FTER the crowd of villagers had dispersed on that merry Christmas Day of the race, Nicholas was stopped at the door of the fisherman's cottage he had lived in for a year, by a lean, dark-looking man who looked as though he had never smiled in his life. He had deep lines in his forehead, shaggy gray eyebrows which overhung and almost completely hid his deep-set gray eyes, and a mouth which went down at the corners, giving him an expression of grouchiness which never seemed to change. It was Bertran Marsden, the wood-carver of the village, and all the children called him Mad Marsden, because he lived alone, spoke to hardly anybody in the town, and chased the children away from his door with black looks and harsh words.
He now edged up to Nicholas, who was busy dragging his beloved new sled to his work-shed behind the house.
"You haven't forgotten, Nicholas, that you move to my house today," Marsden said gruffly.
Nicholas looked up. No, he had not forgotten, and he well knew why Marsden had offered to take him in for the last year of his life as a wandering orphan. The old wood-carver had no children for Nicholas to take care of, he did no farming or fishing, and therefore did not need a boy to help him out in that direction. The only reason he was willing, even eager, to feed and clothe the orphan was because for almost five years now he had watched the work Nicholas had been doing with his knife and carved woods, and realized that he could get a good apprentice cheap, without paying even a cent for the good work he knew he could get out of him.
Knowing all these things, and thinking of the bleak little cottage he would have to live in for a year, where there was no laughter and sound of children's voices, it was with a heavy heart that Nicholas piled up his few belongings in the new sled, said a grateful farewell to the family he was leaving, and followed Mad Marsden home to the low, mean-looking cottage on the outskirts of the village.
On entering the cottage, he stepped immediately into the main workroom of the wood-carver. Here were found his bench, his table, his tools, and his woods. A broad fireplace almost filled another side of the room, and black pots and greasy kettles showed plainly that no scouring housewife had set foot in the cottage for years. A pile of tumbled blankets in one corner was evidently Marsden's bed, and near the window was a table, littered with the remains of his morning meal. These and a few rickety chairs completed the furnishings of this one dark room.
Marsden led the way in and pointed to a door in the corner.
"You can stow your belongings in there," he said over his shoulder to Nicholas, who was standing in the middle of the untidy room, looking around him in dismay. "There's a cot you can sleep on, and you may as well put that pretty sled away for good. We have no time here to go romping in the snow."
Nicholas nodded silently, too puzzled at the old man's living quarters to be hurt by the harsh words. He could not understand why Marsden should live so meanly, because, as the only wood-carver in the village, he was kept busy all the time filling orders for his hand-carved tables, chairs, cabinets, bridal chests, sleighs, and several other useful household articles that the villagers were in constant need of. The poorer people paid him in flour, vegetables, fish—whatever they could send him; the more well-to-do gave him good gold coin for his work. Not only that, but it was a well-known fact that he did work for the people in two or three neighboring villages, where there was no other wood-carver. In spite of the fact, then, that he probably had more money than any of the poor fishermen in the village, his cottage was meaner and shabbier than any of the well-scrubbed houses in which Nicholas had spent the past nine years.
"Come now, Nicholas, don't stand there gawking. Put away your belongings; you have much to learn here. I'm going to make a good wood-carver of you. No time for silly little dolls and wooden horses; you'll have to earn your keep here. And mind you, I won't have this place filled with screaming little brats. You keep that tribe of young ones that's always following you about out of here, do you understand?"
His eyes gleamed fiercely beneath the shaggy brows.
Nicholas stammered in a frightened voice, "Yes—yes,
master. But," he pleaded, suddenly struck by the thought
that he might not see any of his little friends any more, "but
they don't do any harm, the children—they only like to
watch me work, and I wouldn't let them get in your way
"Silence!" roared the old man, shaking his fists in the air and glaring at the frightened boy. "I won't have 'em, do you understand? I want to be alone. I wouldn't have you here if the work didn't pile up so that I need a helper. But you'll have to work, and there'll be no time for Christmas visits to children and all that nonsense."
Nicholas bowed his head and went silently to work putting away his small bundle of clothing, his few books, his father's sea-chest and jack-knife. The year ahead of him stretched forth bleakly, and only the thought that he was now fourteen years old and almost a man kept him from crying himself to sleep that night in his dark, cold little room.
