Little Carl's Christmas Eve

by Grace Greenwood

"Come in!" shouted together the host and hostess of a little German wayside inn, near the banks of the Rhine, and not far below the city of Basle, and the borders of Switzerland. It was Christmas-eve, and a tempestuous night. The wind was raving round the little inn, and tearing away at windows and doors, as though mad to get at the brave little light within, and extinguish it without mercy. The snow was falling fast, drifting and driving, obstructing the highway, blinding the eyes of man and beast.

The "come in" of the host and hostess was in answer to a loud, hurried rap at the door, by which there immediately entered two travellers. One, by his military dress, seemed a soldier, and the other appeared to be his servant. This was the case. General Wallenstein was on his way from Carlsruhe, to his home in Basle. He had been delayed several hours by an accident to his post-carriage and by the storm, and now found himself obliged to stop for the night at this lonely and comfortless little inn.

When the officer threw aside his plumed hat and military cloak of rich fur, and strode up to the fire, with his epaulettes flashing in the light, and his sword knocking against his heels, cling, clang, the gruff host was greatly impressed with his importance, and willingly went out to assist the postilion in the care of the horses. As for the old hostess, she bustled about with wonderful activity to prepare supper for the great man.

"Ho, Carl!" she cried, "thou young Rhine-sprite, thou water-imp, run to the wood for another bundle of fagots! Away, haste thee, or I 'll give thee back to thy elfin kinsfolk, who are ever howling for thee!"

At these strange, sharp words, a wild-looking little boy started up from a dusky corner of the room, where he had been lying with his head pillowed on a great tawny Swiss dog, and darted out of the door. He was coarsely dressed and bare-footed; yet there was something uncommon about him,—something grand, yet familiar in his look, which struck the traveller strangely.

"Is that your child?" he asked.

"No indeed," said the old dame; "I am a poor woman, and have seen trouble in my time, but, blessed be the saints! I 'm not the mother of water-imps."

"Why do you call the boy a water-imp?"

"I call him so, your excellency," said the woman, sinking her shrill voice into an awe-struck tone, "because he came from the water, and belongs to the water. He floated down the Rhine in the great flood, four years ago come spring, a mere baby, that could barely tell his name, perched on the roof of a little chalet, in the night, amid thunder, lightning, and rain! Now, it is plain that no human child could have lived through that. My good man spied him in the morning early, and took him off in his boat. I took him in for pity; but I have always been afraid of him, and every flood-time I think the Rhine is coming for his own again."

The traveller seemed deeply interested, and well he might be; for in the very flood of which the superstitious old dame spoke his only child, an infant boy, had been lost, with his nurse, whose cottage on the river-bank below Basle had been swept away by night.

"Was the child quite alone on the roof of the chalet?" he asked in an agitated tone.

"Yes," said the hostess, "all but an old dog, who seemed to belong to him."

"That dog must have dragged him up on to the roof, and saved him!" exclaimed the general; "is he yet alive?"

"Yes, just alive. He must be very old, for he is almost stone blind and deaf. My good man would have put him out of the way long ago, but for Carl; and as he shares his meals, and makes his bed with him, I suppose it is no loss to keep the brute."

"Show me the dog!" said the officer, with authority.

"Here he lies, your excellency," said the dame. "We call him Elfen-hund" (elf-dog).

General Wallenstein bent over the dog, touched him gently, and shouted in his ear his old name of "Leon." The dog had not forgotten it; he knew that voice, the touch of that hand. With a plaintive, joyful cry, he sprang up to the breast of his old master, nestled about blindly for his hands, and licked them unreproved; then sunk down, as though faint with joy, to his master's feet. The brave soldier was overcome with emotion; tears fell fast from his eyes. "Faithful creature," he exclaimed, "you have saved my child, and given him back to me." And kneeling down, he laid his hand on the head of the poor old dog and blessed him.

Just at this moment the door opened and little Carl appeared, toiling up the steps with his arms full of fagots, his cheerful face smiling brave defiance to winter winds, and night and snow.

"Come hither, Carl," said the soldier. The boy flung down his fagots and drew near.

"Dost thou know who I am?"

"Ah no,—the good Christmas King, perhaps," said the little lad, looking full of innocent wonderment.

"Alas, poor child, how shouldst thou remember me!" exclaimed General Wallenstein, sadly. Then clasping him in his arms, he said, "But I remember thee; thou art my boy, my dear, long-lost boy! Look in my face; embrace me; I am thy father!"

"No, surely," said the child, sorely bewildered, "that cannot be, for they tell me the Rhine is my father."

The soldier smiled through his tears, and soon was able to convince his little son that he had a better father than the old river that had carried him away from his tender parents. He told him of a loving mother who yet sorrowed for him, and of a little blue-eyed sister, who would rejoice when he came. Carl listened, and wondered, and laughed, and when he comprehended it all, slid from his father's arms and ran to embrace old Leon.

The next morning early General Wallenstein, after having generously rewarded the innkeeper and his wife for having given a home, though a poor one, to his little son, departed for Basle. In his arms he carried Carl, carefully wrapped in his warm fur cloak, and if sometimes the little bare feet of the child were thrust out from their covering, it was only to bury themselves in the shaggy coat of old Leon, who lay snugly curled up in the bottom of the carriage.

I will not attempt to tell you of the deep joy of Carl's mother, nor of the wild delight of his little sister, for I think such things are quite beyond any one's telling; but altogether it was to the Wallensteins a Christmas-time to thank God for, and they did thank him.