The Christmas That Was Nearly Lost
I T snowed hard all the next day, so hard that even Barney did not venture out; and David spent his time between the kitchen, where Johanna was frosting the Christmas cake, and the woodshed, where Barney was making the "woodpile look mortal weary."
David's mind was full of the happenings of the days that had passed, and of future plans. Everything had been as fine as a boy could wish, but he did not want it to stop. Here it was two days before Christmas, and he was quite sure there was still a lot to be found. The question was, where should he look for it now that the matter of neighbors had been exhausted?
As for the plans, they were growing every minute; but he had decided to say nothing about them to Johanna and Barney until the next day, when they were full-grown. Of one thing David felt certain: nothing could keep Christmas away this year. And so when Barney began to tease him on one of his trips to the woodshed and say that if this weather lasted he guessed the Christmas present from father would get there about Washington's Birthday and that he guessed it would take a Santa Claus with seven-league boots to make the hilltop this year, David just smiled and looked very wise. Something was going to happen; he knew perfectly well that something was going to happen. And so, when it actually did happen, about half-way between dinner and supper time, he was not nearly as surprised as Johanna and Barney, who in a way might have expected it.
They were all three startled by a banging on the door and a stamping and pounding of feet outside. So loud did it sound in the midst of the silence that David thought there must be at least a dozen men. Great was his astonishment, therefore, when Barney swung open the door and a solitary figure stepped in, muffled in fur to the eyes.
"Burrrrrrrrrrr!" boomed the figure, and then he swept off his cap and made a laughing bow.
"Hello, Johanna! Hello, Barney! You never thought I would remind you right in the midst of a Christmas blizzard of that promise you made last summer. Come now, did you?"
"Holy St. Patrick!" gasped Johanna.
"Mr. Peter!" ejaculated Barney. "But how in the name of all the saints did ye ever make it in this storm?"
The man laughed again.
"Just the usual nerve of the tenderfoot. I left my painting-kit, bag, and canvases with the station-agent. He has promised to send them up if the storm ever stops. And I made a wager with him—a gallon can of next spring's syrup against a box of cigars—that I'd be here by four o'clock. What's the time?"
He had his things off by this time and was looking at his watch.
"Aha! Ten minutes to the good! If your wires are not down, Barney, I'll call him up. He'll be wanting to get ready to tap that maple-tree."
The next moment they could hear his voice booming at the telephone.
"Yes, siree. Here I am, and not even my breath frozen. No, you needn't be sending out that snow-plow after me just yet. Only get my things up here as soon as you can. All right!"
Another instant he was back in the room again, vigorously shaking Johanna's and Barney's hands.
"Yes, here I am, to paint those snow canvases I've been going to do so long, and to dodge Christmas."
Then it was that for the first time he became conscious of David in the window recess.
"Bless my soul! Who's this, Johanna?"
Johanna explained, and David came forward and held out an eager hand. He liked this Mr. Peter tremendously, in spite of his last remark, and he was no end glad he had come.
The man returned David's greeting with equal cordiality, while he screwed up his face into a comical expression of mock disgust.
"And I came up here to dodge Christmas! Say, young man, do you think it's possible for any person to get away from Christmas with a boy around?"
"I hope not," laughed David.
"You don't mean to tell me that Christmas hasn't grown into a very tiresome, shabby affair that we would all escape from if we only had the courage? You don't believe there is anything in it nowadays, do you, except the beastly grind of paying your friends back and thanking your lucky stars it doesn't happen oftener than once a year?"
"I certainly do, sir." David spoke as one with authority.
The man rubbed his hands together thoughtfully and his eyes twinkled.
"I see. Johanna and Barney have gone off to fix a bed for me somewhere, so suppose we discuss this matter thoroughly. I'll tell you my personal feelings and you can tell me yours. In the end, maybe we'll compromise!"
He led the way to the window-seat and spread himself out comfortably in one corner; David curled up in the one opposite.
"To begin with," and the man pounded his knee emphatically, "Christmas is responsible for a very bad economic condition. Every one spends more money than he has; that's very bad. Next, you generally put your money into articles that are neither useful nor beautiful; you give your maiden aunt handkerchiefs and she has ten dozen of them already put by in her closet, while you send a box of candy to the janitor's little girl, who can't go out because she hasn't any shoes to wear. Now if I could borrow an invisible cloak and go around a week before Christmas, peeping in on all the folks that need things and finding out just what they need, and then come back on Christmas Eve and drop the gifts unseen beside their doors—well, that might make Christmas seem a little less shabby. But as it is, I'm not going to give away an inch of foolish Christmas this year. And I'm not going to say `Merry Christmas' to a solitary soul."
