HE Christmas days that followed were happy, not only for Nicholas, but for all the children he met in his travels from house to house. At the rope-maker's cottage, most of the winter evenings were spent by the children learning to wind and untangle masses of twine, and to do most of the simple net-mending. Nicholas discovered that by loosening strands of flaxen-colored hemp he could make the most realistic hair for the little wooden dolls he still found time to carve. When he left at the end of the year on Christmas Day, the rope-maker's five little children found five little toys waiting for them on the mantel of their fireplace, and Nicholas did not forget his promise to the three Bavrans, but made a special trip to their house Christmas morning with their gifts.
And so it happened, as the years went on, and Nicholas grew more and more skillful with his father's jack-knife, that the children of each household came to expect one of Nicholas' toys on Christmas Day. Not one child was ever disappointed, for the young wood-carver had a faculty for remembering exactly what each child liked. Fishermen's sons received toy boats built just as carefully as the larger boats their fathers owned; little girls were delighted with dolls that had "real hair," and with little chairs and tables where they could have real tea-parties.
All this time, Nicholas had been busy with many other things besides toy-making. As he grew into a tall, strong boy, there were many tasks in which he had his share, and which he did willingly and well. In the spring, he learned to dig and plant the hard northern soil with the vegetables the family lived on during the winter; all summer he helped with the boats, mended nets, took care of chickens, cows, horses, and in one well-to-do household, even reindeer. He was an especial favorite with the mothers, because the babies and younger children would flock to Nicholas, who would play with them and care for them, thus giving the tired mothers a chance to attend to the housework. During the winter months, Nicholas attended school with the other boys and girls of the village, learning his A B C's in exchange for carrying in the wood for the schoolmaster's fire.
So on one particular winter's day we find Nicholas on his way to school, trudging along a snowy country road, dragging behind him a sled loaded with logs of wood. He is now fourteen years old, a tall, thin boy, dressed in the long, heavy tunic coat of the village, home-knit woolen leggings, and a close-fitting black cap pulled down over his yellow hair. His eyes are blue and twinkling, and his cheeks rosy from the keen winter air. He whistles happily, because, although in a week it will be Christmas-time once more, and he will have to make his final change, he remembers the chest full of finished toys—one for every child in the village. It is the first year he has been able to do this, and the thought of his trips on Christmas morning, when he will personally deliver to every child one of his famous toys, makes him almost skip along, burdened though he is with the heavy sled of wood.
Finally he reached the yard of the schoolmaster's cottage, and was immediately attracted by the group of schoolboys, who, instead of running about playing their usual games and romping in the snow, were gathered together in one big group, excitedly discussing something. As Nicholas entered the yard, they rushed over to him and began talking all at once, their faces aglow with the wonderful news they had to tell.
"Oh, Nicholas, there's going to be a
"No, let me tell him. Nicholas, listen. It's going to
Nicholas turned a bewildered look from one eager speaker to another.
"What are you all trying to say? One at a time, there. Let Otto talk. Otto, what's all this about a prize, and races, and the Squire?"
Otto drew a long, important breath, and began to talk fast so no one would interrupt him.
"There's going to be a big sled race on Christmas morning.
All the boys are to start with their sleds at the Squire's
gate at the top of the hill, and the first one who gets back
to the big pine behind the Squire's vegetable garden on the
other side of the house wins the prize—and—what is the
prize? A big new
"With steel runners!" all the boys chorused delightedly.
"With steel runners!" echoed Nicholas in an awed whisper. "Go on, Otto. How are you supposed to go up a hill on a sled? And where else does the race go?"
Otto frowned at the others for silence, and continued. "Well, you coast down the long hill, and that will carry you across the frozen creek at the bottom. Then there's that patch of trees near the wood-cutter's cottage. Well, here's where the fun comes in. Every place you can't coast, you have to pull or carry your sled. There are about three fences to go over—the Groziks', the Bavrans', and the Pavlicks'; then you have to go through the Black Wood, where you know there are some clear, hilly stretches, and other places where you can't coast because of the trees. After you go through the wood, there's a long slide down to the village pasture; then you go back across the creek at the rapids, where it isn't frozen, then up the long hill behind the Squire's to the big pine. There, how's that for a race?"
Otto paused for breath triumphantly, and the others all started in again.
"Nicholas, you'll enter, won't you? That's not a bad
sled you have, even if you
"Hush, Jan," whispered another. "It isn't nice to remind Nicholas that he made his own sled, just because our fathers had ours made for us."
But Nicholas was not listening to the conversation. He was thinking swiftly. Finally he turned to the others and asked, "What time does the race begin?"
"Nine o'clock sharp on Christmas morning," was the answer.
Nicholas shook his head doubtfully.
"I don't know whether I can be there," he said slowly. He was thinking of the chest full of toys he had planned to deliver to almost every house in the village. He had so many chores to do when he got up in the morning, that he didn't see how he could possibly finish his work, make his rounds with the gifts, and still be in time for the start of the race at nine o'clock.
