The Christmas Tree

A big frozen fir‑tree was dragged into the drawing‑room. Pakhom spent a long time chipping and hammering with his axe to fix it into the wooden cross that it was to stand on. At last they lifted up the tree and it was so high that the delicate green top was bent over under the ceiling.

There was a waft of cold from the tree, but gradually the frozen branches thawed and spread out to their normal positions; the odour of fir needles filled the house. The children brought a heap of paper chains and boxes of decorations into the drawing‑room, placed chairs around the tree and began trimming it.

Apparently they had not made enough. They had to paste together more cones for the sweets, paint walnuts with gold paint and tie silver threads to the little spice‎cakes and big Crimean apples. The children spent the whole evening at work until Lilya, resting her head with its crumpled bow on her arms, dropped off to sleep.

Christmas Eve came. The decoration of the tree was completed, they covered it with gold tinsel, hung up chains and fixed the candles in their little coloured holders. When everything was ready Mamma said:

“And now go away until evening, children; don’t dare even glance into the drawing-room.”

That day they lunched late and in a great hurry – the children had nothing but an apple charlotte. The house was in an uproar. The boys wandered about the house, pestering everybody, asking how much longer they had to wait till evening. Even Arkady Ivanovich – he had changed into a tail‑coat and a starched shirt that stood out like a box ̵ he did not know what to do with himself and wandered from window to window whistling. Lilya went to her mother.

The sun crawled towards the earth’s rim with terrible slowness, it turned a rosy hue, hazy clouds spread over it, the purple shadows thrown by the well on the white snow grew longer. At last Mamma told the boys to go and get dressed. On his bed Nikita found a blue silk Russian blouse with herring‑bone embroidery on the collar, cuffs and skirt, a corded silk girdle with tassels and baggy, velvet knickerbockers. He dressed and ran to his mother, who parted his hair with a comb, took him by the shoulders, looked him straight in the face and then took him over to a big pier‑glass framed in mahogany. In the mirror Nikita saw a nicely‑dressed, well mannered boy. Surely that could not be he?

“0h, Nikita, Nikita,” sighed his mother as she kissed his. head, “if you were always such a nice boy!”

Nikita tiptoed out of the room and saw a girl in white walking importantly down the passage towards him. She was wearing a gorgeous white dress with muslin petticoats, a big white bow in her hair and six fat curls on either side of her face – also unrecognizable – falling on to her thin shoulders. Lilya walked up to Nikita and looked at him with a grimace.

“Did you think I was a ghost?” she asked. “What are you scared of? ” and she walked into the study and sat down on the sofa with her legs drawn up under her.

Nikita followed her into the room and also sat down on the sofa but at the other end.

The stove had been lit, the logs crackled and shed live coals. A flickering, reddish light lit up the backs of the leather chairs, the corner of the gilded frame on the wall and the bust of Pushkin that stood between the two bookcases.

Lilya sat motionless. It was wonderful, the way the light from the stove lit up her cheek and her retroussé nose. Victor appeared wearing a blue uniform with shining buttons and a collar of gold braid so tight that it was difficult for him to talk.

Victor sat down in an armchair, also without speaking. In the drawing‑room near by the children could hear Mamma and Anna Apollosovna – they were undoing packages, they stood something on the floor and were talking in low voices. Victor would have liked to look through the keyhole but it was pasted over with paper on the other side.

Then the outside door was slammed, they heard a number of voices and the steps of tiny feet. Children from the village had arrived. He should have run to greet them but Nikita could not move. A warm bluish light glowed through the frost‑patterns on the windows. Then Lilya spoke in a thin, small voice:

“A star has come out.”

Just then the study doors were thrown open. The children jumped off the sofa. In the drawing‑room, from floor to ceiling, the Christmas tree gleamed with many, many candles. It was like a fire‑tree flashing gold, sparks and long rays of light. It was a heavy light that smelled of warmth, fir needles, wax, tangerines and spice-cakes.
The children stood motionless, astounded. The outer doors to the drawing‑room were also opened and the village children came in and pressed close against each other and to the wall. They had all removed their felt boots and wore thick woollen stockings – they were dressed in red, pink and yellow shirts, yellow, crimson and white kerchiefs.

Mamma began to play a polka on the piano. As she played she turned towards the tree with a smile on her face and sang:

The heron he has legs so long,
But couldn’t find the way back home...

Nikita held out his hand to Lilya. She gave him her hand but continued to look at the tree which was reflected in detail in her blue eyes, one tree in each eye. The children stood quite still.

Arkady Ivanovich ran over to the crowd of boys and girls, took them by the hands and began to gallop round the tree with them. The tails of his coat flew out. As he ran round he grabbed two more children, then Nikita and Lilya and Victor, and at last all the children had joined hands and were dancing round the Christmas tree.:

Now I’m hiding gold, hiding gold,

Now I’m hiding silver, silver.....

sang the village children.

Nikita pulled a cracker from the Christmas tree and broke it; inside there was a tall pointed cap with a star. Soon crackers were popping everywhere, there was a smell of gunpowder and a rustling of tissue-paper caps.

Lilya got a paper pinafore with pockets. She put it on. Her cheeks were red like apples, her lips were smeared with chocolate. She was laughing all the time as she looked at a huge doll seated beneath the Christmas tree on a big basket with a complete doll’s layette.

Under the tree there were also paper packets for the village boys and girls wrapped in vari‑coloured kerchiefs. Victor got a whole regiment of soldiers with cannon and tents and Nikita a real leather saddle and bridle with a riding‑whip.

Now came the sound of cracking nuts, shells crunched underfoot and the children breathed heavily through their noses as they unwrapped their presents.

Mamma again played the piano, the children danced and sang round the Christmas tree, but the candles were already burning low and Arkady Ivanovich, jumping up and down, put them out. The tree grew duller. Mamma closed the piano and told them all to go into the dining’room for tea.

Arkady Ivanovich, however, did not stop, he formed the children in a long chain, he at the head and twenty‑five in all behind him, and ran out through the passage and by the longest route into the dining-room.

In the hall Lilya broke away from the chain and stood still to catch her breath, looking at Nikita with laughing eyes. They were close to the hallstand where the heavy coats were hanging.

“What are you laughing at?” asked Lilya.
BR> “You’re laughing yourself,” answered Nikita.

“And what are you looking at me for?”

Nikita blushed, drew nearer to her and, not knowing himself how it happened, bent down towards Lilya and kissed her. She immediately responded with a rapid speech:

“You’re a nice boy, I haven’t told you because I didn’t want anybody to know, it’s a secret.”

She turned round and ran into the dining‑room.

After tea Arkady Ivanovich arranged a game of forfeits but the children were tired, had eaten too much and had no clear idea of what they were supposed to do. At last one tiny boy in a spotted shirt dozed right off, fell from his chair and began to cry loudly.

Mamma said that the Christmas‑tree party was over. The children went out into the passage where their felt boots and sheepskin coats lay along the wall. They dressed and poured out into the frosty night in a bunch.

Nikita went with the children as far as the dam. As he made his way back home, the moon shone in a pale, multi‑coloured ring high up in the heavens. The trees on the dam and in the garden were huge and white and they seemed to have grown taller in the moonlight. To his right a white frosty desert stretched far away into impenetrable darkness. A shadow with a big head and long legs moved by Nikita’s side.

Nikita felt as if he were walking in his sleep through some enchanted kingdom. Only in a kingdom of magic could it be so strange and at the same time so joyous.

From the book, Nikita’s Childhood, by Alexei Tolstoy, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1957.

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