
eye is fixed fearfully on him, for on whomsoever his own eye may fall
with wrath, he may be doomed to become one of the victims annually
sacrificed to the oak.
A gold chain is around his neck; gold bands are around his arms. He
is clad in robes of spotless white. He ascends the tree to a low bough,
and making a hollow in the folds of his robes, he crops with a golden
pruning hook the mistletoe and so catches it as it falls. Then it is
blessed and scattered among the throng, and the priest prays that each
one so receiving it may receive also the divine favor and blessing of
which it is Nature's emblem. Two white bulls, the horns of which have
never hitherto been touched, are now adorned with fillets and are
slaughtered in sacrifice.
Then at last it is over, the people are gone, the forest is left to
itself, and the New Year's ceremony of cutting the mistletoe from the
oak is at an end.
Here he ended the story.
She had sat leaning far forward, her fingers interlocked and her
brows knitted. When he stopped, she sat up and studied him a moment in
“But why did you call that a dark story?” she asked. “Where is the
cruelty? It is beautiful, and I shall never forget it and it will never
throw a dark image on my mind: New Year's day—the winter woods—the
journeying throng—the oak—the bough—the banquet beneath—the white
bulls with fillets on their horns—the white-robed priest—the golden
sickle in his hand—the stroke that severs the mistletoe—the prayer
that each soul receiving any smallest piece will be blessed in life's
sorrows! If I were a great painter, I should like to paint that scene.
In the centre should be some young girl, pressing to her heart what she
believed to be heaven's covenant with her under the guise of a blossom.
How could you have wished to withhold such a story from me?”
He smiled at her a little sadly.
“I have not yet told you all,” he said, “but I have told you
Instantly she bent far over toward him with intuitive scrutiny.
Under her breath one word escaped:
It was the breath of a discovery—a discovery of something unknown
“I am sparing you, Josephine!”
She stretched each arm along the back of the sofa and pinioned the
wood in her clutch.
“Are you sparing me?” she asked in a tone of torture. “Or are you
The heavy staff on which he stood leaning dropped from his relaxed
grasp to the floor. He looked down at it a moment and then calmly
picked it up.
“I am going to tell you the story,” he said with a new quietness.
She was aroused by some change in him.
“I will not listen! I do not wish to hear it!”
“You will have to listen,” he said. “It is better for you to know.
Better for any human being to know any truth than suffer the bane of
wrong thinking. When you are free to judge, it will be impossible for
you to misjudge.”
“I have not misjudged you! I have not judged you! In some way that I
do not understand you are judging yourself!”
He stepped back a pace—farther away from her—and he drew himself
up. In the movement there was instinctive resentment. And the right not
to be pried into—not even by the nearest.
The step which had removed him farther from her had brought him
nearer to the Christmas Tree at his back. A long, three-fingered bough
being thus pressed against was forced upward and reappeared on one of
his shoulders. The movement seemed human: it was like the conscious
hand of the tree. The fir, standing there decked out in the artificial
tawdriness of a double-dealing race, laid its wild sincere touch on
him—as sincere as the touch of dying human fingers—and let its
passing youth flow into him. It attracted his attention, and he turned
his head toward it as with recognition. Other boughs near the floor
likewise thrust themselves forward, hiding his feet so that he stood
ankle-deep in forestry.
This reunion did not escape her. Her overwrought imagination made of
it a sinister omen: the bough on his shoulder rested there as the old
forest claim; the boughs about his feet were the ancestral forest
tether. As he had stepped backward from her, Nature had asserted the
earlier right to him. In strange sickness and desolation of heart she
He stood facing her but looking past her at centuries long gone; the
first sound of his voice registered upon her ear some message of doom:
She buried her face in her hands.
“I cannot! I will not!”
“You will have to listen. You know that for some years, apart from
my other work, I have been gathering together the woodland customs of
our people and trying to trace them back to their origin and first
meaning. In our age of the world we come upon many playful forest
survivals of what were once grave things. Often in our play and
pastimes and lingering superstitions about the forest we cross faint
traces of what were once vital realities.
“Among these there has always been one that until recently I have
never understood. Among country people oftenest, but heard of
everywhere, is the saying that if a girl is caught standing under the
mistletoe, she may be kissed by the man who thus finds her. I have
always thought that this ceremony and playful sacrifice led back to
some ancient rite—I could not discover what. Now I know.”
In a voice full of a new delicacy and scarcely audible, he told her.
It is another scene in the forest of Britain. This time it is not
the first day of the year—the New Year's day of the Druids when they
celebrated the national festival of the oak. But it is early summer,
perhaps the middle of May—May in England—with the young beauty of the
woods. It is some hushed evening at twilight. The new moon is just
silvering the tender leaves and creating a faint shadow under the
trees. The hawthorn is in bloom—red and white—and not far from the
spot, hidden in some fragrant tuft of this, a nightingale is singing,
Lifting itself above the smaller growths stands the young manhood of
the woods—a splendid oak past its thirtieth year, representing its
youth and its prime conjoined. In its trunk is the summer heat of the
all-day sun. Around its roots is velvet turf, and there are wild violet
beds. Its huge arms are stretched toward the ground as though reaching
for some object they would clasp; and on one of these arms as its badge
of divine authority, worn there as a knight might wear the colors of
his Sovereign, grows the mistletoe. There he stands—the Forest Lover.
The woods wait, the shadows deepen, the hush is more intense, the
moon's rays begin to be golden, the song of the nightingale grows more
passionate, the beds of moss and violets wait.
Then the shrubbery is tremblingly parted at some place and upon the
scene a young girl enters—her hair hanging down—her limbs most
lightly clad—the flush of red hawthorn on the white hawthorn of her
skin—in her eyes love's great need and mystery. Step by step she comes
forward, her fingers trailing against whatsoever budding wayside thing
may stay her strength. She draws nearer to the oak, searching amid its
boughs for that emblem which she so dreads to find and yet more dreads
not to find: the emblem of a woman's fruitfulness which the young
oak—the Forest Lover—reaches down toward her. Finding it, beneath it
with one deep breath of surrender she takes her place—the virgin's
tryst with the tree—there to be tested.
Such is the command of the Arch Druid: it is obedience—submission
to that test—or death for her as a sacrifice to the oak which she has
Again the shrubbery is parted, rudely pushed aside, and a man
enters—a tried and seasoned man—a human oak—counterpart of the
Forest Lover—to officiate at the test.
* * * * *
He was standing there in the parlor of his house and in the presence
of his wife. But in fealty he was gone: he was in the summer woods of
ancestral wandering, the fatherland of Old Desire.
