A Sign of Christmas
A story for children between the ages of seven and seventy
ANNE ELIZABETH WILSON
THE Hermit, and Hickory, The Deserted Cat, were sitting on the steps of the cabin, looking at the winter sunset. Although Hickory had not spoken, The Hermit seemed to read his thoughts. He had a way of doing that, as well as understanding everything that any animal on The Mountain said.
“You are thinking of leaving me,” he said to Hickory now, stroking his back thoughtfully.
Hickory nodded in surprise. “But what can I do to keep people from picking me up,” he asked abruptly, “or tying tin cans on my tail, for I’m going for a long, long walk?”
The Hermit was silent for a while. “How far are you going?” he asked finally.
“Home,” said Hickory decidedly.
“And when do you expect to reach there?” The Hermit still questioned, for he well remembered the family who had left Hickory behind when they closed their summer house, and he knew that they lived many miles away.
“I hope ... by Christmas,” answered Hickory half sadly.
“Very well, then,” The Hermit answered, “I can give you something that should keep you safe until you reach home.” And he w.ent inside to get his paints.
When he came out again, he began to whittle a little wooden shield out of a piece of kindling that he brought from inside, and later held it very carefully while he painted it in black letters.
Hickory did not ask what it was that The Hermit was writing, for he was ashamed to admit that he could not read, but “That ought to take me anywhere!” he said wisely and gratefully as he watched the sign completed.
“It would be better,” The Hermit mused, “if you could tell me your town address. Do you by any chance remember it?”
Hickory looked very embarrassed, for he realized that after all, The Hermit was only a human being. “It’s a little bit long,” he hesitated. “It goes something like this: ‘Three corners from the green ash can, turn to your left. Two fences along, follow the smell of the Mulligan’s bulldog, keeping well above the ground ...”
“I’m afraid it is a little . . . er . . . long,” The Hermit agreed, and so, as Hickory did not want to hurt his feelings by explaining that really there was a lot more, they just decided to leave the sign plain, except for what was already written.
“And now, good-by,” said The Hermit, tying the sign firmly between Hickory’s shoulders, and patting his head lovingly. “I shall be lonely without you, but I know how you feel.”
“It was The Littlest One, you know, sir,” apologized Hickory with a catch in his throat. “I can never forget how she cried when they left me. We used to look forward so to Christmas, she and I. She’s going to be awfully lonesome too, if I can’t get back.”
“I understand perfectly,” The Hermit consoled him. “Good luck—and if you should find the . . . the address changed, you always know how to find The Mountain.”
But as he watched Hickory picking his way among the firs, he said something very shocking about people who leave their cats behind when they go home for the winter; and he sighed as he swept the shavings from his whittling out into the frosty grass.
OO NOW Hickory was standing on the edge of the ^ woods; the snow was falling, and he felt rather bewildered. He turned his head first one way and then another, trying to catch some scent or to feel some guiding wind on his whiskers.
“Drat this snow,” he thought, “it’s taken all the feeling out of my feelers!” And certainly they seemed almost frozen. His feet were cold, too, so he went up to the nearest tree and proceeded to sharpen his nails. That always had the effect of cheering him up.
The bark was crackling with frost, so that it made a sharp scratching noise that was very comforting in the quiet night.
Then Sssssssssssssssh! came a voice from almost at his feet.
Hickory waited a moment, then dug his claws in again.
“Ssssssssh, I said!” repeated the voice. “Do you want to wake the old woman?”
“What old woman?” answered Hickory rather irritably, although he had no idea whom he was talking to, nor could he see anyone.
“You’ll know well enough if you wake her,” the voice went on. “Who are you, anyway?” Then a head came out of a hole near the root of the tree, and wiggled long ears at him. “Humph!” it said. “A city cat!”
Hickory dropped down and touched noses, growling suspiciously. “Humph!” he said with equal disgust. “A country rabbit!”
“Well, at least,” replied the rabbit, “I’m in the country, but you’re not in the city.”
