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A CHRISTMAS GUEST.

On tho morning of Christmas Eve Masha rose early and cot the samovar ready to make tea. , She telt dreary and depressed. Tho Christmas fast was strictly observed in th? village, and ehe had hetd to conform, ' although during her two years o! service at the manor-house she had quite got out of the way of fasting. v She was still weak, too, after the illness because ol which she had come homo to rest until the Now Year. And then life in the village had not been eo gay as she had expected. The girls had been impressed by the green silk blouse which her mistress had given her, but sho felt that they envied her, *»d that in some way she had become an outsider to them. Tho boys .with whom she had played at school were now strapping youths, some of them quite handsome fellows, and when she first came home they had made her rcaliso that with her pretty face, her neatness, and her savings she was a very good party. A few boysi had tried, in an awkward, shambling way, to make love to her, but sho would never smile- at their jokes or their horseplay, and although, once a whole company of boys and girls had laughed and cheered her when she slapped one too-bold youth in the face, alio could hear even in their cheering a mocking not©, and one of tho boys had cried: "Good on you, miss!" Thon tho sneering "miss" clung to her, and the boys ceased to gaze and wonder at hor slender figure, her fino features, and big, dark eyes, and returned to their old favorite, the round, jolly, blue-eyed Pasha, who was always ready to give and take and to laugh louder than any of them. Masha tried not to mind much, for sho really cared for none of the boys, but sho was depressed at being so demonstratively left out in the cola. This morning she was more than ever out o£ heart, for the evening before her brother Tanya had come home from woodcutting in the forest eight miles away, but had spent most of his earnings in vodka in a big village on the way, and had come in in a quarrelsome mood, and ended by smashing a chair on his little brother's back and kicking his mother when, she tried to restrain him. ilasha had in the long run got him to lie down in a corner, and there ho lay deep in a drunken slumber. The 'samovar nubbled and glowed, but the whole household was fast asleep, the boys crowded together on the top of the stjjve, and the father and mother snoring in an inner room. The air was stifling. Masha hastily drank a cup of tea, eating nothing, for it was Christmas Eve, and she would not take a bit until the star appeared. Then she opened the back door, crossed the landing, and climbed down the ladder into the dimlylighted stable. The pony recognised her .stops and welcomed her with a neijih. She filled his manger with hay, and put her arms around liis neck, grateful for his simple affection. , By the time she had fed the two cows and'the chickens her mother was stirring, and one by one the boys clambered down from the stove, stretched themselves, washed with the h«lp ot the dipper and barrel on the landing, drank their tea, and then slouched _ off to join their companions in tho village street. The father roso late, for there was no work to be done on Christmas Eve, and after tea ho (•at long on tho bench gazing vacantly out of the window. Masha helped clean up the house, and half listened to the rattle of 'her mother Anna's Itireless tongue. First. Anna discussed Tanya for the hundredth time, and then the" thought that it was Christinas Eve aroused her to voluble reminiscence. What times they had had in her young days! Girls were not so dainty and high and mighty as they are now, and how rough the boys used to be in their games, putting on a mask with a wooden beak and pecking at the girls' necks, or else "cooking pancakes," as they said, by bringing a spade flatly down on the girls' hacks. But the girls took it all in good part. And then there was the fortune-telling at Christmas time! ••Why," said Anna, "I remember onco I lay down to sleep and whispered : ' My fated one, my promised one, come to me and comb out my hair.' And I had just fallen asleep when something came out- j from under the pillow, threw off my quilt, lifted mo up, "and began combing out my hair so hard that 1 cried out from pain. My mother and father came rusbinc out, and looked everywhere for the thtef, and when they found noue my father beat me and shouted : ' Enough of this cursed fortune-telling.' But next morning I had a terrible headache, and when I combed my hair I found half of it was gone." Masha laughed. She was sure she did not believe in fortune-telling, because she had heand the young ladies at the manor hon.se making fun of it, and she read Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenina' and all Turgcniov, and had even got a-quarter way through Doatoievslty's 'Brothers Karamazov.' "But she suddenly thought how good it would be "f one could, really see just a shadow of "the fated otic."' She kissed her mother, and wont out into the street. Snow was falling heavily and tho dark line of tho forest was only dimly visible across the fields. Tho deserted homestead only a mile and' a-half away was indistinguishable in its mantle of snow. Masha walked to the edge of the village ;md turned 'nto tho cottage of her cousin, who was married to tho most businesslike and enterprising of the young peasants. Her cousin's two younger sisters were there, and were very busy fortune-telling. First they tried cards, and then they put pieces of lead into an iron pot and tho pot into the stove, and when tie lead was molted poured it out into a dipper full of water and imagined they saw in tho erratic shapes taken by tho cooling lead the figure of a youth or a marriage wreath. Masha teased them for making such haste to peer into their future, for lead-melting should.not begin until New Year's Eve. Then sho chatted long with her cousin, playing tenderly the while with the baby, a bald-headed, triplerhinnod. chubby-cheeked little fellow with n- gurgling voice and jolly, spluttering lips. It was well on in tho afternoon when sho left her cousin's house. Snow was still falling and darkness was setting in. An idea came into her head. She would weave a spell and read the riddle of her fa to. She would try to lift a corner of the grey, sad veil of depression that closed her round. It was silly, but there could be no harm in it. She took a birch-broom 'from hor cousin's landing, hid it under her cloak, tied her shawl tightly around her head, and trudged off through the snow in tho direction of the deserted homestead. Her heart beat with excitement as she drew near the old barn on the outskirts of tho grange. Not a soul was near, and the steadily falling snow mado tho silence more fateful and mysterious. Masha began to feel afraid, and would gladly have hastened back to the village. She w'shed she had brought her cousin with her. But she clenched her teeth and went on. She climbed four ateps, pushed open a door, and entered the barn. The darkness and silence terrified her. The ghost stories she had heard in childhood thronged back* into her mind, and she hardly dared breathe. But she pulled out her broom and began sweeping, and forced herself to repeat aloud the magic words : "My fated one, my promised one, come to me, come to me!" She heard a rustling sound in a distant coiner, and dropped her broom in horror. Thon a husky voice said : " Dear maiden, for God's sake ." Maslia screamed and fled. Panting, site struggled through the deep snow, and thought she would die of fear. The voice followed her; she knew she was being pursued. She caught" broken words : "Don't be afraid. Don't leave me. Have pity on me! I'm not a robber. a bite of bread! I shall die . . *. strikes . . . they're looking for me!" Little by little Masha realised that it was a living being •who was following her, and the husky voice with its note of deep suffering gradually gained the mastery over her fears. She stopped, and the man came up with her. She could see that ho was young, and terribly thinly [ clad, and a strange thought cam* to her. Now sho was all eager curiosity. ! The man trudged slowly at her fide, often stumbling from weakness, so that in the end Masha had to support him. He was a workman, had been the ringleader in a political strike, had. been arreatedj and had spent she weeks in the

