Polly, the Doctor's old white mare, plodded slowly along the snowy country road by the picket fence, and turned in at the snow-capped posts. Ahead, roofed with the ragged ermine of a newly-fallen snow, the Doctor's old-fashioned house loomed gray-white through the snow-fringed branches of the trees, a quaint iron lantern, which was picturesque by day and luminous and cheerful by night, hanging within the square, white-pillared portico at the side.
Yule Log Story
That the many-paned, old-fashioned window on the right framed the snow-white head of Aunt Ellen Leslie, the Doctor's wife, the old Doctor himself was comfortably aware—for his kindly eyes missed nothing.
He could have told you with a reflective stroke of his grizzled beard that the snow had stopped but an hour since, and that now through the white and heavy lacery of branches to the west glowed the flame-gold of a winter sunset, glinting ruddily over the box-bordered brick walk, the orchard and the comfortable barn which snugly housed his huddled cattle; that the grasslands to the south were thickly blanketed in white; that beyond in the evergreen forest the stately pines and cedars were marvelously draped and coiffed in snow.
For the old Doctor loved these things of Nature as he loved the peace and quiet of his home.
So, as he turned in at the driveway and briskly resigned the care of Polly to old Asher, his seamed and wrinkled helper, the Doctor's eyes were roving now to a corner, snug beneath a tattered rug of snow, where by summer Aunt Ellen's petunias and phlox and larkspur grew—and now to the rose-bushes ridged in down, and at last to his favorite winter nook, a thicket of black alders freighted with a wealth of berries.
How crimson they were amid the white quiet of the garden! And the brightly colored fruit of the barberry flamed forth from a snowy bush like the cheerful elf-lamps of a wood-gnome.
There was equal cheer and color in the old-fashioned sitting-room to which the Doctor presently made his way, for a wood fire roared with a winter gleam and crackle in the fireplace and Aunt Ellen Leslie rocked slowly back and forth by the window with a letter in her hand.
"Another letter!" exclaimed the Doctor, warming his hands before the blazing log. "God bless my soul, Ellen, we're becoming a nuisance to Uncle Sam!" But for all the brisk cheeriness of his voice he was furtively aware that Aunt Ellen's brown eyes were a little tearful, and presently crossing the room to her side, he gently drew the crumpled letter from her hand and read it.
"So John's not coming home for Christmas either, eh?" he said at last. "Well, now, that is too bad! Now, now, now, mother," as Aunt Ellen surreptitiously wiped her glasses, "we should feel proud to have such busy children. There's Ellen and Margaret and Anne with a horde of youngsters to make a Christmas for, and John—bless your heart, Ellen, there's a busy man!
A broker now is one of the very busiest of men! And what with John's kiddies and his beautiful society wife and that grand Christmas eve ball he mentions—why—" the Doctor cleared his throat,—"why, dear me, it's not to be wondered at, say I! And Philip and Howard—busy as—as—as architects and lawyers usually are at Christmas," he finished lamely. "As for Ralph—" the Doctor looked away—"well, Ralph hasn't spent a Christmas home since college days."
Yule Log Story
"It will be the first Christmas we ever spent without some of them home," ventured Aunt Ellen, biting her lip courageously, whereupon the old Doctor patted her shoulder gently with a cheery word of advice.
Now, there was something in the touch of the old Doctor's broad and gentle hand that always soothed, wherefore Aunt Ellen presently wiped her troublesome glasses again and bravely tried to smile, and the Doctor making a vast and altogether cheerful to-do about turning the blazing log, began a brisk description of his day.
It had ended, professionally, at a lonely little house in the heart of the forest, which Jarvis Hildreth, dying but a scant year since, had bequeathed to his orphaned children, Madge and Roger.
"And, Ellen," finished the Doctor, soberly, "there he sits by the window, day by day, poor lame little lad!—staring away so wistfully at the forest, and Madge, bless her brave young heart!—she bastes and stitches and sews away, all the while weaving him wonderful yarns about the pines and cedars to amuse him—all out of her pretty head, mind you!
A lame brother and a passion for books—" said the Doctor, shaking his head, "a poor inheritance for the lass. They worry me a lot, Ellen, for Madge looks thin and tired, and to-day—" the Doctor cleared his throat, "I think she had been crying."