He was the man treading down the shrubbery; it was his
feet that started toward the oak; his eye that searched for the
figure half fainting under the bough; for him the bed of moss
and violets—the hair falling over the eyes—the loosened girdle—the
breasts of hawthorn white and pink—the listening song of the
nightingale—the silence of the summer woods—the seclusion—the full
surrender of the two under that bough of the divine command, to escape
the penalty of their own death.
The blaze of uncontrollable desire was all over him; the fire of his
own story had treacherously licked him like a wind-bent flame. The
light that she had not seen in his eyes for so long rose in them—the
old, unfathomable, infolding tenderness. A quiver ran around his tense
And now one little phrase which he had uttered so sacredly years
before and had long since forgotten rose a second time to his
lips—tossed there by a second tide of feeling. On the silence of the
room fell his words:
“Bride of the Mistletoe!“
The storm that had broken over him died away. He shut his eyes on
the vanishing scene: he opened them upon her.
He had told her the truth about the story; he may have been aware or
he may not have been aware that he had revealed to her the truth about
“This is what I would have kept from you, Josephine,” he said
She was sitting there before him—the mother of his children, of the
sleeping ones, of the buried ones—the butterfly broken on the wheel of
years: lustreless and useless now in its summer.
She sat there with the whiteness of death.
V. THE ROOM OF THE SILENCES
The Christmas candles looked at her flickeringly; the little white
candles of purity, the little red candles of love. The holly in the
room concealed its bold gay berries behind its thorns, and the cedar
from the faithful tree beside the house wall had need now of its bitter
Her first act was to pay what is the first debt of a fine
spirit—the debt of courtesy and gratitude.
“It is a wonderful story, Frederick,” she said in a manner which
showed him that she referred to the beginning of his story and not to
“As usual you have gone your own way about it, opening your own path
into the unknown, seeing what no one else has seen, and bringing back
what no one else ever brought. It is a great revelation of things that
I never dreamed of and could never have imagined. I appreciate your
having done this for me; it has taken time and work, but it is too much
for me to-night. It is too new and too vast. I must hereafter try to
understand it. And there will be leisure enough. Nor can it lose by
waiting. But now there is something that cannot wait, and I wish to
speak to you about that; Frederick, I am going to ask you some
questions about the last part of the story. I have been wanting to ask
you a long time: the story gives me the chance and—the right.”
He advanced a step toward her, disengaging himself from the
“I will answer them,” he said. “If they can be answered.”
And thus she sat and thus he stood as the questions and answers
passed to and fro. They were solemn questions and solemn replies, drawn
out of the deeps of life and sinking back into them.
“Frederick,” she said, “for many years we have been happy together,
so happy! Every tragedy of nature has stood at a distance from us
except the loss of our children. We have lived on a sunny pinnacle of
our years, lifted above life's storms. But of course I have realized
that sooner or later our lot must become the common one: if we did not
go down to Sorrow, Sorrow would climb to us; and I knew that on the
heights it dwells best. That is why I wish to say to you to-night what
I shall: I think fate's hour has struck for me; I am ready to hear it.
Its arrow has already left the bow and is on its way; I open my heart
to receive it. This is as I have always wished; I have said that if
life had any greatest tragedy, for me, I hoped it would come when I was
happiest; thus I should confront it all. I have never drunk half of my
cup of happiness, as you know, and let the other half waste; I must go
equally to the depth of any suffering. Worse than the suffering, I
think, would be the feeling that I had shirked some of it, had stepped
aside, or shut my eyes, or in any manner shown myself a cowardly soul.”
After a pause she went over this subject as though she were not
satisfied that she had made it clear.
“I have always said that the real pathos of things is the grief that
comes to us in life when life is at its best—when no one is to
blame—when no one has committed a fault—when suffering is meted out
to us as the reward of our perfect obedience to the laws of nature. In
earlier years when we used to read Keats together, who most of all of
the world's poets felt the things that pass, even then I was wondering
at the way in which he brings this out: that to understand Sorrow it
must be separated from sorrows: they would be like shadows darkening
the bright disk of life's clear tragedy, thus rendering it less bravely
“And so he is always telling us not to summon sad pictures nor play
with mournful emblems; not to feign ourselves as standing on the banks
of Lethe, gloomiest of rivers; nor to gather wolf's bane and twist the
poison out of its tight roots; nor set before us the cup of hemlock;
nor bind about our temples the ruby grape of nightshade; nor count over
the berries of the yew tree which guards sad places; nor think of the
beetle ticking in the bed post, nor watch the wings of the death moth,
nor listen to the elegy of the owl—the voice of ruins. Not these! they
are the emblems of our sorrows. But the emblems of Sorrow are beautiful
things at their perfect moment; a red peony just opening, a rainbow
seen for an instant on the white foam, youth not yet faded but already
fading, joy with its finger on his lips, bidding adieu.
“And so with all my happiness about me, I wish to know life's
tragedy. And to know it, Frederick, not to infer it: I want to be
“If you can be told, you shall be told,” he said.
She changed her position as though seeking physical relief and
composure. Then she began:
“Years ago when you were a student in Germany, you had a college
friend. You went home with him two or three years at Christmas and
celebrated the German Christmas. It was in this way that we came to
have the Christmas Tree in our house—through memory of him and of
those years. You have often described to me how you and he in summer
went Alpine climbing, and far up in some green valley girdled with
glaciers lay of afternoons under some fir tree, reading and drowsing in
the crystalline air. You told me of your nights of wandering down the
Rhine together when the heart turns so intimately to the heart beside
it. He was German youth and song and dream and happiness to you. Tell
me this: before you lost him that last summer over the crevasse, had
you begun to tire of him? Was there anything in you that began to draw
back from anything in him? As you now look back at the friendship of
your youth, have the years lessened your regret for him?”
He answered out of the ideals of his youth:
“The longer I knew him, the more I loved him. I never tired of being
with him. Nothing in me ever drew back from anything in him. When he
was lost, the whole world lost some of its strength and nobility. After
all the years, if he could come back, he would find me unchanged—that
friend of my youth!”
With a peculiar change of voice she asked next:
“The doctor, Herbert and Elsie's father, our nearest neighbor, your
closest friend now in middle life. You see a great deal of the doctor;
he is often here, and you and he often sit up late at night, talking
with one another about many things: do you ever tire of the doctor and
wish him away? Have you any feeling toward him that you try to keep
secret from me? Can you be a perfectly frank man with this friend of
your middle life?”
“The longer I know him the more I like him, honor him, trust him. I
never tire of his companionship or his conversation; I have no
disguises with him and need none.”
