On December twenty-fifth, 1918, that little white house in the park was certainly the happiest dwelling in Calvinton. It was simply running over with Christmas.
You see, there had come to it a most wonderful present, a surprise full of tears and laughter. Captain Walter Mayne reached home on Christmas Eve.
For a while they had thought that he would never come back at all. News had been received that he was grievously wounded in France--shot to pieces, in effect, leading his men near Chateau-Thierry. His life hung on the ragged edge of those wounds. But his wife Katharine always believed that he would pull through. So he did. But he was lacking a leg, his right arm was knocked out of commission for the present, and various other _souvenirs de la grande guerre_ were inscribed upon his body.
Then word arrived that he was coming on a transport, with other wounded, to be patched up in a hospital on Staten Island. So his wife Katharine smiled her way through innumerable entanglements of red tape and went to nurse him. Then she set her steady hand to pull all the wires necessary to get him discharged and sent home. Christmas was in her heart and she would not be denied. So it came to pass that the one-legged Hero was in his own house on the happy day, and joy was bubbling all around him.
When the old Pastor entered, late in the afternoon, the Christmas-tree was twinkling with lights, the children swarming and buzzing all over the place, so that he was dazed for a moment. There were Walter's mother and his aunt and his sisters-in-law, boys and girls of various sizes, and a jubilant and entrancing baby. The Pastor took it all in, and was glad of it, but his mind was on the Hero.
Katharine, who always understood everything, whispered softly: "Walter is waiting to see you, Doctor. He is in his study, just across the hall."
_Waiting?_ Well, what can a man whose right leg has been cut off above the knee, and who has not yet been able to get an artificial one--what can he do but wait?
The room was rather dimly lighted; brilliance is not good for the eyes of the wounded. Walter was in a long chair in the corner; his face was bronzed, drawn and lined a little by suffering; but steady and cheerful as ever, with the eager look which had made his students listen to him when he talked to them about English literature.
"My dear Walter," said the Pastor, "my dear boy, we are so glad to have you home with us again. We are very proud of you. You are our Hero."
"Thank you," said Walter, "it is mighty good to be home again. But there is no hero business about it. I only did what all the other Americans who went over there did--fought my--excuse me, my best, against the beastly Germans."
"But your leg," said the Pastor impulsively, "it is gone. Aren't you angry about that?"
Walter was silent for a moment. Then he answered.
"No, I don't think angry is the right word. You remember that story about Nathan Hale in the Revolution--'I only regret that I have but one life to give to my country.' Well, I'm glad that I had two legs to give for my country, and particularly glad that she only needed one of them."
"Tell me a bit about the fighting," said the Pastor, "I want to know what it was like--the hero-touch--you understand?"
"Not for me," said Walter, "and certainly not now. Later on I can tell you something, perhaps. But this is Christmas Day. And war? Well, Doctor, believe me, war is a horrible thing, full of grime and pain, madness, agony, hell--a thing that ought not to be. I have fought alongside of the other fellows to put an end to it, and now--"
The door swung open, and Sammy, the eldest son of the house, pranced in.
"Look, Daddy," he cried, "see what Aunt Emily has sent me for Christmas--a big box of tin soldiers!"
Mayne smiled as the little boy carefully laid the box on his knee; but there was a shadow of pain in his eyes, and he closed them for a few seconds, as if his mind were going back, somewhere, far away. Then he spoke, tenderly, but with a grave voice.
"That's fine, sonny--all those tin soldiers. But don't you think they ought to belong to me? You have lots of other toys, you know. Would you give the soldiers to me?"
The child looked up at him, puzzled for a moment; then a flash of comprehension passed over his face, and he nodded valiantly.
"Sure, Father," he said, "You're the Captain. Keep the soldiers. I'll play with the other toys," and he skipped out of the room.
Mayne's look followed him with love. Then he turned to the old Pastor and a strange expression came into his face, half whimsical and half grim.
"Doctor," he said, "will you do me a favor? Poke up that fire till it blazes. That's right. Now lay this box in the hottest part of the flames. That's right. It will soon be gone."
The elder man did what was asked, with an air of slight bewilderment, as one humors the fancies of an invalid. He wondered whether Mayne's fever had quite left him. He watched the fire bulging the lid and catching round the edges of the box. Then he heard Mayne's voice behind him, speaking very quietly.
"If ever I find my little boy _playing with tin soldiers,_ I shall spank him well. No, that wouldn't be quite fair, would it? But I shall tell him why he must not do it, and _I shall make him understand that it's an impossible thing."_
Then the old Pastor comprehended. There was no touch of fever. The one-legged Hero had come home from the wars completely well and sound in mind. So the two men sat together in love by the Christmas fire, and saw the tin soldiers melt away.