(This is a short-story version of an episode in Adelsverein: The Sowing, which I reworked as a free-standing Christmas story a good few years ago, for a collection of short stories. The scene; the Texas Hill country during the Civil War – a war in which many residents of the Hill Country were reluctant to participate, as they had abolitionist leanings, had not supported secession … and had quite enough to do with defending themselves against raiding Indians anyway.)
It was Vati’s idea to have a splendid Christmas Eve and he broached it to his family in November. Christian Friedrich Steinmetz to everyone else but always Vati to his family; once the clockmaker of Ulm in Bavaria, Vati had come to Texas with the Verein nearly twenty years before with his sons and his three daughters. “For the children, of course,” he said, polishing his glasses and looking most particularly like an earnest and kindly gnome, “This year past has been so dreadful, such tragedies all around – but it is within our capabilities to give them a single good memory of 1862! I shall arrange for Father Christmas to make a visit, and we shall have as fine a feast as we ever did, back in Germany. Can we not do this, my dears?”
“How splendid, Vati! Oh, we shall, we shall!” his youngest daughter Rosalie kissed her father’s cheek with her usual degree of happy exuberance, “With the house full of children – even the babies will have a wonderful memory, I am sure!” Her older sisters, Magda and Liesel exchanged fond but exasperated glances; dear, vague well-meaning Vati!
All of Gillespie County was under martial law and Duff’s Partisan Rangers had despoiled so many farmsteads, claiming they were owned by Union sympathizers. Men of the town had been arrested for refusing to take the loyalty oath, refusing service in the Confederate Army, for even speaking against secession or refusing to accept Confederate money. How could a happy Christmas make up for all that?
“For the children, then,” Magda sighed. She was thin and dark and thoughtful; widow’s weeds did not suit her in the least. As if there were anything that would take away the memory of her husband, taken away by the hanging band and murdered early in the spring; his only crime being suspected of Union sympathies. Shortly thereafter, all of his property was confiscated by the Army. Magda and her four children – three living and the one in her belly – had no other choice but to return to Fredericksburg, to Vati’s timber and stone house at the corner of Market Street and San Antonio Street.
“I will make a plum pudding, and all the dishes that the children like the best!” Liesel was plump and pretty, even after bearing eight children, the youngest of them brought forth at almost the same hour as Magda’s youngest daughter. Liesel’s husband, Hansi Richter was on the hanging band’s list. A blunt and outspoken man, he refused to take the loyalty oath to the Confederacy or to join their army. He had brought his wife and their children to take refuge at Vati’s. Magda did not want to know where he was living – rough in the woods, she thought, eluding the provost marshal’s men and sneaking back to tend his derelict farm whenever he could. Such woes this dreadful war had brought to them! Their property confiscated or abandoned, her children orphaned, Liesel’s husband on the run, living like a wild animal in the woods; how could Christmas, even the most splendid Christmas make up for all of that?
“It will be as wonderful as it ever was!” Rosalie exclaimed, as excited as one of the smaller children herself. “You’ll see!”
“We’ll do what we can,” Magda answered with faint reproof, “I suppose the boys can fund a nice cedar tree for the parlor – not too far distant from town, I hope!”
Her sisters continued in a merry mood during the weeks that they made preparation for a wartime Christmas, although Magda worried over Liesel. Better that she should be so merry over Christmas, decided Magda eventually, rather than pine away with worry over her fugitive husband. Liesel was extreme in her moods, either on top of the tallest tower or deep in the cellar.
And now it was the afternoon of Christmas Eve! The house was redolent with the scent of ginger, with the smells of baked goods and roasting meat, steaming plum-pudding in the boiler, all overlaid with the sharp green scent of cut-cedar garlands and branches. Liesel sent the children upstairs to their rooms, all but the babies, Lottie and Grete sleeping peaceably in their cradle in the parlor. Since the older children knew very well that it was time for the Christmas tree to be set up in the parlor, they went eagerly. When the children were all safely upstairs Magda and Vati slipped out the back door. Magda’s son Dolph and his cousin, Liesel and Hansi’s son Jacob had left the cut cedar tree standing in a bucket of water in the stable, behind the house.
