Georg Schock ~ The Christmas Child

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The moonlight was so bright across the clock that it showed the time, and its tick was solemn, as though the minutes were marching slowly by. There was no other sound in the room except the breathing of Conrad, who lay in shadow, sleeping heavily, his head a black patch among the pillows. Mary’s hair looked like gold in the pale light which reflected in her open eyes. She had been lying so, listening to the tick and watching the hands, for hours.

When they marked eleven she began to stir; her feet made no more sound than shadows; the cold air struck her body like a strange element. Conrad did not move as she went into the kitchen and softly closed the door. She groped her way to the chair where she had left her clothes and put them on, wrapped herself in a shawl, and slipped out.

There was no snow, but a keen cold as befitted the night of the 24th of December, and between two fields the ice on the Northkill glittered. The air was so clear that far away appeared the great black barrier of the mountains. Across the sky, as across deep water, was a radiance of light, serene and chill,—of clouds like foam, of throbbing stars, of the moon glorious in her aura. In the towns at that hour the people were ready to begin the coming day with prayer and the sound of bells: here sky and earth themselves honored the event with light and silence in a majestic expectation.

As she made her way over the frozen grass she looked as detached from the world’s affairs as some shrouded lady at her nightly journey along a haunted path. The great Swiss barn was dead silent; its red front, painted with moons and stars, looked patriarchal; it had its own pastoral and dignified associations. She hesitated at the middle door, then she lifted the wooden bar and pushed it back cautiously. The darkness seemed to come out to meet her, and when she had shut herself in she was engulfed as though the ready earth had covered her a few nights too soon.

The straw rustled when she stepped on it, and she was afraid to risk a movement, so she crouched and made herself small. The air was thick and pungent, freezing draughts played upon her through the cracks of the door, and her foot tingled, but she did not move. After a while she saw two luminous disks which halted, glared, and approached, and she patted the furry body until it curled up on her skirt and lay there purring. She felt it grow tense at a tiny squeak and scuttle, but she kept still.

More than half an hour had gone when something happened. A horse stamped, a cock set up a sudden chatter, the cat leaped to a manger, and a cow scrambled to her feet. The darkness was full of movement,—wings fluttered, timbers shook under kicking hoofs and rubbing hides, tossed heads jarred the rings that held them fast. Then from the corner in which stood the splendid yoke of black oxen, the pride of the farm, there came a long, deep sound, as of something primeval mourning.

Two minutes after, Conrad was roused by a noise in the kitchen. The house door stood wide, showing a great rectangle of moonlight, there was a rush of cold air, and his bare foot struck Mary, doubled up where she had fallen. He shouted, and an old woman ran in with her gray hair flying.

“Conrad!” she exclaimed, almost in a scream.

“I don’t know,” he answered. He had his wife in his arms and held her out like a child showing a broken toy.

The old woman bethought herself first. “Take her in and lay her on the bed,” she ordered. While she worked he began to hurry on his clothes, moving as though he were stupid; then he came up to the bed.

“Aunt Hannah, what has she?” he begged. She gave him a look, and he suddenly burst into a great storm of tears.

“Hurry!” she said. “Take Dolly and a whip and go to Bernville first. If the doctor isn’t home, go along to Mount Pleasant; but bring a doctor. Ach!” she seized his hand in her excitement.

Mary’s eyes were opening—blue, wide, and terrified. “Don’t take Dolly,” she said, quite loud. “Dolly knows too much.” Then her eyes closed again.

Conrad went into the kitchen, still sobbing, and the old woman followed.

“I must take Dolly,” he whispered. “Aunt Hannah, for God’s sake, what has she?”

“I don’t know what she means about Dolly. Maybe I can find out till you get back. She’ll soon come to. You better be careful going out of the barnyard. It might worry her if she hears the hoofs.”

The young man checked his crying. “I take her through the fields,” he said, and went out softly.

In the light of the candle which contended with the moonbeams Hannah’s wrinkled face looked witchlike as she bent over the bed. Presently Mary started and her eyes searched the room with a terrified stare; she seemed to be all at once in the midst of some dreadful happening.

“Aunt Hannah,” she exclaimed, “don’t let them come for me!”

The old woman bent over her. “How do you feel?” she asked, in her soft and friendly Dutch.

“Don’t let them come!”

“Nobody comes, Mary. It is all right, only you are not so good. After while somebody is coming. Then you are glad!”

“Keep them out! I don’t want to go!”

“You don’t go off; you stay right here with me and Conrad.”

