I was fourteen that Christmas:–all Veryan parish knows the date of the famous “Black Winter,” when the Johann brig came ashore on Kibberick beach, with a dozen foreigners frozen stiff and staring on her fore-top, and Lawyer Job, up at Ruan, lost all his lambs but two. There was neither rhyme nor wit in the season; and up to St. Thomas’s eve, when it first started to freeze, the folk were thinking that summer meant to run straight into spring. I mind the ash being in leaf on Advent Sunday, and a crowd of martins skimming round the church windows during sermon-time. Each morning brought blue sky, warm mists, and a dew that hung on the brambles till ten o’clock. The frogs were spawning in the pools; primroses were out by scores, and monthly roses blooming still; and Master shot a goat-sucker on the last day in November. All this puzzled the sheep, I suppose, and gave them a notion that their time, too, was at hand. At any rate the lambs fell early; and when they fell, it had turned to perishing cold.
That Christmas-eve, while the singers were up at the house and the fiddles going like mad, it was a dismal time for two of us. Laban Pascoe, the hind, spent his night in the upper field where the sheep lay, while I spent mine in the chall looking after Dinah, our Alderney, that had slipped her calf in the afternoon–being promised the castling’s skin for a Sunday waistcoat, if I took care of the mother. Bating the cold air that came under the door, I kept pretty cosy, what with the straw-bands round my legs and the warm breath of the cows: for we kept five. There was no wind outside, but moonlight and a still, frozen sky, like a sounding board: so that every note of the music reached me, with the bleat of Laban’s sheep far up the hill, and the waves’ wash on the beaches below. Inside the chall the only sounds were the slow chewing of the cows, the rattle of a tethering-block, now and then, or a moan from Dinah. Twice the uproar from the house coaxed me to the door to have a look at Laban’s scarlet lantern moving above, and make sure that he was worse off than I. But mostly I lay still on my straw in the one empty stall staring into the foggy face of my own lantern, thinking of the waistcoat, and listening.
I was dozing, belike, when a light tap on the door made me start up, rubbing my eyes.
“Merry Christmas, Dick!”
A little head, bright with tumbled curls, was thrust in, and a pair of round eyes stared round the chall, then back to me, and rested on my face.
“Merry Christmas, little mistress.”
“Dick–if you tell, I’ll never speak to you again. I only wanted to see if ’twas true.”
She stepped inside the chall, shutting the door behind her. Under one arm she hugged a big boy-doll, dressed like a sailor–from the Christmas-tree, I guessed–and a bright tinsel star was pinned on the shoulder of her bodice. She had come across the cold town-place in her muslin frock, with no covering for her shoulders; and the manner in which that frock was hitched upon her made me stare.
“I got out of bed again and dressed myself,” she explained. “Nurse is in the kitchen, dancing with the young man from Penare, who can’t afford to marry her for ever so long, father says. I saw them twirling, as I slipped out–“
“You have done a wrong thing,” said I: “you might catch your death.”
Her lip fell:–she was but five. “Dick, I only wanted to see if ’twas true.”
“What?” I asked, covering her shoulders with the empty sack that had been my pillow.