The other boys looked at him, suddenly silenced by the thought that came to every mind. They knew what Nicholas was thinking of when he said he wasn't sure that he'd be there, and although every child had come to expect a toy from Nicholas on Christmas morning, these boys were too embarrassed to put into words the fact that because Nicholas was so good to them, and especially to their smaller brothers and sisters, he might not be able to enter this race, which was so exciting to every boy's heart. And for all his gentleness, Nicholas was a real boy, and felt the desire to enter this race and win the big sled with steel runners, just as much as any boy present.
"By getting up very early, and hurrying, I could get
there," he was thinking. "If it only weren't for the doll
I have to bring to Elsa, away outside the
"I'll be there! I'll be there! At nine o'clock sharp, and then you'd better watch out for the prize," he shouted gleefully. "My old home-made sled may be heavy for the pulls and the places we have to carry, but that will make it all the faster on the coasts. I'll go by you just like this!"
And he made a lunge past little Josef Ornoff, which tumbled the astonished little fellow into a deep snowbank. All the other boys laughingly piled Nicholas in with Josef, and the whole meeting broke up in a fast and furious snow battle.
When the children of the village arose on Christmas morning, they found a bright sun streaming in through the cottage windows and gleaming on the hard crusted snow on the roads. But they also found that Nicholas had been there, and probably even before the sun, because every doorway in the village was heaped with the little toys—the result of a whole year's work. After the excitement over the gifts, all the boys made an anxious last-minute inspection of their sleds, made a trial run or two, and then the whole village started in a body for the starting-point of the race.
Nicholas, meanwhile, was back in his little shed, desperately working on a broken runner. It had collapsed at the last house under the strain of the extra-heavy burden of wooden toys, and even as Nicholas was feverishly lashing heavy bits of rope and twisted cord around the bottom of his sled, he could hear the faint echo of the horn from the Squire's house at the top of the hill, announcing the start of the race. He could have sobbed with disappointment, because he knew that he never could get there in time to start with the others, but he also realized he had to get to the wood-cutter's house anyway, so he turned the mended sled upright, and made a mad dash for the hilltop, where he found the villagers already looking excitedly after a group of black specks speeding down the hill, and shouting words of encouragement at the racers. As Nicholas panted his way through the crowd, they all made way for him, with loud expressions of sympathy that he hadn't arrived there in time.
"Come on, Nicholas lad," shouted Jan Bavran. "I vow I'd rather see you win than my own Otto. Here, men, let's give him a good push. One—two—three—off he goes!"
And down the hill sped Nicholas, his face and eyes stinging in the swift rush of wind, his hands cleverly steering the heavy sled which gained more and more speed so that the wooden runners seemed hardly to touch the packed snow. On and on he went, swifter and swifter; and now his eyes glowed with excitement as he saw that the boys' figures ahead of him were black specks no longer, and that he must have gained a good bit of ground.
Then, as the hill sloped more gently and the pace slackened,
he noticed something ahead which puzzled him. The
boys had all stopped on the other side of the frozen creek!
Instead of going on through the patch of woods on the other
side, they had, one and all, calmly alighted from their sleds,
and were now standing stock-still, watching Nicholas approach.
As his sled slowed down, and finally stopped, he
looked bewilderedly from one to another, and started
"What in the
"Come on, Nicholas," spoke up little Josef; "we would have waited for you at the top, but the Squire got impatient and made us start when the horn blew. But of course you knew we'd wait for you."
"Yes," shouted Otto, "go throw that doll in Elsa's doorway, and then let's go! And from now on, see how long we'll wait for you! First come, first served with the sled with the steel runners!"
Nicholas put his hand on the nearest boy's shoulder. His eyes glistened with moisture, but it must have been from the sharp wind on the coast. He didn't say anything, but he was so happy at this boyish way of showing friendship that his heart was full.
Twenty boys delivered a doll to astonished little Elsa, and then, with a wild shout, they were off again, dragging their sleds after them, knocking against tree-trunks, getting their ropes tangled in low scrubby bushes, stumbling over rocks, climbing over fences, jumping on now and then for a stretch of coasting, bumping each other—laughing, excited, eager, happy boys!
And Nicholas was the happiest of all, even though his sled was heavy to pull and clumsy to lift over fences. (His friends had waited for him!) Up would go the strong young arms and the sled was over the fence into the next field. (They did like him, even though he was an orphan and had no house of his own, but had to be passed around!) Over a steep grade he would drag the sled and then fling himself down for a wild rush. (And he had finished his morning's work too; every child in the village was playing with a toy Nicholas had made!) The long slide down to the village pasture with only one boy ahead of him! (I'll show them; I'll never let a Christmas pass without visiting every child in the village!) Now carrying the heavy sled on his shoulders while he felt slowly for a foothold on the flat stones of the part of the creek that was not frozen; he was the first boy to cross! (Up at the top of the hill, there's a beautiful sled with steel runners. It's big! It will hold twice as many toys as this old thing.) Up the hill, panting, hot, yellow locks flying in the wind, digging his toes in the hard snow, pulling for dear life at "the old thing," turning around excitedly once or twice to see how close the next boy was; then—suddenly, he heard the shouts of the villagers and he was at the top! He leaned against the big pine; he was home—he had won the race!
The big sled with steel runners was beautiful, but it was more beautiful still to see the defeated boys pulling Nicholas home on his prize, while the littler children hopped on behind and climbed lovingly all over the victor, and each mother and father smiled proudly as though it had been their own son who had won the race.