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cover with the claws of birds, which served as a landmark to point the way to the rich and delicate fare lying beneath. At the bottom of the hamper they found a slip of paper containing these words: 'An offering of gratitude and affection from the Christmas Guest. They were traced in a weak unsteady hand, as if the writer were ill and suffering. Would he not then come to them on the morrow? Theresa wept in the midst of her joy, to think that he who had remembered them so affectionately should be lying upon a sick-bed, perhaps far away.
All the village was astir, because the new lord of the Castle, and his brother, had just arrived ; and great was the curiosity among the simple congregation at church, when, on Christmas Day, a stranger made his appearance in the crimson lined seat which belonged to the Castle. But the pastor and his family heeded none of the gossip, walking sadly homewards, because the Christmas Guest had not found his way there, and they believed that he must be too ill to come to them.
Nevertheless, the force of habit was too strong for the good wife ; and she laid the extra cup and plate—the only little remnant they had managed to save out of the whole beautiful set of china, which had been sold to Bertha's rich husband months ago-although she did not believe it would be used that day.
Just, however, as they were all preparing to sit down to the table, whose plain delf services were literally brimming over with the turkeys and sausages set upon them, little Angela looked out of window, to count the foot-prints on the snow once more. • One, two, three, four, five, six,' she went on counting, until she came to fifteen. There she paused, hesitated, began again. There are sixteen, Father,' said she; and beholding the occupant of the Castle seat standing on the doorstep, she sprang to her father's side with the news.
Run, Angela, and open the door,' said the pastor; 'we might well admit a dozen wayfarers, and yet have enough to spare.'
The stranger entered, but he refused with a courteous inclination the repeated invitations of the pastor and his wife to occupy the vacant seat. 'I am come,' he said very gravely, from my brother, the lord of the Castle, who has been severely wounded in foreign wars, and was brought home with great difficulty and danger, it being his own earnest desire and longing to die within reach of those who, he says, have been kinder to him than anyone has ever been in his life before; or if it may be the will of God, continued the stranger, as he looked towards Theresa, and noted the death-like pallor which had succeeded the flush of joyful surprise on her face, “it would please him much to recover under their care. He has sent me now to ask if you will come to him.'
The pastor's wife drew back a little proudly, saying, 'If the Christmas Guest had come to our doors never so sick or so poor, we would have taken him in, and ministered to his every want with the
best of our substance; but it is not for the like of us to be about the lord of the Castle. Let him send for the miller's Bertha at the lodge; she is reckoned a good nurse.'
Tell me, Sir,' interrupted the pastor eagerly, 'did my lord say nothing of a purse of gold, with emeralds, that he left behind him last Christmas Day ?'
' He spake naught of gold or jewels, Sir,' replied the stranger; 'but much of the kindness and hospitality you had exercised towards him; much also of a maiden, named Theresa, whose prayers he believes to have protected him in the battle. May I not see her, and thank her for her charity ?' He fixed his eyes on Theresa, as if to ask if it were indeed she of whom his brother spoke; and the maiden was led forward, weeping for mingled joy and sorrow. Then he took her hand courteously, saying, 'Dear Sister, for so I hope I may one day call you, do not you agree with your mother in what she has just said, for in truth the miller's Bertha would not do in this case, since the grave physicians say that it is not the most skilful of hired attendants (and of these my brother has had no lack) that can now avail, their every resource having been already tried, and with small fruit; but if one for dear love's sake should undertake the cure, we may have hope.' Do
you hear that, Mother? the Christmas Guest has sent to me to bring him hope. You will not keep me from him ?' pleaded Theresa, trembling
Then the mother sent her for her hood and mantle; and they all four set off for the Castle together.
The lord of the Castle was lying on crimson cushions, and surrounded by anxious attendants. They who have so long braved the winds and waters, may surely earn for themselves a little loving care in their time of need. He was changed, but his eyes had grown more large and tender than ever; and when he drew Theresa down beside him, and wept over and kissed her, she felt that the long years of slighted poverty were more than made up to her. But in stretching out his hand for hers, he encountered something hard.