So Nicholas started to work for the mad old wood-carver, and learned many things. He learned that his father's old jack-knife was a clumsy tool compared with the beautiful sharp knives and wheels that Marsden used; he learned to work for hours, bent over the bench beside his master, patiently going over and over one stick of wood until it was planed to the exact hundredth of an inch that his teacher required; he learned to keep on working even though the back of his neck almost shrieked with pain, and the muscles of his arms and hands grew lame from so much steady labor. All this he grew used to in time, for he was a strong, sturdy lad, and young enough so that his muscles became accustomed to the hard work; but what he felt he never could get used to was the dreadful loneliness of the place. His friends, the children, gradually gave up trying to see him after they had been shooed away from the door by the cross old wood-carver; Marsden himself rarely talked, except to give brief instructions about the work, or to scold him for some mistake. So Nicholas was sad and lonely, and longed for the days when he had been in friendly cottages, surrounded by a laughing group of children.
In addition to his duties at the work-bench, he also attempted to straighten out the two miserable little rooms where they lived. Marsden was surprised one morning on awakening to discover that Nicholas, who had risen two hours earlier, had swept and scrubbed the floor and hearthstone, taken down the dirty hangings from the two little windows and had them airing in the yard, and was now busily scrubbing with clean sea-sand the dirt-incrusted pots and pans. The table was set in front of the fire with a clean white cloth and dishes, and the kettle was bubbling merrily on the hearth.
Marsden opened his mouth to speak, then closed it without saying a word. Nicholas took the kettle from the fire, poured the boiling water over the tea-leaves, spread some bread with fresh, sweet butter, and said simply, "Your breakfast, master."
Marsden opened his mouth to speak.
Marsden ate wordlessly, looking at Nicholas from under his wild eyebrows. The boy went on with his work, which consisted now in bundling up the tumbled bed-clothing and throwing it over a line in the yard. Marsden finished his breakfast and finally spoke.
"You'll find some meal in that corner cupboard," he said. "We might have some porridge tomorrow morning." Nicholas nodded. "Now, stop all that woman's work and let's get on with that chest. I've promised it for next Wednesday, and even if that silly Enid Grondin is fool enough to get married, we must have our work out when it is promised."
But after that morning, Marsden was careful to shake out his bed-clothing after he arose, and to clean up the dishes after his breakfast. And the cottage gradually came to look more like a place where human beings could live.
One night, as Marsden sat in front of his fire, silently smoking his long pipe, he noticed that Nicholas was still bent over the work-bench.
"Here, lad," he said almost kindly, in his gruff voice, "I'm not such a hard master that I have you work night as well as day. What's that you're doing? Why don't you go to your bed, hey? "
Nicholas answered hastily. "It's just a piece of wood you threw away, master, and I thought I'd see if I could copy that fine chair you made for Mistress Grozik. This is a little one—a toy," he ended fearfully; for he well knew that the word "toy" would mean children to old Marsden, and for some strange reason just to mention a child in his presence sent him into a rage.
Tonight, however, he contented himself with merely a black look, and said, "Let me see it. Hmm—not bad, but you have that scroll on the back bigger on one side than the other. Here, give me that knife."
Nicholas hastened with the tool, and watched admiringly as the old wood-carver deftly corrected the mistake.
"There," Marsden said finally, holding his work away from him, "that's the way it should be done."
Then, instead of handing the little chair to Nicholas, who was waiting expectantly, he continued holding it in his hands, while a bitter and yet rather sad expression came into the fierce old eyes, and a smile,—Nicholas blinked and looked again,—yes, a real smile was tugging at the corners of that stern mouth which had been turned down for so many years.
"It's a long time since I made one of these wee things," he murmured half to himself. "Yet I made plenty, years and years ago, when they were little."
"It's a long time since I made one of these wee things."
Nicholas ventured a timid question. "When who were little, master?"
The corners of Marsden's mouth went down again; his
eyes turned fierce and angry once more. "My sons," he
roared. "I once had two sons, and when they were as big
as you, they ran away to sea, and left me all alone, left me
to grow old and crabbed, so the children call me Mad Marsden.
