“And the symbolism of this stunning make-up?” queried Ralph after a while, lazily admiring.
The girl’s eyes flashed.
“To-night, if you please,” she said, “I am the spirit of the old-fashioned Christmas who dwells in the holly heart of the evergreen wood. A country Christmas, ruddy-cheeked and cheerful and rugged like the winter holly—simple and old-fashioned and hallowed with memories like this bright soft crimson gown!”
Well, she had been a queer, fanciful youngster too, Doctor Ralph remembered, always passionately aquiver with a wild sylvan poetry and over-fond of book-lore like her father. Mischievously glancing at a spray of mistletoe above the girl’s dark head, he stepped forward with the careless gallantry that had won him many a kindly glance from pretty eyes and was strangely to fail him now. For at the look in Madge’s calm eyes, he drew back, stammering.
“I—I beg your pardon!” said Doctor Ralph.
Later as he stood thoughtfully by his bedroom window, staring queerly at the wind-beaten elms, he found himself repeating Madge Hildreth’s words. “Ruddy-cheeked and rugged and cheerful!”—indeed—this unforgettable Christmas eve. Yes—she was right. Had he not often heard his father say that the Christmas season epitomized all the rugged sympathy and heartiness and health of the country year! To-night the blazing Yule-log, his mother’s face—how white her hair was growing, thought Doctor Ralph with a sudden tightening of his throat—all of these memories had strummed forgotten and finer chords. And darkly foiling the homely brightness came the picture of rushing, overstrung, bundle-laden city crowds, of shop-girls white and weary, of store-heaps of cedar and holly sapped by electric glare. Rush and strain and worry—yes—and a spirit of grudging! How unlike the Christmas peace of this white, wind-world outside his window! So Doctor Ralph went to bed with a sigh and a shrug—to listen while the sleety boughs tapping at his windows roused ghostly phantoms of his boyhood. Falling asleep, he dreamt that pretty Madge Hildreth had lightly waved a Christmas wand of crimson above his head and dispelled his weariness and discontent.
And in the morning—there was the royal glitter of a Christmas ice-storm to bring boyhood memories crowding again, boughs sheathed in crystal armor and the old barn roof aglaze with ice. Yes—Ralph thrilled—and there were the Christmas bunches of oats on the fences and trees and the roof of the barn—how well he remembered! For the old Doctor loved this Christmas custom too and never forgot the Christmas birds. And to-day—why of course—there would be double allowances of food for the cattle and horses, for old Toby the cat and Rover the dog. Hadn’t Ralph once performed this cherished Christmas task himself!