The Christmas Guest by Mrs. Molesworth
FROM A TRUE INCIDENT

She was a very poor little girl, very poor indeed; often—indeed almost always—hungry, and thinly-clad, and delicate, but yet not altogether miserable. No, far from it, for she had a loving mother who did her poor best for her children. There were three or four of them and Emmy was the eldest. She was only six, but she was looked upon as almost grown-up, for father had died last year, and Emmy had to help mother with "the little ones," as she always called them.

They lived in a single room in one of the poorest and most crowded parts of great London; in a street which was filled with houses of one-room homes like their own. There was much misery and much wickedness, I fear, too, in their neighbourhood; drinking, and swearing, and fighting, as well as hunger, and cold, and sickness. But compared with several years ago, when Emmy's mother herself had been a girl living in much such a home as she now strove "to keep together" for her fatherless babies, compared with that time, as she, and others too, used often to say, "it was a deal better." There was less drinking and bad language; there was less misery. For friends—friends able and earnestly anxious to help—had taken up their abode in the very next street to little Emmy's; the church had been "done up beautiful," and there there was always a welcome and a rest from the troubles and worries at home; and the clergyman, as well as the kind ladies who had come to live among their toiling, struggling brothers and sisters, knew all about everybody and everything, knew who was ill and who was out of work, knew who were "trying to be good" even among the children, knew even the tiniest tots by name , and had always a kind word and smile, however busy and hurried they were.

And, thanks greatly to these kind friends, Emmy's life was not without its pleasures. She loved the infant school on Sundays, she loved the "treats"; once last summer—and Emmy was old enough now to remember last summer well, though it seemed a very long time ago—there had been a treat into the country, a real day in the country, where, for the first time in her life, the child saw grass and trees.

But it was far from summer time now, it was midwinter. Christmas was close at hand, and winter had brought more than its usual troubles to the little family. There were worse things this year than cold and scant food, chapped hands and chilblained feet. Tiny, as they called the baby but one, was very ill with bronchitis, the doctor could not say if she would get better, and sometimes it seemed to the poor mother as if it was hardly to be wished that she should.

"She suffers so, poor dear, and seeing to her hinders me sadly with my work. I do feel as if I'd break down at last altogether," she said one evening—it was Christmas Eve—to a neighbour who had looked in to see how things were going on.

"And Emmy's looking pale," said the visitor, "she wants cheering up a bit too. Let her come to church with me for a change. I'm going to the evening service now."

Emmy brightened up at this. She had not been at church last Sunday, and, like most children, she was especially fond of going in the evening. It seemed grander and more solemn somehow, when all was dark outside. And the lights and warmth, and above all the music, were very pleasant to the little girl. So with a parting word of advice to the mother to keep up heart a bit longer—"things allus starts mending when they get to the worst"—the kind neighbour set off, holding Emmy by the hand.

It was beautiful in church, the Christmas "dressing up," as Emmy called it, had been completed that afternoon; to the child it seemed a sort of fairy-land, though of fairy-land she had never heard. But she had heard of heaven, which was better.

"It could scarce be finer there," she thought to herself dreamily, as she listened to the words of the service with a feeling that all was sweet and beautiful, though she could actually understand but little.

The sermon was short and simple. But Emmy was getting sleepy, and the thought of poor mother, and Tiny with her hacking cough, mingled with what she heard, till suddenly something caught her ear which startled her into attention. The preacher had been speaking of the first Christmas-day, concluding with some words about the morrow, when again the whole Christian world would join in welcoming their Lord. For "again He will come to us; again Jesus Himself will be here in the midst of us, ready as ever to listen to our prayers, to comfort and console."

Emmy was wide awake now. She scarcely heard the words of the carol, she was in a fever of eager hopefulness.

"What a good thing I came to-night," she said to herself, "else I mightn't ever have knowed it. I would like to see Him first of all. There'll be such a many, and He'll have such a deal to do. But it wouldn't take Him that long to come round with me to see Tiny, and if He does, like in the story, He'll cure her in 'alf a minute. I know what I'll do"—and a little scheme formed itself in the childish mind—"though I'll not tell mother," thought Emmy, "just for fear like, I should be too late to catch Him."

"'Twas a lovely sermon, and so touchin' too," said Emmy's friend to another woman as they walked home.

"It strengthens one up a bit, it do," agreed her companion. "I'll try my best to be round for the seven o'clock service in the morning."

"Seven o'clock in the morning!" said Emmy to herself. "I'll best be here soon after six."

Christmas morning was very cold. There was some frozen snow lying hard and still white in the streets, and there was moonlight, pale and clear. So it was light enough for one of the Sisters, entering the church betimes, to distinguish a little figure curled up darkly in the porch. A thrill of fear ran through her for a moment. Supposing it were some poor child turned out by a drunken father, as sometimes happened, frozen to death this bitter night? But no—the small creature started to its feet.

"Is it He? Has Jesus come?" she exclaimed. "Oh! do let me speak to Him first."

"My child!" exclaimed the sister, "what is it? Have you been dreaming? Why, it is little Emmy Day. Have you been here all night?"

"No, no," Emmy replied, her teeth chattering with cold, and the sob of a half-feared disappointment in her voice. "No, no; I slipped out while mother and all was still asleep. I'm waiting to ask Him to come to our Tiny;" and she went on to tell what she had heard last night, and what she had planned and hoped.

Her friend took her into her own room for a few minutes, and there gently and tenderly explained to Emmy her sweet mistake. And though her tears could not all at once be stopped, the little girl trotted back to her mother with comfort in her heart, and strange and wonderful, yet beautiful new thoughts in her mind.

"He is always near, I can always pray to Him," she whispered to herself.

And her prayers were answered. Tiny recovered, and thanks to the kind Sisters, that Christmas Day was the beginning of better things for the little family.