Danish Fairy and Folk Tales/What the Christmas Star Sees

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WHAT THE CHRISTMAS STAR SEES


I

UNDER THE ANGEL'S WINGS

IN the dim twilight a young mother sits by the window. Her little son, her only one, is on her lap. It is so charming to sit quietly in a corner near the window, while darkness gently settles about you, and watch the stars rise from the deep shadows in the sky, glittering forth, one by one.

She clasps her arms fondly around her little boy, and says, softly: "Look, how all the small stars smile and twinkle at us. They have something to tell."

"What is it, mama?" asks her little boy. His mother continues:

"'We are but very small spots,' say the stars to you and to me, 'of all the splendor within the sky. But soon Christmas comes with the child Jesus, and to him it all belongs. He sends an angel through the darkness, with gifts for all his children below. The angel keeps them under his wings. He will give you all that you wish for, that you may know how well Jesus loves you.'"

"Does he love you, too, mama?" asks the little boy. She nods.

"And papa?"

"Yes." she says, drawing a long breath, "he loves him so well that neither papa nor I really know how well."

"That was my testimonial!" exclaims a merry voice behind them—papa's voice. They had not seen him enter the room. "Well, what do you wish, little one? Wish, wish, while it is time!"

The little boy meditates and seems irresolute. On a sudden he looks smilingly into their faces, and says: "First, I must find my place under the angel's wings."

"He knows how to wish for plenty, the little fellow!" exclaims his father. "He wants all at once."

"Look!" ejaculates the boy, pointing to the sky. A light is kindled there. Slowly, in a wide, gleaming circle, it shoots across the firmament, and disappears within it.

"A shooting-star! Your wish will be fulfilled, my own boy," says his mother, clasping the child more tightly in her arms, while he claps his hands delightedly.

"Have it; have it all!" merrily resumes his father. "But you must be sure and return home. Do not let the angel fly away with you! I would not lose you for all the wealth of heaven, my little boy."

"Oh, do not say it in such a manner," exclaims his wife, pressing her hand against her heart in sudden alarm; "you make me so afraid."

"My pious little wife!" answers he; "how can these foolish shooting-stars frighten you? Now I leave you for my work, and in the mean time you may cherish your hopes about divine things. A mother does this all the better when she is alone."

With moistened eyes she turns towards him, whispering: "I wish both of us could do it."

"I am more easily contented than both of you," he returns, smiling upon her; "I shall not ask for heaven, but am contented with the earth, where I have you and the boy."

Kissing his two dear ones, he leaves them. A young man, with all the joy in life yet before him, he is so wise and self-reliant, so strong and good, too.

But mother sits alone with her little son. One shooting-star falls after another, and for every one of them she takes him more firmly in her arms.


Another evening: Christmas night.

The young mother again sits alone with her little boy, her only one, on her lap. It is sad to sit with such a treasure in your arms, while the darkness settles about you it is sad to watch the glowing cheeks and the eyes which sparkle, not from a yearning or glee, but because the violent coughing takes his breath away and shakes the little body. Mother folds her quivering hands around the glowing forehead. Father is sitting immovable, watching his child.

Healthy and fresh, with rosy cheeks, did he fall asleep the previous evening; hot and feverish did he awake in the morning. The Christmas joy vanished, giving room for the shadows of anxiety which fell upon the home. The physician came and went during the day; now he is expected back.

Suddenly the coughing stops, a gleam of relief spreading upon the child's countenance. He recovers his breath and turns to his mother, whispering:

"Mama! Will I find my place under the angel's wings to-night?" This was his thought and longing for many days and weeks. But mother can only nod; she dares not venture to answer the question.

"Mama, kiss me! Papa, come here!"

His mother bends over him, and his father kisses the little face. There is a happy smile, a faint struggle, and a deep silence at last.

In the room, where stood a Christmas-tree which will not be lighted, sits the young mother, alone. The door is opened, and her husband walks softly in. Bending over her, he looks into her tearless eyes.

"The shooting-star," he says, at length, "spoke the truth. Your boy and mine is now under the angel's wings. We both believe it, you and I."

She feels that she is alone no more.

A feeble ray from the Christmas star reaches the sorrow as well as the joy. Its blessed light comes from the little figure under the angel's wings.


II

A CHRISTMAS GIFT

We are in the large city. The clocks show that it is late in the afternoon. The streets are crowded with people who all know that the following night is Christmas Eve, and are anxious not to be late on any account.

Straight through the crowds a little boy and girl, brother and sister, are rushing along, closely followed by a big dog and a small puppy. The latter is really rolling along rather than trudging with the rest of the company. When there seems to be danger ahead, the big dog snatches her offspring from the ground, carrying the little ball-like creature in her mouth, until the number of rapidly moving feet diminishes, and the passage becomes less dangerous. This little company of four is as busy as if some one's life depended upon its movements, and such is, indeed, the case.

