QUIRE KENSON, the richest man in the village, came driving up to Nicholas' cottage door one day, with a commission to carve a new chest for his youngest daughter, who was planning to be married. Nicholas was attracted by the sound of silver bells and reindeer's hoofs on the snow; he looked out of his window and saw the beautiful equipage the Squire traveled about in,—a shiny, red sleigh, drawn by two beautiful reindeer—Donder and Blitzen they were called by the children of the village, because they traveled so swiftly, like thunder and lightning. Nicholas gazed at the two beautiful animals and thought how much more rapidly they would carry him about on Christmas Eve than his old horse, who was getting slower and slower as the years went on.
Then Nicholas hastened to open the door for the Squire, who stated his errand briefly and gave directions about the size of the chest and when he expected it to be finished. All the while he was talking, the wood-carver was gazing admiringly at the fine suit of red deerskin his visitor was wearing. As he nodded and made notes of the instructions, his eyes missed no detail of the Squire's outfit; the suit was made in the fashion of the district—that is, the coat rather long and belted at the waist, the trousers loose and caught in at the calf by shining leather leggings. Soft, white ermine bound the coat at the collar, the cuffs, and around the bottom; the same beautiful fur was around the close-fitting red hat.
After the Squire had finished his errand, and had driven off, led by Donder and Blitzen's flying hoofs, Nicholas went on with the task in hand, but with his mind on the beautiful red suit.
"There's no reason why I can't have one, too," he said to himself. "I have all my winter supplies in and the wood all paid for, and there is still a bag of gold coin that I will never be able to spend. The Widow Arpen could well make use of some of it, and they say that she is the cleverest needlewoman in the village. I think I'll drive over there tomorrow and see what can be done. I've gone around looking like a poor orphan instead of a well-to-do wood-carver long enough."
So the next day Nicholas paid a visit to Widow Arpen's cottage.
"I want a fine red suit, Mistress Arpen," he stated. "You know the one the Squire wears?" The woman nodded. "Well, of course, I can't afford such fine, soft deerskin; besides, there's no time to have all that skin dressed and prepared; and I know very well I can't have mine trimmed with real ermine. Now what could you suggest?"
The widow thought a moment. "Well," she said finally, "we could get a good bolt of strong homespun from the weaver, and I could dye it myself. I have had a wonderful red from stewing rowan berries. Then I'm sure we could get enough pure white rabbit skins from Lief the trapper to trim the neck and cuffs. It would make a fine suit, and you'd look splendid in it, Nicholas."
Nicholas rose, well pleased with the plan for the work. He took out of his pocket a handful of gold coins and laid them on the table.
"There," he said, "I think that will take care of the material and the labor."
"But—but, Nicholas, it's more than enough!" the widow exclaimed. "Why, half of this would keep my family all through the winter."
"Then keep it, woman," smiled Nicholas. "You've had a hard time since your good man died to keep your little family warm and well fed. I have enough and to spare, so let's not quibble over a few gold coins. I'll not be the man to die with a chest of them found buried under my hearth-stone."
The widow stood at her door and watched Nicholas drive away through the snow. "Eh, there's a fine man," she murmured, the gold pieces jingling through her fingers. "A fine, big man."
So she bought the homespun, which she dyed a beautiful bright red. And then a strange thing happened. She had no pattern to go by, as Nicholas was wearing the only tunic he owned, and could spare no time from his work to have a fitting, so the widow cut and sewed the suit with the image of a fine, big man constantly before her. Nicholas was not a short man by any means, but he was rather thin, and yet as Mistress Arpen planned and pieced the suit together, she knew she was sewing for a fine, generous man, and made the suit to fit Nicholas' heart instead of his body.
On the day the work was finished, and the last loving stitch had been placed in the soft rabbit trimming, Nicholas arrived to try on his suit. He went into the widow's little inner room, and came out a few minutes later—and what a picture he made!
"I can't see it, Mistress Arpen," said Nicholas doubtfully, "for that little piece of glass in your room shows only a portion of me at a time. Yet it did seem to go on rather—rather loosely," he finished tactfully, not wishing to hurt her feelings.
The widow gave one look and burst into tears. "Oh, Nicholas, I've spoiled your suit; I've spoiled it! I thought you were bigger; whatever made me cut it so wide? Oh, what shall I do?"
Trying to comfort the woman, Nicholas forgot his own dismay at the size of his garments.
"There, we won't worry about it. Look, the length is all right. It's only that I'm not as fat as I might be. Why if I ate all the vegetables and meal the villagers send me, I'll warrant in a few months' time you'd never notice the extra cloth in this coat. And the trousers will be all right as soon as I buy a pair of leggings to stuff them in. And what a fine cap this is! See how close it fits, and how warm-looking this fur band is!"
"I'm not as fat as I might be."
So gradually he made the widow forget her disappointment, and to reassure her that he really did not mind the ludicrous figure he must make with his tall, gangly form clothed in loose, baggy folds, he insisted on wearing it home, and sat up high on the seat of his sleigh and seemed not to notice the stares and nudges of the villagers.
When he arrived home, however, he sat down in the huge suit and burst into loud laughter. "What a sight I'll make going around like this for months to come! And yet I'll have to wear it out; it would be sinful to waste good material."
Then another funny thought struck him. He slapped his knee and laughed again. "Perhaps I could even stuff some of my toys into my suit. How the children would laugh! But there's only one thing to be done. It's very clear that I'm too thin for my height. I shall really have to eat oatmeal in the morning instead of just a piece of bread; and I must drink more milk, and cook some of those vegetables that go to waste in the storeroom."
"I shall really have to eat oatmeal in the morning."
So Nicholas kept his big red suit, and soon the villagers became used to the tall figure in the bright red trousers and tunic, the close-fitting stocking-cap trimmed with white fur, and the shiny black leather belt and leggings. And what do you think happened after Nicholas had carefully eaten vegetables and milk week after week? His face became full and rosy, his chest filled out, his arms and legs grew more muscular and rounded, and he even began to acquire—whisper it—a belly!