A Christmas story by Susan Coolidge
The winter's sun was nearing the horizon's edge. Each moment the tree shadows grew longer in the forest; each moment the crimson light on the upper boughs became more red and bright. It was Christmas Eve, or would be in half an hour, when the sun should be fairly set; but it did not feel like Christmas, for the afternoon was mild and sweet, and the wind in the leafless boughs sang, as it moved about, as though to imitate the vanished birds. Soft trills and whistles, odd little shakes and twitters--it was astonishing what pretty noises the wind made, for it was in good humor, as winds should be on the Blessed Night; all its storm-tones and bass-notes were for the moment laid aside, and gently as though hushing a baby to sleep, it cooed and rustled and brushed to and fro in the leafless woods.
Toinette stood, pitcher in hand, beside the well. "Wishing Well," the people called it, for they believed that if any one standing there bowed to the East, repeated a certain rhyme and wished a wish, the wish would certainly come true. Unluckily, nobody knew exactly what the rhyme should be. Toinette did not; she was wishing that she did, as she stood with her eyes fixed on the bubbling water. How nice it would be! she thought. What beautiful things should be hers, if it were only to wish and to have. She would be beautiful, rich, good--oh, so good. The children should love her dearly, and never be disagreeable. Mother should not work so hard--they should all go back to France--which mother said was si belle. Oh, dear, how nice it would be. Meantime, the sun sank lower, and mother at home was waiting for the water, but Toinette forgot that.
Suddenly she started. A low sound of crying met her ear, and something like a tiny moan. It seemed close by but she saw nothing.
Hastily she filled her pitcher and turned to go. But again the sound came, an unmistakable sob, right under her feet. Toinette stopped short.
"What is the matter?" she called out bravely. "Is anybody there? and if there is, why don't I see you?"
A third sob--and all at once, down on the ground beside her, a tiny figure became visible, so small that Toinette had to kneel and stoop her head to see it plainly. The figure was that of an odd little man. He wore a garb of green bright and glancing as the scales of a beetle. In his mite of a hand was a cap, out of which stuck a long pointed feather. Two specks of tears stood on his cheeks and he fixed on Toinette a glance so sharp and so sad that it made her feel sorry and frightened and confused all at once.
"Why how funny this is!" she said, speaking to herself out loud.
"Not at all," replied the little man, in a voice as dry and crisp as the chirr of a grasshopper. "Anything but funny. I wish you wouldn't use such words. It hurts my feelings, Toinette."
"Do you know my name, then?" cried Toinette, astonished. "That's strange. But what is the matter? Why are you crying so, little man?"
"I'm not a little man. I'm an elf," responded the dry voice; "and I think you'd cry if you had an engagement out to tea, and found yourself spiked on a great bayonet, so that you couldn't move an inch. Look!" He turned a little as he spoke and Toinette saw a long rose-thorn sticking through the back of the green robe. The little man could by no means reach the thorn, and it held him fast prisoner to the place.
"Is that all? I'll take it out for you," she said.
"Be careful--oh, be careful," entreated the little man. "This is my new dress, you know--my Christmas suit, and it's got to last a year. If there is a hole in it, Peascod will tickle me and Bean Blossom tease, till I shall wish myself dead." He stamped with vexation at the thought.
"Now, you mustn't do that," said Toinette, in a motherly tone, "else you'll tear it yourself, you know." She broke off the thorn as she spoke, and gently drew it out. The elf anxiously examined the stuff. A tiny puncture only was visible and his face brightened.
"You're a good child," he said. "I'll do as much for you some day, perhaps.""
I would have come before if I had seen you," remarked Toinette, timidly. "But I didn't see you a bit."
"No, because I had my cap on," cried the elf. He placed it on his head as he spoke, and hey, presto! nobody was there, only a voice which laughed and said: "Well--don't stare so. Lay your finger on me now."
"Oh," said Toinette, with a gasp. "How wonderful. What fun it must be to do that. The children wouldn't see me. I should steal in and surprise them; they would go on talking, and never guess that I was there. I should so like it. Do elves ever lend their caps to anybody? I wish you'd lend me yours. It must be so nice to be invisible."