“It’s a fine tree,” Vati noted, with satisfaction but it slipped from his arms as he tried to lift it and Magda said in exasperation,
“Vati, I can manage this end…we don’t want to damage the branches,”
“Oh, let me carry it,” Hansi Richter said from the stable doorway and they both turned in delighted astonishment, “I thought ‘who would be looking for bush-men on Christmas Eve?’ so I thought I’d take the risk. Besides, I wanted to surprise Lise and the children.”
“She will be surprised, indeed,” Vati beamed, while Magda said, worriedly,
“You’re sure no one saw you?”
“It’s Christmas Eve and bitter cold,” Hansi answered as he easily balanced the length of the cedar tree over his shoulder. “Everyone is inside tonight, with the shutters drawn tight… the one night I might spend safe under a roof, hey? I am sure no one saw me; collar up to my ears, hat drawn down to them; if anyone was looking out a window, they never got a look at my face.” He looked very wearied, but exuberant, his clothes worn but clean. He had contrived to wash and barber himself, wherever he had been hiding. Magda was torn between worry and gratitude for having him there, strong and competent with shoulders like a bull-buffalo. How had he dared, when the Confederate authorities hunted him and the other draft-dodgers in the German settlements?
“Liesel will be overjoyed!” She said, finally – it seemed the safest and most honest answer. Beaming, Hansi carried the tree into the parlor and set it upright in the corner, deep-sunk in a heavy pot of river-sand waiting there for it. His and Liesel’s eldest daughter Anna knelt on the floor, sorting out the long strands of seed-garlands and setting little candles into the holders intended for them.
She did not look up until Hansi spoke.“Hello, my sweet-dumpling!” he said, as Anna sprang to her feet and flung herself into his arms, with a brief cry of joy and surprise. “How can I celebrate Christmas, away from home, then!”
“Oh, Papa, we have such plans,” Anna exclaimed, “Captain Nimitz is going to come dressed as Father Christmas and Mama has made a plum pudding!”
Captain Charley Nimitz kept Fredericksburg’s one hotel, a sprawling edifice on Main Street, set in a garden of roses and hop-vines. Charley was one of their oldest and dearest friends, even though he had chosen to take the Confederate loyalty – their friendship went deeper than the present uncertainty. Once he had courted Magda, remaining a friend even though she had chosen another.
“Glad I’m here in time,” Hansi said, with a broad grin, “I’d have hated to miss all the fun! Charley was always good at theatrics; remember the time he played Falstaff in love for the theatrical society? Liked to have us all rolling on the floor! I want to surprise your mother,” he added impishly, “Where is she?”
“She’s in the kitchen with Rosalie, fixing supper,” Anna answered, “And the children are all upstairs, waiting for the Christmas tree.”
“Good! I’ll surprise them all,” Hansi said and left them in the parlor to cope with the tree. They heard the kitchen door open and close and a sudden squeal of delight from Liesel, followed immediately by a sudden crash, as if a pot or plate had fallen on the floor. Magda flinched, murmuring, “I so hope that wasn’t breakable!” as she knelt where Anna had been among the little paper cornucopias and candle-holders.
In a moment, Rosalie appeared in the parlor, pink of cheek and flustered, wiping her hands on her apron. “Well, really,” she said and Anna asked in amusement, “What are they doing, then, Little Rose?” There was only a matter of a year or two between Anna and Rosalie. They were more like sisters than aunt and niece.
“They are kissing each other,” Rosalie looked even more embarrassed when Vati and Magda laughed, adding indignantly, “Really, it’s quite unseemly . . . they’re your parents!”
“I imagine that’s how they became my parents,” Anna murmured. Rosalie flushed even more deeply pink as Vati said, “I don’t think Liesel will let supper spoil. Shall we start with the tree, then, my dears?”
Within five or ten minutes and long before Magda thought she might tap on the kitchen door and remind Hansi and Liesel about the tree and the children and Christmas Eve supper, there came a louder tap on the on the back door.
“It must be Charley,” Magda said, “But why he would come around through the garden…”
“I have barred all the doors,” Vati fussed, as the tapping sounded louder. He stood festooned with garlands, which he was holding for Rosalie and Anna to loop around and around the spreading cedar branches.
“I’ll see to it, Vati,” Magda said, and stepped out into the dim stair-hall to unbar the door. Upstairs, she could hear the muffled laughter of children; they could hardly wait for much longer. Her breasts ached also, telling her that Lottie could hardly wait much longer either. Charley was through the door almost as soon as it was latched, uncharacteristically grim-faced. He was a short, fair-haired man with merry features and bright blue eyes with squint-lines around them as if long-used to bright sun and long distances.
