I woke early on the morning of December first. I was up and dressed, and for the first time I could remember, I was the one waking Lise up. I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her on the cheek, and she wrapped her little arms around my neck in response before she woke up and realized that Papa was there. That won me a stronger hug and a kiss, and she giggled.
"Good morning, Papa," she said. "Are we still going to go to Paris today?"
"Yes, and we have to get you ready," I said, carrying her over to her wardrobe. "What would you like to wear today?"
Lise giggled again and wiggled out of my arms, saying that she was going to surprise me. I was shooed out of her room, and laughing, I headed downstairs for breakfast. Cecile must have arrived very early, for it was all ready and waiting when I arrived in the dining room. The tea was even ready to be poured. I could hear her bustling about in the kitchen, so I stopped in to say hello and to thank her for all of her hard work. She wore a black and white checkered apron over her town dress, and she gave me a cheeky smile.
"I figured that it would be an early start today," she said, putting things away. "Either you or Lise would have insisted on it!"
I laughed and commented that she was probably right, and I went back to the dining room to wait for Lise to come down.
When she stepped into the dining room, my little girl was a vision in white. Her dress was entirely white and covered with white lace, and the only thing that was not white was the sapphire blue sash around her waist, the same color cloak she carried over her arm, and a bonnet of the same color she carried in her hands. Added to that was a white fur muff, and she was gorgeous. I think my heart actually stopped beating for a moment. A man is truly happy when his daughter launches herself into his arms for a hug. I know that I was that December morning.
We rode into Paris in a covered carriage, which even had the luxury of lapblankets and cushioned seats to keep away the cold. I was relieved, since lately I had grown to dislike the cold: It had never bothered me in the Opera cellars, but now! I felt it as keenly as an old man of ninety. I kept my hands encased in gloves that had been lined with lamb's wool, a gift from the good doctor and his wife when I complained about pains in my hands when the weather began to grow cold. Apparently, he said, I had the beginnings of arthritis, and if I did not take care, I would lose movement in my fingers and joints. I intended to take good care indeed, for to lose the ability to play music would have killed me.
Lise chose to shop once more at Le Bon Marche, and as we went inside, I became very aware of the press of people. Even this early in the season, people were crowded into the store, rushing about and trying to buy gifts while talking so loudly that one could hear nothing else. I had to lean against a door frame for a few moments, taking deep breaths and fighting off a feeling of overwhelming panic and dizziness. My God! I, who had no problems with the crowds at the Opera as the Phantom, now had a moment of faintness when faced with the same number of people in a department store as an ordinary shopper! Incredible!
"Are you all right, Papa?" Lise asked, her little brow wrinkled in concern for me.
"Yes, ma chere, I'm fine," I said after a few more deep breaths. "I just had to stop for a moment, that's all."
She did not look convinced, but her worry quickly melted away when she spotted the displays! She rushed here and there, dragging Cecile and me in her wake, exclaiming over every new Yuletide delight that met her eyes.
St. Nicholas' Day was usually the day that children received gifts, but I planned to have gifts for her on that day and on Christmas Eve and Day as well. Would she be spoiled? Not at all. I was the one spoiling myself, since I was buying everything for her that I wanted her to have. In addition to gifts, we would have a Yule Log, as well as a Buche de Noel for our table, and we would have a creche with a complete set of santons. The manger scene in the Bible had always been one of my favorites, and now, I had a reason to have a creche at Christmas time. Also, we would need ornaments and decorations: holly, pine branches, red ribbon, candy canes, glass bulbs, small white tapers, oranges and cloves, chocolate bonbons wrapped in gold foil, and miniature toys. We needed to decorate our walls and possibly a Christmas tree. It was not a popular custom, but it was a custom that I was sure Lise would like. After all, you could pick candy from a tree and eat it! We also needed things to entertain with, such as tablecloths and party dishes, since I intended to invite Doctor and Madame Massenet for a holiday party. Lise would adore playing the little hostess.
We made the most needed purchases first: the holiday party supplies. Cecile shared her considerable knowledge about tables and table settings, and together we purchased a damask tablecloth trimmed with lace crocheted in star patterns for Christmas. Added to that were a set of crystal dishes (the price made Cecile gasp) and some new silver with a holly motif. We were prepared to entertain, thank goodness.
Next came shopping for gifts. While Cecile and Lise went off to shop for Papa and Cecile's family, I went shopping on my own. I wandered into the toy department, glancing about at the many displays. My wallet became noticeably shrunken over the next hour, but I felt it was worth it.
We met up once more after arranging to have all of our packages delivered at home. We headed to the shops outside of Le Bon Marche in order to buy our Christmas dinner. At the butcher's I ordered a very large ham that was to be delivered the day before Christmas, sausages for Christmas Eve, and a chicken for St. Nicholas' day. I saw Lise's eyes go very round when she saw the size of the ham.
"I didn't know they grew so big!" she said, holding onto my hand. "Are we really going to eat that, Papa? We won't be able to!"