“The children! As the children grow older do you care less for them?
Do they begin to wear on you? Are they a clog, an interference? Have
Harold and Elizabeth ceased forming new growths of affection in you? Do
you ever unconsciously seek pretexts for avoiding them?”
“The older they grow, the more I love them. The more they interest
me and tempt away from work and duties. I am more drawn to be with them
and I live more and more in the thought of what they are becoming.”
“Your work! Does your work attract you less than formerly? Does it
develop in you the purpose to be something more or stifle in you the
regret to be something less? Is it a snare to idleness or a goad to
“As the mariner steers for the lighthouse, as the hound runs down
the stag, as the soldier wakes to the bugle, as the miner digs for
fortune, as the drunkard drains the cup, as the saint watches the
cross, I follow my work, I follow my work.”
“Life, life itself, does it increase in value or lessen? Is the
world still morning to you with your work ahead or afternoon when you
begin to tire and to think of rest?”
“The world to me is as early morning to a man going forth to his
work. Where the human race is from and whither it is hurrying and why
it exists at all; why a human being loves what it loves and hates what
it hates; why it is faithful when it could be unfaithful and faithless
when it should be true; how civilized man can fight single handed
against the ages that were his lower past—how he can develop
self-renunciation out of selfishness and his own wisdom out of
surrounding folly,—all these are questions that mean more and more. My
work is but beginning and the world is morning.”
“This house! Are you tired of it now that it is older? Would you
rather move into a new one?”
“I love this house more and more. No other dwelling could take its
place. Any other could be but a shelter; this is home. And I care more
for it now that the signs of age begin to settle on it. If it were a
ruin, I should love it best!”
She leaned over and looked down at the two setters lying at her
“Do you care less for the dogs of the house as they grow older?”
“I think more of them and take better care of them now that their
hunting days are over.”
“The friend of your youth—the friend of your middle age—the
children—your profession—the world of human life—this house—the
dogs of the house—you care more for them all as time passes?”
“I care more for them all as time passes.”
Then there came a great stillness in the room—the stillness of all
“Am I the only thing that you care less for as time passes?”
There was no reply.
“Am I in the way?”
There was no reply.
“Would you like to go over it all again with another?”
There was no reply.
She had hidden her face in her hands and pressed her head against
the end of the sofa. Her whole figure shrank lower, as though to escape
being touched by him—to escape the blow of his words. No words came.
There was no touch.
A moment later she felt that he must be standing over her, looking
down at her. She would respond to his hand on the back of her neck. He
must be kneeling beside her; his arms would infold her. Then with a
kind of incredible terror she realized that he was not there. At first
she could so little believe it, that with her face still buried in one
hand she searched the air for him with the other, expecting to touch
Then she cried out to him:
“Isn't there anything you can say to me?”
“Oh, Fred! Fred! Fred! Fred!”
In the stillness she began to hear something—the sound of his
footsteps moving on the carpet. She sat up.
The room was getting darker; he was putting out the candles. It was
too dark already to see his face. With fascination she began to watch
his hand. How steady it was as it moved among the boughs, extinguishing
the lights. Out they went one by one and back into their darkness
returned the emblems of darker ages—the Forest Memories.
A solitary taper was left burning at the pinnacle of the Tree under
the cross: that highest torch of love shining on everything that had
He quietly put it out.
Yet the light seemed not put out, but instantly to have travelled
through the open parlor door into the adjoining room, her bedroom; for
out of that there now streamed a suffused red light; it came from the
lamp near the great bed in the shadowy corner.
This lamp poured its light through a lampshade having the semblance
of a bursting crimson peony as some morning in June the flower with the
weight of its own splendor falls face downward on the grass. And in
that room this soft lamp-light fell here and there on crimson winter
draperies. He had been living alone as a bachelor before he married
her. After they became engaged he, having watched for some favorite
color of hers, had had this room redecorated in that shade. Every
winter since she had renewed in this way or that way these hangings,
and now the bridal draperies remained unchanged—after the changing
He replaced the taper against the wall and came over and stood
before her, holding out his hands to help her rise.
She arose without his aid and passed around him, moving toward her
bedroom. With arms outstretched guarding her but not touching her, he
followed close, for she was unsteady. She entered her bedroom and
crossed to the door of his bedroom; she pushed this open, and keeping
her face bent aside waited for him to go in. He went in and she closed
the door on him and turned the key. Then with a low note, with which
the soul tears out of itself something that has been its life, she made
a circlet of her white arms against the door and laid her profile
within this circlet and stood—the figure of Memory.
Thus sometimes a stranger sees a marble figure standing outside a
tomb where some story of love and youth ended: some stranger in a far
land,—walking some afternoon in those quieter grounds where all human
stories end; an autumn bird in the bare branches fluting of its
mortality and his heart singing with the bird of one lost to him—lost
to him in his own country.
On the other side of the door the silence was that of a tomb. She
had felt confident—so far as she had expected anything—that he would
speak to her through the door, try to open it, plead with her to open
it. Nothing of the kind occurred.
Why did he not come back? What bolt could have separated her from
The silence began to weigh upon her.
Then in the tense stillness she heard him moving quietly about,
getting ready for bed. There were the same movements, familiar to her
for years. She would not open the door, she could not leave it, she
could not stand, no support was near, and she sank to the floor and sat
there, leaning her brow against the lintel.
On the other side the quiet preparations went on.
She heard him take off his coat and vest and hang them on the back
of a chair. The buttons made a little scraping sound against the wood.
Then he went to his dresser and took off his collar and tie, and he
opened a drawer and laid out a night-shirt. She heard the creaking of a
chair under him as he threw one foot and then the other up across his
knee and took off his shoes and socks. Then there reached her the soft
movements of his bare feet on the carpet (despite her agony the old
impulse started in her to caution him about his slippers). Then
followed the brushing of his teeth and the deliberate bathing of his
hands. Then was audible the puff of breath with which he blew out his
lamp after he had turned it low; and then,—on the other side of the
door,—just above her ear his knock sounded.
The same knock waited for and responded to throughout the years; so
often with his little variations of playfulness. Many a time in early
summer when out-of-doors she would be reminded of it by hearing some
bird sounding its love signal on a piece of dry wood—that tap of
heart-beat. Now it crashed close to her ear.
Such strength came back to her that she rose as lightly as though
her flesh were but will and spirit. When he knocked again, she was
across the room, sitting on the edge of her bed with her palms pressed
together and thrust between her knees: the instinctive act of a human
animal suddenly chilled to the bone.
The knocking sounded again.
“Was there anything you needed?” she asked fearfully.