"Ho," cried the elf, appearing suddenly again. "Lend my cap, indeed! Why it wouldn't stay on the very tip of your ear, it's so small. As for nice, that depends. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. No, the only way for mortal people to be invisible is to gather the fern-seed and put it in their shoes."
"Gather it? Where? I never saw any seed to the ferns," said Toinette, staring about her.
"Of course not--we elves take care of that," replied the little man. "Nobody finds the fern-seed but ourselves. I'll tell you what, though. You were such a nice child to take out the thorn so cleverly, that I'll give you a little of the seed. Then you can try the fun of being invisible, to your heart's content."
"Will you really? How delightful. May I have it now?"
"Bless me. Do you think I carry my pockets stuffed with it?" said the elf. "Not at all. Go home, say not a word to any one, but leave your bedroom window open to night, and you'll see what you'll see."
He laid his finger on his nose as he spoke, gave a jump like a grasshopper, clapping on his cap as he went, and vanished. Toinette lingered a moment, in hopes that he might come back, then took her pitcher and hurried home. The woods were very dusky by this time; but full of her strange adventures, she did not remember to feel afraid.
"How long you have been," said her mother. "It's late for a little maid like you to be up. You must make better speed another time, my child."
Toinette pouted as she was apt to do when reproved. The children clamoured to know what had kept her, and she spoke pettishly and crossly; so that they too became cross, and presently went away into the outer kitchen to play by themselves. The children were apt to creep away when Toinette came. It made her angry and unhappy at times that they should do so, but she did not realize that it was in great part her own fault, and so did not set herself to mend it.
"Tell me a 'tory," said baby Jeanneton, creeping to her knee a little later. But Toinette's head was full of the elf; she had no time to spare for Jeanneton.
"Oh, not to-night," she replied. "Ask mother to tell you one."
"Mother's busy," said Jeanneton wistfully.
Toinette took no notice and the little one crept away disconsolately.
Bedtime at last. Toinette set the casement open, and lay a long time waiting and watching; then she fell asleep. She waked with a sneeze and jump and sat up in bed. Behold, on the coverlet stood her elfin friend, with a long train of other elves beside him, all clad in the beetle-wing green, and wearing little pointed caps. More were coming in at the window; outside a few were drifting about in the moon rays, which lit their sparkling robes till they glittered like so many fireflies. The odd thing was, that though the caps were on, Toinette could see the elves distinctly and this surprised her so much, that again she thought out loud and said, "How funny."
"You mean about the caps," replied her special elf, who seemed to have the power of reading thought.
"Yes, you can see us to-night, caps and all. Spells lose their value on Christmas Eve, always. Peascod, where is the box? Do you still wish to try the experiment of being invisible, Toinette?"
"Oh, yes--indeed I do."
"Very well; so let it be."
As he spoke he beckoned, and two elves puffing and panting like little men with a heavy load, dragged forward a droll little box about the size of a pumpkin-seed.
One of them lifted the cover.
"Pay the porter, please, ma'am," he said giving Toinette's ear a mischievous tweak with his sharp fingers.
"Hands off, you bad Peascod!" cried Toinette's elf. "This is my girl. She shan't be pinched!" He dealt Peascod a blow with his tiny hand as he spoke and looked so brave and warlike that he seemed at least an inch taller than he had before. Toinette admired him very much; and Peascod slunk away with an abashed giggle muttering that Thistle needn't be so ready with his fist.
Thistle--for thus, it seemed, Toinette's friend was named--dipped his fingers in the box, which was full of fine brown seeds, and shook a handful into each of Toinette's shoes, as they stood, toes together by the bedside.
"Now you have your wish," he said, "and can go about and do what you like, no one seeing. The charm will end at sunset. Make the most of it while you can; but if you want to end it sooner, shake the seeds from the shoes and then you are just as usual."
"Oh, I shan't want to," protested Toinette; "I'm sure I shan't."
"Good-bye," said Thistle, with a mocking little laugh.
"Good-bye, and thank you ever so much," replied Toinette.
