A very long while ago, perhaps as many as two hundred years, the little Provençal village of Sur Varne was all bustle and stir, for it was the week before Christmas; and always, in all the world, no one has known better how to keep the joyous holiday than have the happy-hearted people of Provence, the south-eastern corner of France.
Everybody was busy, hurrying to and fro, gathering garlands of myrtle and laurel, bringing home their Yule logs with pretty old songs and ceremonies, and in various ways making ready for the all-important festival.
Not a house in Sur Varne but in some manner told the coming of the blessed birthday, and especially were there great preparations in the cottage of the shepherd, Père Michaud. This cottage, covered with white stucco, and thatched with long marsh-grass, stood at the edge of the village; olive and mulberry trees clustered about it, and a wild jasmine vine clambered over the doorway, while on this particular morning all around the low projecting eaves hung a row of tiny wheat-sheaves, swinging in the crisp December air, and twinkling in the sunlight like a golden fringe. For the Père Michaud had been up betimes, making ready the Christmas feast for the birds, which no Provençal peasant ever forgets at this gracious season; and the birds knew it, for already dozens of saucy robins and linnets and fieldfares were gathering in the Père's mulberry-trees, their mouths fairly watering with anticipation.
Within the cottage the good dame, the Misè Michaud, with wide sleeves rolled up and kirtle tucked back, was hard at work making all manner of savory goodies, while in the huge oven beside the blazing hearth the great Christmas cakes were baking, the famous pompou and fougasse, as they were called, dear to the hearts of the children of old Provence.
Now and then, as the cottage door swung open on the dame's various cookery errands, one might hear a faint "Baa, baa!" from the sheepfold, where little Félix Michaud was very busy also.
Through the crevices of its weather-beaten boards came the sound of vigorous scrubbing of wool, and sometimes an impatient "Ninette! Ninette!—thou silly sheep! Wilt thou never stand still?" Or else, in a Softer tone, an eager "Beppo, my little Beppo, dost thou know? Dost thou know?" To all of which there would come no answer save the lamb's weak little "Baa, baa!"
For Ninette, Beppo's mother, was a silly old sheep, and Beppo was a very young little lamb, and so they could not possibly be expected to know what a great honor had suddenly befallen them. They did not dream that, the night before, Père Michaud had told Félix that his Beppo (for Beppo was Félix's very own) had been chosen by the shepherds for the "offered lamb" of the Christmas Eve procession in all its festival splendor in the great church of the village.
Of the importance of this procession in the eyes of the peasant folk I will tell you more by and by; it is enough to say now that to be the offered lamb, or indeed the offered lamb's mother, for both always went together, was the greatest honor and glory that could possibly happen to a Provençal sheep, and so little Félix was fairly bursting with pride and delight. And so it was, too, that he was now busying himself washing their wool, which he determined should shine like spun silver on the great night.
He tugged away, scrubbing and brushing and combing the thick fleeces, and at last, after much labor, considered their toilets done for the day; then, giving each a handful of fresh hay to nibble, he left the fold and trudged into the cottage.
"Well, little one," said the Misè, "hast thou finished thy work?"
"Yes, mother," answered Félix; "and I shall scrub them so each day till the holy night! Even now Ninette is white as milk, and Beppo shines like an angel! Ah, but I shall be proud when he rides up to the altar in his little cart! And, mother, dost thou not really think him far handsomer than was Jean's lamb, that stupid Nano, in the procession last year?"
"There, there," said the Misè, "never thou mind about Jean's lamb, but run along now and finish thy crèche."
Now, in Provence, at the time when Félix lived, no one had ever heard of such a thing as a Christmas tree; but in its stead every cottage had a "crèche"; that is, in one corner of the great living-room, the room of the fireplace, the peasant children and their fathers and mothers built up on a table a mimic village of Bethlehem, with houses and people and animals, and, above all, with the manger, where the Christ Child lay. Everyone took the greatest pains to make the crèche as perfect as possible, and some even went so far as to fasten tiny angels to the rafters, so that they hovered over the toy houses like a flock of white butterflies; and sometimes a gold star, hung on a golden thread, quivered over the little manger, in memory of the wonderful star of the Magi.