“Is he here?” he demanded, as she latched the door after him,
“Is who here?” Magda stammered. What had times come to, when she couldn’t bring herself to answer straightly to an old friend!
“No time to waste with this nonsense, Magda. Hansi. Is he here?” Charley sounded as if he were grinding his teeth. Magda saw that he carried a large bag in his arms; something bulky but light.
Before she could open her mouth, the kitchen door opened, and Hansi himself put his head around it, asking quietly,“ Charley… what’s happened?!”
“The provost’s men know you’re here,” Charley answered, unsurprised. “I heard them talking in the tap-room. They’re watching the street on either side. I came along the back as soon as I heard them talk of you.” Hansi made as if to bolt towards the back door, as Liesel appeared in the square of light from the kitchen door behind him, her hands at her mouth in horror, “You must go, then, quickly!” she cried.
Charley blocked the door with his body. “No,” he answered, “It’s already too late. They’ll be watching the outside in about three minutes now that they have the streets covered. You’re only chance is to sit still and bluff it out. I’m so sorry, Hansi. I advised you badly, this time.”
“How?” Hansi asked, as Anna came out of the parlor, saying,
“Is that Captain Nimitz? We’re ready to light the candles.” She looked at the grim faces of the men and at her aunt and mother. “What has happened, then?”
“The provost is going to come and arrest your father,” Charley answered. Liesel began to cry as he added, “Unless we can put on a very good show.”
“What show?” Magda never thought it possible to shriek in a whisper, but she did now.
Charley lifted up the bag that he held, “Imagine – who would have the nerve to arrest Father Christmas – on Christmas Eve?” A wide, reckless grin split his face. “You have five minutes to clean up and get into costume, Hansi.”
“But the children!” Magda began, and Charley commanded,
“Tell them what you need to, to go along with it. Just have them all downstairs admiring the tree and Father Christmas by the time you open the door to the provost. And,” he looked purposefully at Hansi, “For the love of god, man, get Mrs. Liesel to stop wailing, and put on a cheerful face. They’ll take one look at her and know something is off.” Magda took her sisters’ hand, and ordered, “Go into the parlor, and nurse Grete. If you sit in the corner, they’ll hardly dare look at you, lest they see your bosoms out.”
“Well, really!” Liesel sniffed, but she obeyed. Magda closed her eyes briefly, recalling that nightmare moment when the hanging-band broke into her house and took away her husband. Please god that should not happen again. She could not endure that; just barely strong enough to endure her own sorrows, but not her sisters’ as well. Liesel trembled, clinging desperately to her hand.
“Tell Opa to light the tree,” Anna’s light footsteps were already pattering on the stairs. She looked over her shoulder to Magda, “I’ll bring the children down, as soon as Papa is ready.” Anna, tiny and indomitable possessed something of her mother’s light-hearted charm but all her father’s stubborn sense of purpose.
“Good girl,” Charley gathered up his bag, and nudged Hansi with his shoulder towards the kitchen. “She’s a clever one, your oldest, Hansi. Quick to pick up on a plan.”
Magda followed her sister into the parlor, where Vati and Rosalie disputed amiably over the best positioning of the candles. The tree stood nearly ready, a vision of plenty and riches, a red-felt blanket around the base of it, branches weighted with paper cornucopias filled with gingerbread and sweetmeats, gilded nuts and Vati’s polished metal stars.
“On the ends of the branches, dear child… on the ends,” Vati insisted, as Magda said, “Vati, there’s not much time. The children will be coming downstairs.”
“So soon?” Vati blinked in amiable puzzlement. “But the clock is yet fifteen minutes from striking – surely we have a little more time?”
“No, Vati. The children are much too excited to wait any longer.” It was on the tip of Magda’s tongue to explain to Vati, but there was no time and he was as unworldly as a child. He would never be able to put on a convincing pretense to the Provosts’ men.
“Well then,” Vati sighed, “Rosalie my child, I will tidy away the scraps, while you light the candles, but be most careful.”
