From her lodge window the concierge nodded approval. And at the door of the hospital the good Soeur received us, a flush of pleasure glorifying her tranquil face.
Then followed a moment wherein the patients were ordered to shut their eyes, to reopen them upon the vision splendid of the arbre de Noel. Perhaps it was the contrast to the meagre background of the tiny school-hospital room, with its two white beds and bare walls, but, placed in full view on the centre table, the tree was almost imposing. Standing apart from Grand’mere’s primulas and cyclamen as though, conscious of its own inferiority, it did not wish to obtrude, it had looked dejected, miserable. During its sojourn at the hotel the appreciation of its meanness had troubled us. But now, in the shabby little chamber, where there were no rival attractions to detract from its glory, we felt proud of it. It was just the right size for the surroundings. A two-franc tree, had Grand’mere possessed one, would have been Brobdignagian and pretentious.
A donor who is handicapped by the knowledge that the gifts he selects must within a few weeks be destroyed by fire, is rarely lavish in his outlay. Yet our presents, wrapped in white paper and tied with blue ribbons, when arranged round the flower-pot made a wonderful show, There were mounted Boers who, when you pressed the ball at the end of the air-tube, galloped in a wobbly, uncertain fashion. The invalids had good fun later trying races with them, and the Boy professed to find that his Boer gained an accelerated speed when he whispered “Bobs” to him. There were tales of adventure and flasks of eau-de-Cologne and smart virile pocket-books, one red morocco, the other blue. We regretted the pocket-books; but their possession made the recipients who, boylike, took no heed for the cleansing fires of the morrow, feel grown-up at once. And they yearned for the advent of the first day of the year, that they might begin writing in their new diaries. For the Sister there was a miniature gold consecrated medal. It was a small tribute of our esteem, but one that pleased the devout recipient.
Suspended among the purely ornamental trinkets of the tree hung tiny net bags of crystallised violets and many large chocolates rolled up in silver paper. The boys, who had subsisted for several days on nothing more exciting than boiled milk, openly rejoiced when they caught sight of the sweets. But to her patients’ disgust, the Soeur, who had a pretty wit of her own, promptly frustrated their intentions by counting the dainties.
“I count the chocolates. They are good boys, wise boys, honest boys, and I have every confidence in them, but—I count the chocolates!” said the Soeur.
[Illustration: One of the Devout]
As we passed back along the Rue de la Paroisse, worshippers were flocking in and out of Notre Dame, running the gauntlet of the unsavoury beggars who, loudly importunate, thronged the portals. Before the quiet nook wherein, under a gold-bestarred canopy, was the tableau of the Infant Jesus in the stable, little children stood in wide-eyed adoration, and older people gazed with mute devotion.