In the Michaud cottage the crèche was already well under way. In the corner across from the fireplace the Père had built up a mound, and this Félix had covered with bits of rock and tufts of grass, and little green boughs for trees, all to represent the rocky hillside of Judea; then, half-way up, he began to place the tiny houses. These he had cut out of wood and adorned with wonderful carving, in which, indeed, he was very skilful. And then, such figures as he had made, such quaint little men and women, such marvelous animals, camels and oxen and sheep and horses, were never before seen in Sur Varne. But the figure on which he had lavished his utmost skill was that of the little Christ Child, which was not to be placed in the manger until Christmas night itself.
Félix kept this figure in his blouse pocket, carefully wrapped up in a bit of wool, and he spent all his spare moments striving to give it some fresh beauty; for I will tell you a secret: poor little Félix had a great passion for carving, and the one thing for which he longed above all others was to be allowed to apprentice himself in the workshop of Père Videau, who was the master carver of the village, and whose beautiful work on the portals of the great church was the admiration of Félix's heart. He longed, too, for better tools than the rude little knife he had, and for days and years in which to learn to use them.
But the Père Michaud had scant patience with these notions of the little son's, and once, when Félix had ventured to speak to him about it, had insisted rather sharply that he was to stick to his sheep-tending, so that when the Père himself grew old he could take charge of the flocks and keep the family in bread; for the Père had small faith in the art of the carver as being able to supply the big brown loaves that the Misè baked every week in the great stone oven. So Félix was obliged to go on minding the flocks; but whenever he had a moment of his own, he employed it in carving a bit of wood or chipping at a fragment of soft stone.
But while I have stopped to tell you all this he had almost finished the crèche; the little houses were all in place, and the animals grouped about the holy stable, or else seeming to crop the tufts of moss on the mimic rocky hillside.
"Well, well!" said the Père Michaud, who had just entered the cottage, "'t is a fine bit of work thou hast there, my son! Truly 't is a brave crèche!"
But here the Misè called them both to the midday meal, which she had spread smoking hot on the shining deal table.
When this was finished Félix arose, and, as the Père wished, once more went out to the fold to see how the sheep, and especially his little Beppo, were faring.
As he pushed open the swinging door, Ninette, who was lazily dozing with her toes doubled up under her fleece, blinked her eyes and looked sleepily around; but Beppo was nowhere to be seen.
"Ninette!" demanded Félix fiercely, "what hast thou done with my Beppo?"
At this Ninette peered about in a dazed sort of way, and gave an alarmed little "Baa!" for she had not before missed Beppo, who, while she was asleep, had managed to push open the door of the fold and scamper off, no one knew just where.
Félix gazed around in dismay when he realized that his lamb, the chosen one, who had brought such pride and honor to him—that this was gone!
"Beppo!" he shouted at the top of his lungs, "Beppo! Beppo-o!"
But no trace could he see of the little bundle of fleece he had scrubbed and combed so carefully that morning.
He stood irresolute a moment; then, thinking that if Beppo really were running off, not a second was to be lost, he set out at a brisk pace across the sheep-meadow. He had no idea in what direction the truant lamb would be likely to stray, but on he went, calling every little while in a shrill voice, "Beppo!" Now and then he fancied that he saw in the distance a glimpse of white; but once it proved the Misè Fouchard's linen hung to dry on a currant-bush, and again it was a great white stone—but no Beppo; and all the while Félix kept on, quite forgetting that Beppo's weak, woolly legs could not possibly have carried him so great a distance.
By and by he had left the village meadows far behind, and was skirting the great marsh. Sometimes he shaded his eyes with his hand and looked far across this low wet land to see if perhaps Beppo had strayed into its uncertain foothold; but nothing could he see but the waving rushes and the tall bitterns wading about on long, yellow legs.
