Little Roger's Night In The Church
The boys and girls had fastened the last sprig of holly upon the walls,
and then gone to their homes, leaving the old church silent and
deserted. The sun had set in a sky clear and yellow as topaz. Christmas
eve had fairly come, and now the moon was rising, a full moon, and all
the world looked white in the silver light. Every bough of every tree
sparkled with a delicate coating of frost, t
e pines and cedars were
great shapes of dazzling snow, even the ivy on the gothic tower hung a
glittering arabesque on the gray wall. Never was there a lovelier night.
That light that you see yonder comes from the window of old Andrew, the
sexton, and inside sits his grandson, little Roger, eating his supper of
porridge. The kitchen is in apple-pie order, chairs and tables have been
scrubbed as white as snow, the tins on the dresser shine like silver,
the hearth is swept clean, and Grandfather's chair is drawn into the
warmest corner. Grandfather is not sitting in it though; he has gone to
the church to put the fire in order for the night, lock up the doors,
and make all safe.
Grandmother, in her clean stuff gown and apron, is mounted upon a chair
to stick a twig of holly on the tall clock in the corner. And now, as
she turns round, what a pleasant face she shows us, does she not? Old
and wrinkled, to be sure, but so good-natured and gentle that she is
prettier than many a young girl even now. Is it any wonder that little
Roger there is so fond of her?
Now another bit of holly is wanted on the chimney-piece; and it is while
putting this up that the dear old dame gives sign that something has
gone wrong. Ts, ts, ts,--deary me!
What's the matter, Granny? said Roger.
Why, Roger, replied Granny, carefully dismounting from her chair,
look here, Grandfather has gone off and forgot his keys. He took 'em
from the door this morning, because last year some of the young folks
let 'em drop in the snow, and had a sad time hunting for them. He knew
they would be in and out all day, so he just opened the door and brought
the keys home. Deary me! it's a cold night for old bones to be out of
doors. Would'st be afeard, little 'un, to run up with them?
Not a bit, said Roger, stoutly, as he crammed the last spoonful of
porridge in his mouth, and seized hat and mittens from the table. I'll
take 'em down in a minute. Granny, and then run home. Mother'll want me
in the morning, likely.
For Roger's parents lived in a cottage near the old people, and the boy
often said that he had two homes, and belonged half in one and half in
the other, and the small press-bed in Granny's loft seemed as much his
own as the cot in the corner of his mother's sleeping-room, and was
occupied almost as often. So, after a good-night hug from Granny, off he
ran. The church was near, and the moon light as day, so he never thought
of being afraid, not even when, as he brushed by the dark tower,
something stirred overhead, and a long, melancholy cry came shuddering
from the ivy. Roger knew the owls in the belfry well, and now he called
out to them cheerily: To-whit-whit-whoo!
Whoo-whoo-whit! answered the owls, startled by the cry. Roger could
hear them fluttering in the nest.
The church-door stood ajar, and he peeped in. The glow from the open
door of the stove showed Grandfather's figure, red and warm, stooping to
cover the fire with ashes for the night. He was so busy he never knew
the boy was there till he got close to him and jingled the keys in his
ear; but after one start he laughed, well pleased.
I but just missed them, he said. Thou'rt a good boy to fetch them up.
Art going home with me to-night?
No, I'm to sleep at my mother's, said Roger, but I'll wait and walk
with you, Grandfather. So he slipped into a pew, and sat down till the
work should be finished, and they ready to go; and as he looked up he
saw all at once how beautiful the old church was looking.
The moon outside was streaming in so brightly, that you hardly missed
the sun, Roger could see distinctly way up to the carved beams of the
roof, and trace the figures on the great arched windows over the altar,
whose colors had so often dazzled him on Sundays. The colors were soft
and dim now, but the figures were there. Roger could see them
plainly,--the sitting figure of the Lord Christ, with St. Matthew and
two other apostles, and the fisher-lad with his basket of fish. He had
often asked Granny to read him the story.
That gleam at the further end of the nave came from the organ-loft,
where the moonbeams had found out the great brass pipes, and were
playing all manner of tricks with them. Almost the red of the
holly-berries could be seen, and every pointed ivy-leaf and spike of
evergreen in the wreathings of the windows stood out in bold relief
against the shining panes. With this beautiful whiteness the red glow of
the fire blended, and flooded the chancel with a lovely pink light, in
which shone the gilded letters on the commandment-tables, and the
brasses of the tablets on the walls. It was a wonderful thing to see.
To study the roof better, Roger thought he would lie flat on the cushion
awhile, and look straight up. So he arranged himself comfortably, and
somehow--it _will_ happen, even when we are full of enjoyment and
pleasure--his eyes shut, and the first thing he knew he was rubbing them
open again, only a minute afterward, as it seemed; but Grandfather was
gone. There was the stove closed for the night, and the great door at
the end of the aisle was shut. He jumped up in a fright, as you can
imagine, and ran to see, and shook it hard. No: it was locked, and poor
Roger was fastened in for the night.
