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It was Christmas Eve, but there was no frost, or snow, or sparkle. It was a green Christmas, and the night was mild and dim, with hazy starlight. A little wind was laughing freakishly among the firs around Ingleside and rustling among the sere grasses along the garden walks. It was more like a night in early spring or late fall than in December; but it was Christmas Eve, and there was a light in every window of Ingleside, the glow breaking out through the whispering darkness like a flame-red blossom swung against the background of the evergreens; for the children were coming home for the Christmas reunion, as they always came—Fritz and Margaret and Laddie and Nora, and Robert's two boys in the place of Robert, who had died fourteen years ago—and the old house must put forth its best of light and good cheer to welcome them.
Doctor Fritz and his brood were the last to arrive, driving up to the hall door amid a chorus of welcoming barks from the old dogs and a hail of merry calls from the group in the open doorway.
"We're all here now," said the little mother, as she put her arms about the neck of her stalwart firstborn and kissed his bearded face. There were handshakings and greetings and laughter. Only Nanny, far back in the shadows of the firelit hall, swallowed a resentful sob, and wiped two bitter tears from her eyes with her little red hand.
"We're not all here," she murmured under her breath. "Miss Avis isn't here. Oh, how can they be so glad? How can they have forgotten?"
But nobody heard or heeded Nanny—she was only the little orphan "help" girl at Ingleside. They were all very good to her, and they were all very fond of her, but at the times of family reunion Nanny was unconsciously counted out. There was no bond of blood to unite her to them, and she was left on the fringe of things. Nanny never resented this—it was all a matter of course to her; but on this Christmas Eve her heart was broken because she thought that nobody remembered Miss Avis.
After supper they all gathered around the open fireplace of the hall, hung with its berries and evergreens in honour of the morrow. It was their unwritten law to form a fireside circle on Christmas Eve and tell each other what the year had brought them of good and ill, sorrow and joy. The circle was smaller by one than it had been the year before, but none spoke of that. There was a smile on every face and happiness in every voice.
The father and mother sat in the centre, grey-haired and placid, their fine old faces written over with the history of gracious lives. Beside the mother, Doctor Fritz sat like a boy, on the floor, with his massive head, grey as his father's, on her lap, and one of his smooth, muscular hands, that were as tender as a woman's at the operating table, clasped in hers. Next to him sat sweet Nora, the twenty-year-old "baby," who taught in a city school; the rosy firelight gleamed lovingly over her girlish beauty of burnished brown hair, dreamy blue eyes, and soft, virginal curves of cheek and throat. Doctor Fritz's spare arm was about her, but Nora's own hands were clasped over her knee, and on one of them sparkled a diamond that had not been there at the last Christmas reunion. Laddie, who figured as Archibald only in the family Bible, sat close to the inglenook—a handsome young fellow with a daring brow and rollicking eyes. On the other side sat Margaret, hand in hand with her father, a woman whose gracious sweetness of nature enveloped her as a garment; and Robert's two laughing boys filled up the circle, looking so much alike that it was hard to say which was Cecil and which was Sid.
Margaret's husband and Fritz's wife were playing games with the children in the parlour, whence shrieks of merriment drifted out into the hall. Nanny might have been with them had she chosen, but she preferred to sit alone in the darkest corner of the hall and gaze with jealous, unhappy eyes at the mirthful group about the fire, listening to their story and jest and laughter with unavailing protest in her heart. Oh, how could they have forgotten so soon? It was not yet a full year since Miss Avis had gone. Last Christmas Eve she had sat there, a sweet and saintly presence, in the inglenook, more, so it had almost seemed, the centre of the home circle than the father and mother; and now the December stars were shining over her grave, and not one of that heedless group remembered her; not once was her name spoken; even her old dog had forgotten her—he sat with his nose in Margaret's lap, blinking with drowsy, aged contentment at the fire.
"Oh, I can't bear it!" whispered Nanny, under cover of the hearty laughter which greeted a story Doctor Fritz had been telling. She slipped out into the kitchen, put on her hood and cloak, and took from a box under the table a little wreath of holly. She had made it out of the bits left over from the decorations. Miss Avis had loved holly; Miss Avis had loved every green, growing thing.
As Nanny opened the kitchen door something cold touched her hand, and there stood the old dog, wagging his tail and looking up at her with wistful eyes, mutely pleading to be taken, too.
"So you do remember her, Gyppy," said Nanny, patting his head. "Come along then. We'll go together."
They slipped out into the night. It was quite dark, but it was not far to the graveyard—just out through the evergreens and along a field by-path and across the road. The old church was there, with its square tower, and the white stones gleaming all around it. Nanny went straight to a shadowy corner and knelt on the sere grasses while she placed her holly wreath on Miss Avis's grave. The tears in her eyes brimmed over.
"Oh, Miss Avis! Miss Avis!" she sobbed. "I miss you so—I miss you so! It can't ever seem like Christmas to me without you. You were always so sweet and kind to me. There ain't a day passes but I think of you and all the things you used to say to me, and I try to be good like you'd want me to be. But I hate them for forgetting you—yes, I do! I'll never forget you, darling Miss Avis! I'd rather be here alone with you in the dark than back there with them."
