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A Christmas Story by Mrs. W. J. Hays

Author of "The Princess Idleways."

"Now, Teddie, be a good boy, there's a darling, and, little Clover, don't tease Daisy. Please let mamma go away to church and know that you are all sweet and lovely and clean as new little pennies to-night."

Splash went one little body into the bath-tub, and splash went another, and again a third; and then, like so many roses after a shower, out they came, dripping, and laughing and screaming with glee. The little mother was kept busy enough, for it was Christmas-eve, and the carols and anthems were to be rehearsed for the last time, and Mrs. Morton's clear soprano voice could not be spared. Indeed, her voice was all that kept Teddie and Clover and Daisy in their neat little box of a house, for their father, a brave fireman, had been killed more than two years before at a fearful fire, and since then their mother had striven hard to maintain her little family by sewing, and singing, and doing whatever work her slender hands could accomplish which would bring in food and clothing for her children.

"Be dood, Teddie," repeated Daisy, after her mother, as she shook out her little wet curls at him, and Clover solemnly raised his finger at his bigger brother, with the warning,

"Remember, Santa Claus comes to-night."

"Yes, and the stockings must be hung up," said Ted, who forthwith proceeded to attend to that important duty.

"There! how do they look?—one brown, that's mine; one blue, that's Clover's; and one red, that's Daisy's." They were pinned fast to the fender with many pins and much care.

"But, mamma," said Clover, "the stove's in the way. Santa Claus can't get down with that big black thing stopping the chimney."

"Oh, the fire will go out by-and-by, and then he may creep through the stove-pipe and out of the door."

"He'll be awful dirty, then," said Daisy.

"Well, 'he was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot, and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot,' so that is to be expected. But really, dear children, you must jump into your beds, and let me tuck you up; it is time for me to go."

Very quickly the rosy little faces were nestling in the pillows, and Mrs. Morton, after kissing them, put out the lamp and left them to their slumbers. Hastily putting on her cloak and bonnet, she paused at the door of her sitting-room to see if the fire was safe. The room was dark but for the gleaming stove, the chairs and table were all in order, and in one corner, under a covering of paper, was the little tree she had decked in odd moments to delight the eyes of her children. She could not afford wax candles, so the morning was to bring the tree as well as the other gifts. Sure that all was in readiness, she tripped down the stairs, locked her door, and sped over the snow to the church, the two tall towers of which stood out against the starry sky.

As she entered the church, her mind full of her duties and her heart tender with thoughts of her children, she thought she saw a dusky little object crouching in the angle made by the towers; but she was already late, and had no time to linger. Up she went to the choir, which was full of light, but the body of the church was dark. Without any words, she took up her sheet of music and began to sing. Never had the carols and anthems seemed so sweet to her, and her voice rose clear and pure as a bird's. The organist paused to listen, and her companions turned satisfied glances upon her; but she went on unconsciously, as a bird does until the burden of its theme is finished, and its exultant strains are lost in silence. They went over the whole Church service, the glorious Te Deum, the Benedictus, and the anthem for the day, "Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given," and every delicate chord and fugue had to be repeated until the desired perfection of harmony was attained. It was really a very long and arduous study; but of all days Christmas demands good music, and they were willing to do their best. At last all were satisfied, and somewhat tired; but the organist turned to Mrs. Morton, and asked her if she would sing one hymn for him alone, as he especially desired to hear her voice in this one tune. Of course she could not refuse, and to an exquisitely harmonious air she began,

"Calm on the listening ear of night
Come heaven's melodious strains,
Where wild Judæa stretches far
Her silver-mantled plains.

"Light on thy hills, Jerusalem!
The Saviour now is born!
And bright on Bethlehem's joyous plains
Breaks the first Christmas morn."

Only the first and last verses of that exquisite hymn; but like "angels with their sparkling lyres," her voice seemed to have lost its earthliness, and soared, as if it were winged, up to the very gate of heaven. When she ceased singing, there was a hush upon all, as if they had been carried near to the celestial portals.

One by one they pressed her hand in quiet congratulation, and with a "Merry Christmas" bade her good-night. Mrs. Morton was a little excited with her unusual efforts, and while the old organist was locking up, thought she would run down and warm herself in the church. As she hastened toward the great heater, she tripped over something, which, to her great surprise and alarm, she perceived what appeared to be a great bundle was in reality a sleeping child.