He understood it all in a moment. The tall pew had hidden him from
sight. Grandfather had thought him gone home; his mother would ever
doubt that he was safe at the other cottage; no one would miss him, and
there was no chance of being let out before morning.
He was only six years old, so no wonder that at first he felt choked and
frightened, and inclined to cry. But he was a brave lad, and that idea
soon left him. He began to think that he was not badly off, after
all,--the church was warm, the pew-cushion as soft as his bed. No one
could get in to harm him. In fact, after the first moment, there was
something so exciting and adventurous in the idea of spending the night
in such a place, that he was almost glad the accident had happened. So
he went back to the pew, and tried to go to sleep again.
That was not so easy. Did you ever get thoroughly waked up in the night
by a sudden fright? Do you remember how your eyes wouldn't stay shut
afterward, even when you closed them tight, but jerked open almost
against your will, as if a string was fastened to them and some one was
twitching it? Just so poor Roger felt. He lay still and kept himself
quiet for a moment, and then some little noise would come, and his heart
beat and his eyes be wide open in a minute. It was a coal dropping from
the fire, or a slight crack on the frosty panes: once a little mouse
crept out from the chancel, glaring shyly about with his bright eyes,
nibbled a moment at a leaf on the carpet and then crept back again. No
other living thing disturbed the quiet.
He had heard the clock strike eleven a long time since, and was lying
with eyes half shut, gazing at the red fire-grate, and feeling at last a
little drowsy, when all at once a strange rush and thrill seemed to come
to him in the air, like a cool clear wind blowing through the church,
and in one minute he was wide awake and sitting upright, with ears
strained to catch some sound afar off. It was too distant and faint for
ordinary sense, but a new and sharper power of hearing seemed given him.
Little voices were speaking high in the air, outside the church,--very
odd ones, like birds' notes, and yet the words were plain. He listened
and listened, and made out at last that it was the owls in the tower
Hoo, hoo, why don't you lie still there? said one.
Whit-whoo-whit, said the other, I can't. I know what is coming too
well for that.
What is coming,--what, what? said two voices together.
Ah! you'll see soon, replied the first. The elves are coming, the
hateful Christmas elves. You'll not get a wink of sleep to-night.
Why not? What will they do to us? chirped the young ones.
You'll see, hooted the old owl. You'll see! They'll pull your tails,
and tickle your feathers, and prick you with thorns. I know them, the
tricksy, troublesome things! I've been here many a long year. You were
only hatched last summer. To-whoo, to-whoo!
Just at this moment the church-clock began to strike twelve. At the
first clang the owls ceased to hoot, and Roger listened to the deep
notes, almost awe-struck, as they sounded one by one. He knew the voice
of the clock well, but it never before sounded so loud or so solemn:
five--six--seven--eight--nine--ten--eleven--twelve. It was Christmas
As the last echo died away, a new sound took its place. From afar off
came the babble of tiny voices drawing nearer. Anything so gay and
charming was never dreamed of before,--half a laugh, half a song, the
tones blended into an enchanting peal, like bells on a frolic. Above the
old tower the sounds clustered and increased,--then a long, distressed
cry came from the owl, and a bubbling laugh floated in on the wind.
Roger could not stand it. Wild to see, he flew to the window, and tried
to stretch his neck in such a way as to catch what was going on above;
but it was a vain attempt, and just then the church-bells began to ring
all together, a chime, a Christmas chime, only the sounds were
infinitely small, as if baby hands had laid hold on the ropes. But his
sharpened senses brought every note and change to Roger's ears, and they
were so merry and so lovely that he felt he must get nearer or die; and
almost before he knew it he was climbing the dark belfry-stairs as fast
as his feet could carry him, never thinking of fear or darkness, only of
the elfin bells which were pealing overhead.
Up, up, through the long slits in the tower the moon could be seen
sailing in the cold, clear blue. Higher, higher,--at last he gained the
belfry. There hung the four great bells, but nobody was pulling at their
heavy ropes. On each iron tongue was perched a fay; on the chains which
suspended them clustered others, all keeping time by the swaying of
their bodies as they swung to and fro, just grazing either side, and
bringing forth a clear, delicate stroke, sweet as laughter,--just loud
enough for fairy ears.
Through the windows the crowd of floating fays could be seen whirling
about in the moonlight like glittering gossamer. They floated in and out
of the tower, they mounted the great bells and sat atop in swarms, they
chased and pushed each other, playing all sorts of pranks. Below, others
were attacking the owl's nest. Roger could hear their hoots and grunts
and the gleeful laughter of the elves. The moon made the tower light as
noon; all the time the elves sang or talked,--which, he could not tell;
there were words, but all so blent with laughs and mirthful trills that
it was nothing less than music.