There was no response but another knock.
She hurriedly raised her voice to make sure that it would reach him.
“Was there anything you wanted?”
As no response came, the protective maternal instinct took greater
alarm, and she crossed to the door of his room and she repeated her one
“Did you forget anything?”
Her mind refused to release itself from the iteration of that idea:
it was some thing—not herself—that he wanted.
Her imagination, long oppressed by his silence, now made of his
knock some signal of distress. It took on the authority of an appeal
not to be denied. She unlocked the door and opened it a little way, and
once more she asked her one poor question.
His answer to it came in the form of a gentle pressure against the
door, breaking down her resistance. As she applied more strength, this
was as gently overcome; and when the opening was sufficient, he walked
past her into the room.
How hushed the house! How still the world outside as the cloud wove
in darkness its mantle of light!
VI. THE WHITE DAWN
Day was breaking.
The crimson curtains of the bedroom were drawn close, but from
behind their outer edges faint flanges of light began to advance along
the wall. It was a clear light reflected from snow which had sifted in
against the window-panes, was banked on the sills outside, ridged the
yard fence, peaked the little gate-posts, and buried the shrubbery.
There was no need to look out in order to know that it had stopped
snowing, that the air was windless, and that the stars were flashing
silver-pale except one—great golden-croziered shepherd of the thick,
soft-footed, moving host.
It was Christmas morning on the effulgent Shield.
Already there was sufficient light in the room to reveal—less as
actual things than as brown shadows of the memory—a gay company of
socks and stockings hanging from the mantelpiece; sufficient to give
outline to the bulk of a man asleep on the edge of the bed; and it
exposed to view in a corner of the room farthest from the rays a woman
sitting in a straight-backed chair, a shawl thrown about her shoulders
over her night-dress.
He always slept till he was awakened; the children, having stayed up
past their usual bedtime, would sleep late also; she had the white dawn
to herself in quietness.
She needed it.
Sleep could not have come to her had she wished. She had not slept
and she had not lain down, and the sole endeavor during those shattered
hours had been to prepare herself for his awakening. She was not yet
ready—she felt that during the rest of her life she should never be
quite ready to meet him again. Scant time remained now.
Soon all over the Shield indoor merriment and outdoor noises would
begin. Wherever in the lowlands any many-chimneyed city, proud of its
size, rose by the sweep of watercourses, or any little inland town was
proud of its smallness and of streets that terminated in the fields;
whereever any hamlet marked the point at which two country roads this
morning made the sign of the white cross, or homesteads stood proudly
castled on woody hilltops, or warmed the heart of the beholder from
amid their olive-dark winter pastures; or far away on the shaggy uplift
of the Shield wherever any cabin clung like a swallow's nest against
the gray Appalachian wall—everywhere soon would begin the healthy
outbreak of joy among men and women and children—glad about
themselves, glad in one another, glad of human life in a happy world.
The many-voiced roar and din of this warm carnival lay not far away
from her across the cold bar of silence.
Soon within the house likewise the rush of the children's feet would
startle her ear; they would be tugging at the door, tugging at her
heart. And as she thought of this, the recollection of old simple
things came pealing back to her from behind life's hills. The years
parted like naked frozen reeds, and she, sorely stricken in her
womanhood, fled backward till she herself was a child again—safe in
her father's and mother's protection. It was Christmas morning, and she
in bare feet was tipping over the cold floors toward their
bedroom—toward her stockings.
Her father and mother! How she needed them at this moment: they had
been sweethearts all their lives. One picture of them rose with
distinctness before her—for the wounding picture always comes to the
wounded moment. She saw them sitting in their pew far down toward the
chancel. Through a stained glass window (where there was a ladder of
angels) the light fell softly on them—both silver-haired; and as with
the voices of children they were singing out of one book. She
remembered how as she sat between them she had observed her father slip
his hand into her mother's lap and clasp hers with a steadfastness that
wedded her for eternity; and thus over their linked hands, with the
love of their youth within them and the snows of the years upon them,
they sang together:
“Gently, Lord, O gently lead us
* * * * * *
“Through the changes Thou'st decreed us.”
Her father and mother had not been led gently. They had known more
than common share of life's shocks and violence, its wrongs and
meannesses and ills and griefs. But their faith had never wavered that
they were being led gently; so long as they were led together, to them
it was gentle leading: the richer each in each for aught whereby nature
or man could leave them poorer; the calmer for the shocks; the sweeter
for the sour; the finer with one another because of life's rudenesses.
In after years she often thought of them as faithful in their dust; and
the flowers she planted over them and watered many a bright day with
happy tears brought up to her in another form the freshness of their
That was what she had not doubted her own life would be—with
him—when she had married him.
From the moment of the night before when he had forced the door open
and entered her room, they had not exchanged any words nor a glance. He
had lain down and soon fallen asleep; apparently he had offered that to
her as for the moment at least his solution of the matter—that he
should leave her to herself and absent himself in slumber.
The instant she knew him to be asleep she set about her
Before he awoke she must be gone—out of the house—anywhere—to
save herself from living any longer with him. His indifference in the
presence of her suffering; his pitiless withdrawal from her of touch
and glance and speech as she had gone down into that darkest of life's
valleys; his will of iron that since she had insisted upon knowing the
whole truth, know it she should: all this left her wounded and stunned
as by an incredible blow, and she was acting first from the instinct of
removing herself beyond the reach of further humiliation and brutality.
Instinctively she took off her wedding ring and laid it on his
dresser beside his watch: he would find it there in the morning and he
could dispose of it. Then she changed her dress for the plainest heavy
one and put on heavy walking shoes. She packed into a handbag a few
necessary things with some heirlooms of her own. Among the latter was a
case of family jewels; and as she opened it, her eyes fell upon her
mother's thin wedding ring and with quick reverence she slipped that on
and kissed it bitterly. She lifted out also her mother's locket
containing a miniature daguerreotype of her father and dutifully fed
her eyes on that. Her father was not silver-haired then, but
raven-locked; with eyes that men feared at times but no woman ever.
His eyes were on her now as so often in girlhood when he had curbed
her exuberance and guided her waywardness. He was watching as she,
coarsely wrapped and carrying some bundle of things of her own, opened
her front door, left her footprints in the snow on the porch, and
passed out—wading away. Those eyes of his saw what took place the next
day: the happiness of Christmas morning turned into horror; the
children wild with distress and crying—the servants dumb—the inquiry
at neighbors' houses—the news spreading to the town—the papers—the
black ruin. And from him two restraining words issued for her ear:
Passionately she bore the picture to her lips and her pride answered
him. And so answering, it applied a torch to her blood and her blood
took fire and a flame of rage spread through and swept her. She stopped
her preparations: she had begun to think as well as to feel.