“What is it, love ?' he whispered, unable to tear his eyes from her face to look.
*Your purse of gold, my Lord,' she answered gently; and as she gave it into his keeping, heavy as when he had left it in the forest, strange to say, fresh tears fell from his eyes.
O Theresa, you might have known that all I had was yours !
Then a learned and grave physician approached, saying, 'I leave the sick warrior in your hands, Madam ; and so great is the prize you will win, that I cannot doubt of your good will in the task. Recover the lord of the Castle from his dangerous wound, and you will then indeed deserve to be his wife.'
But at that sentence Theresa hid her face. “Ah Theresa! gentle one! you will be my wife, will you not ?' he VOL. 6.
asked softly. Last Christmas Day, you thought nothing of denying yourself to minister to my necessities ; and am I asking such a much greater sacrifice in praying you to become the wife of the Christmas Guest ?'
After the departure of the father and mother and Theresa, a blank fell on the twelve children, who, but imperfectly comprehending what had passed, were gathered round the table, in considerable doubt whether to begin their Christmas dinner, or to await the return of the heads of the family. Hungry as they were, it was some time before the question could be solved. In the absence of the steady Theresa, not one of the sisters was considered of sufficient authority to sanction so glaring a defiance of existing rules ; and not until a full hour had passed in fruitless longing, did Angela, little now no longer, although her father still called her so, and the eldest of the twelve, dare to end the suspense by plunging a knife in the breast of a turkey, excusing herself by saying, as she filled the plates of the tearful but perfectly patient children, “The little ones will be hungry, and our father and mother would not, I am sure, that any should suffer on this day of all the year.'
Then Francis took courage, and making an incision in his pie, he shared it among his brothers and sisters with no sparing hand.
It was a long, and, in spite of the good cheer, a listless afternoon. Every moment they expected the return of the father and mother and Theresa, and we all know how wearisome it is to indulge in anticipations which are perpetually being disappointed. At last Francis sighed despondingly, “I wish the charcoal-burner's mother were still alive.'
Why?' asked the grave Angela, who had gathered the three youngest around her knee, and was telling them, for the hundredth time, the story of the Holy Night-of the gentle tender Mother, shut out from human sympathy, and denied fitting shelter, yet rejoiced over by angels and visited by wise men from the East, while she held in her arms the wondrous Babe, born to bear the burden of the whole world on His shoulders.
'Because we could have taken her the broken meat, and that would have been something for us to do.'
Angela said reprovingly, 'Nay, Francis, we must not wish her back, but rather rejoice that she is now beyond all human wants; and is there not a psalm, or a hymn, that our mother would like us to learn against the time when she comes back?'
So Angela set them all to learn the nineteenth Psalm, and this kept them well employed until the evening. Then indeed the children began to get anxious, lest, in attempting to return to them, the wayfarers might have missed their footing in the snow-wreaths. Let us seek them,' said Francis; 'or, indeed they are still at the Castle, as it cannot be by their own free will that they are staying away so long from us, we will go there and demand them of the cruel lord.'
“Oh, hush !' said the elder sister ; 'we are poor people, and may be quite sure that he can mean us no harm. Still, as the snow is heavy, and the night dark and cloudy, it might be well that we should go to seek them.'
Angela then saw that the three youngest were laid in their warm beds. 'You are not afraid to stay here alone, till we bring back the Father and Mother, are you?' she asked.
'No, Sister, for who would touch us when the angels of the Holy Night are about our pillows ? ' was the confident reply.
Angela kissed them, and then drawing her mantle around her, she left the house with her seven sisters and Francis. They talked cheerfully all the way, partly to hide their fears from each other, and partly in the hope of attracting the attention of their father and mother, in case they happened to be passing near them. The village was very silent, the street deserted, for each happy family had gathered around its own hearth-fire. One or two pale stars were struggling through the clouds overhead.
