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“Ah! if to thee
It feels Elysian, how rich to me,
An exiled mortal, sounds its pleasant name!

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let me cool me zephyr-boughs among!”


CHRISTMAS EVE! Overhead is stretched the tent of heaven, and beneath the dome are ranged in full durbar the rajah-planets, attendant on them crowds of courtier-asteroids and stars. The durbar is assembled to welcome Christmas Day. The moon, the Viceroy of the day, presides, and all the feudatory luminaries of the empire are in their places, and the splendor of Hindoo Rájá or Mahomedan Nawab is as nothing to that of Orion. How quiet all is! Not a whisper or a movement as the galaxy of night awaits the arrival of Christmas Day.

I was waiting for it too. The night seemed so still and calm that I felt as if somehow all the rest of the world had stolen away from their homes and gone somewhere, leaving me alone to represent Europe at this reception of Christmas. Not that there were no sounds near me. There was my pony munching gram very audibly, my servants’ hookahs sounded more noisily than usual; the dogs under the tree were gnawing bones, and not far from me, crouching beside a fire of wood, three villagers were cleaning a leopard skin. On the jheel behind me the wild geese were settling with congratulatory clamor.

It is curious that those notes which, among birds, give expression to the unamiable feelings of anger and animosity, are more musical than the notes of love and pleasure. Among human beings no passion has evoked such sweet song as love. Among birds, however, the voice of love is more often wanting in sweetness. The bittern, when it calls to its mate, fills the dark reed-beds with the ghostliest sound that man has ever heard from the throat of a bird; the cluck of the wooing cock, that crows so grandly when aroused to wrath or jealousy, is ridiculous; the love-note of the bulbul is an inarticulate animal noise; the crow-pheasant, — who does not know the whoo-whoo-whoo with which this strange bird, hidden in the centre foliage of a tree, summons its brooding mate? The mynas, again, how curious and inappropriate are their love-notes! But show the bulbul another of his sex, and in a voice most musically sweet he challenges the intruder to battle. Look at that strident king-crow swinging on the bamboo’s tip. A rival passes, and with a long-drawn whistle he slides through the air, and in melodious antiphony the strangers engage. Let the cock hear the lord of another seraglio emptying his lungs; and with what lusty harmony will he send him back the challenge!

Quite near me, too, the river was flowing over and among large stones, with a constant bubbling and occasional splash. But beyond the few yards lit by my camp-fires, in the great, pale, sleeping world, lit only by the cold stars, lying far and away beyond my tents, was a monochrome of silence.

And I sat at my tent-door smoking, smoking, thinking of the day I had passed, the days before that, and the days before them. Christmas Eve! In an hour all the bells in England will be ringing in the day; and, in one home at least, the little ones — an infrequent treat — will be sitting with firelit eyes and cheeks beside the fender, watching the chestnuts roast and the clock creep round to twelve. Yes; at home the children are sitting up, I know, to see Christmas Day in; and waiting, they grow tired. The moment arrives, the hand is at the hour, a chestnut is absorbing all attention; when on a sudden, with a clash from all the steeples, the mad bells fling out their music on the wild night. The great chestnut question is postponed, and, starting from the hearthrug, the little voices chime together, “A merry Christmas;” and then, with clamorous salutations, the kisses are exchanged, and, eager in conversation, the little ones climb upstairs to their cosy beds, the bells still clashing out on the keen winter air. And the old folks sit below, and, while the shivering Waits in the street are whining out their hideous thanksgiving, give one more thought to the year that is gone. And the last thought is always a sad one. For after all, on this planet of ours, Life, with its periods of hard work and its intervals of careless leisure, is happy enough. What though we do come into it with our miseries ready-made, and only the materials for our pleasures provided? Somehow I had fashioned my pleasures very much to my liking in the year that was gone, and as I looked back on it, there were few days, cold, hot, or rainy, that did not, now that they were dead, come back to me, as I sat there thinking, as pleasant memories.