"Good-bye, good-bye," replied the other elves, in shrill chorus. They clustered together, as if in consultation; then straight out of the window they flew like a swarm of gauzy-winged bees, and melted into the moonlight. Toinette jumped up and ran to watch them but the little men were gone--not a trace of them was to be seen; so she shut the window, went back to bed and presently in the midst of her amazed and excited thoughts fell asleep.
She waked in the morning, with a queer, doubtful feeling. Had she dreamed, or had it really happened? She put on her best petticoat and laced her blue bodice; for she thought the mother would perhaps take them across the wood to the little chapel for the Christmas service. Her long hair smoothed and tied, her shoes trimly fastened, downstairs she ran. The mother was stirring porridge over the fire. Toinette went close to her, but she did not move or turn her head.
"How late the children are," she said at last, lifting the boiling pot on the hob. Then she went to the stair-foot and called, "Marc, Jeanneton, Pierre, Marie. Breakfast is ready, my children. Toinette--but where, then, is Toinette? She is used to be down long before this."
"Toinette isn't upstairs," said Marie from above.
"Her door is wide open, and she isn't there."
"That is strange," said the mother. "I have been here an hour, and she has not passed this way since." She went to the outer door and called, "Toinette! Toinette!" passing close to Toinette as she did so. And looking straight at her with unseeing eyes. Toinette, half frightened, half pleased, giggled low to herself. She really was invisible, then. How strange it seemed and what fun it was going to be.
The children sat down to breakfast, little Jeanneton, as the youngest, saying grace. The mother distributed the porridge and gave each a spoon but she looked anxious.
"Where can Toinette have gone?" she said to herself. Toinette was conscious-pricked. She was half inclined to dispel the charm on the spot. But just then she caught a whisper from Pierre to Marc which so surprised her as to put the idea out of her head.
"Perhaps a wolf has eaten her up--a great big wolf like the 'Capuchon Rouge,' you know." This was what Pierre said; and Marc answered unfeelingly:
"If he has, I shall ask mother to let me have her room for my own."
Poor Toinette, her cheeks burned and her eyes filled with tears at this. Didn't the boys love her a bit then? Next she grew angry, and longed to box Marc's ears, only she recollected in time that she was invisible. What a bad boy he was, she thought.
The smoking porridge reminded her that she was hungry; so brushing away the tears she slipped a spoon off the table and whenever she found the chance, dipped it into the bowl for a mouthful. The porridge disappeared rapidly.
"I want some more," said Jeanneton.
"Bless me, how fast you have eaten," said the mother, turning to the bowl.
This made Toinette laugh, which shook her spoon, and a drop of the hot mixture fell right on the tip of Marie's nose as she sat with upturned face waiting her turn for a second helping. Marie gave a little scream.
"What is it?" said the mother.
"Hot water! Right in my face!" sputtered Marie.
"Water!" cried Marc. "It's porridge."
"You spattered with your spoon. Eat more carefully, my child," said the mother, and Toinette laughed again as she heard her. After all, there was some fun in being invisible.
The morning went by. Constantly the mother went to the door, and, shading her eyes with her hand, looked out, in hopes of seeing a little figure come down the wood-path, for she thought perhaps the child went to the spring after water, and fell asleep there. The children played happily, meanwhile. They were used to doing without Toinette and did not seem to miss her, except that now and then baby Jeanneton said: "Poor Toinette gone--not here--all gone."
"Well, what if she has?" said Marc at last looking up from the wooden cup he was carving for Marie's doll. "We can play all the better."
Marc was a bold, outspoken boy, who always told his whole mind about things.
"If she were here," he went on," she'd only scold and interfere. Toinette almost always scolds. I like to have her go away. It makes it pleasanter."
"It is rather pleasanter," admitted Marie, "only I'd like her to be having a nice time somewhere else."
"Bother about Toinette," cried Pierre.
"Let's play 'My godmother has cabbage to sell.'"