She unpacked her travelling bag, putting each article back into its
place with exaggerated pains. Having done this, she stood in the middle
of the floor, looking about her irresolute: then responding to that
power of low suggestion which is one of anger's weapons, she began to
devise malice. She went to a wardrobe and stooping down took from a
bottom drawer—where long ago it had been stored away under everything
else—a shawl that had been her grandmother's; a brindled crewel
shawl,—sometimes worn by superannuated women of a former generation; a
garment of hideousness. Once, when a little girl, she had loyally
jerked it off her grandmother because it added to her ugliness and
She shook this out with mocking eyes and threw it decoratively
around her shoulders. She strode to the gorgeous peony lampshade and
lifting it off, gibbeted it and scattered the fragments on the floor.
She turned the lamp up as high as it would safely burn so that the huge
lidless eye of it would throw its full glare on him and her. She drew a
rocking chair to the foot of the bed and seating herself put her
forefinger up to each temple and drew out from their hiding places
under the mass of her black hair two long gray locks and let these hang
down haglike across her bosom. She banished the carefully nourished
look of youth from her face—dropped the will to look young—and
allowed the forced-back years to rush into it—into the wastage, the
wreckage, which he and Nature, assisting each other so ably, had
wrought in her.
She sat there half-crazed, rocking noisily; waiting for the glare of
the lamp to cause him to open his eyes; and she smiled upon him in
exultation of vengeance that she was to live on there in his house—
After a while a darker mood came over her.
With noiseless steps lest she awake him, she began to move about the
room. She put out the lamp and lighted her candle and set it where it
would be screened from his face; and where the shadow of the chamber
was heaviest, into that shadow she retired and in it she sat—with
furtive look to see whether he observed her.
A pall-like stillness deepened about the bed where he lay.
Running in her veins a wellnigh pure stream across the generations
was Anglo-Saxon blood of the world's fiercest; floating in the tide of
it passions of old family life which had dyed history for all time in
tragedies of false friendship, false love, and false battle; but
fiercest ever about the marriage bed and the betrayal of its vow. A
thousand years from this night some wronged mother of hers, sitting
beside some sleeping father of hers in their forest-beleaguered
castle—the moonlight streaming in upon him through the javelined
casement and putting before her the manly beauty of him—the blond hair
matted thick on his forehead as his helmet had left it, his mouth
reddening in his slumber under its curling gold—some mother of hers
whom he had carried off from other men by might of his sword, thus
sitting beside him and knowing him to be colder to her now than the
moon's dead rays, might have watched those rays as they travelled away
from his figure and put a gleam on his sword hanging near: a thousand
years ago: some mother of hers.
It is when the best fails our human nature that the worst volunteers
so often to take its place. The best and the worst—these are the sole
alternatives which many a soul seems to be capable of making: hence
life's spectacle of swift overthrow, of amazing collapse, ever present
about us. Only the heroic among both men and women, losing the best as
their first choice, fight their way through defeat to the standard of
the second best and fight on there. And whatever one may think of the
legend otherwise, abundant experience justifies the story that it was
the Archangel who fell to the pit. The low never fall far: how can
they? They already dwell on the bottom of things, and many a time they
are to be seen there with vanity that they should inhabit such a
During the first of these hours which stretched for her into the
tragic duration of a lifetime, it was a successive falling from a
height of moral splendor; her nature went down through swift stages to
the lowest she harbored either in the long channel of inheritance or as
the stirred sediment of her own imperfections. And as is unfortunately
true, this descent into moral darkness possessed the grateful illusion
that it was an ascent into new light. All evil prompting became good
suggestion; every injustice made its claim to be justification. She
enjoyed the elation of feeling that she was dragging herself out of
life's quicksands upward to some rock, where there might be loneliness
for her, but where there would be cleanness. The love which consumed
her for him raged in her as hatred; and hatred is born into perfect
mastery of its weapons. However young, it needs not to wait for
training in order to know how to destroy.
He presented himself to her as a character at last revealed in its
faithlessness and low carnal propensities. What rankled most poignantly
in this spectacle of his final self-exposure was the fact that the
cloven hoof should have been found on noble mountain tops—that he
should have attempted to better his disguise by dwelling near regions
of sublimity. Of all hypocrisy the kind most detestable to her was that
which dares live within spiritual fortresses; and now his whole story
of the Christmas Tree, the solemn marshalling of words about the growth
of the world's spirit—about the sacrifice of the lower in ourselves to
the higher—this cant now became to her the invocation and homage of
the practised impostor: he had indeed carried the Christmas Tree on his
shoulder into the manger. Not the Manger of Immortal Purity for mankind
but the manger of his own bestiality.
Thus scorn and satire became her speech; she soared above him with
spurning; a frenzy of poisoned joy racked her that at the moment when
he had let her know that he wanted to be free—at that moment she might
tell him he had won his freedom at the cheap price of his unworthiness.
And thus as she descended, she enjoyed the triumph of rising; so the
devil in us never lacks argument that he is the celestial guide.
Moreover, hatred never dwells solitary; it readily finds boon
companions. And at one period of the night she began to look back upon
her experience with a curious sense of prior familiarity—to see it as
a story already known to her at second hand. She viewed it as the first
stage of one of those tragedies that later find their way into the care
of family physicians, into the briefs of lawyers, into the confidence
of clergymen, into the papers and divorce courts, and that receive
their final flaying or canonization on the stage and in novels of the
time. Sitting at a distance, she had within recent years studied in a
kind of altruistic absorption how the nation's press, the nation's
science of medicine, the nation's science of law, the nation's practice
of religion, and the nation's imaginative literature were all at work
with the same national omen—the decay of the American family and the
downfall of the home.
Now this new pestilence raging in other regions of the country had
incredibly reached her, she thought, on the sheltered lowlands where
the older traditions of American home life still lay like foundation
rock. The corruption of it had attacked him; the ruin of it awaited
her; and thus to-night she took her place among those women whom the
world first hears of as in hospitals and sanitariums and places of
refuge and in their graves—and more sadly elsewhere; whose misfortunes
interested the press and whose types attracted the novelists.
She was one of them.