“Oh, well,” sighed Hickory, who was too weary to fight, “I know that well enough. Do you by any chance know how to get there?” He shivered a little, and shifted the sign from one shoulder to another. “Do you also by any chance know how to read?”
“Certainly,” sniffed the rabbit, but of course he couldn’t read any more than Hickory.
“Well, then, look at this sign and you’ll know all about me.”
“It’s pretty dark,” demurred the rabbit, but he pretended to look at the sign carefully. He came out a little farther, and by sniffing along the edges realized that The Hermit must have touched it.
“Oh, so you’ve been staying with The Hermit,” he remarked sagely. “I suppose if he says you’re all right ...”
It must be a good sign, thought Hickory, and added aloud, “Oh yes!” just as though knowing The Hermit were an every-day affair for a city cat.
“I’ve often thought,” went on the rabbit, coming out of the hole entirely, “that I’d like to go to the city sometime myself; and now that she’s asleep for a while, perhaps I might do it. Of course, she doesn’t sleep much,” he reflected bitterly. “My mother-in-law belongs to a very old family hereabouts.” He lowered his voice almost to a whisper. “She’s a hare.”
“Oh!” answered Hickory sympathetically.
“However,” went on his acquaintance more cheerfully, “she won’t be awake for a while, I hope, so why not let’s be off?”
“You’ll have to lead the way if you go, I’m afraid,” said Hickory. “I’ve quite lost myself in this wood.”
“ ‘City bred, country dead’,” remarked the rabbit encouragingly. “I’m sure I don’t know how you got this far, even.” Then with a superior air he sat up and wiggled his nose in the wind.
“Over there,” he said, pointing to the road, “are dogs. And over there,” pointing to the north, “are—excuse me for mentioning it—traps. And there,” with a jerk of the paw behind him, “is the swamp, but yonder, I don’t know of anything; so it must be the city.” “If my whiskers weren’t frozen, I could tell you myself,” apologized Hickory, “but I assure you they’re quite brittle.”
“Never mind,” answered the rabbit, “you can follow my tail. If I do say it myself, it’s very white and can be seen on the darkest night.”
“I’m sure,” replied Hickory politely.
And so they set out in the general direction of what the rabbit pointed out as “yonder.”
“Were you thinking of going any place in particular?” questioned the rabbit after they had gone along in silence for a while.
“Why, didn’t the sign tell you where I’m going?” asked Hickory with a grin.
“Well, it did and it didn’t,” coughed the rabbit. “A sign, you know, is after all, only a sign, and the city is a big place.”
“It’s so big that if you’ve no engagements, perhaps you’d like to go home with me,” suggested Hickory, for an idea was forming in the back of his head.
“I can’t say I’ve a great many friends in town,” hesitated the rabbit. “Would your people be put out if I came along, do you think?”
“My, he’d make a lovely Christmas present for The Littlest One,” thought Hickory, but he answered quite casually:
“There’s lots of room. I’m sure we could put you up.”
“And won’t she be surprised ! Won’t she be surprised !” gloated the rabbit. From which Hickory was afraid at first that the rabbit had guessed what he was thinking; but from the rabbit’s evident elation he understood that he must be speaking of his mother-in-law.
“You don’t wear a collar, do you?” Hickory asked suddenly as they were trudging along a while later. He was imagining how nice it would be if the rabbit could have a bunch of red berries hanging around his neck when The Littlest One found him under the Christmas tree. “Because,” he continued aloud, “it’s quite customary in the city.”
“I don’t mind wearing one,” the rabbit replied agreeably, “but where could I find such a thing on such a night at such a time of year? You city animals!” He skipped ahead derisively.
Hickory was tempted to cuff him but refrained, remembering that when all’s said and done, a live rabbit is a very excellent Christmas gift.
“Here you are ” he answered kindly. “Did you ever hear of a cat’s cradle?”
“That must be some city nonsense,” scoffed the rabbit. “I never saw one, and I should have a good laugh if I did. We bring our young ones up in a nest, and good enough it is for them, too.”