I don't think Toinette had ever felt so unhappy in her life, as when she stood by unseen, and heard the children say these words. She had never meant to be unkind to them, but she was quick-tempered, dreamy, wrapped up in herself. She did not like being interrupted by them, it put her out, and she spoke sharply and was cross. She had taken it for granted that the others must love her, by a sort of right, and the knowledge that they did not grieved over very much. Creeping away, she hid herself in the woods. It was a sparkling day, but the sun did not look so bright as usual. Cuddled down under a rosebush, Toinette sat sobbing as if her heart would break at the recollection of the speeches she had overheard.
By and by a little voice within her woke up and began to make itself audible. All of us know this little voice. We call it conscience.
"Jeanneton missed me," she thought. "And, oh, dear! I pushed her away only last night and wouldn't tell her a story. And Marie hoped I was having a pleasant time somewhere. I wish I hadn't slapped Marie last Friday. And I wish I hadn't thrown Marc's ball into the fire that day I was angry with him. How unkind he was to say that--but I wasn't always kind to him. And once I said that I wished a bear would eat Pierre up. That was because he broke my cup. Oh, dear, oh, dear. What a bad girl I've been to them all."
"But you could be better and kinder if you tried, couldn't you?" said the inward voice. "I think you could."
And Toinette clasped her hands tight and said out loud: "I could. Yes--and I will."
The first thing to be done was to get rid of the fern-seed which she now regarded as a hateful thing. She untied her shoes and shook it out in the grass. It dropped and seemed to melt into the air, for it instantly vanished. A mischievous laugh sounded close behind, and a beetle-green coat-tail was visible whisking under a tuft of rushes. But Toinette had had enough of the elves, and, tying her shoes, took the road toward home, running with all her might.
"Where have you been all day, Toinette?" cried the children, as, breathless and panting, she flew in at the gate. But Toinette could not speak. She made slowly for her mother, who stood in the doorway, flung herself into her arms and burst into a passion of tears.
"Ma cherie, what is it, whence hast thou come?" asked the good mother alarmed. She lifted Toinette into her arms as she spoke, and hastened indoors. The other children followed, whispering and peeping, but the mother sent them away, and sitting down by the fire with Toinette in her lap, she rocked and hushed and comforted, as though Toinette had been again a little baby. Gradually the sobs ceased. For a while Toinette lay quiet, with her head on her mother's breast. Then she wiped her wet eyes, put her arms around her mother's neck, and told her all from the very beginning, keeping not a single thing back. The dame listened with alarm.
"Saints protect us," she muttered. Then feeling Toinette's hands and head, "Thou hast a fever," she said. "I will make thee a tisane, my darling, and thou must at once go to bed." Toinette vainly protested; to bed she went and perhaps it was the wisest thing, for the warm drink threw her into a long sound sleep and when she woke she was herself again, bright and well, hungry for dinner, and ready to do her usual tasks.
Herself--but not quite the same Toinette that she had been before. Nobody changes from bad to better in a minute. It takes time for that, time and effort, and a long struggle with evil habits and tempers. But there is sometimes a certain minute or day in which people begin to change, and thus it was with Toinette. The fairy lesson was not lost upon her. She began to fight with herself, to watch her faults and try to conquer them. It was hard work; often she felt discouraged, but she kept on. Week after week and month after month she grew less selfish, kinder, more obliging than she used to be. When she failed and her old fractious temper got the better of her, she was sorry and begged every one's pardon so humbly that they could not but forgive. The mother began to think that the elves really had bewitched her child. As for the children they learned to love Toinette as never before, and came to her with all their pains and pleasures, as children should to a kind older sister. Each fresh proof of this, every kiss from Jeanneton, every confidence from Marc, was a comfort to Toinette, for she never forgot Christmas Day, and felt that no trouble was too much to wipe out that unhappy recollection. "I think they like me better than they did then," she would say; but then the thought came, "Perhaps if I were invisible again, if they did not know I was there, I might hear something to make me feel as badly as I did that morning." These sad thoughts were part of the bitter fruit of the fairy fern-seed.
So with doubts and fears the year went by, and again it was Christmas Eve. Toinette had been asleep some hours when she was roused by a sharp tapping at the window pane. Startled, and only half awake, she sat up in bed and saw by the moonlight a tiny figure outside which she recognized. It was Thistle drumming with his knuckles on the glass.