"Maybe you'll forget," laughed David. "Now, is it my turn?"
Mr. Peter nodded.
"Well, I've found out, just lately, that Christmas isn't things—it's thoughts. And I've an idea how to make a bully Christmas this year out of nothing."
He hunched up one knee and clasped his arms about it.
"You see, I used to think that you couldn't have Christmas without all the store fixings and lots of presents, just as you do. And when I first came 'way up here I thought it was just naturally 'good-by, Christmas.' Then something happened."
"Suppose you tell me what. We might make a better compromise if I understood just what did happen."
David considered him thoughtfully. Johanna had said while he was out at the telephone that Mr. Peter was a painter, a bachelor chap with no one in particular belonging to him, and David wondered if he would really understand. As Johanna had often said, "There are some things you just can't put through a body's head."
"Things happen 'way up here in the hills that would never happen in the city, never in a hundred years," he began, slowly; and then, gaining courage from the painter's nod of comprehension, he told all about everything. Of course he could not tell all the stories as they had been told to him—there was not time—but he told about them, and particularly about the "heathen."
"And that isn't all," he finished, breathlessly. "I've a great plan for to-morrow night, if Johanna and Barney and you will help."
"We might make that the compromise," smiled Mr. Peter. "What is it?"
David told, and when he had quite finished, the man beside him nodded his head as if he approved.
"What does Johanna say?" he asked.
"I haven't told her yet."
"Well, we'll ask Johanna and Barney tonight. Now let's hunt them up and find out when supper is going to be ready. I'm as hungry as a bear."
But before the plans were unfolded to Barney and Johanna that evening Mr. Peter told a story. He offered it himself as something he had picked up once upon a time, he could not remember just where. He said it was not the kind of a story he would ever make up in the wide world, but he thought it just the kind David might make up.
And here it is as the painter told it two nights before Christmas:
It was four o'clock on Christmas morning and Santa Claus was finishing his rounds just as the milkman was beginning his. Santa had been over to Holland and back again where he had filled millions of little Dutch shoes that stood outside of windows and doors; he had climbed millions of chimneys and filled millions of American stockings, not to mention the billions and trillions of Christmas trees that he had trimmed and the nurseries he had visited with toys too large for stockings. And now, just as the clock struck four, he had filled his last stocking and was crawling out of the last chimney onto the roof where the eight reindeer were pawing the snow and wagging their stumps of tails, eager to be off.
Santa Claus heaved a sigh of relief as he shook the creases out of the great magic bag that was always large enough to hold all the toys that were put into it. The bag was quite empty now, not even a gum-drop or a penny whistle was left; and Santa heaved another sigh as he tucked it under the seat of his sleigh and clambered wearily in.
"By the two horns on yonder pale-looking moon," quoth he, "I'm a worn-out old saint and I am glad Christmas is over. Why, I passed my prime some thousand years ago and any other saint would have taken to his niche in heaven long before this." And he heaved a third sigh.
As he took up the reins and whistled to his team he looked anything but the jolly old saint he was supposed to be; and if you had searched him from top to toe, inside and out, you couldn't have found a chuckle or a laugh anywhere about him.
Away went the eight reindeer through the air, higher and higher, till houses looked like match-boxes and lakes like bowls of water; and it took them just ten minutes and ten seconds to carry Santa safely home to the North Pole. Most generally he sings a rollicking song on his homeward journey, a song about boys and toys and drums and plums, just to show how happy he is. But this year he spent the whole time grumbling all the grumbly thoughts he could think of.
"It's a pretty state of affairs when a man can't have a vacation in nearly five hundred years. Christmas every three hundred and sixty-five days and have to work three hundred and sixty-four of them to get things ready. What's more, every year the work grows harder. Have to keep up with all the scientific inventions and all the new discoveries. Who'd have thought a hundred years ago that I should have to be building toy aeroplanes and electric motors? And the girls want dolls' houses with lights and running water! I declare I'm fairly sick of the sight of a sled or a top, and dolls and drums make me shiver. I'd like to do nothing for a whole year, I tell you—nothing! It's a pretty how d' y' do if the world can't get along for one year without a Christmas. What's to prevent my taking a vacation like any other man? Who's to prevent me?"