They swarmed about her; one by one she recognized them: the woman
who unable to bear up under her tragedy soon sinks into eternity—or
walks into it; the woman who disappears from the scene and somewhere
under another name or with another lot lives on—devoting herself to
memory or to forgetfulness; the woman who stays on in the house, giving
to the world no sign for the sake of everything else that still remains
to her but living apart—on the other side of the locked door; the
woman who stays on without locking the door, half-hating,
half-loving—the accepted and rejected compromise; the woman who
welcomes the end of the love-drama as the beginning of peace and the
cessation of annoyances; the woman who begins to act her tragedy to
servants and children and acquaintances—reaping sympathy for herself
and sowing ruin and torture—for him; the woman who drops the care of
house, ends his comforts, thus forcing the sharp reminder of her value
as at least an investment toward his general well-being; the woman who
endeavors to rekindle dying coals by fanning them with fresh
fascinations; the woman who plays upon jealousy and touches the male
instinct to keep one's own though little prized lest another acquire it
and prize it more; the woman who sets a watch to discover the other
woman: they swarmed about her, she identified each.
And she dismissed them. They brought her no aid; she shrank from
their companionship; a strange dread moved her lest they should
discover her. One only she detached from the throng and for a
while withdrew with her into a kind of dual solitude: the woman who
when so rejected turns to another man—the man who is waiting somewhere
The man she turned to, who for years had hovered near, was
the country doctor, her husband's tried and closest friend, whose
children were asleep upstairs with her children. During all these years
her secret had been—the doctor. When she had come as a bride into
that neighborhood, he, her husband's senior by several years, was
already well established in his practice. He had attended her at the
birth of her first child; never afterwards. As time passed, she had
discovered that he loved her; she could never have him again. This had
dealt his professional reputation a wound, but he understood, and he
welcomed the wound.
Many a night, lying awake near her window, through which noises from
the turnpike plainly reached her, all earthly happiness asleep
alongside her, she could hear the doctor's buggy passing on its way to
some patient, or on its return from the town where he had patients
also. Many a time she had heard it stop at the front gate: the road of
his life there turned in to her. There were nights of pitch darkness
and beating rain; and sometimes on these she had to know that he was
Long she sat in the shadow of her room, looking towards the bed
where her husband slept, but sending the dallying vision toward the
doctor. He would be at the Christmas party; she would be dancing with
Clouds and darkness descended upon the plain of life and enveloped
it. She groped her way, torn and wounded, downward along the old lost
The endless night scarcely moved on.
* * * * *
She was wearied out, she was exhausted. There is anger of such
intensity that it scorches and shrivels away the very temptations that
are its fuel; nothing can long survive the blast of that white flame,
and being unfed, it dies out. Moreover, it is the destiny of a portion
of mankind that they are enjoined by their very nobility from winning
low battles; these always go against them: the only victories for them
are won when they are leading the higher forces of human nature in
life's upward conflicts.
She was weary, she was exhausted; there was in her for a while
neither moral light nor moral darkness. Her consciousness lay like a
boundless plain on which nothing is visible. She had passed into a
great calm; and slowly there was borne across her spirit a clearness
that is like the radiance of the storm-winged sky.
And now in this calm, in this clearness, two small white figures
appeared—her children. Hitherto the energies of her mind had grappled
with the problem of her future; now memories began—memories that
decide more perhaps than anything else for us. And memories began with
She arose without making any noise, took her candle, and screening
it with the palm of her hand, started upstairs.
There were two ways by either of which she could go; a narrow rear
stairway leading from the parlor straight to their bedrooms, and the
broad stairway in the front hall. From the old maternal night-habit she
started to take the shorter way but thought of the parlor and drew
back. This room had become too truly the Judgment Seat of the Years.
She shrank from it as one who has been arraigned may shrink from a
tribunal where sentence has been pronounced which changes the rest of
life. Its flowers, its fruits, its toys, its ribbons, but deepened the
derision and the bitterness. And the evergreen there in the middle of
the room—it became to her as that tree of the knowledge of good and
evil which at Creation's morning had driven Woman from Paradise.
She chose the other way and started toward the main hall of the
house, but paused in the doorway and looked back at the bed; what if he
should awake in the dark, alone, with no knowledge of where she was?
Would he call out to her—with what voice? Would he come to seek
her—with what emotions? (The tide of memories was setting in now—the
drift back to the old mooring.)
Hunt for her! How those words fell like iron strokes on the ear of
remembrance. They registered the beginning of the whole trouble. Up to
the last two years his first act upon reaching home had been to seek
her. It had even been her playfulness at times to slip from room to
room for the delight of proving how persistently he would prolong his
search. But one day some two years before this, when she had entered
his study about the usual hour of his return, bringing flowers for his
writing desk, she saw him sitting there, hat on, driving gloves on,
making some notes. The sight had struck the flowers from her hands; she
swiftly gathered them up, and going to her room, shut herself in; she
knew it was the beginning of the end.
The Shadow which lurks in every bridal lamp had become the Spectre
of the bedchamber.
When they met later that day, he was not even aware of what he had
done or failed to do, the change in him was so natural to himself.
Everything else had followed: the old look dying out of the eyes; the
old touch abandoning the hands; less time for her in the house, more
for work; constraint beginning between them, the awkwardness of
reserve; she seeing Nature's movement yet refusing to believe it; then
at last resolving to know to the uttermost and choosing her bridal
night as the hour of the ordeal.
If he awoke, would he come to seek her—with what feelings?
She went on upstairs, holding the candle to one side with her right
hand and supporting herself by the banisters with her left. There was a
turn in the stairway at the second floor, and here the candle rays fell
on the face of the tall clock in the hallway. She sat down on a step,
putting the candle beside her; and there she remained, her elbows on
her knees, her face resting on her palms; and into the abyss of the
night dropped the tranquil strokes. More memories!
She was by nature not only alive to all life but alive to
surrounding lifeless things. Much alone in the house, she had sent her
happiness overflowing its dumb environs—humanizing these—drawing them
toward her by a gracious responsive symbolism—extending speech over
realms which nature has not yet awakened to it or which she may have
struck into speechlessness long aeons past.
She had symbolized the clock; it was the wooden God of Hours; she
had often feigned that it might be propitiated; and opening the door of
it she would pin inside the walls little clusters of blossoms as votive
offerings: if it would only move faster and bring him home! The usual
hour of his return from college was three in the afternoon. She had
symbolized that hour; one stroke for him, one for her, one for the
children—the three in one—the trinity of the household.
She sat there on the step with the candle burning beside her.
The clock struck three! The sound went through the house: down to
him, up to the children, into her. It was like a cry of a night watch:
all is well!
It was the first sound that had reached her from any source during
this agony, and now it did not come from humanity, but from outside
humanity; from Time itself which brings us together and holds us
together as long as possible and then separates us and goes on its
way—indifferent whether we are together or apart; Time which welds the
sands into the rock and then wears the rock away to its separate sands
and sends the level tide softly over them.