“Your ignorance ...” began Hickory, but decided to be tactful. “I suppose it’s only natural you’ve never seen one,” he admitted, “but I’m going to make one, and when it’s finished, it will make you a nice collar.”
At once he started hunting around in the sparse tufts of grass for a long stalk, and by and by found one. The rabbit watched him fascinated while he cut it down with his teeth and wound it around his paws.
“Here now, catch this piece,” said Hickory professionally, and as the rabbit pulled one of the crossstrands in the cradle, Hickory slipped the whole thing over his head.
“A perfect fit!” Hickory assured him gaily, but the rabbit had a terrible expression on his face.
“It feels ... it feels like a snare!” he screamed, and Hickory realized that he must be terribly frightened. He tried to stroke him kindly.
“One animal would never do such a thing as that to another,” he answered him finally, “not even a city animal ...” and at last the rabbit’s staring eyes lost their wildness, and he lay down panting while Hickory continued to soothe him.
“A lovely thing for a city collar,” he confided, “would be a bunch of haws. Everybody wears red berries at Christmas, you know.”
“All right,” the rabbit agreed, but he was still so upset that Hickory had to hold his claws crossed to keep from saying or doing anything that might frighten him again.
They went on their way more slowly now, but just before they got to the farther edge of the wood, Hickory found a beautiful bunch of berries that the wind had blown down during the night. He hung it carefully on the rabbit’s collar.
“You were right,” he congratulated his companion as they came at dawn to the outskirts of the city. “The town is ‘yonder’.”
“It smells queer,” remarked the rabbit, sitting up and draining the wind through his restless nose for every possible scent.
“It is queer,” replied Hickory sadly, but he adjusted his sign bravely, and they hurried on.
AS MORNING brightened, doors began swinging
^ open along the outlying streets, and butchers, grocers and bakers started sweeping the light powdery snow from the front of thei; shops. Some of them laughed as they saw the two scurrying past, for Hickory felt that if they were to reach home in safety, they must not be later than early morning.
One woman with a broom hustled them along with a vicious Feat! but stopped with her arm raised when she read the sign.
The rabbit had another fainting spell when he saw the dozens of dead rabbits hung up by their feet in the butchers’ windows, but took
comfort in the fact that they were mostly all hares like his mother-in-law.
“And now,” whispered Hickory as they came to a green ash can, “we’re almost there. Hurry!”
“I’m nervous,” whispered the rabbit, “and I smell dogs.”
“Just the Mulligan’s bulldog,” comforted Hickory. “It would be a good idea if you could walk the fence, but you know, ‘country bred, city dead’.”
“So I fear,” chattered the poor rabbit, but in reality the Mulligan’s bulldog never got out before nine o’clock, and Hickory knew it well.
“Follow my tail,” Hickory advised with a good deal of satisfaction. “If I do say it myself it’s a real tail and not a
The rabbit cowered behind him as the real tail in question bristled to the size of a small fir tree, and such noises as he had never heard in the woods on any occasion poured forth from Hickory’s throat. Finally, above it all he heard a very gentle voice, and realized with horror that it was a dog’s.
But Hickory’s tail had resumed its normal size again, and his insulting tone had changed to one so friendly that the rabbit dared peek around his hind leg. There, sure enough, stood a little white dog.
“It’s all right,” Hickory reassured him. “This is my friend Violet, and she’s locked out.”
“Hickory, Hickory, dear,” he could hear Violet saying, and she seemed to be crying. “The Littlest One and I both thought you dead, but she insisted on going back to the woods for Christmas just to look for you, and now they’ve gone, and you’re here, and I’m lost and there’s no way to get in.”
Hickory switched his tail so viciously that he nearly knocked the rabbit over.
“Did they . . . did they leave you behind . . . locked out?” he asked Violet grimly.
“Oh no, they didn’t dare after the way she carried on about you. They left me with some people up the street, but I tried to follow them, and now I don’t know what to do. It’s . . . it’s awfully cold.”