Liesel took Grete out of the cradle and sat herself on the chaise. Grete fussed as Liesel unbuttoned the front of her dress and draped a corner of Grete’s blanket over her shoulder. She had stopped crying, but her face was still streaked with tears. Magda’s heart sank. Liesel trembled still, like a poplar-leaf in a breeze. Her sisters’ nerves were all but shattered; she would never be able to put on a pretense of normality. She bent over the cradle to check on Lottie, who was stirring but not fussy. The serene blue eyes which so resembled her fathers’ examined the parlor ceiling overhead with mild curiosity and Magda thought the baby nearly smiled, recognizing her mother.
“I’ll be back in a little moment, sweetness,” Magda whispered to her daughter, and turned to Liesel. “Lise, darling – I’m going to see if Charley and Hansi need any help, but I’ll bring you a handkerchief; you need to wipe away your tears. I’ll sit with you, all the time the provost is here, but you must compose yourself!” Liesel nodded mutely, mechanically undoing the ribbon that held her shift closed, and lifting Grete’s head to her bared breast. She had gone from her high-tower mood, into the blackest corner of her dark-cellar, all in the space of ten minutes. “Try to be calm,” Magda urged, helplessly, “Think of what the baby is taking in . . . do you want her to be colicky and screaming all night?”
She fled into the kitchen, where all the dinner preparations had been swept aside to make way for Charley’s theatrics. Charley was saying to Hansi, “Sorry, this is going to hurt like hell, when you take it off, but there’s no time for a barber.” He looked over his shoulder at Magda. “Good. Can you take away our coats and hang them up? We’ve got to look as if we’ve been here for a while.” He was industriously attaching wads of white wool to Hansi’s chin, upper lip and eyebrows with spirit gum, to make a long white beard, mustache and eyebrows. “Hold still, man . . . ” he added as Hansi tried to smile reassuringly at Magda. He had already taken off his own overcoat, and put on Father Christmases’ long mantle, a voluminous green wrap trimmed in white fur which came down to cover his boots. Charley shrugged out of his own coat, even as he continued dabbing with the spirit-gum brush. Magda took it off his shoulders, and gathered up Hansi’s from where it lay discarded on the kitchen table, next to Father Christmases’ green-velvet peaked cap, and wide leather belt.
“One more thing,” Charley added, urgently as he looked very straightly at Magda, “There’s no sign upstairs of a man having lived here, other than your father, I mean. No shaving kit, no men’s clothing, nothing of the sort? They may want to search the house.”
“No,” Magda shook her head. “Vati sleeps in his workroom now.”
“Good,” Charley nodded his head. “Are they ready in the parlor?”
“Almost,” Magda’s nerves were drawn as tight as fiddle-strings; more so as Charley seemed quite exhilarated, as if he was having the time of his life. “We still have my husband’s revolvers,” she said, through dry lips, past the pain in her throat whenever she thought of him and Charley snapped, “For the love of god, leave them where they are. It would only make matters worse, Mrs. Magda.” He opened a little jar and smudged the barest bit of lamp-black under Hansi’s eyes, then stood back and looked critically at his handiwork. “Good,” he said again. “Now, with the hat, and do up the belt. I’ll let them in, when they knock on the door. Let me do the talking.” Hansi wrapped the velvet robe around him and fastened the belt around his waist, while Charley arranged the vast woolen beard to best effect on Hansi’s breast. The hat had more wool batting sewn under the brim, obscuring practically everything but Hansi’s nose.
“It looks very good, you can hardly see a bit of his face,” Magda said. Charley answered, “You’re still here? Go bring the children downstairs, now!” She hurried away, with her arm full of coats to hang on the pegs in the hallway. As the door fell behind her, she could hear Charley saying, “If they ask, I’ll tell them that you’re Hermann Leibgott, who used to work for me. He’s taken the oath and he’s away with the frontier battalion anyway . . . ” She didn’t hear Hansi’s reply, if he made one, for she also thought she could hear noises from the street just outside, of men’s footsteps and voices and horses’ hoofs. She ran up the stairs and along the landing to the room that she and Liesel shared. A handkerchief, a handkerchief . . . a plain one of Liesel’s, dabbed with a splash of rose-flower water from the blue-glass bottle of it which Liesel so treasured. She caught up the handkerchief and went to find the children.