The reindeer had stopped outside of Santa's own home and he threw the reins down with a jerk while he tried his best to look very gruff and surly.
"Suppose I try it. By the Aurora Borealis, I will try it!"
And then and there Santa Claus began his vacation.
He closed up his workshop, locked the door, and hung the key in the attic. He turned his reindeer loose and told them to go south where they could get fresh grass, for he would not need them for a year and a day. Then he made himself comfortable beside his fire, and brought out all the books and the papers he had been wanting to read for the last fifty years or more, and settled down to enjoy himself. He never gave one thought to the world or what it would do without him; therefore, it never occurred to him to wonder if the news would get in the papers. But you know and I know that in time everything that happens gets into the papers; so the news spread at last all over the world that Santa Claus was taking a vacation and that there would be no Christmas next year. And what do you think happened then?
First of all the Christmas trees stopped growing. "What's the use?" they whispered one to another. "We sha'n't be wanted this year, so we needn't work to put out new shoots or keep especially green and smart-looking." And the holly and the mistletoe heard them, and they said: "Well, why should we bother, either, to get our berries ready as long as we shall not be needed for decoration? Making berries takes a lot of time, and we might just as well spend it gossiping."
Next, the storekeepers began to grumble, and each said to himself, "Well, if Christmas isn't coming this year why should I spend my time making my shop-windows gay with gifts and pretty things?" And the pastry cooks and the confectioners said they certainly would not bother making plum-puddings, Christmas pies, or candy canes.
Soon the children heard about it. For a long while they would not believe it, not until Christmas-time came round again. But when they saw the Christmas trees looking so short and shabby, and the Christmas greens without their berries, and the streets quiet and dull, and the shop-windows without the pretty things in them, they grew sober and quiet, too. And in less time than I can tell you the whole world grew stuffy and stupid and silent and unlovely. Yes, the whole world!
Now, in a very small house in a very small town that stands just midway between the North Pole and the equator and half-way between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (you can find the town for yourself on any map if you look for it with these directions) there lived a small boy. He was sturdy and strong, and he had learned two great lessons—never to be afraid and never to give up. He saw what was happening all over the world, because everybody believed that Christmas had been lost, and he said one day to his mother:
"Mother, little mother, I've been thinking this long while if Santa Claus could see how things are going with every one down here he would bring Christmas back, after all. Let me go and tell him?"
"Boy, little boy," said his mother, "tell me first how you will find your way there. Remember there are no sign-posts along the road that leads to Santa Claus."
But the boy squared his shoulders and took a firm grip of his pockets and said he, "Why, that's easy! I'll ask the way and keep on till I get there."
In the end his mother let him go. As he walked along slowly he questioned everything he passed—birds, grass, winds, rain, river, trees. All these he asked the fastest road to Santa Claus; and each in turn showed him the way as far as he knew it. The birds flew northward, singing for him to follow after; the grass swayed and bent and made a beaten path for him; the river carried him safely along its banks in the tiniest shell of a boat, while the winds blew it to make it go faster. Each horse or donkey that he met carried him as far as he could; and every house door was opened wide to him, and the children shared with him their bowls of bread-and-milk or soup. And wherever he passed, both the children and the grownups alike called after him, "You'll tell him; you'll make Santa Claus come and bring our Christmas back to us!"
I cannot begin to tell you the wonderful things that happened to the boy. He traveled quickly and safely, for all that it was a long road with no sign-posts marking the way; and just three days before Christmas he reached the North Pole and knocked at Santa Claus's front door. It was opened by Santa himself, who rubbed his eyes with wonder.
"Bless my red jacket and my fur boots!" he cried in astonishment. "If it isn't a real, live boy! How did you get here, sirrah?"
The boy told him everything in just two sentences; and when he had finished he begged Santa to change his mind and keep Christmas for the children.
"Can't do it. Don't want to. Couldn't if I did. Not a thing made. Nothing to make anything of. And you can't have Christmas without toys and sweets. Go look in that window and see for yourself." And the old saint finished quite out of breath.
The boy went over to the window Santa had pointed out and, standing on tiptoe, peered in. There was the workshop as empty as a barn in the spring. Spiders had built their webs across the corners and mice scampered over the floors, and that was all. The boy went slowly back to Santa and his face looked very sad.
"Listen to this," he said, and he took a seashell from his pocket and held it close to old Santa's ear. "Can you hear anything?"
Santa listened with his forehead all puckered up and a finger against his nose.
