Polly, the Doctor's old white mare, plodded slowly along the snowy country road by the picket fence, and turned in at the snow-capped posts. Ahead, roofed with the ragged ermine of a newly-fallen snow, the Doctor's old-fashioned house loomed gray-white through the snow-fringed branches of the trees, a quaint iron lantern, which was picturesque by day and luminous and cheerful by night, hanging within the square, white-pillared portico at the side. That the many-paned, old-fashioned window on the right framed the snow-white head of Aunt Ellen Leslie, the Doctor's wife, the old Doctor himself was comfortably aware—for his kindly eyes missed nothing.
He could have told you with a reflective stroke of his grizzled beard that the snow had stopped but an hour since, and that now through the white and heavy lacery of branches to the west glowed the flame-gold of a winter sunset, glinting ruddily over the box-bordered brick walk, the orchard and the comfortable barn which snugly housed his huddled cattle; that the grasslands to the south were thickly blanketed in white; that beyond in the evergreen forest the stately pines and cedars were marvelously draped and coiffed in snow. For the old Doctor loved these things of Nature as he loved the peace and quiet of his home.
So, as he turned in at the driveway and briskly resigned the care of Polly to old Asher, his seamed and wrinkled helper, the Doctor's eyes were roving now to a corner, snug beneath a tattered rug of snow, where by summer Aunt Ellen's petunias and phlox and larkspur grew—and now to the rose-bushes ridged in down, and at last to his favorite winter nook, a thicket of black alders freighted with a wealth of berries. How crimson they were amid the white quiet of the garden! And the brightly colored fruit of the barberry flamed forth from a snowy bush like the cheerful elf-lamps of a wood-gnome.
There was equal cheer and color in the old-fashioned sitting-room to which the Doctor presently made his way, for a wood fire roared with a winter gleam and crackle in the fireplace and Aunt Ellen Leslie rocked slowly back and forth by the window with a letter in her hand.
"Another letter!" exclaimed the Doctor, warming his hands before the blazing log. "God bless my soul, Ellen, we're becoming a nuisance to Uncle Sam!" But for all the brisk cheeriness of his voice he was furtively aware that Aunt Ellen's brown eyes were a little tearful, and presently crossing the room to her side, he gently drew the crumpled letter from her hand and read it.
"So John's not coming home for Christmas either, eh?" he said at last. "Well, now, that is too bad! Now, now, now, mother," as Aunt Ellen surreptitiously wiped her glasses, "we should feel proud to have such busy children. There's Ellen and Margaret and Anne with a horde of youngsters to make a Christmas for, and John—bless your heart, Ellen, there's a busy man! A broker now is one of the very busiest of men! And what with John's kiddies and his beautiful society wife and that grand Christmas eve ball he mentions—why—" the Doctor cleared his throat,—"why, dear me, it's not to be wondered at, say I! And Philip and Howard—busy as—as—as architects and lawyers usually are at Christmas," he finished lamely. "As for Ralph—" the Doctor looked away—"well, Ralph hasn't spent a Christmas home since college days."
"It will be the first Christmas we ever spent without some of them home," ventured Aunt Ellen, biting her lip courageously, whereupon the old Doctor patted her shoulder gently with a cheery word of advice.
Now, there was something in the touch of the old Doctor's broad and gentle hand that always soothed, wherefore Aunt Ellen presently wiped her troublesome glasses again and bravely tried to smile, and the Doctor making a vast and altogether cheerful to-do about turning the blazing log, began a brisk description of his day....