“They said—”

“Who?”

“The oxen.”

Hannah’s hand shook, but she still spoke reassuringly. “Were you in the barn, Mary?”

“Yes. You know how it is said that on Christmas eve, twelve o’clock, the animals talk. I thought so much about it, and I made up my mind to go and hear what they had to say. I was in the middle stable that’s empty, and I waited, and all of a sudden—” She stopped, trembling.

“Just don’t think about it,” Hannah urged, but she went on:

“All of a sudden—Dolly stamped—and they all woke up—the cows and the sheep, and the cat was scared and the big rooster cackled,—and then the oxen—Ach, Aunt Hannah! One of them said, ‘They will carry out the mistress in the morning.'”

“You don’t go, for all,” the old woman soothed her. “Think of who is coming, Mary. That’s a better thing to think about. It’s so lucky to have it on Christmas day. She will have good fortune then, and see more than others.”

The pinched face grew bright. The trembling soul was not to go out alone before, becoming a part of the great current of maternity, it had had the best of what is here.

“I take such good care of her. I look after her all the time,” said Mary.

The sun was gone, but the west was still as pink as coral and the twilight gave a wonderful velvety look to the meadows. In the rye-fields the stalks, heavy-headed already, dipped in the wind which blew the last apple-blossoms about like snow. A row of sturdy trees grew along Conrad Rhein’s front fence, and there was a large orchard in the rear. The log house was just the color of a nest among the pale foliage.

The place was so quiet that the irritable note of a couple of chimney-swallows, swooping about in pursuit of an invisible purpose, sounded loud. Hannah Rhein looked up from the small stocking she was knitting to watch them. Her secular occupation was contradicted by her black silk “Sunday dress,” and there was a holiday appearance about the little girl who sat very still, looking as though stillness were habitual with her.

“You better run out to the gate. Maybe you can see them,” Hannah said. The child went, and stood looking down the road so long that she rolled up her knitting and followed. “There they are!” she exclaimed. “Father and Aunt Calista. Don’t forget to give her a kiss when she gets out.”

Conrad Rhein’s austere face expressed no pleasure as he stepped from the carriage and helped his companion, but she was not to be depressed by a brother-in-law’s gravity. Calista Yohe, moving lightly in her pink delaine dress, resembled the prickly roses coming into bloom beside the gate, which would flourish and fade imperturbably in accordance with their own times and seasons. At present she looked as though the fading were remote. She shook hands joyfully and seized the carpet-bag which Hannah had taken.

“I guess I don’t let you carry that,” she said. “It’s heavy.”

The little girl put up her face, and Calista kissed her without speaking to her, and went on talking:

“You are right, Dolly is hot. We drove good and hard. Conrad didn’t want to do it to give her the whip, but I don’t like to ride slow. Let’s sit on the porch awhile.”

The child placed her bench near the old woman’s chair, but she watched the young one admiringly. Calista did not notice her.

“How are the folks?” Hannah asked.

“They are good.”

“Had they a big wedding?”

“I guess! It was teams on both sides of the road all the way down to where you turn, and they had three tables. She wore such a nice dress, too; such a silk it was, with little flowers in.”

“How did it go while you were there?”

“Oh, all right; she’s a nice girl and he and I could always get along; but it wasn’t like my home. If a man gets married once, he doesn’t want his sister afterwards,” Calista said, cheerfully.

“Well, you stay here now. We are glad to have you. Conrad he is quiet and I am getting along, so it’s not such a lively place, but I guess you can make out.”

“Well, I think!” said Calista, “I like to work. Is Conrad always so crabbed? He hardly talked anything all the way over.”

“He hasn’t much to say, but he is easy to get along with. He doesn’t look much to anything but the farm.”

“Doesn’t he go out in company?” Calista asked, eagerly.

“Once in a while, but not often. He doesn’t look for that any more.” Hannah sighed and stroked the child’s head, which rested against her knee, and the movement caught Calista’s eye.

“She favors Mary,” she said. “All that light hair and her white skin. That’s a pretty dress she has on.” She stooped and examined the blue merino. “Did you work that sack?”

“No, I had it worked. I think she looks nice. Conrad bought her those blue beads for a present. She was so glad.”

“Does she always wear white stockings?”

“When she is dressed. Conrad he wants it all of the best.”

“Does he think so much of her?”

“He doesn’t make much with her; he is not one to show if he thinks much; but would be strange if he didn’t. And as well off as he is, and no one to spend it on!”