The big dog's name is Ada, and she is doomed to be hanged. The puppy has no name; but he will be drowned.

Ada had developed of late two rather disagreeable habits. One of these is that she is always abundantly well supplied with puppies. Although she does not mean to give any one trouble with her large family, the latter surely gives her considerable cause for worry. Mama says that the puppies are dirty little fellows, and papa declares that there is no end of bother on their account. At length he becomes impatient, and in his extreme annoyance declares that in the afternoon Ada must be hanged, and the puppy drowned. No pleading or coaxing helped this time, as had been the case before; papa would not listen; he was too seriously annoyed.

What a great sorrow had descended upon the children to darken the bright Christmas Day! For over an hour they were crying over the poor puppy and his dear mother, upon whose soft pelt their little heads had often rested. But, suddenly, John is struck by an idea. Lifting his head from the soft pillow he dries his eyes, and says: "I know, sister, what we must do. We will make somebody a Christmas present of Ada and the dear puppy. I never heard that anybody was allowed to hang or drown their Christmas gifts."

Emma assented at once, whereupon all four started on their expedition. They determined to go first to Aunt Lizzie, who was so tender and good.

"Here we are, Aunt Lizzie!" they cried, when at length they were confronted by this lady; "here is Ada and the puppy. We are going to make you a Christmas present of them, Aunt Lizzie!"

"God forbid!" exclaimed Aunt Lizzie, "I will never keep them in my house. What are you thinking of?"

"Oh, do take them, auntie!" prayed Emma. "If nobody will have them, they must be killed."

"Tut, tut, children," said the dear old lady, by way of comforting. "They are only a couple of animals, after all."

"Animals?" ejaculated Emma. "It's Ada and her pup, Aunt Lizzie, please remember."

Upon this the four comrades went away in a rather disconsolate state of mind. After all, Aunt Lizzie was not as nice as they had thought her. Now she should not get the two sweet animals, even if she went down on her knees and prayed for them.

They went from one house to another. At every place they presented their Christmas gift, but without success. It was continually declined, and the situation grew more and more painful.

Now they were, as above described, rushing onward in high speed.

Suddenly Emma stopped, flushed and breathless. "I cannot walk farther," declared she; "I am getting too tired. But let us go and make Uncle Peter a Christmas present of Ada and the pup!"

"No, I am afraid of that," answered John; "Uncle Peter is so queer, says mama; he can't bear to see any one around."

"Yes, but mama says that he has humane feelings, anyway. I don't know what that is. I heard mama say that he had once had great sorrows. Now, I don't know what that is, either; but some days ago I gave him the first stocking I had made for my big doll, and he smiled at it, and kissed me. Let us go and bring him our Christmas presents! I wonder what mama means by great sorrows, but it must be something dreadful." Emma turned around and led the procession, until all were standing in a row before Uncle Peter's rocking-chair.

"Here, Uncle Peter," say the children—"here we bring you Ada and her pup; they are a Christmas gift for you."

"How is that?" asks Uncle Peter, in wonder. But Emma's arms are already around his neck, and she sobs into his ear: "Ada and her pup were to be killed, and that would be so—so dreadful to us, such a great sorrow, Uncle Peter. You know what that means, for you have had some yourself, haven't you!"

What is the matter with Uncle Peter? He starts, suddenly pushing Emma away from him, presses both hands against his forehead, but suddenly jumps from his chair and walks up to Ada, addressing her in his deep, strong voice: "Do you wish to stay by such an old fellow as I, old lady?"

Ada proceeds to make an appropriate remark in her own tongue. Uncle Peter seems to understand her answer; he turns to the children, exclaiming: "I never heard the like! Ada says she intends to keep Christmas here for her pup, and we are invited, all three!"

How could Ada think of such a thing! Well, there is no moment to be lost; it is already late in the afternoon. A number of hurried visits are made to many different stores, and at length the preparations are finished.

A beautiful Christmas-tree is lighted in Uncle Peter's study. His furniture locks quite amazed at the strange spectacle.

But the door is opened, admitting the surprised faces of mama and papa. Uncle Peter nods and beams upon them with his large, benevolent face.

"Children, children!" exclaims mama. "Why did you run away in such a manner? Papa and I were very uneasy about you."

"We could not come home yet, mama," objects John. "Ada keeps Christmas for her puppy, and we are all invited, you know!"

A ray from the Christmas star kisses his eager, upturned face, and his mother follows its example.


III

NUMBER 101

"Follow me," whispers the twinkling star, "to narrow dwellings, where hearts grow faint and weary; to dreary places, where the name which a mother gave her child is changed into a number."

There is a large and quiet-looking building, lonely, situated in the outskirts of the city, with high and firm walls, the monotony of which is broken by no ornament except the regular lines of small, curious windows. These look, in fact, rather like the small, deep-set eyes of an old, irascible bachelor than spaces through which the sunlight, which God gave to mankind before anything else was created, can penetrate the darkness within and conjure away the shadows.