"Humph! It sounds like somebody crying away off."
"It's the children," said the little boy, "as I heard them while I passed along the road that brought me here. And do you know why they were crying? Because there are no trees to light, no candles to burn, no stockings to hang, no carols to sing, no holly to make into wreaths—no gladness anywhere. And they are very frightened because Christmas has been lost."
Then Santa did the funniest thing. He blew his nose so hard that he blew tears into his eyes and down his cheeks.
"Fee, fi, fo, fum—I'm a stupid old fool!" said he. "It's too late to do Christmas alone this year; but I might—yes, I might—get help. The world is full of spirits who love the children as much as I do. If they will lend me a hand, this once, we might do it."
Then he went into his house and brought out his wonderful magic whistle that calls the reindeer; and he blew it once, twice, three times; and the next instant the eight were bounding over the snow toward him.
"Go!" he commanded. "Go as quickly as ever you can to all the spirits of the earth, water, and air, and tell them Santa Claus needs their help this year to bring back Christmas to the children."
Away flew the reindeer, and in less time than it takes a cloud to scud across the sky they were back again and with them the most wonderful gathering that has ever been seen since the world was made. There were giants from Norway and trolls from Sweden; there were dwarfs and elves from the mines of Cornwall and fairies from the hills of Ireland; there were brownies from Scotland and goblins from Germany; the Yule nisse and the skrattle from Denmark; and fairy godmothers from everywhere. And from the ocean came the mermaids and the mermen; and from the rivers and brooks came nixies and nymphs and swan maidens. And they all came eager to help. Santa Claus brought down from the attic the key of the workshop and soon everybody was busy at his own particular craft. Not a word was spoken, and for those three days not a soul rested or slept.
The dwarfs and the elves made hammers and planes and saws, knives and skates, trumpets and drums, rings and pins and necklaces of precious stones, for they are the oldest metal-workers under the sun. And the fairies are the finest spinners; and they spun cloth of silk, ribbons and fine laces, yes, and flaxen hair for dolls. The leprechaun, who is the fairy cobbler, made slippers of all colors and sizes from baby-dolls' shoes to real little girls' party slippers and boys' skating-boots. The giants cut down trees and sawed them into logs and boards while the trolls made them into boats and houses, sleds and beds and carriages. The mermaids gathered shells and pearls for beads; the brownies stitched and sewed and dressed the dolls that Santa himself had made. I don't know what the nixies made, unless it was the sea-foam candy.
There was one little goblin too little to know how to do anything, and as no one had time to teach him he wandered about, very unhappy, until a bright idea popped into his head. Then away he scuttled down to the timber-lands to tell the Christmas trees to hurry up and try to grow a bit, because the children would need them, after all.
Well, the long and short of it was that on Christmas Eve everything was finished; and never since Santa Claus was a lad himself had there been such an array of toys. They were so fine and they shone so bright that the children going to bed that night said to one another, "Look up yonder and see the Northern Lights!"
The toys were at last packed in the sleigh and the boy climbed in on the seat next to Santa, and they were just driving away when a wee old Irish fairy woman stepped up with a great bundle.
" 'Tis stockings," said she. "I've knitted one for every child, for I knew well the poor things would never be hanging up their own this night."
So it happened that the Christmas that was nearly lost was found, after all, and when the children woke up in the morning they saw their stockings full of toys and the tall green trees all trimmed and waiting for them. And when Santa reached the North Pole again, very tired and sleepy, but not at all grumbly, he heard a noise that sounded like running brooks and singing birds and waving grasses and blowing winds all wrapped up together; and he said to himself:
"Dear, dear me! what can that be? It sounds very like the laughter of little children all over the world."
And that is precisely what it was.
When he had finished, Mr. Peter leaned over and whispered to David; and David cleared his throat as if he were going to make a long speech. Then he told his plan to Barney and Johanna and asked them would they do it.
"The heathens!" was all Johanna said; but she sounded distinctly surprised, almost shocked.
"Why not?" said Barney. "Mind, your calling them that doesn't make them it. And what if they were? Is that any reason?"
"Maybe not," agreed Johanna. "Only when a body's got the habit o' thinking folks are not her kind o' folks it takes a powerful bit o' thinking to think them different."
"Sure it does. We'll leave ye to do the thinking while the three of us go out to the woodshed and knock together them sign-posts the little lad is wishing for."
And Barney led the way, while a very happy boy and a man with an amused twinkle in his eyes followed at his heels.