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Amelia C. Houghton

N ICHOLAS did not leave the wood-carver on Christmas Day, or the next year, or the next. He stayed on in the little cottage, which was now bright and clean, and a happy dwelling for two happy people. For old Marsden had forgotten his grouch in the daily association with Nicholas' sunny disposition; he cheerfully taught Nicholas all he knew of his difficult trade, so that as the boy grew in years and strength, his knowledge of wood-carving soon matched that of his old master. Marsden bought a horse and sleigh for the trips outside of town, which were also used by Nicholas on his Christmas Eve visits to the children in the village. For although the little ones he had played with had grown up and stopped playing with toys, there were new babies in every household every year, and each one was taught to expect from Nicholas, the wood-carver, a little toy on Christmas morning.

One bright summer morning, Nicholas was sitting on a bench outside the cottage door, carving away at a half-finished chair leg and whistling cheerfully as he worked. He was then twenty years old, a tall young man, the yellow hair a little darker, but with the same blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and ready smile. He stopped his work to listen to the birds singing in the trees overhead and to enjoy the warm sunlight shining down on him. Suddenly two children ran up the path leading to the cottage door, bursting with news.

"Nicholas," one of them panted, "Nicholas, there are two men in the village who have been asking where old Marsden lives. They are on their way here now. Who do you suppose they are? They said . . ."

"Hush," said the other child, "here they are now."

Two men, about ten or fifteen years older than Nicholas, were coming slowly up the path. They seemed surprised to see him working at the bench, and one of them spoke.

"Excuse me, but they told us in the village that we would find Bertran Marsden here. If we have made a mistake, . . ."

"No," answered Nicholas, "this is Bertran Marsden's cottage. I am only his apprentice. I'll call him. He has a nap every afternoon now. You see, he's getting rather old."

The two men looked at each other with shamed eyes.

"Yes, he must be old now. Don't disturb him. We'll come back."

"No, here he is now," said Nicholas.

Marsden had appeared in the doorway and was looking from one to the other with puzzled eyes.

One of the men stepped forward. "Father," he began.

"Father!" Marsden tottered a little; Nicholas put out a steadying arm.

"Yes, don't you remember us, Father? I am Henrik and this is Lons. We left you years ago, but we finally made our fortune and are ready to take you home."

"Take me home!" Old Marsden straightened himself. "This is my home, and you are two strange men to me."

"No, Father," answered Lons. "We are your two sons. We are sorry we left you alone years ago, but boys are thoughtless, and we wanted only the adventure and didn't think how much we might be hurting you. If you'll forgive us now, . . ."

The old man looked at his two sons for a long moment.

"Yes, of course I'll forgive you. If you had come back a few years ago, I couldn't have done it. I have found another son. This is Nicholas, who lives with me, and who does most of my work now."

The sons looked at Nicholas, then back at their father again, uncertain how to go on. Finally Henrik spoke.

"We've just bought a house in the next village, Father. Lons and I have a fishing boat there, and we're doing well. We want you to come there and live with us. We want to make up to you for the years we were away."

Marsden shook his head. "No, my lads; I have my little cottage here, and Nicholas helps me with my work. I don't need anything, and I couldn't live without working."

Lons answered quickly. "But you could go on working in our village, Father. There's no wood-carver there, and if you insist, there are many people who would give you something to do. We so want to have you; we've been planning all through our travels how, when we came home again, we'd take care of you and live with you and make you forget that we were ever heedless boys who ran away for an adventure. And Nicholas here,—why, he could easily take over the business in this village, if he's as good as you say. He's young, and probably ambitious; why don't you give him a chance, Father?"

None of the arguments seemed to make much impression on the old man until the end; then he listened attentively and paused a while before he spoke.

"Yes," he said slowly. "Nicholas deserves something like this. He could do it easily. He's a bright lad . . ."

Nicholas interrupted. "Don't think of me, master. If you don't want to go with them, we'll go on living here together just the same as before. I don't want to take your business."

"There, lad," said Marsden, laying a hand on Nicholas' shoulder, "I don't want to leave you either, but you're young, and youth should be given a chance. Besides," he paused, and looked at the two tall men standing before him, as anxious and nervous as boys, their eyes pleading silently with their father, "besides, these are my own sons, and I think they need me as much as I need them."

Henrik and Lons sprang over to the old man's side.

"Father, does it mean you will . . ."

Marsden nodded his head, grown almost white in the last few years. "Yes, I'll just move along to the next village with you, my sons, and I'll leave this cottage and my tools with my other son, Nicholas."

He put a loving hand on Nicholas' shoulder, and then the four went inside the house to discuss how and when the move would be made.

A week later, Nicholas found himself the owner of a two-room cottage, a perfect set of wood-carver's tools, and a well-established business which should keep him housed, fed, and clothed for life. At first he was lonely in the little cottage after Marsden had left with his sons, but he soon became interested in his work, which kept him so busy he had no time to feel alone. Then, too, there was almost always a child or two chatting to him or playing with its toys on the cottage floor.

Nicholas divided his day now so that he spent only part of his time on the orders he received; the rest of the day and most of the evenings he worked on toys for the next Christmas; for he now had such a long list of children it took months to complete the set of gifts he had to make.

He continued his practice, established the year he had to deliver the chest on Christmas Day, of making his rounds on Christmas Eve; and one year, he was considerably surprised and touched to see that the children had hung on their doors little embroidered bags filled with oats for his horse. So now, instead of leaving the toys piled up in the doorway, he put them in the little bags.

So it was a busy, happy existence that Nicholas led in the little wood-carver's cottage on the outskirts of the village, and as he grew older, the sound of children's voices lifted in their play became dearer and dearer to him; and the children, in their turn, loved to be near the tall, kind man with the light-colored beard whom everybody called Nicholas, the wood-carver.