Yes, a child, and a little one—a boy of not more than seven years, with elfish brown locks, and eyelashes which swept the olive tint of his cheek. All curled up in a heap, in clothes which a man might have worn, so big and shapeless were they, with one arm under his head for a pillow, and the other tightly grasping a violin. Far had he wandered in the cold wintry air, until, attracted by the light and warmth of the great church, he had stolen in for shelter, and then as his little ears drank in the melody of the rehearsing choir, and the warmth comforted him, he fell fast asleep. He was dreaming now of the warm sunny land of his birth: olive-trees and orchards, purple clusters of the vineyards, donkeys laden with oranges, and the blue sky of Naples shining over the blue bay. Then, in his dream, an angel came floating down out of the pure ether, wafting sweet perfumes on its white wings, and singing—oh! what heavenly strains!—till his little soul was filled with joy; for the angel seemed to be his mother who had died, and her kind voice again saluted him, and he answered, softly, "Madre mia!"

"Poor child!" said Mrs. Morton, softly, "it seems a pity to waken him, but we must do it; he can not stay here all night." The old organist touched him; but his sleep was too sound for a touch to arouse him, and Mrs. Morton had to again and again lift his head and stroke his little brown hand, before, with amazed and widely fearful looks, he answered them.

"Who are you, child, and what are you doing here?" asked the organist.

"I'm Toni, Toni," was the answer, and he began to cry. "Oh, please let me go: the Padrone will kill me."

"Why will he kill you, and why are you here?"

"He will kill me because I have no money. I have lost, also, my way."

"Have you no home, no mother?" asked Mrs. Morton, gently.

"No, signora, no, madame, no mother. We all live, Baptiste and Vincenzo and I, with the Padrone. We play the harp and the violin; but I was tired, and I could not keep with the others, and they scolded me, oh, so sharply! and I was weary and cold, and crept in here where the angels sing, and it was so beautiful I could not go away."

The organist muttered, "Police," at which the child again sobbed violently. "Yes, to the station-house, of course, he must go."

But Mrs. Morton remembered the three faces asleep on their pillows at home, and as she looked at this tear-stained, dirty little gypsy, she said to the organist, "I will take care of him to-night." So, under the stars, the Christmas stars, gleaming so brightly, she led the little wanderer home.

All was still and safe in the little house. "Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." The fire still gleamed in the kitchen and the sitting-room, and it was the work of only a few moments to divest the little musician of his uncouth garments, to pop him into the tub of hot suds, to scrub him well, until his lean little body shone like bronze, to slip him into a night-gown, to give him a slice of bread and butter, and then to tuck him up on the cozy lounge.

The children slept like tops, and the tired little mother was glad to say her prayers, and lie down beside them.

The stars were still shining when she awoke; for Christmas-day would be a busy one, and there were no moments to lose. Already the milkman was at the door, and the hands of the kitchen clock pointed to six.

Hark! what was that?

A long, low, sweet sound, like a voice calling her. She listened, and again it came. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men," so it seemed to breathe. Then it rose in a gay carol, a sweet gushing thanksgiving, and the children came tumbling down in their night-gowns; they rushed to the door of the sitting-room, and there beside his improvised bed stood the young musician, playing on his violin as if all the world were his audience. His brown eyes flashed now with light, and then grew dark and tender, as he drew the sweet sounds out. The children gazed in wonderment: where had this child come from? had he dropped from the stars? had an angel come among them? He played on and on, until, from sheer fatigue, he put his instrument down. Then Teddie and Clover and Daisy came about him; they touched his hands, his curly locks, his violin, to see if all were real. Then they whirled round the room in a mad dance of delight, for the mother had uncovered the tree, and it was really Christmas morning.

Ah, what a happy day for poor little Toni! How nice he looked in Teddie's clothes! how gentle he was with Daisy! how he frolicked with Clover! and when Mrs. Morton came from church, how softly he played all his pretty melodies for her! It was a day of feast and gladness; and when, to her surprise and pleasure, a committee of church people waited upon Mrs. Morton to give her a purse, through the meshes of which glittered gold pieces, she said then and there that Toni should never go to the harsh and cruel Padrone again.

Perhaps some time as you listen to a sweet voice singing to the accompaniment of a violin you may think of Mrs. Morton and Toni, and be glad that the world bestows its applause and its gifts upon them, and that the vision of his mother and her love which came to Toni on that Christmas-eve has been made to him a reality.