Calista looked out through the orchard and across the fields of rye and wheat over which the spring night was falling. “He has a fine place for sure,” she said. “He takes long in the barn.”

“I guess he went off,” said Hannah, peacefully.

“I didn’t see him leave.”

“It may be he went to Albrecht’s.”

“Who are they? Young people?”

“Yes. John Albrecht he is about Conrad’s age, and his wife was such a friend to Mary. They have two little ones come over sometimes to play around.”

“Is that all in the family?”

“His mother; she lives with her, a woman so crippled up she can’t walk.”

Calista looked as satisfied as a strategist who finds himself in control of a desired situation: its difficulties made her spirits rise. Her eyes wandered about and fixed upon the child again. “She gets sleepy early for such a big girl,” she said. “Wasn’t she five on Christmas?”

“Yes. She wanted to see you, so I let her stay up to-night; and anyhow I didn’t want to be sitting up-stairs when you got here.”

“Do you sit with her evenings?”

“Till she goes to sleep. If you leave her in the dark she is so scared I pity her, and I don’t want her to get excited. I have no trouble with her other times. She listens to me, and she is real smart to help; she can pick strawberries and pull weeds, and she always enjoys to go along for eggs. She is like her father, she hasn’t much to say. She will run around in the orchard and play with her doll-baby the whole day, and she is pretending all the time.”

The little girl opened her eyes, very blue with sleep. With her rosy color and the white and blue of her little garments she looked like a cherub smiling out of the canvas of a German painter,—the soft companion of an older and more pensive grace. Hannah watched her tenderly.

“Now come, Mary, we go to bed,” she said.

“I guess I’d make such a fuss with that child and sit with her nights!” Calista thought, her prominent hazel eyes following in rather a catlike fashion. They followed in the same way more than once during the next few weeks. She would brush the little girl’s hair when Hannah was busy, or call her to a meal, but at other times she passed her by. At first Mary was inclined to pursue the pretty stranger, and on the second evening she ran up to her to show the results of the egg-hunting, but she never did it again.

She was the only one whom Calista failed to please. The neighbors who came to visit soon returned, and on Saturday night there were three carriages at the gate and three young men in the parlor. Conrad did not pay much attention to her, but one day he told her that one of her admirers was “not such a man that you ought to go riding with,” and she said: “All right. It was two asked me to go to-night. I take the other one.” She went through the work singing, and Hannah sat on the porch more than usual, and began to wonder how she had gotten on so long alone.

Calista had been there only a few weeks when Hannah said at supper one evening: “I guess I go to see your aunt Sarah, Conrad. It’s six years since I went. I couldn’t leave the work before, but now Calista gets along so good I can go a little.”

“Just do it,” said Calista, heartily. “Mary and I can keep house.”

The child smiled and made a timid movement.

“All right,” Conrad said. “I take you to the stage any time.”

Mary cried when Hannah went, and the old woman was distressed. “I feel bad to leave her,” she said. “I would take her along if I had time to get her ready.”

“Ach, go on!” Calista said, laughing. “There is Conrad now with the team. Mary will have good times. She can stem the cherries this morning.” She picked up the little girl and held her out to kiss her aunt. “Don’t you worry,” she called, as the carriage started.

She came out on the back porch presently with a large basket of ox-hearts.

“Now let’s see how smart you can be,” she said. “Sit down on the step and I put the basket beside you. Pick them clean.” Mary looked rather frightened at the size of the task, but she set to work. She stemmed and stemmed until her hands were sticky and her fingers ached. A thick yellow sunbeam came crawling to her feet; the flies buzzed, diving through the air as though it were heavy; the cat beside her slept and woke. It seemed to the child that she had always been in that spot and that there would never be anything but a hot morning and piles of shining cherries. She was looking toward the orchard where her swing hung empty when Calista hurried by the door. “Have you done them all?” she called. “Not? Well, then you finish them quick.”

The cherries lasted until dinner-time, and when that was over Mary climbed on her father’s bed and slept all afternoon. When she came out the first thing she saw was the egg-basket piled full. “If you want to go along for eggs you ought to be here when I am ready,” said Calista.

The little creature made no noise, but her father looked at her hard as he sat down to supper. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

She did not answer, and Calista said, “Oh—!” with the peculiar German inflection of contemptuous patience. Conrad said no more.

After supper Mary wandered out, and her aunt had to call her several times. “Where were you?” she asked.

“Down there.” The child pointed to the orchard. “A lady was there.”