They were gathered in Rosalie and Anna’s bedroom, crammed tightly together on the two beds with their backs towards the door, listening gravely to Anna. She stood with her hands on the foot rail of her bed, and her knuckles were white with the strength of her grip, but her voice was quiet and level. “…You see, you must pretend as hard as you can, for Opa,” Anna was saying as Magda came to the door. “He took a very great trouble to arrange this with Captain Nimitz, so you must not seem to recognize the man dressed as Father Christmas. It’s all a pretend . . . but Opa would be so pleased, if you are all fooled.” Her eyes went to Magda, and it seemed that Anna’s voice quavered just the slightest, as she added. “It’s important. It would mean so much to Opa. Are they ready, downstairs, Auntie?”
“Yes,” Magda said, and Anna smiled, that wonderful merry smile that lit up her eyes and showed the dimples in her cheeks. She lifted her arms, sweeping them toward the children as if shooing them like chickens towards the door, saying, “Well, then go! The Christmas tree is ready and Father Christmas is lingering downstairs to see how well you like it… go, go!” The children needed no urging; they tumbled off the bed, and jostled each other through the doorway and down the stairs, where Charley stood in the hallway with his hand on the parlor door.
“Ready?” he asked the children, and grinned cheerfully at the chorus of impatient assurances that they were most ready and eager. “I guess you all have been good children!” He opened the parlor door, looking over their heads and nodding towards Magda and Anna, just as someone outside pounded heavily on the front door. Magda’s heart fairly jumped into her throat at the sound of it. “Places ladies, places please,” Charley murmured, encouragingly as they followed the children. “Let tonight’s performance begin!”
“Smile, Auntie,” Anna whispered as Charley patted her shoulder and called to Vati, “Someone’s at the door… don’t worry, I’ll answer it.”
Magda wondered how on earth Charley managed to sound so casual, as if there were nothing on earth to worry about. Hansi was right; he was a very good actor. Inside the parlor, the tree shimmered with the light of a hundred tiny candles, like golden stars against the dark, pine-scented branches, a fairy tree in Vati’s parlor. For this one evening, Magda and Rosalie had decided to splurge on using their precious stock of wax candles. The parlor was filled to overflowing with their gentle, golden glow and the chorus of awed exclamations from the children, not least as they caught sight of Hansi standing motionless a little beyond the tree.
“It really is Father Christmas!” breathed Magda’s daughter Hannah in wondering delight, echoed by her cousin Christian. Three-year-old Willi, the youngest of Liesel’s children save for the baby sat abruptly down in the middle of the parlor rag rug, awed to silence by the sight of the tall and motionless figure. Hansi loomed impossibly tall, impressively white-bearded, the candle-light adding a rich burnish to his fur-trimmed velvet robes.
“Who are these children?” He boomed. Small Willi began to sob, while his older siblings and cousins chorused their names.
“It’s Father Christmas, Willi!” Vati cried, and lifted his grandson into his arms, “See! There’s nothing to be frightened of!” But Willi turned his face into Vati’s shoulder and continued wailing as Hansi continued, “Who has been most particularly good this year?”
Magda slipped around behind the ecstatic children; she was certain she could hear voices in the hallway, Charley speaking English, a harsh voice answering him in the same language, barely heard above the merry clamor. She sat next to Liesel. Taking the handkerchief from her sleeve, she dabbed at Liesel’s reddened eyes with it.
“They are at the door,” she whispered, hardly daring to move her lips, “Charley is talking to them. When they look into the parlor, Lise . . . they must see only happy faces, happy children!”
“Who is this pretty maid?” Hansi boomed exuberantly as he drew Anna to stand before him. The children chorused, “Anna! Her name is Anna, Father Christmas!” Anna curtseyed, laughing with apparent openness.
“Well, then, since my assistant Ruprecht has been so delayed upon the journey we must make – he went back for another load of trees, you know – then I must ask Miss Anna to help me reward the good children here, and to punish the bad!” Father Christmas scowled so fiercely that Willi sobbed even more.
Vati pleaded with him, “Willi, Willi… it is Father Christmas, nothing for you to fear!”
“They are doing very well, Liesel. I verily believe they do think him to be Father Christmas!” Magda tucked away the scented handkerchief and took Lottie to her lap. She hesitated to nurse her, reluctant to unbutton her bodice while there were strangers in the house.
