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you know the miller's people are too fine to have anything to do with us, and would not for the world that their city friends should see them stop to shake hands with us, and say it is a fine day.'
‘But I do not care about that,' said Francis, still sobbing. “And I did not mean to eat myself, but I would have hidden everything they gave me, and then I could have brought home a dinner for you and the mother.'
“Ah, Francis, that would not have been well bred; and although we are much poorer now than we were once, I should be sorry that our manners should grow less gentle, and less worthy of our good father, who has more learning than the lord of the Castle himself.'
Who told you so ? asked Francis, rousing himself and checking his sobs under the soothing influence of his sister's presence.
“The Christmas Guest said it,' answered Theresa, lowering her voice still more; but that was fourteen years ago, and everything was different then. The miller's wife was living, and a great friend of our mother's. She invited us to dinner that Christmas, but our father declined. He said that he did not care to be separated from his children at Christmas of all seasons of the year, and though we were every one of us asked, he declared that still less could he think of letting us go to the miller's to get into everyone's way, for he knew that the prattle and merriment which seemed so pleasant to him, could not be anything but tiresome to others, so we ate our pudding at home out of silver spoons.'
'Silver spoons?' repeated Francis; “I never saw them.'
‘No, they were sold when little Victoire was born, to pay the doctor and nurse; but not until the mother had parted with her gold watch, which did not fetch much after all, they said it was old-fashioned. That was why we liked it; it had belonged to our grandmother, and ticked to us all in turn when we were babies. Sometimes I think that with all these fine things we must have been quite rich fourteen years ago, but our father says it was not so, we were only very comfortable.'
Was that the last happy Christmas ?' asked Francis. ‘No; oh, no; I think every Christmas has been happy, Francis, that has found us all together in the enjoyment of unbroken health, for every Christmas has brought us anew the assurance that One Who bore greater privation and suffering than can ever be crowded into our lot, was born into the world for us, more than eighteen hundred years ago. But I suppose that was the happiest Christmas.'
“The only Christmas that we ever had a guest,' repeated Francis, musingly. “It seems strange that we could have ventured to ask one within our doors. I fancy how the miller's Will would stare if I were to say, “Come and dine with us on such a day.” He would ask me if I took him for a boar, that I could offer a dish of barbecued acorns, for they persist in saying that is all we can have to live on here in the forest.'
A red flush mounted to Theresa's cheek; even from the lips of her
little brother, the jest sounded insolent and cruel. "The stranger was very gentle and courteous ; I think he would have dined off cold water, and said nothing about it, if that was all we had had to set before him. But as I told you we were richer then, and Aunt Theresa's hamper had arrived full of good things. The table was spread with fine damask, and the china we never use except on Christmas Day. I suppose that will have to go next, it is very good, and every separate piece bears at the back the two blue swords crossed, which the miller's wife used to say was an infallible sign of Dresden china. My mother wore her purple silk, and we five were all decked out in clean starched white frocks, with red sashes and red shoes, and red ribbons in our hair. We sat on our high chairs around the table, and ate our sausages without picking out the fat, and the Christmas Guest said that it was a pretty sight to see us all, and that it had been a great pleasure to him to be admitted to a seat by our fire-side.'
• Would not Madam Bertha at the mill stare now at the idea of such a speech ever having been made to us ?' said Francis, in a tone of satisfaction.
But Theresa shook her head reprovingly, and glided away to her own chamber.
On the return of the family from church the next day, the pastor's wife laid the table with her accustomed care, garnishing the cheese with holly, since there was no turkey to be decked, and sticking a sprig with scarlet berries into the loaf of bread. Also the whole family were dressed in their best ; and the maidens had put on their two or three ornaments, and bad hung the picture-frames and the mirror with devices and mottoes in holly. Over the door Theresa had fastened two little anchors in evergreen leaves, saying as she did so, 'I am afraid we want Hope very much.'
*It is of no use to set the cup and plate for the Christmas Guest,' said the good wife despondingly. “It is fourteen years now since he was here, and most likely he is dead, or has forgotten us; besides, for my part, I hope he will not come to day, since there is nothing for him but bread and cheese.'
Theresa stole her soft eyes to her mother's face to see if she were in earnest, then hid them again under their long lashes.
The pastor spoke. Nay, Angela, my dear wife, poverty must not make us inhospitable. Though there are fifteen of us, I think we can still find room for a sixteenth, if the good God should be pleased to send him to us.
Set the cup and plate as usual, and let little Angela go once more to the window to see if there are any foot-prints on the snow.'
Father, there is a stranger standing at the door. He looks cold, Father, and sad; and I think-yes, I feel certain I saw him in church this morning.'
“Then run to the door, Angela, and let him in. It must be somebody very poor to have found his way alone to the forest, when there is so
much good cheer to be had for the paying for it at the village yonder. Perhaps he followed us here to ask for food and shelter; and he shall have them in the name of Christ, whose Birth-day Feast we are keeping.'
Angela had by this time introduced the stranger into the room.
Theresa was silent. She stood shading her face with her hand, and colouring with pleasure.
He was changed. His eyes had sunk deeper in his head, those kindly eyes they remembered so well; and youth had faded, perhaps some of youth's high hopes too. Yet if he had need of hope, wherefore had he sought the forest on that bitter winter's day ? Could it be possible that he looked to the pastor's family to supply it?
My kind friends,' he said, lighting up with some of his old sunny warmth, as he extended his hand, you see I have not forgotten your welcome of me fourteen years ago. I am come once more to claim your hospitality, and share your Christmas cheer.'
•Our Christmas cheer!' echoed the good wife. But you are welcome, Sir. You would have been welcome any Christmas Day for these fourteen years. You see there has always been a place kept for you at our table.'
And in our hearts,' murmured Theresa to herself.
