OLLY was no longer little Holly; she was a lovely slender young girl and led a happy life, her childish terrors long forgotten. She hummed a gay little carol that Christmas morning, as she walked along the road towards Nicholas' cottage, her arms filled with the bright red berries that bore her own name. She still continued the practice of bringing flowers all year round to her old friend, and every Christmas Eve she would go into the Black Forest to gather holly with which to decorate his cottage on Christmas morning.
It was almost noon, and as she approached the house, she noticed how silent and empty it looked without Nicholas' head at the window, bent over his work, and with no smoke coming from the chimney.
"Poor thing," thought the girl affectionately. "He's probably all tired out from his trip last night. I won't waken him. I'll just go in and make his fire and put the holly around."
She stole silently into the cold little cottage, and soon had a warm blaze crackling on the hearth. She cast an anxious glance now and then towards the closed door that led to Nicholas' bedroom; she was so afraid of disturbing his slumber. But she heard no sound and busied herself decking the walls and windows with gay branches. Then, with one spray still in her hand, she looked around uncertainly, and not finding another bare spot in the living-room, she decided to bring it in to place beside Nicholas, so the branch of holly would be the first thing he'd see when he opened his eyes.
She opened the door quietly and stole over to the bed.
"Why, the darling was so tired he fell asleep with his clothes on," she murmured tenderly.
For the fat round figure lay there, still dressed in the bright red suit with the white fur and the shiny black leggings and close-fitting stocking cap.
"Here's your holly," whispered the girl, bending over Nicholas. Then, with a startled exclamation, she dropped the blood-red blossoms all over the still figure and sprang back, frightened.
"Nicholas, Nicholas!" she screamed. "Oh, he's dead! He's dead!"
She ran bareheaded out into the snow, stumbled blindly down the road into the village, and with tears streaming down her face, called loudly for the townsfolk.
They gathered in little groups to listen to her story. The women murmured in broken tones, between sobs, "He's dead!" and clasped their wondering little children closer, as if to comfort them for the loss of their dearest friend. The men looked down to the ground and up at the sky and every place but into each other's eyes, for no man wanted to see the tears that stood there. "Yes, he's dead," they all sighed deeply. "Who's dead, Mother? Is it Nicholas?" asked the children. "Won't he come to us any more on Christmas Eve?"
And the parents had to turn away from the wide childish eyes because they didn't want to say to them that awful sentence, "Yes, Nicholas is dead."
The bells tolled, and the village was in darkness Christmas night. Vixen and his brothers whimpered in their stalls, and the holly glowed red over a still loving heart in a red suit.