And still he pressed heedlessly on farther and farther, till, after a while, he found himself thrusting through a thick coppice of willow boughs. "Oh," thought Félix, "what if poor Beppo has strayed into this woodland!" And tired as he was, he urged himself on, searching among the trees; and it was not until he had wandered on and on, deeper and deeper into the wood, that he realized that the dusk had fallen, and that he must be a very, very long way from Sur Varne.
Félix then began to grow uneasy. He stood still and looked anxiously about him; the dark forest trees closed around him on all sides, and he was quite unable to remember from which direction he had entered the wood.
Now, Félix was really a very brave little fellow, but he fairly quaked as he peered through the gathering darkness; for in those days the forests of Provence were known to harbor many dangerous animals, especially wild boars and wolves. He pricked up his ears, and now and then thought he heard in the distance the stealthy tread of some four-footed forest prowler, and once he was sure he caught the deep howl of a wolf.
That ended his hesitation. He looked quickly around, and grasping the low boughs of a slender sapling, managed to swing himself up into a tall chestnut-tree that grew close by; and there he clung, clutching the thick branches with might and main, feeling very cold and hungry and miserable, his heart all the while sinking clear down into his little peasant shoes.
And indeed he had cause for fear, for, not a great while after he had thus hidden himself, a gaunt wolf really did pass close by, sniffing and peering, till poor Félix fairly gave up all hope of escaping from the tree; but, luckily, the wolf did not see him, and at last slowly crept on through the underwood.
How long the little boy stayed in the perilous shelter of the chestnut-tree he never knew, but it seemed untold ages to him. After a while the moon rose, and shed a faint light through the close-lapping branches; and then, by and by, Félix's ears, strained to listen for every lightest sound, caught the echo of distant tramping, as of horses' hoofs, and presently two horsemen came in sight, picking their way cautiously along a narrow bridle-path.
He did not know whom they might prove to be, but wisely thinking that anything would be better than staying in a tree all night at the mercy of hungry wolves, he waited till the first rider came quite close, and then he plucked up courage to call out faintly: "Oh, sir, stop, I pray thee!"
At this, the rider, who was none other than the noble Count Bernard of
Bois Varne, quickly drew rein and, turning, called to his companion:
"Ho, Brian! Heardest thou aught?"
"Nay, my lord," answered Brian, who was some paces behind, "naught save the trampling of our own horses' hoofs."
The count looked all around, and seeing nothing, thought himself mistaken in the sound, and began to pace on. Then Félix, in terror, gave another shout, this time louder, and at the same moment a little twig he was pressing with his elbow broke away and dropped, striking against the count's stirrup; for the bridle-path wound directly under the tree where Félix was perched.
The count instantly checked his horse again, and, peering up into the boughs overhead, he caught sight of Félix, his yellow hair wet with dew and shining in the moonlight, and his dark eyes wide with fear.
"Heigh-ho!" exclaimed the count, in blank amazement. "Upon my word, now! what art thou—boy or goblin?"
At this Félix gave a little sob, for he was very tired and very cold. He hugged the tree tightly, and, steadying himself against the boughs, at last managed to falter out: "Please thee, sir, I am Félix Michaud, and my lamb Beppo, who was to ride in the Christmas procession, ran off to-day, and—and—I have been hunting him, I think, ever since—since yesterday!" Here poor Félix grew a trifle bewildered; it seemed to him so very long ago since he had set out in search of Beppo. "And I live in Sur Varne."
At this the count gave a long whistle. "At Sur Varne!" he exclaimed. "If thou speakest truly, my little man, thou hast indeed a sturdy pair of legs to have carried thee thus far." And he eyed curiously Félix's dusty little feet and leathern leggings, dangling limply from the bough above him. "Dost thou know how far distant is Sur Varne from this forest?"
"Nay, sir," answered Félix; "but I trow 't is a great way."
"There thou art right," said the count; "'t is a good two leagues, if it is a pace. But how now? Thou canst not bide here to become the prey of hungry wolves, my little night-owl of the yellow hair!"