Children, bah! Do you wonder why I'll have none of
them around my house? Do you wonder when I can't stand
their baby voices babbling around here, where
Nicholas wasn't afraid of him any more; he went over and put his pitying young hands on the old shoulders. "I'll be your son, master; I won't leave you," he whispered.
Marsden lifted his head, and looked at the strong young face with the kind blue eyes bent over him. "You're a good lad, Nicholas. And," he added almost shyly, for it wasn't easy for a harsh man to change so quickly, "I think I'd like to help you with some of those little things you make. We'll make them together these long winter evenings, eh, shall we, Nicholas? So you can go around next Christmas Day in that fine sled of yours. Then you won't leave me alone again, will you, lad?"
He grasped Nicholas' arm almost roughly, then a peaceful expression crept into the lonely old face as the boy answered simply, "No, master, I'll stay here with you just as long as you want me."
So every winter evening saw two heads bent over the work-bench—a gray head with thick, shaggy hair, and the smooth yellow head of the boy. They worked feverishly during the weeks preceding Christmas; and with the old man helping with the carving, Nicholas was able to add delicate little touches to the toys which made them far more handsome than any he had ever made before. He painted the dolls' faces so that their eyes were as blue and their cheeks and lips were as rosy as the little girls who would soon clasp them in their arms; the little chairs and tables were stained with the same soft colors that Marsden used on his own products; the little boys' sleighs and boats and animals were shiny with bright new paints,—red and yellow and green.
So, two nights before Christmas, everything was finished,—a toy for every child in the village was packed in the sled with the steel runners; yet Nicholas and the old man were still working at the bench. This time, they were desperately trying to finish a chest which had been ordered by a wealthy woman in the next village, twenty miles away. She had said definitely that she wanted the chest finished in time for Christmas Day, because she was giving it to her daughter as a betrothal gift and the feast was to be celebrated then. Marsden and Nicholas worked feverishly most of that night and the following day, and there still remained a few little finishing touches, and here it was Christmas Eve. Marsden could have it done in time to be delivered tomorrow, but of course Nicholas would have to borrow the nearest neighbor's horse and drive over with the chest on Christmas Day itself,—the day when he had planned to make his tour of the village with his gifts, to show the children that he had not forgotten them, even though they had not seen much of him during the past year.
"I'm sorry, Nicholas," said old Marsden. "I'd go myself, but I'm not as strong as I used to be, and it's an all-day trip—twenty miles over, then you'll have to wait several hours to rest the horse, and twenty miles back. And with the snow not crusted, it'll be hard going."
Nicholas was sitting in front of the fire, leaning on his elbows, staring thoughtfully into the flames.
"If she only didn't want the chest tomorrow for sure," he said. "And if we had only finished it before today, I could have delivered it sooner, and had plenty of time tomorrow."
"Well," answered his master, "we did promise it, and it
has to be delivered. Now the toys weren't
"No, but I always have given them," interrupted Nicholas.
"I was just going to say, lad, that they weren't promised
for Christmas Day. Now, you know that little children
go to bed early. Why can't
"Oh, I understand," cried Nicholas, leaping from his chair. "I deliver the gifts tonight, Christmas Eve, after the children have gone to bed, and when they wake up tomorrow morning, they'll find them there, at their doors! Oh, master, that's a wonderful idea! Why, it's even better than before. I never did like the idea of walking up to a house in broad daylight and hearing people thank me and everything. What time is it, quick? Eleven o'clock! I'll have to hurry. Where's my list? Where's my sled?"
So the two rushed around and finally got the sled out in the yard. Nicholas bundled himself up in his close-fitting hat shaped like a stocking, his long belted tunic coat edged with fur, his black leggings and heavy boots, pulled on his mittens, and was off through the snow, dragging the toy-laden sled behind him.
Christmas Eve in the village—a bright winter moon shining in the star-filled sky; glistening white snow banked everywhere—on the roads, on the roof-tops, on the fences, and in the doorways; houses darkened and the inmates all sleeping soundly; not a soul stirring in the streets but one figure, which stole silently from door to door, leaving a pile of tiny objects every place he stopped, until there was nothing left in the bottom of the sled. It was three o'clock on Christmas morning when Nicholas turned away from the last doorway, his sled lighter to pull, his feet tired from dragging through the heavy snow, but happy that it was Christmas morning and he had once more kept his unspoken promise to the children.