The Orphans’ New Year’s Gift

The Orphans’ New Year’s Gift

The room
is full of shadow; you can hear, indistinctly, the sad soft whispering
of two children.

Their foreheads lean forward, still heavy with dreams, beneath the long
white bed-curtain

which shudders and rises… Outside the birds crowd together, chilled;

their wings are benumbed under the grey tints of the skies; and the New
Year,

with her train of mist, trailing the folds of her snowy garment,

smiles through her tears, and shivering, sings…

II

But the little
children, beneath the swaying curtain, talk in low voices as one does
on a dark night.

Thoughtfully they listen as to a far-off murmur… They tremble often
at the clear golden voice of the

morning chime repeatedly striking its metallic refrain beneath its glass
dome…

And then, the room is icy… you can see, strewn here and there on the
floor round the beds,

mourning clothes: the bitter blast of winter which moans at the threshold
blows its melancholy

breath into the house! You can feel, in all this, that there is something
missing…

Is there then no mother for these little children? No mother full of fresh
smiles and looks of triumph?

Did she forget, last night, stooping down by herself, to kindle a flame
saved from these ashes,

and to heap up the blankets and eiderdown on them before leaving them,

calling out to them: forgive me! Did she not forsee the chill of the morning?

Did she forget to close the door against the blast of winter? A mother’s
dream is the warm coverlet,

the downy nest, where children, huddled like pretty birds rocked by the
branches,

sleep their sweet sleep full of white dreams. — And here? — it is like
a nest without feathers or warmth,

where the little ones are cold, do not sleep, are afraid; a nest that
the bitter blast must have frozen…

III

Your heart
has understood: — these children are motherless. No mother in the place
any more!…

and their father is far away!… — An old servant woman, then, has taken
them under her care.

The little ones are alone in the icy house; four-year-old orphans, see
how in their thoughts,

little by little, a smiling memory awakes… It’s like a rosary which
you tell, praying: —

Ah, what a beautiful morning, that New Year’s morning!

Everyone had dreamt of his dear ones that night,

in some strange dream where you could see toys, sweets covered with gold,
sparkling jewels,

all whirling an echoing dance, and then disappearing beneath the curtain,
and then reappearing!

You awoke in the morning and got up full of joy with your mouth watering,
rubbing your eyes…

You went with tangled hair and shining eyes, as on holiday mornings,

little bare feet brushing the floor, to tap softly on your parents’ door…
You went in!…

And then came the greetings… in your nightshirt, kisses upon kisses,
and fun all allowed!

IV

Ah how charming
it was, those words so often spoken! — But how the old home has changed!

There used to be a big fire crackling bright in the grate, so that the
old bedroom was all lit up by it;

and the red reflection from the great hearth would play over the gleaming
furniture… —

There was no key in the cupboard!… the big brown cupboard with no key!…

You kept looking at the dark brown door… No key!… That was strange!…

you kept wondering about the mysteries sleeping within its wooden sides;
and you seemed to hear,

from the bottom of the huge keyhole, a far-off sound, an indistinct and
joyful murmur…

Their parents’ bedroom is quite empty now: there is no red reflection
shining under the door;

there are no parents, no fire, no hidden keys; and so there are no kisses
either,

or pleasant surprises! Oh how sad their New Year’s Day will be! — And
sadly,

while a bitter tear falls silently from their big blue eyes,

they murmur: ‘Oh when will our mother come back?’…

V

Now the little
ones are dozing sadly: you would say, to see them,

that they are crying in their sleep, their eyes are so swollen, their
breathing so painful!

Small children have such sensitive hearts! — But the guardian angel of
the cradle comes and

wipes their eyes and puts a happy dream into their heavy slumber, such
a joyous dream that

their half-open lips seem, smiling, to murmur something. They are dreaming
that, leaning

on their small round arms, in the sweet gesture of awakening, they lift
their heads and gaze

mildly about them… They seem to have fallen asleep in some rose-coloured
paradise…

The fire crackles merrily in the bright hearth… Through the window you
can see a lovely

blue sky over there; nature is awakening and becoming drunk again with
sunlight…

the earth, half-bare, happy to be alive again, trembles with joy beneath
the sun’s kisses.

In the old home all is warm and flushed: no longer are there mourning
garments strewn on the floor,

and the draught has at least ceased to moan under the door… You would
say that a fairy

had passed this way!… The children, full of happiness, give two cries…

Here, near their mother’s bed in a beautiful rose-coloured ray of light,

here on the big carpet, something shines… It is two silvery plaques,
black and white,

glittering with mother-of-pearl and jet; little black frames and wreaths
of glass,

with three words engraved in gold: ‘TO OUR MOTHER’…

December
1869

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