[Illustration: The Tree-Bearer]
The primulas and cyclamen, though their pots were shrouded in pinafores of white paper skilfully calculated to conceal any undue lankiness of stem, left us unmoved. But the sight of the starveling little fir tree reminded us that in the school hospital lay two sick boys whose roseate dreams of London and holidays had suddenly changed to the knowledge that weeks of isolation and imprisonment behind the window-blind with the red cross lay before them. If we could not give them the longed-for home Christmas, we could at least give them a Christmas-tree.
The sight of foreign customers for Grand’mere Gomard speedily collected a small group of interested spectators. A knot of children relinquished their tantalising occupation of hanging round the pan of charcoal over whose glow chestnuts were cracking appetisingly, and the stall of the lady who with amazing celerity fried pancakes on a hot plate, and sold them dotted with butter and sprinkled with sugar to the lucky possessors of a sou. Even the sharp urchin who presided over the old red umbrella, which, reversed, with the ferule fixed in a cross-bar of wood, served as a receptacle for sheets of festive note-paper embellished with lace edges and further adorned with coloured scraps, temporarily entrusting a juvenile sister with his responsibilities, added his presence to our court.
Christmas-trees seemed not to be greatly in demand in Versailles, and many were the whispered communings as to what les Anglais proposed doing with the tree after they had bought it. When the transaction was completed and Grand’mere Gomard had exchanged the tree, with a sheet of La Patrie wrapped round its pot, for a franc and our thanks, the interest increased. We would require some one to carry our purchase, and each of the bright-eyed, short-cropped Jeans and Pierres was eager to offer himself. But our selection was already made. A slender boy in a beret and black pinafore, who had been our earliest spectator, was singled out and entrusted with the conveyance of the arbre de Noel to our hotel.
The fact that it had met with approbation appeared to encourage the little tree. The change may have been imaginary, but from the moment it passed into our possession the branches seemed less despondent, the needles more erect.
“Will you put toys on it?” the youthful porter asked suddenly.
“Yes; it is for a sick boy—a boy who has fever. Have you ever had an arbre de Noel?”
“Jamais,” was his conclusive reply: the tone thereof suggesting that that was a felicity quite beyond the range of possibility.
The tree secured, there began the comparatively difficult work of finding the customary ornaments of glass and glitter to deck it. A fruitless search had left us almost in despair, when, late on Monday afternoon, we joyed to discover miniature candles of red, yellow, and blue on the open-air stall in front of a toy-store. A rummage in the interior of the shop procured candle clips, and a variety of glittering bagatelles. Laden with treasure, we hurried back to the hotel, and began the work of decoration in preparation for the morning.