Calista went to the edge of the porch and shaded her eyes. “I don’t see her,” she said. “Who was she?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you never see her before?”

“No, ma’am.”

“What did she look like?”

Mary thought hard, with the puzzled face of one who lacks words and comparisons to convey an image that is clear enough. Calista walked a little way into the orchard, then she looked up and down the road.

“Wasn’t it Mrs. Albrecht?” she asked. “Well, I guess it makes nothing. Come, you must go to bed. I stay with you.” With a mocking expression she held out her hand as to a very small child, and the little girl walked into the house without a word, not noticing the hand.

When she was asleep Calista came back to the porch with some sewing. Conrad appeared from the barn, stood about for a moment, and strolled toward the orchard; then he walked in the garden for a while; finally he sat on the step with his back to her, saying nothing and looking at the sky. She preserved the silence of a bird-tamer.

“It’s a nice evening,” he said at last.

“Yes.”

“Good weather for hay.”

“Yes, fine.”

“One field is about ready to cut. You better tell Aunt Hannah to come home. It’s too much work for you, with the men to cook for.”

“Just you let her stay and enjoy herself. I get along all right.”

After a pause she asked, “Did you see some one in the orchard just now?”

“No.”

“Mary she ran down after supper, and she said a strange lady was there. I wondered who it was.”

“I didn’t see her,” he said, dully, as though he spoke from the midst of some absorbing thought; then he got up and walked away. “You better go in and light the lamp if you want to sew,” he said, roughly.

Calista took her things and went at once, looking as though she were so well satisfied that she could afford to be amused.

Though in the next two weeks she had plenty of company Conrad never joined them: he spent the evenings with John Albrecht, drove to Bernville, or went to bed early. He worked much harder than usual, and his cheeks grew thin under his stubble of black beard. Calista did not trouble him with conversation.

“Don’t you feel good?” she once asked, and when he gave a surly answer she said, carelessly, “You better get something from the doctor,” and began to sing immediately afterwards. But she knew how he looked even when her back was turned, and she often stared at Mary in a meditative way as though the child were the doubtful quantity in an important calculation.

She was watching her so one day, when little John Albrecht and his sister had come over and the three were very busy on the grass near the kitchen window with two dolls and the old tiger-cat. In the afternoon silence their little voices sounded clear and sweet. The cat escaped to a cherry-tree and they chased him gayly, but he went to sleep in an insulting way in spite of the lilac switch that John flourished.

“Look out!” Mary called.

John looked around and said, “For what?” and she went over to him.

There was a conversation which Calista could not hear; Mary pointed several times to a spot in the sunny grass; then he went running down the road and Katie followed, looking as though she would cry when she had time, and leaving her doll behind her.

Calista went out. “What did you say to John to make them run off?” she asked.

“I told him to look out, he would hit the lady with the switch.”

“What lady?”

“She was there.”

“Where is she now?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can’t you see her?”

“No, ma’am.”

Calista looked all about. Not a soul was in sight on the road; in the orchard and the fields nothing moved but the wind; the yard was empty except for the cat slipping round the corner with his mottled coat shining. “Now listen,” she said, not unkindly. “I saw you out of the window, and there was no lady here. Why do you tell a story like that?”

The child looked at her in a preoccupied way and did not answer.

“I can’t have you say things that are not so, Mary. If you do it again, I have to whip you. Now pick up your doll-baby and come in.”

She spoke of it to Conrad that evening, but he did not pay much attention.

“I don’t know if there is something wrong with Mary or, if she does see some one, who it is,” she said. “Do you know if there are gipsies around?” He scarcely answered, and in a few minutes she heard him drive down the road. She smiled to herself as she hurried through her work. Then she put Mary to bed, though it was much earlier than usual, and began to dress, while the little girl lay watching from among the pillows.

Calista enjoyed the water like a sleek creature of two elements; her white skirts crackled and flared; her hair hid her waist. When she had finished her green dimity looked like foliage around a flower, and her hazel eyes turned green to match it.

“I’m going on the front porch,” she said. “You go to sleep like a good girl.”

