Bride of the Mistletoe
James Lane Allen
Part 1 out of 2
Produced by Kevin Handy, Dave Maddock, and Distributed Proofreaders
THE BRIDE OF THE MISTLETOE
JAMES LANE ALLEN
AUTHOR OF "FLUTE AND VIOLIN," "A KENTUCKY CARDINAL," "AFTERMATH," ETC.
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 households.
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 joy.
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
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 and held.
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
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
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 whiter-sunset skies.
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 him.
"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
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 better not!"
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 chips.
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 autumn
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
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 eternal.
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
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 boy's.
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
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
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 the world:
"_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 distant
"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 this
"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 judge."
"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 the
"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 him!"
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 the fir.
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
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 the candles.
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 sunset.
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 seemed
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 me poorer."
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
"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 woods.
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 close around.
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
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
"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
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
"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
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 of Christianity.
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
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