And thereupon Count Bernard dexterously raised himself in his stirrups, and, reaching upward, caught Félix in his arms and swung him down plump on the saddle-bow in front of him; then, showing him how to steady himself by holding the pommel, he turned to Brian, his squire, who while all this was going on had stood by in silent astonishment, and giving the order to move, the little cavalcade hastened on at a rapid pace in order to get clear of the forest as quickly as possible.
Meantime the Count Bernard, who was really a very kind and noble lord, and who lived in a beautiful castle on the farther verge of the forest, quite reassured Félix by talking to him kindly, and telling him of the six days' journey from which he and his squire Brian were just returning, and how they had been delayed on the way until nightfall.
"And, by my faith!" said Count Bernard, "thou shalt sleep this night in the strong castle of Bois Varne, with not even a mouse to fret thy yellow head; and, what is more, thou shalt see the fairest little maid that ever thou hast set eyes on!"
And then he told him of his little daughter, the Lady Elinor, and how she would play with Félix and show him the castle, and how on the morrow they would see about sending him home to Sur Varne.
And all the while the count was talking they were trotting briskly onward, till by and by they emerged from the forest and saw towering near at hand the castle of Bois Varne. The tall turrets shone and shimmered in the moonlight, and over the gateway of the drawbridge hung a lighted cresset— that is, a beautiful wrought-iron basket, in which blazed a ruddy torch of oil to light them on their way.
At sight of this the count and Brian spurred on their horses, and were soon clattering across the bridge and into the great paved courtyard. The count flung his bridle to a little page who hastened out to meet him, and then, springing from his saddle, lightly lifted Félix and swung him to the ground. He took the boy by the hand and led him into the great hall of the castle.
To Félix this looked marvelously beautiful. Christmas garlands of myrtle hung on the walls, and a great pile of freshly cut laurel boughs lay on a bench, ready for the morrow's arranging. But that which took his eyes most of all was the lovely carving everywhere to be seen. The benches and tables were covered with it; the wainscot of the spacious room was richly adorned; and over and about the wide fireplace great carved dragons of stone curled their long tails and spread their wings through a maze of intricate traceries. Félix was enchanted, and gazed around till his eyes fairly ached.
Presently in came running a little girl, laughing with delight. Bounding up into Count Bernard's arms, she hugged and kissed him in true Provençal fashion. Then, catching sight of Félix, "Ah, mon père," she exclaimed, "and where foundest thou thy pretty new page?"
"Nay, sweetheart," answered the count, looking down at Félix's yellow hair; "'t is no page, but a little goldfinch we found perched in a chestnut-tree as we rode through the forest."
Then, smiling at the Lady Elinor's bewilderment, he told her the little boy's story, and she at once slipped down and greeted him kindly. Then, clapping her hands with pleasure at finding a new playmate, she declared he must come and see the Christmas crèche which she was just finishing. She seized him by the hand and hastened across the hall, where her crèche was built up on a carved bench. The poor little Lady Elinor had no mother, and her father, the count, had been gone for several days; and while in the castle were no end of serving men and women and retainers, yet none of these presumed to dictate to the little mistress, and so she had put her crèche together in a very odd fashion.
"There!" said she, "what thinkest thou of it, Félix? Of a truth, I fancy somewhat is wanting, yet I know not how to better it!"
"Yes," said Felix, bashfully; "it may be I can help thee."
And so he set to work rearranging the little houses and figures, till he succeeded in giving quite a lifelike air to the crèche, and Lady Elinor fairly danced with delight.
While placing the little manger he happened to remember the figure of the Christ Child still in his blouse pocket; this he timidly took out and showed the little girl, who was charmed, and still more so when he drew forth a small wooden sheep and a dog, which were also in the same pocket.
The Lady Elinor was so carried away with joy that she flew to the side of the count, and, grasping both his hands, dragged him across the room to show him the crèche and the wonderful figures carved by Félix.
"See, mon père!" said Elinor, "see this, and this!" And she held up the little carvings for the count's inspection.