She had sat with Mary in the evening as long as she could do so without inconvenience. Now she saw no reason for continuing it. She had not imagination enough to know what she was inflicting. Mary gazed after her as a shipwrecked woman might watch a plank drifting out of reach, but she said nothing; she shut her eyes and lay still for many minutes. She was a timid child but not cowardly, and such tangible things as a cross dog, a tramp, and a blacksnake in the orchard she had faced bravely, but her terror of the dark was indefinite and unendurable. She opened her eyes, shut them, and opened them again, looking for something dreadful. The furniture was shapeless, the bedclothes dimly white, and each time she looked it was darker. She did not know what she expected, and to see nothing was almost worse. A carriage going down the road comforted her as long as she could hear it, but it left a thicker silence. She pressed her lids together, breathing quickly,—to move was like inviting something to spring on her,—then she slid out of bed and ran down the stairs, gave a frightened glance at the front door behind which sat her aunt, who would send her up again, and slipped across the back porch into the orchard.

Calista heard nothing. In the hot June evening she was fresh and cool enough to be akin to the rejoicing fields, a nymph of beech or willow. Now and then she looked down the road and saw no one, but she did not seem disappointed. It was quite dark and the fireflies were trailing up and down when wheels stopped at the gate, and she drew back behind a lilac-bush that screened the porch, and sat still.

Conrad, striding up the path, started when he saw her. “Oh, it’s you!” he said, coldly. She gave a short answer, and he stood frowning at nothing and looking very tall and black. “Want to take a little ride?” he asked.

“No, I guess not.”

“You stay at home too much,” he said, presently. “You haven’t been off the place since Aunt Hannah left.”

“I don’t care to go. I can’t leave Mary here all alone. It wouldn’t be safe.”

She stayed silently in her corner as though waiting for him to leave—a white shadow beside the black mass of the lilac-bush. Dolly at the gate tossed her head until the reins scraped on the gate-post. Down in the orchard a whippoorwill cried.

He was like a horse that takes the bit and the driver was his own will—his own self. She made no resistance when he threw himself down beside her: she was pliant, her cheek cool, she even looked at him haughtily. He did not know that she slipped out of his arms just before he would have released her, nor that she was all one flame of triumphant happiness. She seemed as untouched as the starlight.

“Calista,” he stammered, “I hope you overlook it.”

“What about my sister Mary?” she asked, dryly. “I thought you didn’t look to any one else.”

“I didn’t. I tell you the truth. I was unwilling. I fought it off all I could, but now I give in. I can do no more.”

“So you think you like me as well as you like her?”

“Calista, I would ask you if Mary stood here and heard us.”

The woman seemed to bloom like an opening rose. She looked at him, but it was as though she saw some vision of success that she was just about to grasp. “I am satisfied,” she said.

There was a sound on the walk, and they lifted their heads; then they were scarcely conscious of each other’s presence. Up from the gate, her nightdress hanging about her feet, her hair pale in the dim light, came the little girl. She climbed the steps and passed fearlessly into the dark house, smiling at the two with the radiant content of happy childhood, soothed and petted,—her small right hand held up as if in the clasp of another hand.

Calista would have chosen to clean the whole house or do a harvest-time baking rather than write one letter, so she asked most of the guests verbally and put off the others as long as she could. Conrad had taken Hannah to Bernville to have a new silk dress fitted and buy colored sugar for the wedding-cakes when she began the invitations. By three o’clock they were finished, and she counted them and laid them beside the inkstand. Then she washed her hands, spread a sheet on the floor, and got out a pile of soft white stuff, all puffs and lace and ruffles—the work of weeks.

She sewed happily, looking out now and then at the trees, which tossed like green waves under the roaring August rain. Sometimes a gust drove a shower down the chimney and made the logs hiss. The room was warm and still; in the interval of work it seemed to have paused and be sleeping. The tiger-cat, with his paws folded under him, lay beside the hearth, and Mary on her little bench nursed her doll peacefully. Calista began to sing a German hymn; the words were awful, but their very solemnity made her happier by contrast:

“Wer weiss wie nahe mir mein Ende! Hin geht die Zeit, her kommt der Tod.

“Look here, Mary,” she said. “Isn’t this pretty?” The child came, and Calista held up the soft stuff around her; it made the little face look beautifully pink and white. She touched it lightly, smiling, then she wandered over to the window with her doll and looked out into the rain.

“Es kann vor Nacht leicht anders werden, Als es am frühen Morgen war,” Calista sang.

Five minutes later she asked, good-naturedly, “What are you looking at?” Mary did not answer. “Didn’t you hear what I said? What’s going on out there?” Calista repeated.

“You said I shouldn’t say it,” the child whispered.

“Say what?”

“When I see the lady.”

“Where do you see her?”

“Coming out of the orchard.”