Once for him, once for her, once for the children! She took up the
candle and went upstairs to them.
For a while she stood beside the bed in one room where the two
little girls were asleep clasping each other, cheek against cheek; and
in another room at the bedside of the two little boys, their backs
turned on one another and each with a hand doubled into a promising
fist outside the cover. In a few years how differently the four would
be divided and paired; each boy a young husband, each girl a young
wife; and out of the lives of the two of them who were hers she would
then drop into some second place. If to-night she were realizing what
befalls a wife when she becomes the Incident to her husband, she would
then realize what befalls a woman when the mother becomes the Incident
to her children: Woman, twice the Incident in Nature's impartial
economy! Her son would playfully confide it to his bride that she must
bear with his mother's whims and ways. Her daughter would caution her
husband that he must overlook peculiarities and weaknesses. The very
study of perfection which she herself had kindled and fanned in them as
the illumination of their lives they would now turn upon her as a
searchlight of her failings.
He downstairs would never do that! She could not conceive of his
discussing her with any human being. Even though he should some day
desert her, he would never discuss her.
She had lived so secure in the sense of him thus standing with her
against the world, that it was the sheer withdrawal of his strength
from her to-night that had dealt her the cruelest blow. But now she
began to ask herself whether his protection had failed her.
Could he have recognized the situation without rendering it worse? Had
he put his arms around her, might she not have—struck at him? Had he
laid a finger-weight of sympathy on her, would it not have left a scar
for life? Any words of his, would they not have rung in her ears
unceasingly? To pass it over was as though it had never been—was not
that his protection?
She suddenly felt a desire to go down into the parlor. She kissed
her child in each room and she returned and kissed the doctor's
children—with memory of their mother; and then she descended by the
She set her candle on the table, where earlier in the night she had
placed the lamp—near the manuscript—and she sat down and looked at
that remorsefully: she had ignored it when he placed it there.
He had made her the gift of his work—dedicated to her the triumphs
of his toil. It was his deep cry to her to share with him his widening
career and enter with him into the world's service. She crossed her
hands over it awhile, and then she left it.
The low-burnt candle did not penetrate far into the darkness of the
immense parlor. There was an easy chair near her piano and her music.
After playing when alone, she would often sit there and listen to the
echoes of those influences that come into the soul from music
only,—the rhythmic hauntings of some heaven of diviner beauty. She sat
there now quite in darkness and closed her eyes; and upon her ear began
faintly to beat the sad sublime tones of his story.
One of her delights in growing things on the farm had been to watch
the youth of the hemp—a field of it, tall and wandlike and tufted. If
the north wind blew upon it, the myriad stalks as by a common impulse
swayed southward; if a zephyr from the south crossed it, all heads were
instantly bowed before the north. West wind sent it east and east wind
sent it west.
And so, it had seemed to her, is that ever living world which we
sometimes call the field of human life in its perpetual summer. It is
run through by many different laws; governed by many distinct forces,
each of which strives to control it wholly—but never does. Selfishness
blows on it like a parching sirocco, and all things seem to bow to the
might of selfishness. Generosity moves across the expanse, and all
things are seen responsive to what is generous. Place yourself where
life is lowest and everything like an avalanche is rushing to the
bottom. Place yourself where character is highest, and lo! the whole
world is but one struggle upward to what is high. You see what you care
to see, and find what you wish to find.
In his story of the Forest and the Heart he had wanted to trace but
one law, and he had traced it; he had drawn all things together and
bent them before its majesty: the ancient law of Sacrifice. Of old the
high sacrificed to the low; afterwards the low to the high: once the
sacrifice of others; now the sacrifice of ourselves; but always in
ourselves of the lower to the higher in order that, dying, we may live.
With this law he had made his story a story of the world.
The star on the Tree bore it back to Chaldaea; the candle bore it to
ancient Persia; the cross bore it to the Nile and Isis and Osiris; the
dove bore it to Syria; the bell bore it to Confucius; the drum bore it
to Buddha; the drinking horn to Greece; the tinsel to Romulus and Rome;
the doll to Abraham and Isaac; the masks to Gaul; the mistletoe to
Britain,—and all brought it to Christ,—Christ the latest world-ideal
of sacrifice that is self-sacrifice and of the giving of all for all.
The story was for herself, he had said, and for himself.
Himself! Here at last all her pain and wandering of this night
ended: at the bottom of her wound where rankled his problem.
From this problem she had most shrunk and into this she now entered:
She sacrificed herself in him! She laid upon herself his temptation and
* * * * *
Taking her candle, she passed back into her bedroom and screened it
where she had screened it before; then went into his bedroom.
She put her wedding ring on again with blanched lips. She went to
his bedside, and drawing to the pillow the chair on which his clothes
were piled, sat down and laid her face over on it; and there in that
shrine of feeling where speech is formed, but whence it never issues,
she made her last communion with him:
“You, to whom I gave my youth and all that youth could mean to
me; whose children I have borne and nurtured at my breast—all of whose
eyes I have seen open and the eyes of some of whom I have closed;
husband of my girlhood, loved as no woman ever loved the man who took
her home; strength and laughter of his house; helper of what is best in
me; my defender against things in myself that I cannot govern;
pathfinder of my future; rock of the ebbing years! Though my hair turn
white as driven snow and flesh wither to the bone, I shall never cease
to be the flame that you yourself have kindled.
“But never again to you! Let the stillness of nature fall where
there must be stillness! Peace come with its peace! And the room which
heard our whisperings of the night, let it be the Room of the
Silences—the Long Silences! Adieu, cross of living fire that I have so
She remained as motionless as though she had fallen asleep or would
not lift her head until there had ebbed out of her life upon his pillow
the last drop of things that must go.
She there—her whitening head buried on his pillow: it was Life's
Calvary of the Snows.
The dawn found her sitting in the darkest corner of the room, and
there it brightened about her desolately. The moment drew near when she
must awaken him; the ordeal of their meeting must be over before the
children rushed downstairs or the servants knocked.
She had plaited her hair in two heavy braids, and down each braid
the gray told its story through the black. And she had brushed it
frankly away from brow and temples so that the contour of her head—one
of nature's noblest—was seen in its simplicity. It is thus that the
women of her land sometimes prepare themselves at the ceremony of their
baptism into a new life.
She had put on a plain night-dress, and her face and shoulders
rising out of this had the austerity of marble—exempt not from ruin,
but exempt from lesser mutation. She looked down at her wrists once and
made a little instinctive movement with her fingers as if to hide them
under the sleeves.