prison in the government town await&ft' trial, but by ruck he had and was trying to make his way to tho frontier. At any other time Masha would havo bean suspicions, for tramps wwo many, and they told fantastic jrtories. But this man 'she> believed implicitly. What ho now needed was food and xest eo that, ho might continue his flight, and; Masha determined to help him. She told' Mm to wait at the end of the village, and hurried home. She found the house crowded with children holding aloft a paper star and singing carols. Maslta called her mother aside and begged her to shelter a poor wanderer sh© had found famished by the wayside. Her mother agreed, but took alarm when she heard that the wanderer was an escaped political. The question was unexpectedly decided by Tanya, who had been a soldier near a workmen's quarter in St. Petersburg, and swora a big oaUi that strikers ' were the only decent people in tho world* j •Three days the political stayed In the cottage, and Masha was perfectly happy. The 6pell was broken, and she was quite sure this dreamy, blue-eyed workman, Pavel, was the only man in the world for her. Pavel gently* teased her on. her adventure, nnd then on the third dav fell on his knees before her and blubberad lilw a schoolboy. When he left he pro- ; raised to write. Five weeks afterwards, '■ when she was again in service, she got! a letter from him from Paris. He had safely crossed the frontier, in Park a Socialist comrade liad found him work in a motor car factory, and as soon as he had saved enough money he would come back for her. Masha walked on air and dreamed of P.iris, and one of the young ladies began teaching her French! In August Pavel wrote a jubilant lettar, saying that ho was coming at all risks, though Masha. had again and again insisted that she would meet, him on the other side of the frontier. She made her preparafionp, ar.d waited impatiently. Wecke passed, and fhore was no sign of Pavel. Had he been caught, betrayed? Christmas- ©am© round again, and Sew Year, and still not ' a word, not a message. The grey veil ■ gathered iji around Maslia again, and hops died away. She ceased fp watch, to believe, to fear. And now she does her work listlessly, and is growing slipshod and careless, and losing all her pretty, dainty ways.

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Permanent link to this item

https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD19141223.2.71

Bibliographic details

A CHRISTMAS GUEST., Evening Star, Issue 15683, 23 December 1914

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1,952

A CHRISTMAS GUEST. Evening Star, Issue 15683, 23 December 1914

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