NE Christmas Eve Nicholas did not have such an easy time making his rounds of the village houses. To begin with, he was considerably amused and rather dismayed to discover that, instead of one embroidered bag for each house, the children had followed little Laurens' example, and had each put out a woolen stocking. So with some families having five or six children, there was often quite a row of stockings nailed up on the door. Of course, Nicholas could not very well put just one toy in each stocking, it made the rest of it look so flat and empty; but since he hadn't stocked his sleigh with enough gifts so that there would be several for each child, he found himself with an empty sleigh, and only half-way through his list!
"Lucky I have that extra supply of toys at home in the chest," he said to himself as he made a flying trip back to the cottage for more gifts. He loaded the sleigh again and started out once more, with the night half gone and his list not completed.
Poor old Lufka, his horse, tried his best, but he was getting old and could not make very fast progress through the heavy snow. He kept turning a patient head around at Nicholas, who spoke to him encouragingly. "Come on, now, lad; only two more houses. You can make it; the sleigh's not so heavy now with all that double load delivered."
Lufka wagged his head at his master's voice and tossed it in the air as though to say, "Yes, but tonight we had to make an extra trip back to the cottage, and when I thought I was going to be nicely bedded down for the night, off you went again! And I must say I like the snow better when there's a crust on top, instead of this heavy stuff. I'm always stumbling—there, now!"
Down went the good old beast into a ditch, and crack went one of the sleigh runners. Nicholas climbed down, and after reassuring himself that Lufka had no broken bones, shook his head ruefully at the sight of the old sleigh.
"I guess that's the end of that, old boy," he remarked to Lufka, who had stumbled upright and was now busy trying to flick the snow off with his tail. "Looks as though we'll have to get a new sleigh, and I'm afraid your traveling days are over, too. You're getting a little old for this heavy driving."
Nicholas had to finish his Christmas visits on foot, and the first rosy streaks of dawn were brightening the sky when he and Lufka finally returned to the cottage,—Nicholas, fat and rosy, puffing heavily; Lufka dragging his tired old bones straight to the door of his stable.
For many days after that particular Christmas Eve, the villagers and children who passed Nicholas' door noticed that he was not working at his bench. Instead, there could be heard sounds of hammering and sawing from the large shed where he kept his supply of wood and where he did the larger pieces of work which required more room.
The villagers said to each other, "Must be some beautiful bridal chest that keeps Nicholas so busy these days. Or maybe it's a boat he's building for himself," they joked.
Spring came, the late northern spring, and Nicholas was again seen at his work-bench. When curious townsfolk questioned him on his long, secret task of the winter, he would only shake his dark yellow head (the yellow was now beginning to show streaks of white) and say with a sly smile, "You'll see soon enough. Just you wait."
Soon, however, the villagers forgot their curiosity in a new, exciting piece of news which was spreading over the village. Nicholas heard most of it at his work-bench, where people of all ages gathered now and then to chat with the wood-carver.
"What's this I hear about the Squire, Otto?" Nicholas asked his old friend, with whom he had lived as a boy.
"Ah," said Otto, puffing contentedly at his pipe and
settling down to a long gossip. "They say things haven't
gone so well with him these past five years or more. First
there were those ships of his that didn't come home; then
they say that his overseer ran away with a good part of a
"Yes," put in old Hans Klinker, "then there was that matter of a mine that his son persuaded him to invest in."
"Too bad," they all sighed, with a sort of self-satisfied air that they would have done nothing so foolish with their money, if they had ever had any to be foolish with.
"And now," continued Otto, leaning forward with the most interesting part of his story, "now he has to sell most of his lands and household goods to pay the creditors and start in again. Will you be going up to the sale tomorrow, Nicholas?"
Nicholas looked up from the piece of wood he was planing, to ask, "Now what would I be buying from the Squire? I don't want any more land, and I can make for myself as fine furniture as any he has in his house."
"He has some good animals up there," said old Hans. "Those two horses now, and that set of reindeer."
"True enough," said Nicholas, finally interested enough to put down his work. "Lufka's too old to be much help to me now. I think I might go up there with you boys tomorrow and see some of the excitement."
So the next morning found Nicholas in the center of an eager, curious crowd—farmers who hoped to get some of the Squire's good land cheap; fishermen who were interested in the two or three boats the Squire owned; housewives who thought they might like a chair or a table from such a fine household; and scores of others who had come along just to watch the rest of the crowd.
Nicholas wandered down to the stables, and was instantly surrounded by a group of men who knew he was interested in horses and were ready to give him much free advice.
Nicholas, however, walked past the stables where the horses were lodged, and made directly for the larger stalls.
"He's after Donder and Blitzen," the men whispered among themselves. "He always admired them, they went so fast."
Yes, there was Nicholas, his round figure in the bright red suit standing at the door of the stable, his hands on his roomy hips, gazing thoughtfully in at the darkened stalls. Two deer, inside, excited at the noises of the crowd, thrust their frightened heads through the top part of the door.
"Well," said Nicholas softly, "you poor beasties don't look much like thunder and lightning now. Not afraid of me, are you?" He put a reassuring hand on the larger deer's shoulder. The melting brown eyes looked trustingly into the blue ones. The deer whimpered and thrust its warm black nose into Nicholas' hand.
"I guess we'll get along all right," said Nicholas in a satisfied tone. "Now to find your master and see about this sale."
"Here's the Squire now," called out one of the men. "Nicholas wants to buy Donder and Blitzen, Squire."
The Squire, a bent old man with a worried look on his face, seemed dazed by this mob of people taking possession of his house and goods.
"Well, he can't have Donder and Blitzen, alone," he said almost fretfully. "That set of reindeer goes together or not at all. Why, Donder would go raving mad if you tried to separate her from the rest of her family."
"Family!" exclaimed Nicholas. "Why, Squire, I need
only two reindeer. How many
Suddenly there was a loud crash of breaking wood, a mad rush of people away from one of the stalls, and seemingly in one brown streak, there was a little reindeer running madly about the farmyard, pursuing one unfortunate villager who couldn't run as fast as the others.
"That's Vixen," shouted the old Squire, distracted. "Here, catch him quick. He's a young imp. He'll hurt somebody."
Everybody ran about in a frenzy, but Vixen was nimble, and even paused in his mad rush to look impudently over his shoulder at his pursuers. Then he would give a naughty toss of his head as if to say, "Come, catch me," and was off again, leaping over carts and farming implements, knocking a man's hat off with the young horns just beginning to grow, finally clearing a high fence with one bound, and paused panting on the other side to gaze through the bars mischievously at the hot, breathless group of men.
Nicholas had not joined in the chase; he was standing at the door of the stalls, holding on to his fat stomach and shaking all over with mirth.
"I'll take the lot of them," he cried out. "I don't know what the others are like, but I must have that little Vixen. I haven't laughed so much in years. Why, just to see the neat way he clipped off Ivan Prosof's hat!" He went into another gale of laughter, then made his way through the crowd to the Squire, where he finally concluded the bargain, and acquired not two, but eight reindeer,—Donder and Blitzen, the mamma and papa, with their six children, Dasher and Dancer, Comet and Cupid, and Prancer and Vixen.