Certain old stories returning to Calista’s mind made her look at Mary for a minute as though the child had manifested strange powers. She went to the window and her thimble clicked on the sill as she leaned forward; then she touched her cheek. “Do you feel good?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She looked out again. “I want you to know for sure that no one is there,” she said, earnestly. “Now tell me: do you see a lady?”

“Yes, ma’am. She is coming up here.”

Calista was very sober. “If your aunt Hannah doesn’t teach you not to tell stories, then I must,” she said. “I can’t have you like this. Soon I can’t believe you anything. Come here.” Mary came as if pulled. “Now mind, I do this so that you don’t say what isn’t so again.” She gave the child two good slaps on the mouth with her strong hand.

The inherited spirit of resistance to coercion, that had made pioneers and martyrs of Mary Rhein’s ancestors, was let loose too soon: it made an imp of her. She darted silently like an insect from under Calista’s hand, seized the inkstand, and threw it with all her might at the beautiful white gown. The ink poured out, dripping from fold to fold, and the stand thudded on the sheet and scattered the last drops. Mary gave one look and ran across the porch and out to the road in the rain.

Calista sat still for a moment, then she got up weakly. “Doesn’t look much like a wedding dress now,” she murmured. “It’s no use doing anything to it. It’s done for.” She wiped the inkstand on a stained flounce before setting it on the table. “Now,” she said, as though some one were present who would disapprove, “I give it to her good. I better fetch her in and have it done before they get back.”

The sky was low but the rain was gentle when she started down the road, and her shawl made a bright spot between the fields, green as chromos. Mary had gone toward the creek, and she followed as far as the bridge; then, as there was no one in sight, she turned up-stream. It was deep just there and very full, carrying leaves and twigs so that it was like a little flood, and the water caught the dipping branches of the willows and swept them along. The shellbarks looked forlorn in the rain, and the ground was so soft that it gave under her feet. Her skirts and shoes were heavy with wet before she saw Mary.

The child looked as though she were being crowded out of life. She was crying, with small weak sounds like a wretched little animal, her hair was dark with water, and the rain drove across her face. At the sight of Calista she began to run slowly with much stumbling; her crying mixed with the sound of the stream. Calista followed as fast as she could.

A little way up the creek was a log bridge without a rail. Conrad had put it up for his own convenience, and Calista never tried to cross it.

“Ach!” she thought, “I don’t hope she runs out there!” Then she began to call, but Mary did not look back. She fell over a root, picked herself up, and went on, with her knees shaking.

Suddenly she began to cry very loud, as a child does when it sees comfort, and went on much faster, making for the bridge. As she ran along the log her arms were out to meet some one.

Calista stared for a couple of seconds, then she raced like a savage down to the first bend, her red shawl flying behind her.

It lay in a pool on the kitchen floor when Conrad and Hannah came in; it was the first thing they saw, and their voices stopped as though a hand had been laid upon their mouths. Mary was lying on the settle and Calista was doubled up against it with her face hidden.

“What’s wrong?” Conrad asked. She said nothing, and when he tried to lift her she writhed away from him. Hannah ran to Mary. The blankets were warm, but the small creature was quite cold.

“Now it is time you say what has happened,” she said, and Conrad stood silently by.

Calista sat up, looking deadly sick. The story came out in fragments, and at the end she bowed her head, shivering and staring at nothing.

“Did she say this before?” Hannah asked.

Calista told wearily, and the old woman listened, a spectator of strange things to which she alone had the clue.

“Is that all?”

“Ach, yes! I can’t remember any more. Now do what you want to do.”

Hannah spoke like a judge sentencing a criminal: “So you thought she told lies and you whipped her—that little thing! Now I tell you something, Calista Yohe. That night she was born I said to Mary—your sister Mary!—that once she came on Christmas she would be lucky and see more than we see, and Mary was glad, and the last thing she said was: ‘I look after her. I take care of her.’ And they say one that dies and leaves something unfinished must come back to finish it up. I guess Mary knew when to come.

“And you are glad. I don’t say you just wished this to her, but you thought would be fine not to have her around once you got married to Conrad. She was lucky not to be here till you got a good hold of her.

“You might have thought whether I would let her with you that didn’t want her, to be in the way. But I am old. It is a good thing Mary fetched her. Now I see to her myself. Don’t you dare touch her.”

Conrad had been perfectly still, with the face of a man in a nightmare, but now he went to the shaking woman and lifted her in his arms. Hannah looked at them for a moment. Then she set a great kettle of water to heat, took up the child and went out, leaving them alone together, and they heard her footsteps in the room above as she went back and forth, getting what she needed.

DMdJ Neu1

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