Twilight settles upon the large building, and one window after another is lighted. They look like long rows of tired, sleepy eyes, as they shine forth, in a thoughtless, passive manner, through the misty evening air. Do they tell us of the many deadened hopes and stifled aspirations of those who dwell under the roof of this building?

They do. Behind every one of them a spoiled life is slowly dragged along under the benumbing influence of the sombre place, under a code of rules and regulations as rigidly enforced as observed, under a system which induces forgetfulness on one important point above all—namely, that man's acts are not always man's nature.

Prisoner Number 101—name forgotten—is proud of having behaved well. Soon his time will be out, so he will again become an honest member of society. The crime was bought by the sacrifice of so-and-so many years of freedom, bought and honestly paid for. An honest deal, and nothing else, says Number 101.

I see him behind the little window at the right end of the second row, as he sits on a narrow bench, leaning forward, with his elbows upon his knees and with folded hands, glancing through the iron bars into the darkness outside, towards one little twinkling star high above the black earth and its codes of rules and regulations.

Number 101 is thinking, although there is—officially—no personality behind the thoughts. "Halloo!" cry the thoughts, undaunted by the heavy doors and iron bars; but the well-known places and figures do not return the greeting as confidentially as of old. There is one sweet, girlish face at the remembrance of which the prisoner's heart waxes warm, although it is not known—officially—that Number 101 possesses a heart; but it turns away from him like all the other acquaintances, whereat he clinches both hands against the small speck of the dark sky visible through the little window in the wall.

"That is not the right way to treat a prisoner who served his time," say the thoughts. "Beware! Any one who scoffs at me, exonerated as I am now, will be duly punished, like all other offenders. There is justice even for an offender when he has paid his debts to justice."

The thoughts pursue their course from one place to another, and Number 101 holds his head high, for he has paid his debts.

But in the centre of the whirling mass of thoughts there is one dark point which seems to frighten the thinker, like a vacuum horrifies nature. It seems possessed of a singular influence, both attractive and repulsive. The thoughts are afraid of this dark point, and yet they must approach it. Prisoner Number 101 buries his head in his two strong hands, but "visions come again" of things departed.


A woman in a ragged dress is standing on the market-place. She has sold her last lamb; baby's lambkin must change owner, that money might be procured. Even baby cannot live on her love for her sweet lambkin; even sweet baby healthy and fresh in her rags needs a crumb of bread now and then.

The poor woman sells her lamb, and her five thin fingers are eagerly seizing an equally thin roll of paper money. Tears rise in her eyes, as they came into a pair of blossom-blue ones at home when lambkin departed.

There is a rush of feet. Five strong fingers grasp the tiny roll of money with which lambkin was bought, and Prisoner Number 101 darts away into the crowd.

"Stop thief!"

Number 101—name already forgotten—stands before the bar and tells frankly of his guilt.

"How could you do it?" asked the judge, looking from his strong, well-built figure to the poor woman in her ragged dress.

The strong man bends his head before the stern gaze of the man of law. He wishes to fall on his knees and pray forgiveness; but to produce a scene in the court-room where inquisitive eyes are watching from every corner, trying to catch every bit of sensational news—that would never do. So the guilty man hides his feelings, and no sensation occurs, and as there are no extenuating circumstances, he must pay his debt in full.


Number 101 lifts his head and waves his hand at the dark thoughts, repeating: "I have paid it all."

"You have not," say the thoughts.

"I have," firmly asserts the prisoner.

"You could not," repeat the thoughts. "Do you not know that you could pay none of your debts, even by sacrificing your whole life?"

"When I leave this room a free man, I am exonerated, and no one will dare say a word about the debt," continues the lonely man.

But the thoughts are persistent, and resume: "People will scowl at you, and close their doors on you; nay, even be afraid to touch you. No man or woman can ever blot out the brand for theft which you carry."

"They dare not do it. There is justice in the land, and I am exonerated. No one shall scowl at me."

Steps sound and resound in the spacious halls outside; at length a rap at the door starts Number 101 from his revery. At nine o'clock the light is made out; it is time to go to bed, and the prisoner knows it.

At nine sharp Number 101 is in bed, like all other prisoners. The light goes out, and darkness rolls its mask down over the lonely man. But thoughts will roam about, so far and wide, until one little figure after another finds its way in under the mask, and carry the sleeper's spirit away into dreamland.

No man or woman can ever blot out—

The little twinkling star lifts the dark veil, and sheds its silver rays upon the figure in the narrow bed, in the narrow room, behind the high walls.

Prisoner Number 101 has gone to sleep with a smile upon his face, dreaming that he has returned to baby, for whom he brings a new lambkin with beautiful, white wool, and a golden collar.