Nanny sat down by the grave. The old dog lay down by her side with his forepaws on the turf and his eyes fixed on the tall white marble shaft. It was too dark for Nanny to read the inscription but she knew every word of it: "In loving remembrance of Avis Maywood, died January 20, 1902, aged 45." And underneath the lines of her own choosing:
But they had forgotten her—oh, they had forgotten her already!
When half an hour had passed, Nanny was startled by approaching footsteps. Not wishing to be seen, she crept softly behind the headstones into the shadow of the willow on the farther side, and the old dog followed. Doctor Fritz, coming to the grave, thought himself alone with the dead. He knelt down by the headstone and pressed his face against it.
"Avis," he said gently, "dear Avis, I have come to visit your grave tonight because you seem nearer to me here than elsewhere. And I want to talk to you, Avis, as I have always talked to you every Christmastide since we were children together. I have missed you so tonight, dear friend and sympathizer—no words can tell how I have missed you—your welcoming handclasp and your sweet face in the firelight shadows. I could not bear to speak your name, the aching sense of loss was so bitter. Amid all the Christmas mirth and good fellowship I felt the sorrow of your vacant chair. Avis, I wanted to tell you what the year had brought to me. My theory has been proved; it has made me a famous man. Last Christmas, Avis, I told you of it, and you listened and understood and believed in it. Dear Avis, once again I thank you for all you have been to me—all you are yet. I have brought you your roses; they are as white and pure and fragrant as your life."
Other footsteps came so quickly on Doctor Fritz' retreating ones that Nanny could not rise. It was Laddie this time—gay, careless, thoughtless Laddie.
"Roses? So Fritz has been here! I have brought you lilies, Avis. Oh, Avis, I miss you so! You were so jolly and good—you understood a fellow so well. I had to come here tonight to tell you how much I miss you. It doesn't seem half home without you. Avis, I'm trying to be a better chap—more the sort of man you'd have me be. I've given the old set the go-by—I'm trying to live up to your standard. It would be easier if you were here to help me. When I was a kid it was always easier to be good for awhile after I'd talked things over with you. I've got the best mother a fellow ever had, but you and I were such chums, weren't we, Avis? I thought I'd just break down in there tonight and put a damper on everything by crying like a baby. If anybody had spoken about you, I should have. Hello!"
Laddie wheeled around with a start, but it was only Robert's two boys, who came shyly up to the grave, half hanging back to find anyone else there.
"Hello, boys," said Laddie huskily. "So you've come to see her grave too?"
"Yes," said Cecil solemnly. "We—we just had to. We couldn't go to bed without coming. Oh, isn't it lonesome without Cousin Avis?"
"She was always so good to us," said Sid.
"She used to talk to us so nice," said Cecil chokily. "But she liked fun, too."
"Boys," said Laddie gravely, "never forget what Cousin Avis used to say to you. Never forget that you have got to grow up into men she'd be proud of."
They went away then, the boys and their boyish uncle; and when they had gone Nora came, stealing timidly through the shadows, starting at the rustle of the wind in the trees.
"Oh, Avis," she whispered. "I want to see you so much! I want to tell you all about it—about him. You would understand so well. He is the best and dearest lover ever a girl had. You would think so too. Oh, Avis, I miss you so much! There's a little shadow even on my happiness because I can't talk it over with you in the old way. Oh, Avis, it was dreadful to sit around the fire tonight and not see you. Perhaps you were there in spirit. I love to think you were, but I wanted to see you. You were always there to come home to before, Avis, dear."
Sobbing, she went away; and then came Margaret, the grave, strong Margaret.
"Dear cousin, dear to me as a sister, it seemed to me that I must come to you here tonight. I cannot tell you how much I miss your wise, clear-sighted advice and judgment, your wholesome companionship. A little son was born to me this past year, Avis. How glad you would have been, for you knew, as none other did, the bitterness of my childless heart. How we would have delighted to talk over my baby together, and teach him wisely between us! Avis, Avis, your going made a blank that can never be filled for me!"
Margaret was still standing there when the old people came.
"Father! Mother! Isn't it too late and chilly for you to be here?"
"No, Margaret, no," said the mother. "I couldn't go to my bed without coming to see Avis's grave. I brought her up from a baby—her dying mother gave her to me. She was as much my own child as any of you. And oh! I miss her so. You only miss her when you come home, but I miss her all the time—every day!"
"We all miss her, Mother," said the old father, tremulously. "She was a good girl—Avis was a good girl. Good night, Avis!"
"'Say not good night, but in some brighter clime bid her good morning,'" quoted Margaret softly. "That was her own wish, you know. Let us go back now. It is getting late."
When they had gone Nanny crept out from the shadows. It had not occurred to her that perhaps she should not have listened—she had been too shy to make her presence known to those who came to Avis's grave. But her heart was full of joy.
"Oh, Miss Avis, I'm so glad, I'm so glad! They haven't forgotten you after all, Miss Avis, dear, not one of them. I'm sorry I was so cross at them; and I'm so glad they haven't forgotten you. I love them for it."
Then the old dog and Nanny went home together.
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