OU'D never recognize the wood-carver's cottage now as the peaceful little dwelling it once had been. In order to shelter his eight reindeer, Nicholas had to build an extra shed which was almost as large as the cottage itself. All would be well if the animals stayed where they belonged, but Vixen seemed to take delight in butting his head against the door of his stall so that Nicholas had to rebuild it three times. He would hear a loud crash and look up from his work with a sigh. "I suppose that's Vixen again. Now if he were only as quiet and gentle as his brothers—well, I don't suppose I'd like him as well," he concluded with a rueful shake of his head.
The little reindeer returned his master's affection, but chose the most noisy means of expressing it. He wanted to be as close to Nicholas as possible and would break down one partition after another, in order that he might finally caper up to the door of his cottage and leap around delightedly until his friend noticed him.
Nicholas tried to be severe. "Now, this time, you'll be punished. I have too much work to do to bother chasing you around." And he would make a mad dash after the young imp, who only treated it as a game and retreated quickly behind a neighboring tree, poking his head drolly around the trunk and almost laughing with glee at Nicholas' fat form panting for breath as he tried to catch him.
Then Nicholas would try coaxing. "There now, be a good little reindeer. If you don't behave, I won't take you out with me on Christmas Eve, and you know we all want to have a fine showing. There's that secret I told you about, in the shed." He finally reached Vixen's side, and placing his arm lovingly around his neck, talked gently and soothingly to the little animal, who looked with soft, delighted eyes at his master.
And Nicholas would lead him back to his stall and return to his work satisfied that once more he had quelled this young rebel. He had no trouble at all with the old deer, Donder and Blitzen; and Prancer, Dasher, Dancer, Cupid, and Comet were gentle creatures who patiently endured all the nips on the ear which was Vixen's way of teasing his more settled brothers.
Nicholas was completing plans for a Christmas Eve grander than any he had ever had. He worked day and night to finish his toy-making; he made a final inspection of the mysterious object in the wood-shed; he scrubbed and curried his reindeer until their hides were sleek and shining. Finally the great night arrived. Nicholas made many trips back and forth to the wood-shed, his arms laden with bright little dolls, houses, boats, and animals. After three hours of preparation, everything seemed to be ready. It was almost midnight. Nicholas opened the stall where his reindeer were waiting and led them out into the yard.
"Donder and Blitzen at the head," he said, "then Dasher and Dancer, because they're the next strongest, and then Comet and Cupid; and then Prancer and—why where's Vixen?"
The other deer looked resignedly at their master and settled down to wait. You might know Vixen would be up to something at such an important time!
Nicholas dashed madly in and out of the stable, calling,
"Vixen! Vixen! you young imp, where are you? If I
Suddenly there was an answering whimper from somewhere over his head. He looked up; Donder and Blitzen looked up at their bad child; Prancer, Dasher, Dancer, Cupid, and Comet looked up at their mischievous young brother, who was perched on the roof of the cottage, playfully butting the chimney with his horns.
"You bad reindeer! How did you get up there? Oh, I see. Climbed the low shed and then jumped over to the cottage roof. And how are you going to get down, hey? Well, I'll tell you," Nicholas shouted, really angry now, for he would stand no trifling about his Christmas visits to the children. "I'll tell you; you won't get down. You'll stay there, for all I care. I'll leave Prancer at home and take only six. I suppose you are afraid to jump down again, you bold imp! Well, I'll not help you. I'm through with you."
Vixen whimpered again. He was really sorry, and he was really frightened, so frightened that he couldn't remember clearly how it was he had reached the roof. He leaned against the chimney, and wet tears ran down his nose. He looked beseechingly down at Nicholas, but his master turned sternly away and began harnessing the other deer together. Vixen became annoyed. How dare they leave without him! He stamped an angry little hoof on the hard crust of snow. Crack went the crust, and Vixen toppled over on the roof and felt himself carried down the slope, swiftly, swiftly; carried right over the edge, and landed head first in a soft snow-bank right at Nicholas' feet. All you could see of the naughty little fellow were his four hoofs waving madly in the air. Nicholas began to laugh, the other reindeer lifted their heads in the air and seemed to enjoy the scene too, and it was a thoroughly ashamed and meek little reindeer who finally scrambled out of the snow-bank and took his place quietly beside Prancer.
Now for the big show! Nicholas finished tying the eight reindeer to each other with a harness bright with jingling silver bells; he slowly backed them to the wood-shed door, which he opened, disclosing a most beautiful sight. There stood a bright, shining red sleigh, trimmed with silver stripes and stars, the runner curving up in front to form a swan's head, the back roomy enough to hold toys for several villages full of children. Nicholas backed his reindeer into the shafts; he climbed up on the high seat, beautifully padded with cushions made of soft doe-skin; he took out of the socket a long, shiny black whip, snapped it in the air, and they were off!
The villagers were awakened from their sleep by a merry jingling of silver bells, by the stamp of reindeer's hoofs on the hard snow, by the snap of a whip. They peeked out from behind their curtains and saw a brave sight. They saw by the white light of the moon, a shining red sleigh drawn by eight prancing reindeer, whose flying hoofs went as fast as lightning; they saw a well-loved figure perched high up on his seat, snapping a long, black whip in the air with one hand and guiding his reindeer with the other—a big, round man dressed in a red belted tunic, trimmed with white fur, baggy trousers stuffed into high black leggings, and a close-fitting red stocking-cap which flew in the wind. They were not close enough to see how the sharp rush of air made his rosy cheeks even rosier, and nipped his nose so that it, too, was almost the color of his suit, and stung his bright blue eyes so that they twinkled and glistened like the Christmas snow; they were not close enough to see his face, but one and all, as they returned to their warm beds, murmured out of full hearts, "That's Nicholas, on his way to the children. God bless him!"