"Crying!" exclaimed Aunt Ellen, her kindly brown eyes warm with sympathy. "Dear, dear!—And Christmas only three days off! Why, John, dear, we must have them over here for Christmas. To be sure! And we'll have a tree for little Roger and a Christmas masquerade and such a wonderful Christmas altogether as he's never known before!"
And Aunt Ellen, with the all-embracing motherhood of her gentle heart aroused, fell to planning a Christmas for Madge and Roger Hildreth that would have gladdened the heart of the Christmas saint himself.
Face aglow, the old Doctor bent and patted his wife's wrinkled hand.
"Why, Ellen," he confessed, warmly, "it's the thing I most desired! Dear me, it's a very strange thing indeed, my dear, how often we seem to agree. I'll hitch old Billy to the sleigh and go straight after them now while Annie's getting supper!"
And at that instant one glance at Aunt Ellen Leslie's fine old face, framed in the winter firelight which grew brighter as the checkerboard window beside her slowly purpled, would have revealed to the veriest tyro why the Doctor's patients liked best to call her "Aunt" Ellen.
Yule Log Story
So, with a violent jingle of sleigh-bells, the Doctor presently shot forth again into the white and quiet world, and as he went, gliding swiftly past the ghostly spruces by the roadside, oddly enough, despite his cheerful justification to Aunt Ellen, he was[Pg 13] fiercely rebelling at the defection of his children. John and his lovely wife might well have foregone their fashionable ball.
And Howard and Philip—their holiday-keeping Metropolitan clubs were shallow artificialities surely compared with a home-keeping reunion about the Yule log. As for the children of Anne and Ellen and Margaret—well, the Doctor could just tell those daughters of his that their precious youngsters liked a country Christmas best—he knew they did!—not the complex, steam-heated hot-house off-shoot of that rugged flower of simpler times when homes were further apart, but a country Christmas of keen, crisp cold and merry sleigh-bells, of rosy cheeks and snow-balls, of skating on the Deacon's pond and a jubilant hour after around the blazing wood-fire: a Christmas, in short, such as the old Doctor himself knew and loved, of simplicity and sympathy and home-keeping heartiness!
And then—there was Ralph—but here the Doctor's face grew very stern. Wild tales came to him at times of this youngest and most gifted of his children—tales of intemperate living interlarded with occasional tales of brilliant surgical achievement on the staff of St. Michael's.
For the old Doctor had guided the steps of his youngest son to the paths of medicine with a great hope, long abandoned.
Ah—well! The Doctor sighed, abruptly turning his thoughts to Madge and Roger. They at least should know the heart-glow of a real Christmas! A masquerade party of his neighbors Christmas eve, perhaps, such as Aunt Ellen had suggested, and a Yule-log—but now it was, in the midst of his Christmas plans, that a daring notion flashed temptingly through the Doctor's head, was banished with a shrug and flashed again, whereupon with his splendid capacity for prompt decision, the Doctor suddenly wheeled old Billy about and went sleighing in considerable excitement into the village whence a host of night-telegrams went singing over the busy wires to startle eventually a slumbering conscience or so.
And presently when the Doctor drew up with a flourish before the lonely little house among the forest pines, his earlier depression had vanished.
So with a prodigious stamping of snow from his feet and a cheerful wave of his mittened hand to the boy by the window, the Doctor bustled cheerily indoors and with kindly eyes averted from the single tell-tale sauce-pan upon the fire, over which Madge Hildreth had bent with sudden color, fell to bustling about with a queer lump in his throat and talking ambiguously of Aunt Ellen's Christmas orders, painfully conscious that the girl's dark face had grown pitifully white and tense and that Roger's wan little face was glowing.
Yule Log Story
And when the fire was damped by the Doctor himself, and his Christmas guests hustled into dazed, protesting readiness, the Doctor deftly muffled the thin little fellow in blankets and gently carried him out to the waiting sleigh with arms that were splendid and sturdy and wonderfully reassuring.
"There, there, little man!" he said cheerfully, "we've not hurt the poor lame leg once, I reckon. And now we'll just help Sister Madge blow out the lamp and lock the door and be off to Aunt Ellen!"
But, strangely enough, the Doctor halted abruptly in the doorway and turned his kindly eyes away to the shadowy pines. And Sister Madge, on her knees by Roger's bed, sobbing and praying in an agony of relief, presently blew out the lamp herself and wiped her eyes.
For nights among the whispering pines are sleepless and long when work is scarce and Christmas hovers with cold, forbidding eyes over the restless couch of a dear and crippled brother.