NE year, when Nicholas was about fifty years old, and his hair and beard were getting as white as the snow around his cottage, and he was growing as round as the balls he gave the children, a strange family came to live in the village. Not much of a family, to be sure—just one little old man, as brown and wrinkled as a nut, and a thin little girl, who shrank away from the crowd of villagers who had gathered, as they always gathered when something new and strange was happening.
"His name is Carl Dinsler," one woman whispered. "The old Squire's housekeeper told me about him. They say he's very rich. He must be to have money enough to buy the big house on the hill."
"He may be rich," remarked another, "but he certainly doesn't look it. Why, that poor old nag he drove into the village must be almost a hundred, and did you see how poorly and shabbily he was dressed?"
"Yes, and that poor little mite he had with him; she looks as though a good meal wouldn't do her any harm. Who is she, anyway?"
"That's his granddaughter. The child's parents died just a short while ago, away down in the southlands, and they say this old man bought the house up here to be alone."
"He can stay alone, then," sniffed another woman. "Did you see the black looks he turned on us all, when we only came out to welcome them to the village?"
"Yes," sighed another, "but somehow I pity that little one. Who's to take care of her up in that big barn of a place?"
It was lucky the villagers had a chance to get a good look at the newcomers on their first appearance in town; for after that day, little was seen of them. The little girl seemed to have vanished completely; the old man descended the hill only to buy small amounts of food—some fish and some flour. And the very curious ones, who climbed the hill just to see what was going on, came back to the village with strange news indeed!
"Do you know what he has done?" demanded one small boy of an interested group. "He's nailed up all the gates and left only the front one open, and even that he keeps locked with a bolt as long as this." He spread his hands about a yard apart. His listeners gasped. "Yes, and that's not all. I don't know how you could get into the house, for he's put up boards where the front and side doors used to be and on all the windows. There's not one sign of life in the old place now. You'd never know a soul lived there."
"Why, the man must be crazy," they all said, astounded. "He must be afraid of somebody."
"Afraid, nothing!" one man remarked scornfully. "Unless he's afraid someone will steal his wealth away from him."
"He's a surly old wretch," added the schoolmaster. "I tried to see him the other day to ask if he was going to send the child to school. He wouldn't let me get any farther than the front gate. He wanted to know all about the school, and when I told him the children usually brought vegetables or meat or a few coins each week to pay for their schooling, he snarled at me, and told me to go about my business; that he'd take care of his grandchild's education."
"The poor little thing," exclaimed one motherly-looking woman, "I'd like to tell that old miser what I think of him."
"Well, this is a piece of news that will interest Nicholas, the wood-carver," said another. "One more child in the village, and a lonely one, too."
"Nicholas knows all about her," they heard a deep voice say, and all turned to see that it was the wood-carver himself, who had joined the group unnoticed. "Her name is Katje. I once knew a little girl named Katje," he went on with a sad, faraway look in his usually merry blue eyes, "and that's why I'd like to do something for this poor child."
"Why, how did you find out her name, Nicholas?"
"She was wandering around in the yard like a forlorn little puppy who's been locked in," Nicholas answered. "I was passing that way and stopped at the gate to talk with her. She says she's not allowed to go outside the fence, and that she can play in the yard only an hour each day. She also told me that her grandfather doesn't want her to mix with the village children for fear she'll talk about the gold he has."
The honest villagers were indignant. "As if we'd touch his old money," they said angrily.
"I don't know what we can do about it," said Nicholas thoughtfully. "We can't force our way into the house, and after all, it's his own grandchild. I guess we'll just have to wait around and see what happens. I can't believe anyone could stay as hard as that with a little child in the house."
The others shook their heads. "He's hard all through, that old rascal. Why, I'll wager he wouldn't even let her put out her stocking on Christmas Eve."
"That's a safe wager," laughed Nicholas. "He wouldn't open his front door even to let something free come in."
The crowd dispersed, and Nicholas went back to his work-bench; but all through the months that followed, his mind was occupied with the thought of the lonely little Katje. He saw her several times after that, and learned that it was true that she would not be allowed to hang up her stocking. The last time he visited her he had been seen by old Dinsler, who waved his stick at him and told him angrily to keep away from his house and his grandchild. And after that day, Katje was to be seen no more.
Hoping for the best, however, Nicholas carefully made a few little toys for Katje and packed them away with his other gifts, and went on thinking and thinking until, just about a week before Christmas, when he was taking a walk around the big boarded-up house, hoping to catch a glimpse of Katje, a wonderful idea struck him. He had been staring up at the forbidding-looking house, all barred and locked, when his attention was caught by the huge stone chimney on the roof. His eyes brightened; he slapped his thigh and chuckled to himself. "I'll try it! I may get stuck, but it's worth the attempt."
Christmas Eve that year was a dark, moonless night. The wind whistled mournfully through the deserted streets, and a cold sleet stung Nicholas' face and covered his sleigh and reindeer with a shining coat of ice.