To and fro, to and fro, keeping time to a fairy rhythm, they swayed in
unison with the tiny peal they rang. Little quarrels arose. Once Roger
watched an elf trying to mount the clapper, and whenever he neared the
top a mischievous comrade pushed him off again. Then the elf pouted,
and, flying away, he returned with a holly-leaf. Small as it was, it
curled over his head like a huge umbrella. With the spiky point he slyly
pricked the elf above; and he, taken by surprise, lost his hold, and
came tumbling down, while the other danced for glee and clapped his
hands mockingly. Pretty soon, however, all was made up again,--they
kissed and were friends,--and Roger saw them perched opposite each
other, and moving to and fro like children in a swing.
How long the pretty sight lasted he could not tell. So fearful was he of
marring the sport that he never stirred a finger; but all at once there
came a strain of music in the air, solemn, and sweeter than ever mortal
heard before. In a moment the elves left their sports; they clustered
like bees together in the window, and then flew from the tower in one
sparkling drift, and were gone, leaving Roger alone, and the owls
hooting below in the ivy.
And then he felt afraid,--which he had not been as long as the fays were
there,--and down he ran in a fright over the stone steps of the stairs,
and entered the church again. The red glow of the fire was grateful to
him, for he was shivering with cold and excitement; but hardly had he
regained his old seat, when, lo! a great marvel came to pass. The wide
window over the altar swung open, and a train of angels slowly floated
through. How he knew them to be angels, Roger could not have told; but
that they were, he was sure,--Christmas angels, with faces of calm,
glorious beauty, and robes as white as snow. Over the altar they
hovered, and a wonderful song rose and filled the church--no bird's
strain was ever half so sweet. The words were few, but again and again
and again they came: Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace,
good-will to men!
Roger knew the oft-repeated words,--they were those of the great
evergreen motto which overarched the chancel; but I think he never
forgot the beautiful meaning they seemed to bear as the angels sang them
over and over. It was so wondrous sweet that he could not feel
afraid,--he could only gaze and gaze, and hold his breath lest he should
lose a note.
And the song rang on, clear and triumphant, even as the white-robed
choir parted and floated like soft summer clouds to and fro in the
church, pausing ever and anon as in blessing. They touched the leaves of
the Christmas green as they passed; they hung over the organ and brushed
the keys with their wings; a long time they clustered above the benches
of the poor, as if to leave a fragrance in the air; and then they rested
before a tablet which had been put up but a few months before, and which
bore the name of the rector's eldest son, and the dates of his birth and
death. Roger had been told of this brave lad, and how he had lost his
life in plunging from his ship to save the drowning child of an
emigrant; and now the angel-song seemed sweeter than ever, as over and
again they chanted, Good-will to men,--good-will to men.
At last one of the white-winged ones left the others, and hovered awhile
above the Squire's pew, near which our little boy was hidden. A
prayer-book lay open on the rail, and over this the fair angel bent as
in benediction. A girl had sat there once,--the Squire's only daughter.
Roger remembered her well, and the mourning of the whole parish when,
only a twelvemonth ago, the lovely child had been buried from their
sight; and now, as he timidly glanced into the glorious face above him,
it seemed to him to have the same look, only so ineffably beautiful that
he closed his dazzled eyes to shut out the vision and the light that
shone from the white wings,--only for a moment, then he opened them
again, as a gentle rustling filled the air, and he saw the bending
figure stoop, leave a kiss or a blessing on the pages of the open book,
and then glide away with the others. Again the group hovered above the
altar,--louder and clearer rose the triumphant strain, and, noiseless as
a cloud, the snowy train floated to the window. For one moment their
figures could be seen against the sky, then the song died away,--they
were gone, and Roger saw them no more.
And now the light of dawn began to creep into the windows, twittering
sounds showed the birds awakening outside, and a pink streak appeared in
the sky. Too much rapt by his vision to feel impatience, the boy sat and
waited; and by and by a jingling in the lock showed Grandfather at
hand,--the door opened, and he came in.
You can guess his surprise when his little grandson flew to meet him
with his wonderful story. As for the story, he pooh-poohed
_that_,--sleeping in such a strange place might well bring about a queer
dream, he said; but he took the boy home to the cottage, and Granny,
full of wonderment and sympathy, speedily prepared a breakfast for her
darling after his adventure. But, even with his mouth full of scalding
bread and milk, Roger would go on telling of angels and fairies, and the
owls' talk in their nest, till both grandparents began to think him
Perhaps he was, for to this day he persists in the story. And though the
villagers that morning exclaimed that at no time had their old church,
in its Christmas dress, looked so beautiful before, and though the organ
sent forth a rarer, sweeter music than fingers had ever drawn from it,
still nobody believed a word of it. And though the poor mother, kneeling
in her lonely pew, and missing her darling from beside her, felt a
strange peace and patience enter her heart, and came away calmed and
blessed, still no one listened to the story. Roger had dreamed it all,
they said; and perhaps he had,--only the owls knew.