The Little Countess

Cheerful as my godmother naturally was, and entertaining as, for our sakes, she made a point of being, there was no true enjoyment that evening at La Terrasse, till, through the wild howl of the winter night, were heard the signal sounds of arrival. How often, while women and girls sit warm at snug firesides, their hearts and imaginations are doomed to divorce from the comfort surrounding their persons, forced out by night to wander through dark ways, to dare stress of weather, to contend with the snow-blast, to wait at lonely gates and stiles in wildest storms, watching and listening to see and hear the father, the son, the husband coming home.

Father and son came at last to the château; for the Count de Bassompierre that night accompanied Dr. Bretton. I know not which of our trio heard the horses first. The asperity, the violence of the weather warranted our running down into the hall to meet and greet the two riders as they came in; but they warned us to keep our distance. Both were white—two mountains of snow; and indeed Mrs. Bretton, seeing their condition, ordered them instantly to the kitchen, prohibiting them, at their peril, from setting foot on her carpeted staircase till they had severally put off that mask of Old Christmas they now affected. Into the kitchen, however, we could not help following them. It was a large old Dutch kitchen, picturesque and pleasant. The little white countess danced in a circle about her equally white sire, clapping her hands and crying,—

“Papa, papa, you look like an enormous polar bear.”

The bear shook himself, and the little sprite fled far from the frozen shower. Back she came, however, laughing, and eager to aid in removing the arctic disguise. The count, at last issuing from his dreadnought, threatened to overwhelm her with it as with an avalanche.

“Come, then,” said she, bending to invite the fall, and when it was playfully advanced above her head, bounding out of reach like some little chamois.

Her movements had the supple softness, the velvet grace, of a kitten; her laugh was clearer than the ring of silver and crystal. As she took her sire’s cold hands and rubbed them, and stood on tiptoe to reach his lips for a kiss, there seemed to shine round her a halo of loving delight. The grave and reverent signior looked down on her as men do look on what is the apple of their eye.

“Mrs. Bretton,” said he, “what am I to do with this daughter or daughterling of mine? She neither grows in wisdom nor in stature. Don’t you find her pretty nearly as much the child as she was ten years ago?”

“She cannot be more the child than this great boy of mine,” said Mrs. Bretton, who was in conflict with her son about some change of dress she deemed advisable, and which he resisted. He stood leaning against the Dutch dresser, laughing and keeping her at arm’s length.

“Come, mamma,” said he, “by way of compromise, and to secure for us inward as well as outward warmth, let us have a Christmas wassail-cup, and toast Old England here, on the hearth.”

So, while the count stood by the fire, and Paulina Mary still danced to and fro, happy in the liberty of the wide hall-like kitchen, Mrs. Bretton herself instructed Martha to spice and heat the wassail-bowl, and, pouring the draught into a Bretton flagon, it was served round, reaming hot, by means of a small silver vessel, which I recognized as Graham’s christening-cup.

“Here’s to auld lang syne!” said the count, holding the glancing cup on high. Then, looking at Mrs. Bretton,—

“ ‘We twa ha’ paidlet i’ the burn
        Fra morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid ha’ roared
        Sin’ auld lang syne.
‘And surely ye’ll be your pint-stoup,
        And surely I’ll be mine;
And we’ll taste a cup o’ kindness yet
        For auld lang syne.’ ”

“Scotch! Scotch!” cried Paulina. “Papa is talking Scotch; and Scotch he is, partly. We are Home and De Bassompierre, Caledonian and Gallic.”

  By PanEris using Melati.

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