“Sit down,” Commanded Father Christmas and the children obeyed with eager anticipation. From across the room, Magda met Dolph’s eyes; he was half smiling, obviously enjoying the reaction of the younger children. He and his cousin Jacob were too old to indulge in this fantastical charade of Father Christmas bringing gifts to children; rather of the age to join with the adults in encouraging the younger ones to believe. Her son watched intently, as if he were storing up every tiny detail in memory, too taken up with it to pay much mind to a half-heard knock on the door. Charley appeared in the doorway, saying casually as if it were of no account at all, “Mr. Steinmetz, there’s an officer here . . . from the provost. They say they’re looking for a deserter, and searching every house. D’you mind if I let them in to search? It shouldn’t take but a moment?”
“We’re sheltering no deserters,” Vati said, and Magda noted the exact moment of realization. Vati paled and his voice hesitated. He gaped for a moment like a fish, as he looked wildly around the room, holding Willi to him before he added, “Rosalie, my dear…”
“I’ll show them around, Vati,” Rosalie sprang up from where she sat among the children, as if she were given a cue/
Hansi said very loudly, “Well, they must be very bad children, for I haven’t brought them any presents at all!” The children laughed with gleeful pleasure. Still watching her oldest son from across the parlor, Magda saw him started up from his seat but she caught his eyes with hers and made a small gesture with her hand. Dolph realized what was happening; now he looked tense and unhappy under his pretense of Christmas cheer. She held Lottie to her shoulder, carefully lowering her head to shield her face from the candle-light and grateful that she and Liesel had withdrawn to a corner of the parlor.
“The officer; he is watching us, from the hallway,” she whispered to Liesel. “I think Charley knows him. They are talking like friends.” Liesel nodded, her head also down.
“I brought a gift for Marie, who has been the best of little girls!” Hansi announced, as Anna’s younger sister Marie arose from where she sat on the rug with her brothers and Hannah. He lifted her up and kissed her cheek, while she squealed and laughed. As he set her down in a swirl of skirts and petticoats, Anna handed her a little parcel wrapped in tissue. One by one, the children were called up to Father Christmas, to receive their presents, the little toys and sweets so lovingly constructed by their mothers and grandfather during the last few weeks.
Magda kept her eyes lowered, as aware as she would be of a thorn in her foot, of the baleful eyes of the provost officer. He stood in the hallway with Charley, but he looked into the parlor now and again, in mild curiosity. Gradually Magda’s heart ceased to hammer quite so loudly. She tried to listen to what he said to Charley and what Charley said to him in reply, but over the cheerful clamor of children’s voices, she made out nothing more than that they spoke in English and Charley sounded genial, quite unworried. Now, she heard Rosalie’s voice, all happy chatter and she came down the stairs, with heavy footsteps following after her. When Magda glanced upward, she caught a glimpse of Rosalie and two bashful soldiers as Rosalie opened the door into the kitchen. Grete finished feeding. Liesel laid her back in the cradle, moving as slowly as if she were in a dream. She clutched at Magda’s arm like a lifeline which kept her from slipping into deep water.
“I think they are more smitten with our little Rose than interested in looking for deserters,” Magda whispered to her sister. That brought a momentary strained smile to Liesel’s face, until it vanished as if it had never been.
“Dear god, Magda! He is looking at Hansi,” she gasped. Magda stole another glance at the doorway; yes – the provost officer stood full in the doorway with his eyes on Hansi as Hansi announced, “I know of a little chap named Wilhelm, who is too small to be anything but the best-behaved of little boys.”
“Go to Father Christmas,” Vati urged helplessly as Willi buried his face even further into Vati’s shoulder. Vati tried to set him on the floor but Willi clung to his legs.
“He brought a present for you, Willi,” Anna called, wooingly. She picked up her little brother and carried him to Father Christmas, but Willi screwed up his face and howled.
“Not such a good boy, then,” Hansi made a great show of looking in the pockets and in the breast of his robe for one last present. Anna brought Willi to the chaise in the corner where Liesel and Magda sat with the babies.
“That may have been good,” she breathed, as she set her little brother down. Willi burrowed underneath the chaise, sheltering behind their skirts, “Acting as though Father Christmas is a stranger!”
The provost officer had indeed moved away from the door, as if he had lost all interest. He spoke to his two soldiers as Hansi called, “One last present, have I, for a very good little girl named Rose.” Rosalie pealed with delighted laughter, as she stepped back into the parlor.