They were now at the foot of the castle rock. O Angela, are we really going up there?' asked Francis, awe-stricken at this near approach to the magnificent abode, of whose wonders he had often heard, but which he had never expected to see.
Why not?' said Angela, her voice slightly trembling, however. ‘Remember, we seek the father and mother and Theresa.'
One or two old servitors were looking out into the night, preparatory to joining the steward in a cup of spiced ale within, when they suddenly became aware of a procession of nine persons slowly winding up the steep approach. Supposing that they had come to seek alms, and knowing well that, on such a night, the lord of the Castle would not permit any number of suppliants to be turned away, one ancient servingman waited until they came near; but, to his surprise, it was not for food or money that the faltering request was urged.
'Sir, can you tell us if the Pastor and his wife are still here?' asked Angela meekly. We are their children, and have come to seek them.'
* They are with the lord of the Castle, and I know not whether they may be disturbed,' said the old man, doubtfully; ' nevertheless since you are their children I must bid you welcome.' He drew back for them to enter.
'Sir, indeed we are very anxious,' pleaded Angela ; 'you will make it known to them that we are here, will you not ?'
He led them into the hall, where a group of bright-faced maidens were chatting gaily. As soon as they saw the strangers they curtseyed, and sank into silence.
Here, Priscilla, do you lead the way to the Lady's apartments; and you, Gretchen-' the last he detained to receive his orders. Priscilla moved on with a light bounding step, up a broad and richly carpeted staircase, through a splendid gallery, and so on through chambers hung with tapestry and silk. Every now and then she paused, as if to give the guests an opportunity of examining and admiring the many beautiful pictures, the costly china, and rich foreign ornaments. To each question they asked, the girl invariably answered with a smile, that all they saw belonged to the Lady of the Castle; and, assuring them that these apartments, beautiful as they were, could not at all compare, in their adornments, with the innermost chamber, she led them on to a room which was hung with blue silk embroidered with golden palm-trees, where the couches were of velvet, and the chairs of satin. An alcove, curtained over with the purest white, held the bed, on which a mantle of rich sables had been flung by way of coverlid. This room was carpeted with furs, a bright fire blazed on the hearth, it seemed impossible that cold or darkness should ever penetrate there.
“Whose are these ?' asked the little fair-haired Gertrude, encouraged by Priscilla's ready answers to point out the sparkling jewels on the table, and the Cashmire shawls and rich silken dresses that were lying on the couches.
“These also belong to the lady of the Castle.'
Angela and her sisters exchanged glances; they had not known there was a lady of the Castle. 'Where is she? may we not see her?' asked Angela; and then, blushing at her own haste, she added humbly, “We do not mean to intrude-only we want our father and mother and Theresa.'
Again the maiden smiled. “The lady of the Castle is with her lord; but Gretchen will come presently, and then we will see if an interview with her cannot be arranged, since you are really so anxious.'
“We have left the little ones at home,' explained Angela, that makes us impatient to return; and besides, we were never out so late before.'
Gretchen now appeared, and bade them follow her. "The Pastor and his wife desire that I should explain to you,' she said. “They had not forgotten you, and were even now thinking of returning; they are, however, well pleased that you have come to them.'
‘And our sister, Theresa ?' urged Gertrude, struck by a chill foreboding.
'I know nothing of Mistress Theresa now, but the lady of the Castle will be able to inform you concerning her.'
They were moving farther and farther away from the luxurious apartments with their blue and rosy hangings, and they now traversed a stone-flagged faintly lighted court, whence a flight of steps led through a dusky corridor to the simply furnished chamber, which had been hastily supplied with the comforts requisite to the condition of the sick man.
He was lying exhausted upon the low bed, whose curtains were drawn back, and showed his head resting heavily on the slight shoulder of a lady by his side, a slender drooping figure whose plain dark dress clung in soft folds about her. Could this be the lady of the Castle ?