Christmas Eve! no bells, no beef, no holly, no mistletoe nearer than the Himalayas! Christmas Eve without a dance, without a single “merry Christmas” wish! Christmas Eve and no chilblains, no miserable Waits, no Christmas boxes or Christmas bills! well, well, — the past is the past, a bitter sweet at best; let it pass. Our Christmas Eve in India is a strange affair. Instead of church-bells we have jackals, and instead of holly-berries the weird moon-convolvulus. Look at the ghostly creeper there, holding out its great dead-white moons of blossom to beautify the owl’s day. The natives in the south of India have a legend, — the Legend of the Moon-flower. There was once, they say, a maiden, exceedingly beautiful, and modest as she was beautiful. To her the admiration of men was a sorrow from morning to night, and her life was made weary with the importunities of her lovers. From her parents she could get no help, for they only said, “Choose one of them for your husband, and you will be left alone by the others.” From her friends she got less, for the men called her heartless, and the woman said her coyness would be abandoned before a suitor wealthier than her village wooers. But how could they know that one evening, soft and cool, as the maiden sat at her father’s porch, and there were no eyes near but the little owls’ on the roof and the fireflies’ under the tamarinds, there had come out from the guava-trees a stranger youth who had wooed her and won her, and who, with a kiss on her fair, upturned face, had sealed the covenant of their love? But she knew it; and sitting, when the evenings were soft and cool, at her father’s porch, she waited for the stranger’s return. But he never came back; and her life, sorely vexed by her lovers, became a burden to her, and she prayed for help to the gods. And they, in their pity for her, turned her into the great white moon-plant, which, clinging to her father’s porch, still waits in the evenings with upturned face for the truant’s kiss. For myself, I think they look like saucers. At all events, they are not, according to English tastes, the fit blossom of Christmas time. But then English tastes are not fit for Christmas time in India. The season of frost and ice and snow suggests to us fires, furs, and mulled port-wine; reminds us of skating on ice-covered ponds and dancing in holly-bright rooms. The Christmas bills are a skeleton to some; but even with the butcher, the baker, and the grocer dancing a cannibalic war-dance at the area-gate, there is hardly a home where Christmas is not “merry,” and Hans Andersen’s sexton, who struck the boy for laughing on Christmas Eve, is considered a prodigy of infamy. But “the cold weather,” as we in India are pleased to call the months at the end and beginning of the year, does not suggest mirthfulness to our Aryan brother; it shrivels him up. Months ago, when the sun was killing the northern blood within us, the lizards lay happily basking on the hot stones, the coppery danais flitted at ease about the shrubs, above which the air of mid-day stood shimmering and tremulous with heat, and our Aryan brothers, stretched in the shade of tree and wall, were content with God’s earth. But now that the crisp morning air lends vigor to English limbs, making home intolerable and a wild out-door life a necessity, the lizard has shrunk into a crack of the wall, the danais is hybernating, and our Aryan brother creeps about his daily avocations with the desiccated appearance of a frozen frog, or sits in dormouse torpidity with his knees about his ears. The revenge of the Briton is delicious to him, and in the cold weather he triumphs over the Aryan brother who in May and June was rustling comfortably in gauze and muslin. The morning ride or walk when the air is keen is to him (pace Charles Lamb!) as a passage of the Red Sea, every native an Egyptian; and he laughs, like King Olaf at the thin beggar, to see the wretched Hindoo, robbing his spare legs to protect his head, pass by silent with the misery of cold. At night he finds them curled into inconceivable spaces under their blankets, — and such blankets! a network of rough strings with hairs stretching across the interstices, the very ghosts of blankets, at which Witney would hold its woolly sides with laughter. And with many-folded cloths round his benumbed head, over all the blanket, the Hindoo walks deaf under your horse’s nose, stands before your buggy-wheels like a frostbitten paddy-bird. The Tamils call the paddy-bird the “blind idiot.” On a December morning the pompous chuprassie has no more self-respect than a sparrow or a hill sheep,[1] and a child may play with a constable as men handle a hybernating cobra. The fat bunyas are no more seen lolling beneath their shameeanas; the Hindoo, in short, is “occultated.”

In the shop yonder, where earthen vessels are sold, — a shilling would buy the whole stock-in-trade, — with the walls festooned with chalky-surfaced chiliums, the floor piled high with clay pots, sits the owner, frozen and voluminously swathed. He is not proud of his shop; there is none of the assumption of the thriving merchant about him. He is too cold to concern himself about his wares, for when his neighbors want pots they will, he knows, come to him; if they do not want pots, advertisements and invitations are thrown away. Shouting is a mere waste of carbon. So he spends his mornings perched on the edge of his threshold, polishing his chattering teeth with a stick, and rinsing his mouth from the brass lotah beside him. In the next house there are no wares to sell, but in the centre, on a rag of carpet, sits a puffy man, painting, with much facial contortion, and frequent applications of his numbed fingers to the charcoal burning near him, the face of a mud monkey-god. By his side are ranged rows of similar monkey-gods awaiting their turn of the brush that shall tip their heads with scarlet and their tails with yellow. Before the door sits a careful mother, scouring her daughter’s head with mud. Here two shivering baboos, shiny with patent leather as to their feet, with oil as to their heads, and with many folds of a gaudy comforter about their necks, are climbing cautiously into an ekka, a pariah dog half awake watching the operation with a dubious wagging of its tail. One and all are extinguished, suppressed, occultated, by the cold.