“Father Christmas has brought a present for me?” she asked and Hansi made a show of looking her up and down in mock astonishment.
“Little Rose is not such a little rose any more,” he said, to more happy amusement from the children. He drew a last small package from the sleeve of his robe and held it out for her, adding, “I have brought this present all the way from the East!” He held it teasingly over her head. Rosalie stood a-tiptoe, begging fruitlessly.
“Oh, please Father Christmas, may I have it?” Hansi kissed her cheek and gave it to her, appearing unaware that in the hallway, Charley was seeing the provost officer and his men out into the street while a much puzzled Vati wrung his hands, lingering in the doorway. Magda wasn’t aware that she held her breath, until the door closed to with a thud. Beside her, Liesel closed her eyes and sagged against the back of the chaise. There was some ado with fastening the bar that secured the door, Charley’s voice and Vati’s out in the hall, before Charley returned to the parlor with a broad grin on his face.
“Well done, all! Go on with the merriment, lest they are listening at the windows.” He commanded with jubilation. He, Anna and Hansi all looked at each other and roared with unashamed laughter, as if they had just shared the most exhilarating and enjoyable experience. Vati and Rosalie looked from one to another in bafflement. The children laughed, but only because the adults were doing so.
“Have you all gone mad?” Vati asked, in distress. “Who were they searching for? Is that why Hansi dressed as Father Christmas?”
“They were looking for me,” Hansi finally answered “No deserter, but me, Vati! Unless by refusing to serve their wretched army, I am a deserter . . . ” he made a motion to divest himself of the robe, but Charley cautioned, “Best stay in costume for a while. Behave absolutely as if normal.” He slapped Hansi on the shoulder. The two of them laughed again as Hansi pulled at his wool beard and complained, “I’ll have a devil of a time eating, in this god-be-damned thing!”
“An artist gives all to his art,” Charley said, heartlessly as Rosalie gasped, and whirled around, “The pudding!” She dashed out of the room. Liesel began to weep as if a dam had suddenly burst.
“God save us, there she goes again,” Charley said. “Better now than five minutes ago.” He and Hansi exchanged one of those looks that men give to each other when indulging their wives.
Hansi knelt at the foot of the chaise, arranging his robes around him with great difficulty and took her hand in his, “It’s all right, now, Lise! We took no more hurt from this than their muddy footsteps on the stairs – stop crying, then!” Liesel clung to him as if she were about to drown. Finally, Hansi rose to feet and half-carried her from the room. The smaller children were looking from one to another and towards Vati, Magda and Anna, puzzled and distressed.
“What is the matter with Aunt Liesel?” Hannah asked, anxiously. Anna answered with brisk affection, “She had an awful fright, Hanneleh – those men were looking for Papa, but we thought to hide him right under their noses. You all did wonderfully well at helping. I don’t think anyone suspected a thing. You should cheer for Captain Nimitz, for it was all his clever idea.”
“Hidden in plain sight,” Vati’s face finally brightened. The baffled expression lifted like a storm-cloud clearing from the sun. “How terribly clever you are, Charley – to think of such a ruse on the spur of the moment! I couldn’t for the life of me work out why Hansi was dressed in that costume, and not yourself! Now you say it was because they were looking for Hansi? On Christmas Eve? We are forever in your debt, Captain Nimitz!”
“Nothing to it,” Charley answered, with modest self-deprecation. “I’d heard talk in the taproom. On my way here I saw Captain Satterlee and a squad of men heading down towards Market Square. I just put two and two together…”
“I would have come up with six or three,” Vati acknowledged cheerfully, “Such a fortunate escape wasn’t it, children, thanks to Mr. Nimitz’s quick thinking!”
“I’m sure you all would have come up with a good plan,” Charley answered, cheerfully and Vati shook his head, “Not in enough time to do any good! It’s a blessing that you were here.” he settled his glasses on his nose, and looked around at the children. With the excitement over and Hansi gone from they room, they turned their attention back to their presents. Magda finally unfastened the front of her dress to nurse Lottie, as now she could do with only friends and family within the house.
“Thank you, Charley – for your kindness, and your quick thinking,” she said. “We are forever in your debt, Hansi and Liesel and I and the children, too.”
“Think nothing of it, Mrs. Magda.” Charley beamed impartially upon them all, “It was not only my pleasure but the most fun I have had on a Christmas Eve in simply ages!”