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Merry Folk by Hermann Sudermann

 

The Christmas tree bent heavily forward. The side which was turned to the wall had been hard to reach, and had hence not been adorned richly enough to keep the equilibrium of the tree against the weighty twigs of the front.

Papa noted this and scolded. “What would Mamma say if she saw that? You know, Brigitta, that Mamma doesn't love carelessness. If the tree falls over, think how ashamed we shall be.”

Brigitta flushed fiery red. She clambered up the ladder once more, stretched her arms forth as far as possible, and hung on the other side of the tree all that she could gather. There had been very little there. But then one couldn't see....

And now the lights could be lit.

“Now we will look through the presents,” said Papa. “Which is Mamma's plate?”

Brigitta showed it to him.

This time he was satisfied. “It's a good thing that you've put so much marchpane on it,” he said. “You know she always loves to have something to give away.” Then lie inspected the polished safety lock that lay next to the plate and caressed the hard leaves of the potted palm that shadowed Mamma's place at the Christmas table.

“You have painted the flower vase for her?” he asked.

Brigitta nodded.

“It is exclusively for roses,” she said, “and the colours are burned in and will stand any kind of weather.”

“What the boys have made for Mamma they can bring her themselves. Have you put down the presents from her?”

Surely she had done so. For Fritz, there was a fishing-net and a ten-bladed knife; for Arthur a turning lathe with foot-power, and in addition a tall toy ship with a golden-haired nymph as figurehead.

“The mermaid will make an impression,” said Papa and laughed.

There was something else which Brigitta had on her conscience. She stuck her firm little hands under her apron, which fell straight down over her flat little chest, and tripped up and down on her heels.

“I may as well betray the secret,” she said. “Mamma has something for you, too.” Papa was all ear. “What is it?” he asked, and looked over his place at the table, where nothing was noticeable in addition to Brigitta's fancy work.

Brigitta ran to the piano and pulled forth from under it a paper wrapped box, about two feet in height, which seemed singularly light for its size.

When the paper wrappings had fallen aside, a wooden cage appeared, in which sat a stuffed bird that glittered with all the colours of the rainbow. His plumage looked as though the blue of the sky and the gold of the sun had been caught in it.

“A roller!” Papa cried, clapping his hands, and something like joy twitched about his mouth. “And she gives me this rare specimen?”

“Yes,” said Brigitta, “it was found last autumn in the throstle springe. The manager kept it for me until now. And because it is so beautiful, and, one might really say, a kind of bird of paradise, therefore Mamma gives it to you.”

Papa stroked her blonde hair and again her face flushed.

“So; and now we'll call the boys,” he said.

“First let me put away my apron,” she cried, loosened the pin and threw the ugly black thing under the piano where the cage had been before. Now she stood there in her white communion dress, with its blue ribands, and made a charming little grimace.

“You have done quite right,” said Papa. “Mamma does not like dark colours. Everything about her is to be bright and gay.”

Now the boys were permitted to come in.

They held their beautifully written Christmas poems carefully in their hands and rubbed their sides timidly against the door-posts.

“Come, be cheerful,” said Papa. “Do you think your heads will be torn off to-day?”

And then he took them both into his arms and squeezed them a little so that Arthur's poetry was crushed right down the middle.

That was a misfortune, to be sure. But Papa consoled the boy, saying that he would be responsible since it was his fault.

Brueggemann, the long, lean private tutor, now stuck his head in the door, too. He had on his most solemn long coat, nodded sadly like one bidden to a funeral, and sniffed through his nose:

“Yes—yes—yes—yes—”

“What are you sighing over so pitiably, you old weeping-willow?” Papa said, laughing. “There are only merry folk here. Isn't it so, Brigitta?”

“Of course that is so,” the girl said. “And here, Doctor, is your Christmas plate.” She led him to his place where a little purse of calf's leather peeped modestly out from, under the cakes.

“This is your present from Mamma,” she continued, handing him a long, dark-covered book. “It is 'The Three Ways to Peace,' which you always admired so much.”

The learned gentleman hid a tear of emotion but squinted again at the little pocket-book. This represented the fourth way to peace, for he had old beer debts.

The servants were now ushered in, too. First came Mrs. Poensgen, the housekeeper, who carried in her crooked, scarred hands a little flower-pot with Alpine violets.

“This is for Mamma,” she said to Brigitta, who took the pot from her and led her to her own place. There were many good things, among them a brown knitted sweater, such as she had long desired, for in the kitchen an east wind was wont to blow through the cracks.

Mrs. Poensgen saw the sweater as rapidly as Brueggemann had seen the purse. And when Brigitta said: “That is, of course, from Mamma,” the old woman was not in the least surprised. For in her fifteen years of service she had discovered that the best things always came from Mamma.

The two boys, in the meantime, were anxious to ease their consciences and recite their poems. They stood around Papa.

He was busy with the inspectors of the estate, and did not notice them for a moment. Then he became aware of his oversight and took the sheets from their hands, laughing and regretting his neglect. Fritz assumed the proper attitude, and Papa did the same, but when the latter saw the heading of the poem: “To his dear parents at Christmastide,” he changed his mind and said: “Let's leave that till later when we are with Mamma.”

And so the boys could go on to their places. And as their joy expressed itself at first in a happy silence, Papa stepped up behind them and shook them and said: “Will you be merry, you little scamps? What is Mamma to think if you're not!”

That broke the spell which had held them heretofore. Fritz set his net, and when Arthur discovered a pinnace on his man-of-war, the feeling of immeasurable wealth broke out in jubilation.

But this is the way of the heart. Scarcely had they discovered their own wealth but they turned in desire to that which was not for them.

Arthur had discovered the shiny patent lock that lay between Mamma's plate and his own. It seemed uncertain whether it was for him or her. He felt pretty well assured that it was not for him; on the other hand, he couldn't imagine what use she could put it to. Furthermore, he was interested in it, since it was made upon a certain model. It is not for nothing that one is an engineer with all one's heart and mind.

Now, Fritz tried to give an expert opinion, too. He considered it a combination Chubb lock. Of course that was utter nonsense. But then Fritz would sometimes talk at random.

However that may be, this lock was undoubtedly the finest thing of all. And when one turned the key in it, it gave forth a soft, slow, echoing tone, as though a harp-playing spirit sat in its steel body.

But Papa came and put an end to their delight.

“What are you thinking of, you rascals?” he said in jesting reproach. “Instead of giving poor Mamma something for Christmas, you want to take the little that she has.”

At that they were mightily ashamed. And Arthur said that of course they had something for Mamma, only they had left it in the hall, so that they could take it at once when they went to her.

“Get it in,” said Papa, “in order that her place may not look so meager.” They ran out and came back with their presents.

Fritz had carved a flower-pot holder. It consisted of six parts, which dove-tailed delicately into each other. But that was nothing compared to Arthur's ventilation window, which was woven of horse hair.

Papa was delighted. “Now we needn't be ashamed to be seen,” he said. Then, too, he explained to them the mechanism of the lock, and told them that its purpose was to guard dear Mamma's flowers better. For recently some of her favourite roses had been stolen and the only way to account for it was that some one had a pass key.

“So, and now we'll go to her at last,” he concluded. “We have kept her waiting long. And we will be happy with her, for happiness is the great thing, as Mamma says.... Get us the key, Brigitta, to the gate and the chapel.”

And Brigitta got the key to the gate and the chapel.

 
 
 

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