I assured her that we wouldn't have any problem with it on Christmas.
After that we went to a greengrocer's for vegetables (such as we could get in December) and we were lucky enough to get some dried vegetables that could be cooked and would taste just fine. Herbs for soups, sauces, and gravies followed. We stopped in a pastry shop for cookies and fine pastries for our party that were beyond Cecile's skill to make, and then we stopped in a confectioner's.
Lise became very, very quiet. She stared around the shop at the chocolates, marzipan, divinity, and countless other delights that were waiting to be put into boxes, taken home, and enjoyed. There were striped sticks of candy of different flavors, lollipops, different types of mints, licorice, gum drops, lemon drops, and things I didn't even know the name of. Lise looked at all of them, taking them in. Knowing that I would probably pay for it later, once we had obtained our holiday candies, I asked the woman behind the counter to make up a box of candy for Lise, one with all the candies I had seen her looking at. When she asked me what size of box I wanted, I asked for the largest box they had. Then I told Lise that she could pick out any type of candy she wanted and get some from each batch to put into her box. Into that treasure chest went so many different pieces that my head spun and I was reminded of a pirate's hoard. She chose chocolates, gumdrops, candy sticks, mints, and I don't know what else. I did notice that she asked Cecile what her favorite type of candy was and got some of that for her. Then, she asked me.
I had not been given candy as a child. Even when I had money (and I had a good deal of it as an adult) I had not bought candy. I'd seen it as frivolous, but now it seemed all-important. What type of candy did I like? I considered this for a few moments, and then asked her what she thought I should have.
Lise smiled a sunbeam, and then pointed to some bright red lozenges. "Those, Papa! I've seen them in a book! They're made with cinnamon, and they're selicious!"
"You mean 'delicious,'" I corrected.
"That's right," she affirmed. "Selicious."
I decided to let it be for the time. Besides, it was adorable.
Our house shortly became transformed for the holidays. Red and green candles were everywhere, and garlands of pine and holly festooned the walls in the rooms downstairs. A large red velvet ribbon and more pine garland flowed down the stair railings, and dishes of candy were placed all over the house. The mantelpiece was covered with a lacy cloth that had a Christmas star pattern, and Lise had insisted on sprinkling holly leaves over it and the matching cloths on the endtables. Shortly our house looked festive enough for five Christmases, instead of just one.
On the night before St. Nicholoas' Day, Lise and I set her shoes in front of her fireplace, as well as a tiny bundle of hay and a carrot for St. Nicholas' donkey. While I tucked her into bed I told her the story (for the thousandth time) about how St. Nicholas had been watching her all year long and was going to give her gifts in exchange for being such a good girl.
"He'll only come after you're asleep," I told her, tucking her coverlet in around her shoulders.
"What if I pretend I'm asleep?" she asked, looking very excited. "I'll be able to see him!"
"He'll stay away, then, because he'll know you're awake," I told her as seriously as I could manage. "Just go to sleep, ma chere."
I left her after giving her a kiss good night, and I waited. And waited. That little monkey was still awake at midnight, and I was beginning to be tired. Around one, she nodded off, and I made myself wait a half-hour before I went in. I took the hay and carrot, replacing them with a franc in each shoe. Then, I set out her St. Nicholas' Day presents. There was a child's prayer book with gorgeous illustrations in it, a small doll that danced when you pulled a string, paper lady dolls, and a music box that played 'Fur Elise,' one of her favorite tunes. Then, very carefully, I crept out of the room, wondering just what I was going to do with the hay and carrot. I took both down to the kitchen with me when I went to set out Cecile's present. The carrot went into the root cellar, and the hay was put into a packing crate that was sitting beside the door.
The next morning, I woke to exclamations of delight from Lise's room. I went in, and I could hear the music box playing. Lise was looking at the paper dolls, oohing and ahhing over the many "frocks" that had come with them. She had only turned them about in her hands and had not dressed her dolls yet, but when she saw me, she yelped.
"PAPA! The ladies are not dressed yet! Wait until I call you!"
I retreated to the hallway, chuckling. Those "ladies" had been dressed only in the underwear that had been drawn on them!
I went back in when I heard her call me, and I was the immediate recipient of a hug.
"Good morning, Lise," I said. "Are the ladies all right?"
"They're fine, Papa, and thank you. St. Nicholas should have introduced us, though. As it was, we had to find out who we were on our own."
"Well, will you introduce me?" I asked, giving the bright little ladies a stately bow.
Lise giggled and introduced me to Lady Heloise, Countess Josephine, Lady Genevieve, Mistress Jeanne, and Lady Marie. Those bright little ladies figured often in later playtimes, and Lise would sometimes relate the ladies' doings over mealtimes. Other times, Lise would remark that such-and-such a lady she'd seen was just like Mistress Jeanne, and that she'd seen another woman wearing a frock that Countess Josephine would like. I began to wonder if the dolls weren't really alive, since Lise made them sound so real.