Count Bernard, who had good-naturedly crossed the room to please his little daughter, now opened his eyes wide with surprise. He took the little figures she handed him and examined them closely, for he was a good judge of artistic work of this kind. Then he looked at Félix, and at length he said:
"Well, little forest bird, who taught thee the carver's craft?"
"No one, sir," faltered Félix; "indeed, I wish, above all things, to learn of the Père Videau, the master carver; but my father says I must be a shepherd, as he is."
Here a tear rolled down Félix's cheek, for you must remember he was terribly tired.
"Well, well," said the count, "never mind! Thou art weary, little one; we will talk of this more on the morrow. 'T is high time now that both of you were sound asleep. Hey, there! Jean! Jacques! Come hither and take care of this little lad, and see to it that he hath a soft bed and a feather pillow!"
The next morning the children ate a merry breakfast together, and after it Count Bernard took Félix aside and asked him many questions of his life and his home. Then, by and by, knowing how anxious the boy's parents would be, he ordered his trusty squire, Brian, to saddle a horse and conduct Félix back to Sur Varne.
Meantime the little Lady Elinor begged hard that he stay longer in the castle for her playfellow, and was quite heartbroken when she saw the horse stand ready in the courtyard. Indeed, she would not be satisfied until her father, the count, who could not bear to see her unhappy, had promised to some day take her over to see Félix in Sur Varne. Then she smiled, and made a pretty farewell courtesy, and suddenly snatching from her dark hair a crimson ribbon of Lyons taffeta, she tied it about Félix's sleeve, declaring, "There! thou must keep this token, and be my little knight!" for the Lady Elinor had many lofty notions in her small curly head.
Félix could only stammer out an embarrassed good-by, for in the presence of this lively little maid he found himself quaking more than when he feared the terrible wolves of the forest. In another moment Brian lifted him to the saddle, and, springing up behind, took the bridle-rein, and off they went.
When, after several hours' riding, they drew near Sur Varne, Félix showed Brian the way to the Michaud cottage, and you can fancy how overjoyed were the Père and Misè to see the travelers; for they had been fairly beside themselves with grief, and had searched all night for their little son.
Of course almost the first question Félix asked was about Beppo, and he felt a great load taken off his mind when he learned that the little truant, who had not really strayed very far from the village, had been found and brought home by one of the shepherds, and was even then penned up safe and sound in the sheepfold.
After a good night's sleep Félix was quite rested from his journey, and was busy the next day in helping garland the Yule log, in giving Ninette and Beppo an extra scrubbing and brushing, and in all the final happy preparations for the great holiday.
And so Christmas Eve came. It was a lovely star-lit night, and on all sides one could hear the beautiful Christmas songs of old Provence that all the peasants and the children sang as they trooped along the roads on their way to the great church of the village; for thither every one flocked as the expected hour drew on.
Then presently the stately service began, and went on with song and incense, and the sweet chanting of children's voices, till suddenly from the upper tower of the church a joyous peal of bells rang in the midnight! And all at once, through the dense throng of worshipers nearest the door a pathway opened, and in came four peasants playing on pipes and flutes and flageolets a quaint old air made up three hundred years before by good King René for just such a ceremony as was to follow.
After the pipers walked ten shepherds, two by two, each wearing a long brown cloak, and carrying a staff and lighted candle; that is, all save the first two, and these bore, one a basket of fruit, the melons and grapes and pears of sunny Provence, while the other held in his hands a pair of pretty white pigeons with rose-colored eyes and soft, fluttering wings.
And then, behind the shepherds came—what do you suppose?—Ninette! Ninette, her fleece shining like snow, a garland of laurel and myrtle about her neck, and twigs of holly nodding behind her ears, while bound about her woolly shoulders a little harness of scarlet leather shone against the white with dazzling effect; and fastened to the harness, and trundling along at Ninette's heels, came the gayest of little wooden carts. It was painted in the brightest colors. Its wheels were wrapped with garlands, and in it, curled up in a fat fleecy ball, lay Beppo! Tied about his neck in a huge bow was a crimson ribbon of Lyons taffeta, with a sprig of holly tucked into its loops.