Christmas Day! Can this be really Yule-tide?

“December came with mirth men needs must make
E’en for the empty days’ and leisure’s sake.”

So opens the Prologue of a modern poet’s story of how, in those olden days when dolphins knew good music when they heard it, and love it was that made the world go round, — the Strong Man came down to the Tyrian merchant-vessel swinging in Mycenæ Bay, and, taking the helm himself when the great east wind began to blow its fiercest, steered straight for the island where the daughters of old Hesperus the Wise guarded the tree with the golden fruit. It is a December poem, and yet the scene of it is laid in a land where the boughs were blossomed and “unknown flowers bent down before their feet;” where there were the lilies of spring in the grass, the fruit of autumn on the trees, and, over all, the warm light of a summer sun. Well for the poet that his song was of olden times! The reader is content in his December tale to take him at his word, to see wade off from the shingle the man

“Who had a lion’s skin cast over him,
So wrought with gold that the fell show’d but dim
Betwixt the threads.”

And afterwards to see him at the foot of the golden-fruited tree, in the land of roses and singing-birds, standing where

“Three damsels stood naked, from head to feet.
Save for the glory of their hair.”

We see him pick the red-gleaming apples, note the branch spring back, and then watch him, with the round fruit in his hand, go down across the lawn, dappled with flowers and fallen fruit, to the Tyrian ship again.

“His name is Hercules,
And e’en ye Asian folk have heard of him.”

We “Asian folk” have indeed heard of a land where, by some pantomime of nature, roses are winter flowers and fruit ripen in December, where there are singing-birds instead of old cock-robins and turkeys, and where the damsels of the land, instead of nestling in chinchilla or sable’s fur, stand about in a rural manner, much as did the Hesperids. We know too that in that land there was once a magic tree with golden pagoda coin for fruit, which strong men, coming across the sea in ships of trade, shook at will. But vegetables are not auriferous now. The Golden Pippin is a species of apple unhappily extinct, and Sir Epicure Mammon was not far from the mark when he lumped Jason’s Fleece, Jove’s Shower, and the Hesperian Garden as “all abstract riddles of the philosopher’s stone.”

But though the tree is gone, the country is much what it was in the Genesis of Anglo-India — the antediluvian period that preceded the Mutiny of 1857. It is still a land of juggling seasons. December comes round as usual, and with it Christmas Day and its marigolds; and men, having no work to do, —

“Mirth needs must make
E’en for the empty days’ and leisure’s sake.”

I have spent Christmas in England, and there was honest merriment enough. And on the doorstep without, birds and beggars alike shared in the sudden flow of Christmas goodwill.

I have also spent Christmas Day in India, but not all the marigolds of Cathay will firk up Christmas spirits, or make me throw crumbs to a blue-jay. The blue-jay would not eat them in the first place, for there are plenty of flying things abroad for him to eat. But even if that unpleasant bird, with its very un-Christmas plumage of sunny blue, were to turn frugivorous for the nonce to humor me, since “Christmas comes but once a year,” I would not feed him. I have no Yule-tide humor about me, for there is no Christmas around me. The jests of nature are too long in the telling to be mirthful. The crops have been yellow with mustard blossom this week past, the gardens in all their glory for many weeks; and how, all of a sudden, and simply because it is the 25th of December, can I feel more at peace with all men than I did last Thursday? If Nature would only meet me half way, or even the robins of the country wear red waistcoats instead of red seats to their trousers, I would try and squeeze some seasonable festivity into my thoughts. But it is out of the question. Why! there is at this moment a punkah-puller outside the tent talking about the affairs of the hot weather, and dunning my servant for four annas to which he prefers a forged claim. He was always interesting, that coolie. They are a feeble folk, the most of them, — the coneys amongst mankind, — and the intelligent are in a desperate minority. Look around at the crowds of coolies whose life is a long yarn of gray toil, crossed at intervals with tawdry threads of lazy, worthless self-indulgence. Of “remembrance fallen from heaven” they have none. When the high gods sat down to fashion them, they must — to turn the poet's words — have wrought with more weeping than laughter, more loathing than love. Swinburne has said that they gave them also life enough, perhaps, to make the bitterness of humanity keen to them; and that they gave them light enough to illustrate the deadliness of all life's pleasures, and to show them the way to their graves. They have limbs and a shadow, and yet I doubt if poor Peter Schlemil would have exchanged his bedevilled existence for theirs. The flight of time they congratulate themselves upon; and nobility of deed or speech in a finer race does not affect the level of their minds, for they cannot even think splendidly.

