The North Wind was merry on this December day. He went whistling about his ice palace, singing his hoarse, wild chants and waking up the ptarmigan and snowy gulls, till they screamed a chorus to his song.
He was very busy at home that day, and yet, when all at once, through the darkness, a message came to him on the northern light, he was, in half a minute, just as busily preparing for a long journey.
You must know that the northern light is the telegraph of the air, and the winds and other air spirits will not condescend to receive messages on any other; although, indeed, you may often hear them making a great stir among our own telegraph wires. Listen when you walk under them on a windy day.
But what were the preparations that the North Wind made for his journey? He first locked the door of his great ice palace; locked it without lock or key; bolted it without bolt or bar; and left it very secure, indeed, from any intrusion of bear or fox, Esquimaux or wild birds; secure from everything and everybody but his one strong enemy, South Wind. He was sure to come in the train of the great sun king, in three or four months, and perhaps would bring his brother from the west to help him. He would open the doors with his golden key, slide in over the beautiful glassy floors, and once in at the front door and out at the back, would leave nothing but destruction behind him. So at least thought the North Wind; therefore the next thing he did, after locking his palace, was to call up his soldiers. Quickly they clustered round him with their cold, bristling spears; and while he marshaled them in long files about the palace gate, they all solemnly promised that they would sooner lay down their icy lives in pools of water than admit the South Wind, either at the front door or the back.
After this he felt tolerably secure; although he cannot but remember that he has never returned after a few months' absence without finding that some damage has been done by his enemy. It is true that his servants had often also been busy in attempting to repair the injuries, and had built fair arches and lovely columns, transparent and blue, to do honor to his return.
Now he has taken one last look about him, swept one last strain of stormy music among the ice peaks, and whirled away on his journey,—far away over land and sea.
What was the message which moved the North Wind to take this journey?
It was flashed out in gold and crimson; but so quickly that the very elves of the north, who themselves dance in the streamers, could not read it. So while the last storm-peal is echoing among the cliffs, already the elms have asked the gulls if they know what was the message; and the gulls have screamed and wheeled away; for they don't know, and so pretend not to hear. And the Esquimaux have asked the North Star, who stands so high and calm that he might well see all things below him; and the fox and the bear have each asked their comrades; yet no one has any answer; for the beautiful, flashing lights know how to keep the secret. And so the North Wind has gone— no one knows whither; and if we would discover, we must follow him on his journey.
Over the broad ice plains; over the frozen ocean and the snow-covered land, we follow the Wind. What he does upon the road it remains for me yet to tell; but he must attend now to the purpose for which his message calls him.
Hundreds of miles he has come through the clear, dark air, below the steady stars; hundreds of miles in the dancing sunlight and the blue sky. And now he gathers a soft white cloud, that swims along before him, and with one breath blows it into a million fairy star flowers, with white, fringed petals, and showers them down upon a little group of cloaked and hooded children, hurrying from school over the bleak road to the village. Down they come on the little red hoods and the blue and brown and plaided cloaks; down they come, crowning the little brows and wreathing the very eyelashes. See how the children catch them in their warm hands,—the tiny, delicate flowers, so frail that their fringed petals tremble and they fairly faint away from the oppressive heat; for they were born of the North Wind and can live only in his cold, clear atmosphere.
As we sweep over the great Russian plains, there is a company of mounted dragoons galloping heavily over the frozen ground; bearded men they are, with cold, hard weapons and stiff caps and uniforms. Is there nothing graceful or gentle about them? "Let me dress them up a bit," says the North Wind. So he tosses the young lieutenant's brown curls into his eyes, and just while he brushes them back again, down come a few scattering white blossoms, round and firm as the fruit of the snowberry bush, and lodge among the curls and nestle into them like tiny eggs in a nest. Here they come, faster and faster. The Wind works quickly. Give him but a troop of fleecy clouds, and he will send you a shower of frost flowers in a trice, varied and beautiful as the finest greenhouse can afford; so now they are star-shaped and now little feathery spears, which dare even to adorn the gray moustache of the old colonel himself, who rides so stately at the head of the company.
But now while the dragoons gather their cloaks about them, and brush away the white wreaths with which the Wind has dressed them, he is by no means stopping to watch their proceedings, but has hurried away among gray clouds; and by chance he reaches a poet's window, a poet who always sleeps with his window a little way open, for the fresh night wind to enter. And when the window is open, he thinks it well to put the æolian harp there; so our great friend from the north sweeps in across the strings and sounds one of his grand ice marches, and the poet hears it in a dream and cannot remember, the next morning, what his dream was like, only he is very sure that there was something in it about the lovely tree ferns and palms that are laid in silvery frostwork all over his north window.
"How did the cold North Wind learn to paint these wondrous leaves that grow only in the tropics?" mused the poet. But he could not answer his own question, and his yellow-locked little Gretchen, who climbed into his arms and laid her finger among the silver ferns and palms, could not answer it either.
But on the ponds that day, as the sun is setting, Ned shouts to Charley, "It's growing colder; do you hear the ice crack?" And while the echo from the hill is shouting "crack," a great boom, like that of a cannon, sounds across the pond; and that boom is the shout of the North Wind. Perhaps it announces his arrival to keep the appointment for which he was telegraphed.
Yes, it was growing colder,—very cold, I should say, and the Wind had arrived just in time to lay his icy finger upon the driving sleet that had been hanging the trees with cold drops for the last hour.
The sleet storm has drifted away and is lost out at sea, and the Wind is left alone to swing the boughs and make them strike out a music of silver cymbals, as the young moon creeps out from the hurrying clouds and looks down among them.
The world seems hushed and waiting; for this is the birth-night of another child to the dear old Mother Earth, and for this has the North Wind been strewing his flower gifts through the halls of the grand old castle whose roof is the sky.
It is almost midnight. The moon can wait quietly, but the Wind must sweep and whistle about into all sorts of corners and crevices; and so it is that he finds a low, dark house where there are plenty of holes for him to enter. He comes. to the little garret in the roof, and there he weaves a curtain of fine lace over the broken window, where the moonlight, shining through, casts a shadow like a delicate veil upon the white face of a child who has left her body, like a little white dress, behind her in the cold, poolroom, and gone away among the angels. And while he is thus busy, stirring the soft hair and, with all his cold roughness, yet touching tenderly the body of the little girl who has gone, lo! the clock has struck twelve, and with a great peal the bells, waking suddenly in the old church tower, clamor and shout to each other that the New Year is born; the New Year,—a strong, bright boy, not afraid of the cold or the storm, just as adventurous and hopeful as all his brothers were before him; for old Time, his father, and his mother, the Earth, have had many children,—too many to count, perhaps. And each has lived but a single twelvemonth, and, passing away, has given place to another, young, fresh, and strong, ready to carry us all on his stout shoulders, even in his babyhood. For these sons of Time are like the giants of old, and nursed by great winds, cradled under the sky alone, they begin life with a leap of healthy, happy vigor, and give never a thought to the shortness of the year they are to stay.
So this child, this New Year, hears the children crying, "A happy New Year!" and sees the old people shake hands and give each other good wishes; and smiles on the presents which Nannie and Charley and May are rejoicing over; every one has something to be happy with this New Year.
The North Wind has brought the white birth-flowers, and now must be going to look after his ice palace again; wThile the world moves on and may soon forget his frost wreaths, his palm trees and ferns, and even the cold, little child in the garret, whose New Year's gift was her new life among the angels.