'Kind and generous friends, I know not how to thank you. And the stranger threw off his heavy cloak, and sat down by the fire-side; while the little children ran to him at once, as if he had been a dear companion. “May I hope that during the fourteen years I have been wandering by sea and land the world has prospered with you? Do I not read my answer in the faces of this fair assemblage of sons and daughters ? You had only five when I was last here, and now I count thirteen.'
'In the matter of my children I am indeed fortunate, Sir, said the pastor, smiling a somewhat amused smile, at the evident perplexity of his wife, who was casting alternate looks on the noble looking stranger and the scanty fare, which was yet so tastefully and daintily disposed on the table, that the guest had still to make the discovery of their poverty.
At length the good wife made up her mind, and approached the stranger. "Sir,' she said, we have expected you for fourteen years, and during all that time there has never been a Christmas that we have not had something that was fit for you to eat. Last night, however, the hamper my good sister Theresa sent us was rifled on its way, and it was then too late to go to the village to get food. What we have we gladly offer, but we are afraid that it is not fit for such as you; and I could almost find it in my heart to ask you, if you set any value on a good dinner, (and who would not on such a day as this ?) to seek the miller's house yonder.
Francis would show you the way. And he is rich and hospitable.
The stranger took her hand in his, and fixed his gente eyes on her care-worn anxious face. You will not deny me a welcome to the forest, will you ?' he asked. *I have dreamed of this meeting for so long.'
Then Theresa sprang up joyfully, for never in her life before had she known her father's house preferred to the miller's ; and she looked at the anchors over the door, and wondered if Hope were coming to the forest after all.
The stranger's eyes, which had followed every movement of hers, met her glance; and when he saw the anchors, he smiled a contented smile, as if the sign had something familiar in it; and he was pleased to see that she cherished it.
He was then invited to seat himself, while the poor repast was shared with him, the thirteen children waiting upon the father and mother and the guest, because there was so very little, that they dared not attempt to partake of it; only the stranger, who seemed to have an intuitive knowledge of all that was going on, kept the hungry Francis by his side, supplying him with many morsels from his own plate.
In the evening, they all crowded around the blazing peat fire; and the Christmas Guest became merry for the children's sakes, and told stories, and played games, until it was time for them to go to bed, when strange to say, though supperless, they were all very happy, and did not once remember their hunger ; they were so eager to repeat to each other all the kind things the stranger had said to them, and in particular how he remembered Theresa, a little tiny thing, in a white frock with red ribbons, and how he had thought of her so these fourteen years, and had never expected to see a staid grave maiden, with braided hair, and a long dark dress.
* And now tell me why your people have given you so little to bring up these fair children upon,' said the Christmas Guest, turning to the pastor, as he sat by the fire buried in deep thought.
'I suppose I am paid according to my deserts,' he answered gently.
* But the lord of the Castle might do something for you, surely,' said the stranger, with some indignation in his tone.
"He is old and incapable. Men say he is dying.' *Then you will have the heir to look to.'
He is a distant relation, sojourning much in foreign lands. We never saw him, and shall feel as if we had no claim
him.' The stranger mused, and while he mused he put his hand upon Theresa's. The pearl ring was there, and he felt it, and started back. • Betrothed ! he whispered huskily, but more to himself than to Theresa.
Nay, already wedded, but to a single life,' she answered, with a calm smile.
"For whose sake?'
“Theresa, I am going on a dangerous enterprise. Distant wars call
Will you pray for me when I ain gone ?' 'I have prayed for you for fourteen years,' she said softly. 'And the good Christ has heard my prayers, and brought you safe to our home at last.'
‘Then the stranger turned to the pastor, and said, 'If I live, I will come again to you on this day next year.'
The pastor sighed. And his wife said, 'Ah, where shall we all be next year ?'
But Theresa glided off to help put the children to bed, rejoicing in her heart that not Bertha, the rich miller's daughter, but she, the poor maiden of the forest, had been asked for her prayers; and that while the people of the village passed her by, and cared not to enter her father's doors, the stranger, with the deep-set eyes and the gentle voice, had preferred sharing in the pastor's poor repast, to joining in all the rude cheer, and partaking of the abundance of the miller's table. He had even promised to come again.
The guest departed at day-break, leaving his purse behind; but although it was heavy with gold, and contained also jewels of value, it was not of any use to the pastor's family, who only put it by in a safe place, till he should come for it next year.
Still they did not prosper; and the winter rolled heavily by to all, except Theresa, who was conscious of a fresh spring of hope in her heart. Francis never obtained his situation ; and he grew so fast, and ate so little to support his strength, that the expression of his face was quite pitiful to see. Bertha, the miller's daughter, was married in the spring to one of the chief tenants on the estate, whose lord now lay dying. Then summer came, but it did not last long. In the autumn the old lord died. Bertha was much at the Castle, for she was considered a good nurse ; but the servants there complained dreadfully of her airs, and were very glad when her occupation ceased, and she and her silk dresses took themselves home again. The heir was expected to arrive in the winter; and December had now come.
On Christmas Eve two hampers came to the parsonage door; the one as usual was addressed in the Aunt Theresa's handwriting, and was found to contain double the customary amount of good things, to make up for the disappointment of last year.
The other, I suppose no one ever saw such a hamper before, nor ever will again.
Everything in it was multiplied by three. There were three turkeys, all ready stuffed ; three strings of sausages of no mean size ; three spiced cakes ; three dozen mince pies; everything, in short, that heart could wish for, including wine and chocolate, besides a beautiful gift for every member of the family, labelled with their names. The mother's was an India shawl of surpassing richness; and Theresa's a diamond hoop ring, with her name engraved inside between two anchors. Francis received a Christmas pie all to himself. It was of colossal size, enriched on the