But this peculiar coolie of mine was an interesting study, for he owned a cow. How he got it I cannot guess, for he did not look like a person with rich relatives to remember him in a will; and with his own money he could not have bought it. Nor could he have stolen it, for his legal ownership was ostentatiously displayed at all hours. Yet it was not a cow to be very proud of. It was not a big cow, and gave no milk. Nor did it drag anything about it — a cart or vehicle of any kind. But it was very cheerful. It played bopeep with my terrier between the pillars of the porch, and from pure light-heartedness used to scour about the compound, with its tail, from an ecstasy of mirthfulness, curled up into a knot on its back. It trotted about a good deal in the mornings; and when its owner was not pulling my punkah, he was generally running about slowly and indefinitely after it. The cow always went much faster than the coolie, for I never saw him catch it except when it was standing still; and when he came up with it he never seemed to know what he should do next. He used to pull it about in a possessive manner, and jerk its rope as if he wished it to move — first in the direction of the compound gate, and the cow would cheerfully trot alongside of him; but on a sudden there would be a violent jerk, and the cow would find the coolie pulling in the opposite direction, whither it would, without demur, follow him. Whatever the change of programme, the cow acquiesced in it with the utmost heartiness; and thus, after having blithely proceeded a little in each direction, it generally found itself pretty much where it started from. The coolie would then carefully tether his property to the largest weed that was near, the cow looking on at the elaborate process with a contemplative aspect; after which, the coolie having turned to go, it would eat the weed up, and gaily accompany its master towards the verandah. The cow was quite useless to the coolie, and he could not demonstrate his ownership by doing anything with it. So he would sometimes throw stones at it — just to show that the cow was his. It was all pride, the pride of ownership; and though the cow cost him at least threepence a week, for it was regularly impounded for frolicsome trespass, he never parted with it. But I was obliged to part with the coolie; for one day, the wind being high, — the Scythians said wind was the principle of life, — the cow was unusually lively, and, after a preliminary canter round the garden with the terrier, it proceeded, in spite of the gardener, to execute a fantastic but violent pas seul upon a croquet ground which was in course of construction. I felt, therefore, compelled to ask the coolie to take his cow away and not to bring it back again. Nor did he; for he never came back himself — not, at any rate, until the punkahs had been put away in the lumber-room, and the tatties were gone, wherever old tatties go. His cow, I think, must be dead now, for he seems to have nothing to do but to loaf about with my camp, waiting for me to pay him the four annas of wages which he tries to prove is due to him.

· · · · · · ·

Now, what a strange thing human nature is! Here I have been protesting for the last hour that I had no Christmas foolery left in me; and yet I have this moment paid that punkah-coolie the four annas he has no claim to — and which, on principle, as I have told my wife every day for the last month, I have refused for two months to pay him — just because it was Christmas Day! To increase the absurdity, I had to confess the reason to him! For having sworn solemnly on all the rules of arithmetic that I did not owe him one farthing, I was obliged to give a decent explanation for my sudden acknowledgment of the debt; and how could I, before my servants, better maintain my dignity, and at the same time get rid of an importunate coolie, than by making him a present of his extortionate demand in full, because it was a “Feast day with us Christians.”

For yet another Christmas, then, have I kept alive a Yule spark!

I look up at the poem lying open before me, and with a fateful response, that may compare with the unhappy King’s Virgilii Sortes, the book replies —

“Cast no least thing thou lovedst once away,
Since yet perchance thine eyes shall see the day.”

Perchance, indeed, we shall all see another Christmas Day “at home,” and among romping children and welcoming friends rekindle the smouldering Yule spark into an honest English Christmas blaze.

  1. A flock of hill sheep will meet at a corner of the zigzag path a burdened pony, and the leader of them will turn aside. Soon the woolly tribe are in headlong flight down the steep hillside, and the tattoo, astonished at his own importance, passes on in sole possession of the scanty way.