T was a sad year that followed the Christmas morning of Nicholas' death. All through the long cold winter and brief summer the villagers were reminded of the old friend who had left them every time they saw his closed cottage, with a holly wreath still in the window. They had tenderly put him to rest in the pine grove close to the friendly little evergreens and near the spot where the village children came to play. The eight reindeer were no longer in the stalls behind the cottage; they had been taken back to the big stables on the top of the hill by Katje Dinsler. Many a time in the months that passed, a mother would pick up a little carved doll from the floor and gently wipe the dirt from its face, with a suddenly tear-dimmed eye for the generous heart who had given the toy.
It gradually entered even the most babyish mind that Nicholas was dead and would come to fill their stockings no more. They cried a little, then the image of the fat, cheer ful old man faded from their forgetful childish memories, and so the year passed until it was again Christmas Eve.
"Mother, are we going to hang up our stockings?"
"No, no, child. Have you forgotten that Nicholas is dead and can't come to fill your stockings any more?"
This question was asked and answered sadly in almost every house in the village that Christmas Eve, so different from the other years, when every fire in every hearth glowed warmly on happy, expectant little children who were busy choosing their best and longest stocking to hang over the fireplace. This year, the little boys and girls went despondently to bed, and the night before Christmas was just like any ordinary night, with the parents silently banking the fires and bolting the doors that once had been left open to receive a merry, fat figure in a red suit.
And Nicholas might have been forgotten if it hadn't been for one boy, little lame Stephen, who had a still-warm memory of the kind old man and a childish faith that somehow a big heart like his could never die. So Stephen's parents were astonished when he calmly went about hanging up his stocking, just as he had done every Christmas Eve since he could remember.
"But Stephen," his mother reminded him sadly, "you know Nicholas is dead. You saw him carried from the cottage to the little pine grove; you saw his sleigh and reindeer being taken up to Mistress Katje's house. There's no Nicholas any more, child; don't you understand?"
"But I've got to hang up my stocking, Mother; I've
got to. I don't believe God would keep him away from the
children on Christmas Eve. I believe that he will come
"Hush! You mustn't say things like that," exclaimed the mother in a frightened tone. "The dead must rest, my son, and it's not for you to say what God is to do with them. But you may hang up your stocking if you want to," she ended, feeling that even though her son suffered a cruel disappointment, the only way to convince him was to have him find his stocking empty on Christmas morning; then he wouldn't spend the rest of his life thinking that his mother might have been wrong.
So that was how, while all the other houses had fireplaces that were growing darker and colder, and the doors were bolted and windows tightly locked, there was one cottage in the village where the latch-string was left out, where the fire still burned warmly on the hearth, and where a lone little stocking was hanging bravely, an emblem of faith in a doubting world.
During the night an old, old woman awoke and moved restlessly in her bed, muttering still half-asleep, "I thought I heard the jingling of silver bells and the tramping of reindeer's hoofs on the snow. No, it must have been a dream," she sighed, and went back to sleep.
Christmas morning dawned bright and clear. It might have been the first Christmas morning of the world, the sun was so warm, the air was so pure and fresh, the snow so virgin-white and glistening as it lay piled up along the fences and doorways. The little village street lay peaceful in the early morning quiet.
Suddenly the tranquillity of the place was broken by a wild shout, the door of one cottage burst open, and the figure of a boy dashed out into the snow, one thin bare leg dragging a little as he limped through the gateway, and one arm waving wildly in the air,—a long, fat, bulging woolen stocking!
"He isn't dead!" shrieked Stephen, his thin face transfigured by a beautiful joy. "Look at my stocking! It's filled, just the same as last Christmas! And there's a big new sled by our fireplace. I knew it! Look, everybody! Wake up, wake up! Nicholas isn't dead!"
Men, women, and children leaped from their beds to see what all the noise was about, and the children leaped right into the largest piles of toys they had ever seen,—all around the fireplaces, on the tables and chairs, and even beside their beds. The entire village opened its doors and poured out into the street, the children dragging handsome new sleds loaded with the most beautiful toys the village had ever seen.
"Did you see this? Look at my boat!"
"He must have come down the chimney when he found the door locked. There was some soot on the floor."
"Isn't it wonderful? It's the happiest Christmas we've ever had!"
"Little Stephen found a fir-tree on his table, decorated with more gifts and fruit and candles, just the way the gypsy children had their gifts, many years ago."
"Yes, and Stephen says there is a big shining star way up on the topmost bough."
"That's because Stephen believed in him," they said, ashamed of themselves. "But now, we believe too. He isn't dead!"
So the bells pealed out on Christmas morning,—a joyful, happy sound, so different from the mournful tolling of a year ago; and the happy villagers almost sang the universal refrain, "He isn't dead!"
The children danced and ran around with their toys; the men looked at each other with solemn, awe-filled eyes; the mothers held their babies close and murmured, "He isn't dead, my pet; you'll grow up and Nicholas will still come to us."
One old woman, she who thought she had heard silvery bells in the midnight air, with her eyes half on another world, said in her cracked old voice, "He's a saint, that's what he is!"
"Yes, he's Saint Nicholas now!" They all took up the shout, and the whole town joined the glad cry, "Saint Nicholas! Saint Nicholas!"
A baby's voice tried to add his stumbling speech to the general shout. "Sant' Clos! Sant' Clos!" he lisped.
"We believe now," the children and the fathers and the mothers all said to each other with the light of faith that little lame Stephen had inspired on their faces. "We believe that Saint Nicholas will always come to us as long as there is one child alive in the village."
"In the village!" echoed little Stephen. "In the whole world!" he shouted triumphantly.