"Come on now, my good lads," he encouraged his deer. "Trip's almost over; we've only the house on the hill now. It'll probably take me the rest of the night," he muttered to himself, shivering in his red coat and looking like a big snow-man, with the rain and sleet forming icicles on his snowy white beard.
He tied the deer to the front gate and then, taking his sack from the back of the sleigh, climbed from his high seat to the top bar of the fence, and in a moment was down in the yard. He stopped to listen; not a sound could be heard but a few shutters banging in the wind and the sighing of the big pines.
He crept over to the side of the house, where a sort of porch covered one door and made an excellent ladder to the roof. He had a hard time, fat and bulky as he was and encumbered by the sack on his back; but he finally puffed his way up to the top of the porch, and in a few minutes was crouched on the sloping roof of the house.
Now was the dangerous part. The roof was slippery with the sleet and rain that had fallen; he had to take out his little knife and hack away the ice, to form wedges where he could get a foothold. Once he paused breathless, when he thought he heard footsteps in the darkness below. He listened intently, but discovered it was only the impatient stamping of one of his reindeer.
Finally a big shape loomed up above him—it was the chimney. Nicholas stopped to rest a moment, then leaned over the wide edge and looked down into inky blackness.
"Just as I thought," he murmured in a satisfied tone. "The old miser lets his fire go out nights, even such a bitter cold one as this."
He climbed over the edge and then began his slow, perilous descent, feeling carefully with his feet for jutting bricks, pressing one hand flat on the sides, and bracing his back firmly against the walls, and so slowly made his way through the sooty chimney until he finally felt solid earth beneath his feet.
He stepped out of the fireplace into a room which was only slightly lighter than the black chimney. When his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he made out the dim outlines of a table and, groping around, found the stub of a candle, which he lit. Then he set to work swiftly. He drew out from his pack a bright blue woolen stocking, which he filled to the brim with little toys and nuts and raisins, for he thought the hungry little girl might like a few sweets. Then he hung the fat stocking right on the fireplace, weighted down with a heavy brass candlestick. He stood back a moment to survey his work and was just leaning over the candle to blow it out and make his difficult way back up the chimney, when he was startled by the sudden opening of a door, and a furious figure dashed into the room.
"Sneaking into my house, eh? After my gold, I suppose! I'll show you how I treat thieves; I'll show you!"
The old man picked up a heavy pair of iron fire-tongs and made a lunge at Nicholas, who rapidly sprang aside, so that the table was between him and the mad old miser.
"Don't be such a fool, man," he said quickly, realizing
that the other was in such a rage he was dangerous. "I
haven't come here after your gold.
"You haven't, eh? Then what brings you here, if it isn't some thieving purpose? Why do you break into an honest man's house in the dead of night if it isn't for the wealth I'm supposed to have?"
"What brings me here? Look behind you at that stocking there. The other children in the village leave theirs outside their doors, but you have that poor child so frightened she's afraid to ask you for anything. I only wanted to make her feel she was just as good as the others, that she could get gifts the same as they find on Christmas morning."
"Gifts," exclaimed the old man, bewildered, lowering his dangerous-looking weapon. "You give things away?" He looked at Nicholas as though he were some strange kind of animal.
"Yes," answered Nicholas, relieved to see the fire-tongs out of sight. "I'll even give you a Christmas gift, you foolish old man. Here, if gold's all you care for, here's more—and more—and more, to add to your hoard!"
And he reached into his deep pockets and poured a stream of bright gold on the table under old Carl's astonished eyes.
"There, that's just to show you how unimportant I think money is compared to the love of a little child, which you might have. Did you ever try to make Katje's eyes twinkle at you? No, you only see the bright glitter of this stuff, and so her eyes are sad, pitiful things when you look into them. Did you ever feel her warm little hand tuck itself into yours? No. Your fingers are satisfied with the cold touch of gold. I pity you, old man, but don't you dare touch that stocking or I'll make you sorry for yourself as well. And now," he finished his tirade and brushed some soot from one eye, "now, will you please show me the way to the door. I don't intend to climb up that chimney. I'll never get this suit clean again!"
He marched out of the room, a ridiculous, stout figure, covered with soot from head to toe, and yet somehow a very impressive person to old Carl, who hastened ahead of him and silently let him out into the black, stormy night.
The village buzzed with excitement during the following week. Something had stirred up the old miser on the hill! He had ripped off the boards from his doors and windows; he had bought a new horse and sleigh; he had stocked his larder with huge quantities of food-stuffs. Next, he interviewed the schoolmaster, and within a few days, Katje and her grandfather were seen on the road leading to the school, the little girl's face beaming up at the old man, her feet skipping along to catch up with his long strides and her warm little hand tucked close in his gnarled old fist.
And all because Nicholas had climbed down a chimney to fill a stocking!