"Let me in," cried the dry little voice. So Toinette opened the casement, and Thistle flew in and perched as before on the coverlet.
"Merry Christmas, my girl." he said, "and a Happy New Year when it comes. I've brought you a present;" and, dipping into a pouch tied round his waist, he pulled out a handful of something brown. Toinette knew what it was in a moment.
"Oh, no," she cried shrinking back. "Don't give me any fern-seeds. They frighten me. I don't like them."
"Don't be silly," said Thistle, his voice sounding kind this time, and earnest. "It wasn't pleasant being invisible last year, but perhaps this year it will be. Take my advice, and try it. You'll not be sorry."
"Sha'n't I?" said Toinette, brightening. "Very well, then, I will." She leaned out of bed, and watched Thistle strew the fine dustlike grains in each shoe.
"I'll drop in to-morrow night, and just see how you like it," he said. Then, with a nod, he was gone.
The old fear came back when she woke in the morning, and she tied on her shoes with a tremble at her heart. Downstairs she stole. The first thing she saw was a wooden ship standing on her plate. Marc had made the ship, but Toinette had no idea it was for her.
The little ones sat round the table with their eyes on the door, watching till Toinette should come in and be surprised.
"I wish she'd hurry," said Pierre, drumming on his bowl with a spoon.
"We all want Toinette, don't we?" said the mother, smiling as she poured the hot porridge.
"It will be fun to see her stare," declared Marc.
"Toinette is jolly when she stares. Her eyes look big and her cheeks grow pink. Andre Brugen thinks his sister Aline is prettiest, but I don't. Our Toinette is ever so pretty."
"She is ever so nice, too," said Pierre. "She's as good to play with as--as--a boy," finished triumphantly.
"Oh, I wish my Toinette would come," said Jeanneton.
Toinette waited no longer, but sped upstairs with glad tears in her eyes. Two minutes, and down she came again visible this time. Her heart was light as a feather.
"Merry Christmas!" clamoured the children. The ship was presented, Toinette was duly surprised, and so the happy day began.
That night Toinette left the window open, and lay down in her clothes; for she felt, as Thistle had been so kind, she ought to receive him politely. He came at midnight, and with him all the other little men in green.
"Well, how was it?" asked Thistle.
"Oh, I liked it this time," declared Toinette, with shining eyes, "and I thank you so much."
"I'm glad you did," said the elf. "And I'm glad you are thankful, for we want you to do something for us."
"What can it be?" inquired Toinette, wondering.
"You must know," went on Thistle, "that there is no dainty in the world which we elves enjoy like a bowl of fern-seed broth. But it has to be cooked over a real fire, and we dare not go near fire, you know, lest our wings scorch. So we seldom get any fern-seed broth. Now, Toinette, will you make us some?"
"Indeed, I will!" cried Toinette, "only you must tell me how."
"It is very simple," said Peascod; "only seed and honey dew, stirred from left to right with a sprig of fennel. Here's the seed and the fennel, and here's the dew. Be sure and stir from the left; if you don't, it curdles, and the flavour will be spoiled."
Down into the kitchen they went, and Toinette, moving very softly, quickened the fire, set on the smallest bowl she could find, and spread the doll's table with the wooden saucers which Marc had made for Jeanneton to play with. Then she mixed and stirred as the elves bade, and when the soup was done, served it to them smoking hot. How they feasted! No bumblebee, dipping into a flower-cup, ever sipped and twinkled more rapturously than they.
When the last drop was eaten, they made ready to go. Each in turn kissed Toinette's hand, and said a word of farewell. Thistle brushed his feathered cap over the doorpost as he passed.
"Be lucky, house," he said, "for you have received and entertained the luck-bringers. And be lucky, Toinette. Good temper is good luck, and sweet words and kind looks and peace in the heart are the fairest of fortunes. See that you never lose them again, my girl." With this, he, too, kissed Toinette's hand, waved his feathered cap, and--whir! they all were gone, while Toinette, covering the fire with ashes and putting aside the little cups, stole up to her bed a happy child.
* Published by arrangement with Little, Brown & Co.