Hickory’s tail thrashed back and forth. “I know well enough what to do,” he replied angrily. “It’s many the cold night it’s saved me a frozen paw when they used to put me out at ten o’clock. The Littlest One always used to see that there was one pane out of the east cellar window so I could get in. Don’t you remember?”
“I’ve . . . I’ve never been out all night before,” sniffled Violet, “and I daresay I’m too fat to get in, anyway.”
Hickory eyed her appraisingly. “You can get in if we push,” he assured her.
But when they came to the window, it was Hickory who could not get in. The sign was too big, and although the rabbit offered to gnaw one side off, they were afraid
that it would take too long to be safe.
“You can go in and sleep on the old sofa in the furnace room,” Hickory told Violet, but she couldn’t bear to be left alone again.
The snow had begun to fall quite heavily now, for which Hickory was grateful, for it helped to hide the tears which he considered so disgraceful. It all seemed so hard; their long tramp, the cold, their hunger, and The Littlest One still far, far away. It is very sad to see a strong cat cry, and it quite touched the rabbit.
“A fine lot of stripes you have on that arm,” he tried to say conversationally, as Hickory drew it across his eyes. But it only made him feel worse . because it just happened that The Littlest One had always worried over Hickory’s stripes. They didn’t meet where the seam came together, and she always used to say that his mother hadn’t sewn him up carefully enough.
“There’s nothing right in this world,” was all he could say. “Even my stripes are put on crooked.”
The rabbit looked around dismally. “You know,” he finally mustered courage to say, “I think I must be going.”
“Yes,” agreed Hickory, “there’s not much to keep a fellow here. I’m sorry.” They all looked at each other gloomily, and all seemed to have but the one thought. If they could travel back as fast as Hickory and the rabbit had come, they could get back to The Mountain for Christmas.
Hickory looked at Violet. “Are you too fat to make it?” he asked rudely.
“Yes, I am,” she gulped, “but I’m going just the same.”
So, under the cover of the heavily falling snow they alternately crawled and ran. The town was bustling with Christmas crowds now, and people sometimes stopped and looked at Hickory’s sign, patted him, laughed and let him go. The poor rabbit was beside himself with fear, but by keeping beside and under Violet he did not attract too much attention, for they were both white like the snow. But when they reached the edge of the wood at last, they were utterly exhausted.
“I can’t budge another step,” whimpered Violet. Yet when Hickory had refreshed h°r by washing her face with snow and tenderly biting the icicles out from between her stiff, frozen toes, they started once more on the long trek through the brush and trees.
After a while they sat down for a rest under a big snowdrift thdt protected them a little from the wind.
“Do you hear anything?” asked Violet. “Only your wheezing,” replied Hickory. “It’s an owl,” stated the rabbit.
“It’s more than that,” snapped Violet, pricking up her ears. “There’s a call in it, but, of course, you wouldn’t know what it means to be called by ... a person.”
“I know I don’t want to be called by an owl anyway,” answered the rabbit, looking around apprehensively, “and I think we’d better be moving.”
“Oh, my feet!” moaned Violet. But they went on.
“What’s that?” Violet whispered again, when they had come almost to the far edge of the wood.
“It’s probably my mother-in-law,” wailed the rabbit, for they were quite near his tree by now. “Oh, I can’t let her find me now. She’ll be furious.”
“Come on,” commanded Violet, “I’ll not let her touch you.”
So they walked out to the foot of The Mountain, and sat down to gather their last strength together for the climb. Far above, they could see the twinkle in the eyes of The Hermit’s cabin.
“The summer place used to be about a mile from here, if I could only get the direction in my whiskers,” muttered Hickory. “Oh, if I could only jump in the window and say ‘Merry Christmas’ to her!”
Then suddenly Violet cried, jumping up, “I hear it, I hear it plainly now. She’s calling us.”
Hickory stiffened, and the rabbit seemed frozen to the ground, for far and faint they could unmistakably hear a pathetic little voice.