Then she approached the bed. As she did so, she turned back midway
and quickly stretched her arms toward the wall as though to flee to it.
Then she drew nearer, a new pitiful fear of him in her eyes—the look
of the rejected.
So she stood an instant and then she reclined on the edge of the
bed, resting on one elbow and looking down at him.
For years her first words to him on this day had been the world's
“A Merry Christmas!”
She tried to summon the words to her lips and have them ready.
At the pressure of her body on the bed he opened his eyes and
instantly looked to see what the whole truth was: how she had come out
of it all, what their life was to be henceforth, what their future
would be worth. But at the sight of her so changed—something so gone
out of her forever—with a quick cry he reached his arms for her. She
struggled to get away from him; but he, winding his arms shelteringly
about the youth-shorn head, drew her face close down against his face.
She caught at one of the braids of her hair and threw it across her
eyes, and then silent convulsive sobs rent and tore her, tore her. The
torrent of her tears raining down into his tears.
Tears not for Life's faults but for Life when there are no faults.
They locked in each other's arms—trying to save each other on Nature's
vast lonely, tossing, uncaring sea.
The rush of children's feet was heard in the hall and there was
smothered laughter at the door and the soft turning of the knob.
It was Christmas Morning.
* * * * *
The sun rose golden and gathering up its gold threw it forward over
the gladness of the Shield. The farmhouse—such as the poet had sung of
when he could not help singing of American home life—looked out from
under its winter roof with the cheeriness of a human traveller who
laughs at the snow on his hat and shoulders. Smoke poured out of its
chimneys, bespeaking brisk fires for festive purposes. The oak tree
beside it stood quieted of its moaning and tossing. Soon after sunrise
a soul of passion on scarlet wings, rising out of the snow-bowed
shrubbery, flew up to a topmost twig of the oak; and sitting there with
its breast to the gorgeous sun scanned for a little while that
landscape of ice. It was beyond its intelligence to understand how
nature could create it for Summer and then take Summer away. Its wisdom
could only have ended in wonderment that a sun so true could shine on a
world so false.
Frolicking servants fell to work, sweeping porches and shovelling
paths. After breakfast a heavy-set, middle-aged man, his face red with
fireside warmth and laughter, without hat or gloves or overcoat, rushed
out of the front door pursued by a little soldier sternly booted and
capped and gloved; and the two snowballed each other, going at it
furiously. Watching them through a window a little girl, dancing a
dreamy measure of her own, ever turned inward and beckoned to some one
to come and look—beckoned in vain.
All day the little boy beat the drum of Confucius; all day the
little girl played with the doll—hugged to her breast the symbol of
ancient sacrifice, the emblem of the world's new mercy. Along the
turnpike sleigh-bells were borne hither and thither by rushing horses;
and the shouts of young men on fire to their marrow went echoing across
the shining valleys.
Christmas Day! Christmas Day! Christmas Day!
One thing about the house stood in tragic aloofness from its
surroundings; just outside the bedroom window grew a cedar, low, thick,
covered with snow except where a bough had been broken off for
decorating the house; here owing to the steepness the snow slid off.
The spot looked like a wound in the side of the Divine purity, and
across this open wound the tree had hung its rosary-beads never to be
told by Sorrow's fingers.
The sunset golden and gathering up its last gold threw it backward
across the sadness of the Shield. One by one the stars came back to
their faithful places above the silence and the whiteness. A swinging
lamp was lighted on the front porch and its rays fell on little round
mats of snow stamped off by entering boot heels. On each gatepost a low
Christmas star was set to guide and welcome good neighbors; and between
those beacons soon they came hurrying, fathers and mothers and children
assembling for the party.
Late into the night the party lasted.
The logs blazed in deep fireplaces and their Forest Memories went to
ashes. Bodily comfort there was and good-will and good wishes and the
robust sensible making the best of what is best on the surface of our
life. And hale eating and drinking as old England itself once ate and
drank at Yuletide. And fast music and dancing that ever wanted to go
faster than the music.
The chief feature of the revelry was the distribution of gifts on
the Christmas Tree—the handing over to this person and to that person
of those unread lessons of the ages—little mummied packages of the
lord of time. One thing no one noted. Fresh candles had replaced those
burnt out on the Tree the night before: all the candles were white now.
Revellers! Revellers! A crowded canvas! A brilliantly painted scene!
Controlling everything, controlling herself, the lady of the house:
hunting out her guests with some grace that befitted each; laughing and
talking with the doctor; secretly giving most attention to the doctor's
wife—faded little sufferer; with strength in her to be the American
wife and mother in the home of the poet's dream: the spiritual majesty
of her bridal veil still about her amid life's snow as it never lifts
itself from the face of the Jungfrau amid the sad most lovely
mountains: the American wife and mother!—herself the Jungfrau
among the world's women!
The last thing before the company broke up took place what often
takes place there in happy gatherings: the singing of the song of the
State which is also a song of the Nation—its melody of the unfallen
home: with sadness enough in it, God knows, but with sanctity: she
seated at the piano—the others upholding her like a living bulwark.
There was another company thronging the rooms that no one wot of:
those Bodiless Ones that often are much more real than the
embodied—the Guests of the Imagination.
The Memories were there, strolling back and forth through the
chambers arm and arm with the Years: bestowing no cognizance upon that
present scene nor aware that they were not alone. About the Christmas
Tree the Wraiths of earlier children returned to gambol; and these knew
naught of those later ones who had strangely come out of the unknown to
fill their places. Around the walls stood other majestical Veiled
Shapes that bent undivided attention upon the actual pageant: these
were Life's Pities. Ever and anon they would lift their noble veils and
look out upon that brief flicker of our mortal joy, and drop them and
relapse into their compassionate vigil.
But of the Bodiless Ones there gathered a solitary young Shape
filled the entire house with her presence. As the Memories walked
through the rooms with the Years, they paused ever before her and
mutely beckoned her to a place in their Sisterhood. The children who
had wandered back peeped shyly at her but then with some sure instinct
of recognition ran to her and threw down their gifts, to put their arms
around her. And the Pities before they left the house that night walked
past her one by one and each lifted its veil and dropped it more
This was the Shape:
In the great bedroom on a spot of the carpet under the
chandelier—which had no decoration whatsoever—stood an exquisite
Spirit of Youth, more insubstantial than Spring morning mist, yet most
alive; her lips scarce parted—her skin like white hawthorn shadowed by
pink—in her eyes the modesty of withdrawal from Love—in her heart the
surrender to it. During those distracting hours never did she move nor
did her look once change: she waiting there—waiting for some one to