We had a Christmas Eve party with Docteur and Madame Massenet coming to dinner. Games were played, refreshments and supper enjoyed, and of course, there was music and singing. As I had predicted, Lise had played the little hostess to perfection. One moment, she was offering more cookies or cake, another she was making certain everything was set out perfectly, and then, she was all in a pother because she thought our guests might be thirsty.
It was while we were singing "Adeste Fideles" that I realized just how much my life had changed. Here I was, in a normal house above ground, entertaining people and smiling with indulgence on my little daughter! I had been convinced that I would always be underground, but no, I wasn't. I was enjoying the sunlight and weather and change of seasons. I breathed fresh air all the time, instead of just once in a while, and I smiled more than I had ever done.
That night, when we said a Christmas prayer, I also said a prayer of thanksgiving.
Christmas morning was bright and clear with a new layer of snow. Everything was bright and beautiful outside, but since I had been up so late the night before, I was planning on enjoying it a little while longer from my bed. It was not to be, however. I heard the pitter-patter of tiny feet, my door flew open, and a tiny figure in a white nightdress came flying into my room, taking to the air and landing a moment later on my stomach.
"OOF!!" was all I was able to gasp.
"It's Christmas!" she shrieked happily. "Get up, Papa! It's Christmas! It's Christmas!"
"I'm trying," I told her, still gasping for air. "You'll have to get off of Papa's stomach first, Lise."
She happily complied and I sent her off to get her robe and slippers on while I pulled on mine. Once that was accomplished, she practically pulled me downstairs to the Christmas tree. St. Nicholas had returned, and he had left a sleigh-ful of presents underneath and around the tree, and what a tree! It had been decorated with all the ornaments we'd bought and the little taper candles until it glittered and glowed, and the creche underneath it was a charming little scene frozen in time. I stated that St. Nicholas had brought in and decorated the tree for my little girl, but in reality, it had been the Massenets and I who had done it, after Lise had been sent up to bed.
Surprisingly, Lise insisted that I open my gifts first. She deposited several lumpy packages on my lap and watched as I opened a scarf, a new portfolio for sheet music, cologne, some kind of whistle (a tin whistle from Ireland, I found out later), and a silver pocket watch and chain. I opened the lid, and I found inscribed on the inside, "To Papa, from his loving Lise." I would always wear that watch.
It was Lise's turn next. She opened a baby doll, a carved wooden chess set, toy animals and a Noah's ark, a stereoscope with plenty of pictures for it, a zoetrope with several strips, a kit that would allow her to make her own thaumatropes, a set of picture blocks, a skipping rope, building bricks, and several books. These books would begin to teach her what I could not: the niceties of society for a young girl. I knew the manners of a gentleman, but I could not teach her the manners of a lady. For that, I needed some outside help. There was a book on dress, another on table etiquette suitable for a lady, and another on deportment and grace. I knew that later we would need some sort of teacher, but in the meantime, the books would suffice.
Don't think I kept to only instructive books, either. I gave her several translations of the latest children's books as well as some larger books that I deemed suitable for her. Included in those books were novels and a music history book, which sent her into raptures. Her final gift was her own flute, sparkling in its case of blue velvet. At that gift, she wrapped her arms around my neck and would not let go.
It was a very, very good Christmas, and we had our Christmas dinner together. Cecile had set it up so we could serve ourselves and so she could go to her family's for Christmas (not that I would have kept her away). From a buffet in the dining room we could carry our plates into the parlor and eat there on a blanket picnic-style. Lise adored the idea, and we had our first Christmas dinner on the floor of our parlor. Cream vegetable soup, ham, duchess potatoes, peas, sausage wrapped in bacon, croissants, carrots with sugar, and then there were the desserts! There were sheets of pastry wrapped around fruit (those came from the shop), miniature pies with various fillings, Christmas cake with white icing, a Buche de Noel, and finally, a little castle made out of little lacey butter cookies and sprinkled with sugar (we had bought the cookies, but Cecile had made the castle). When Lise and I cleaned up afterwards, I was determined to increase Cecile's wages. Her cooking had something of divine inspiration about it.
We spent the afternoon walking outside in the sparkling snow, and I told Lise stories where snow fairies kept an eye on good little girls and boys from the parapets of castles made out of icicles and snow flakes. More than once, Lise would start, stare, and declare she'd seen a fairy, and she would tear off after it and return a few moments later, demanding to know if I had seen it too. At that I would shrug and play innocent, saying that I could have seen a fairy but that I could also have seen just an errant snowflake.
That evening we spent in pious contemplation: I read to her the story of the First Christmas from the Bible, and Lise, at the end of the story, presented me with a superb pencil drawing of the stable and its occupants, with the Star shining down over all. After that story, I began to read one of her novels to her, and she fell asleep in her chair, looking more like an angel than those I had put in the creche. I carried her upstairs and dressed her for bed, tucking her in and giving her a kiss on her forehead. At that moment, I was certain that God could not bless me more in this life than He had already.