With a bound, Violet jumped off the path into the woods again, Hickory after her. The rabbit hesitated for a moment, and then decided that his only safety lay where Violet went. She was not just a fat little city dog now, but a small huntress, running hither and thither, her ears pricked up and her tail pointing. Bounding through the snow, she barked in joyful, excited cries.
Hickory leapt behind her, struggling through the snow as best he could, while the rabbit jumped along after them both.
The moonlight was like a white veil over the forest where The Littlest One stood. Her fur coat was covered with snow where she had fallen again and again, and the mingled snowflakes and tears on her eyelashes made her frightened eyes jewel-bright. She was standing, calling, with open arms, and when Violet and Hickory leapt into them, they just nestled against her quietly for a long time. They were trying to make her warm with their love and their little furry bodies.
The rabbit could hear her whispering something in their ears, and felt so lonely out of it all that he took courage to come up and sit on her foot. He had never been so near a human being before, but this little one seemed so sweet and gentle that he was not afraid.
Hickory was the first to be sensible. “Come on,” he ordered Violet, “she’ll be terribly ill if we don’t get her to The Hermit very quickly.”
And so, running ahead, and running back, they led her out of the woods, and began to climb up The Mountain.
The Littlest One was very tired. Sometimes she would fall down, and they would have to lick her face to keep her awake. Then they would run ahead, and call her, run back and pull her coat. She could not even speak to them any more.
At last when it all seemed too much for them, Hickory saw The Hermit’s open door. He was keeping Christmas Eve all alone.
“Call him and bring him out,” Hickory cried to Violet. “She can’t walk another step.”
Then he and the rabbit pulled off her mittens and began to lick her poor little cold fingers.
It was not many minutes before Violet led The Hermit back, but Hickory was like a wild thing for fear his little mistress would be beyond help. “Oh, Littlest One, Littlest One, don’t die,” he cried as he tried to crawl inside her icy coat to make her a little warm. “All the cats and dogs in the world aren’t worth trying to save if it costs you suffering !”
The rabbit thumped her hands and feet with his big hind legs, but she did not move.
When The Hermit gathered her up, he could not believe his eyes as he saw Hickory and the rabbit dancing around his feet. All he could say was: “Well, well, it must have been a good sign !”
^HRISTMAS morning broke over The Mountain with sunlight that turned the snow to a spangled canopy. And safe and warm in The Hermit’s woodsysmelling bedroom, The Littlest One, Hickory, Violet and the rabbit were curled asleep. When they stretched and opened their eyes, they could see a fir tree outside the window, where a few brave winter birds were enjoying the popcorn that The Hermit had hung on its branches as a Christmas treat for them.
Before the rabbit could quite wake up, Hickory had him by the collar pulling him up to the head of the bed. The frost-bitten berries were still hanging to the bedraggled piece of grass around his neck, and The Hermit, at Hickory’s request, had added a small card on which was written: “Merry Christmas from Violet and Hickory.” But of course, as the rabbit couldn’t read, he thought it a natural compliment that The Littlest One should exclaim: “He’s just what I
It was all just as Hickory had planned, until they heard loud voices outside the door. It was The Littlest One’s halfdistracted father come to ask The Hermit’s help in finding her.
“She went looking for that useless cat we left here last summer,” they could hear him saying, “and now now . . .”
“Your daughter, your dog, your cat . and ... a present are in my room asleep,” replied The Hermit quietly, “but I should not advise you to disturb them just now. They’ve had a very bad night,
but I hope they’ll be happy when they wake up.”
“I’ll take her home . . . I’ll break that cat’s neck . . . I’ll ...” stormed her father, but The Hermit smiled.
On the outside of the bedroom door he had hung Hickory’s sign, and for some reason it made The Little One’s father sit down and ask The Hermit to be forgiven.
What it said was:
PLEASE LON'T f
1 ~am Someone
uho ¡ores me.
A Deserted Cat.