Beppo lay quite still, looking about him with a bewildered, half-dazed expression, and just behind his cart came ten more shepherds with staffs and candles, while following them was a great throng of peasant folk and children (among them Félix), all carrying lighted tapers, and radiant with delight; for this was the Procession of the Offered Lamb, and to walk in its train was considered by all as the greatest honor and privilege.
And especially did the shepherd folk love the beautiful old custom which for centuries the people of Provence had cherished from year to year in memory of the time, long ago, when the real Christ Child lay in the manger of Bethlehem, and the shepherds of Judea sought him out to worship him, and to offer him their fruits and lambs as gifts.
And so on up the long aisle the procession slowly moved, the pipers playing, and Ninette marching solemnly along, only now and then pausing to thrust her nose between the Père Michaud and his companion, who walked directly in front of her. Ninette pattered on as if she had trod the floors of churches all her life; and as for Beppo, only once did he stir, and then he gave a faint "Baa!" and tried to uncurl himself and stand up; but just then the queer little cart gave a joggle which quite upset his shaky lamb legs, and down he sank, and kept quiet throughout the rest of the time.
After the service the players again struck up King René's tune, and the procession, shepherds, Ninette, Beppo, peasants, and all, once more moved on, this time down the outer aisle and toward the great open portal.
It took some time for the last of its followers to reach the doorway, for the throng was very great; but at length Félix, who had marched with the children in the last group, came to the threshold and stepped out into the starry night.
He stood for a moment smiling and gazing aimlessly ahead, overwhelmed with the glory of all that had passed within the church, when presently he felt some one pluck his sleeve, and turning round, he met the dancing eyes of the little Lady Elinor.
She gave a little peal of laughter at his surprise, and exclaimed: "Oh, I coaxed mon père, the count, to fetch me hither for this blessed night. Thou knowest he promised! I rode my white palfrey all the way by the side of his big brown horse. And I have seen the procession, and Beppo with my red ribbon round his neck." Here she gave another little gurgle of delight. "And oh, Félix, my father hath seen thine, and 't is all settled! Thou art to be a famous carver with the Père Videau, as thou wishest" (for the Lady Elinor had unbounded faith in Félix's powers); "and, Félix," she added, "I trow 't was the little Christ Child for thy crèche that did it!"
Then, with a merry little smile, she darted off to her father, the Count
Bernard, who was waiting for her down the church path.
For a little while after she had gone Félix did not move, but stood as one in a dream. Presently a loud bleat close at his side startled him, and, looking down, he saw that Ninette, decked in her gay garlands, and still dragging the be-ribboned Beppo in the little cart, had broken away from the Père Michaud and come close up to himself.
Then, with a sudden movement, he stooped over, and, seizing Beppo in both arms, hugged and squeezed him till poor Beppo squeaked with surprise, and opened his red mouth and fairly gasped for breath. But Félix only hugged him the harder, murmuring under his breath, "Bless thy little heart, Beppo! Bless thy little heart!" For in a vague way he realized that the truant lamb had somehow brought him his heart's desire, and that was quite enough Christmas happiness for one year.
And the little Lady Elinor was right, too. Years after, when Félix grew to be a man, he did, in very truth, become a "famous carver," as she had declared.
Far surpassing his first master, the Père Videau, he traveled and worked in many cities; yet never, through all his long life, did he forget that Christmas Eve in the little village of Sur Varne.
Those who knew him best said that among his dearest treasures he always kept a beautifully carved little box, and in it a bit of faded crimson ribbon from the looms of Lyons. While, as for Beppo—well, if ever some happy day you chance to visit the lovely land of Provence, perhaps you will see a certain grand old cathedral in the ancient city of Arles; and, if you do, look sharp at the figure of a lamb chiseled in white stone over the great portal. Look well, I say, for Félix, when he carved it, would have told you that he was thinking all the while of his little pet lamb Beppo.
Félix - A Christmas Story by Evaleen Stein