NCE upon a time, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, in a little village on the shores of the Baltic Sea, there lived a poor fisherman and his wife and their two children—a four-year-old son, Nicholas, and a tiny baby girl, Katje. They were only poor fisherfolk, and their home was a simple, one-room cottage, built of heavy stone blocks to keep out the freezing north wind, but it was a cheery little place in spite of the poverty of its occupants, because all the hearts there were loving and happy.
On cold winter nights, after the fisherman had come home from his hard day's work out on the open sea, the little family would gather around the broad open fireplace,—the father stretching his tired limbs before the warm fire, puffing peacefully at his after-supper pipe, the mother knitting busily and casting now and then a watchful eye on the two children playing on the floor. Nicholas was busy over a tiny piece of wood, which he had decked with gay bits of cloth and worsted, while little Katje watched him with round, excited blue eyes, finally reaching out her eager, fat little hands to take the doll Brother Nicholas had made for her. The glad crowing of the baby over her new toy aroused the father, who turned to look at the scene with amused eyes, and then a rather disapproving shake of the head.
"Eh, Mother," he said, "I'd rather see Nicholas down
at the boats with me learning to mend a net than fussing
with little girls' toys and forever carrying Katje about
with him. 'Tisn't natural for a boy to be so. Now
"Hush, man," interrupted the woman. "Nicholas is hardly more than a baby himself, and it's a blessing that he takes such care of Katje. I feel perfectly safe about her when she's playing with her brother; he's so gentle and sweet to her. Time enough for him to be a fisherman when he grows too old to play with his baby sister."
"True enough, wife. He's a good lad, and he'll be a better man for learning to be kind to little ones."
"He's a good lad."
So for another year Nicholas went on fashioning rude little playthings for Katje, and the mother went about her many household tasks busily and happily, and the father continued earning his family's daily bread in the teeth of biting gales and wild seas. In this way the little family might have gone on for years, until the father and mother had grown old, until Katje had become a beautiful young maiden taking the burden of the housework from her mother's shoulders, and until Nicholas had become a tall, strong youth, going out every day in his father's little fishing boat. All this might have been, but for the events of one wild, tragic night.
Little Katje lay in her crib tossing feverishly. The mother bent over her fearfully, taking her eyes from the hot little face only to glance anxiously now and then towards the door, and straining her ears between each wail of the sick baby for sounds of footsteps on the stone walk outside the cottage. For the father was late,—late tonight of all nights, when he was needed to run to the other end of the town for the doctor. As the minutes dragged on, the storm outside grew in fury, and the fear in the woman's heart over the absence of her husband and the painful whimpering of the child finally goaded her into action. She arose from her position beside the crib and swiftly putting her shawl over her shoulders, spoke to Nicholas, who was trying to comfort little Katje.
"Listen, my son," she said quickly, "your father is late and I'll have to go for the doctor myself. I'll have to leave you alone with Katje. You'll take care of her, won't you, Nicholas, until Mother gets back? Just see that she stays covered, and wet this cloth now and then for her poor, hot little forehead."
Nicholas nodded solemnly—of course he would take care of Katje. The mother patted his head and smiled, and then was out in the wet, black, windy night. And Nicholas watched Katje until she suddenly stopped tossing the coverings aside, and her hot little forehead grew cooler and cooler and then cold to his touch; and as the embers in the fireplace grew black and then gray, his head nodded, and he fell asleep on the floor beside the crib.
And that's the way the villagers found him the next morning, when they carried home his father, drowned when his boat was caught in the storm, and his mother, stricken down by a falling tree. So, of the once happy little family of four, there was now only Nicholas, the orphan.