HE fishermen of the village smoked one pipe after another, and scratched their heads for a long time over the problem; their good wives gathered together and clacked their tongues as busily as their knitting needles; and the main topic of every conversation was—"What is to become of that boy Nicholas?"
"Of course," said fat Kristin, wife of Hans, the rope-maker, "no one wants to see the child go hungry or leave him out in the cold; but with five little ones of our own, I don't see how we can take him in."
"Yes," chimed in Mistress Elena Grozik, "and with
the long winter well set in, and the men barely able to go
out in the boats, no fisherman's family knows for certain
where the next piece of bread is coming from. And with
the scarcity of
All the ladies shivered and drew closer to Greta Bavran's comfortable log fire, and sighed heavily over their knitting.
Mistress Greta arose and poked the fire thoughtfully.
"We could take him for awhile," she meditated aloud. "Jan had many a good catch last season, and we have somewhat laid by for the winter. We have only the three children, and there's that cot in the storehouse where he could sleep . . . Mind you," she interrupted herself sharply as she noticed the look of relief spreading over the others' faces, "mind you, we might not have a crust to eat ourselves next winter, and besides, I think everybody in the village should have a share in this."
"Quite right, Mistress Bavran," spoke up another. Then, turning to the group, "Why can't we all agree that each one of us here will take Nicholas into her home for, say a year, then let him change to another family, and so on until he reaches an age when he can fend for himself?"
"I suppose Olaf and I can manage for one winter," said one woman thoughtfully.
"You may count on me," added another. "Not for a few years, though; we have too many babies in the house now. I'll wait until Nicholas gets a bit older."
Greta Bavran gave the last speaker a sharp look. "Yes, when he's able to do more work," she muttered under her breath. Then aloud—"There are ten of us here now. If we each agree to take Nicholas for a year, that will take care of him until he's fifteen, and without a doubt, he'll run away to sea long before that."
The ladies laughed approvingly, then feeling very virtuous at having provided for Nicholas until he reached the age of fifteen, they arose, wrapped up their knitting, and proceeded to wrap themselves up in shawls and woolens before going out into the sharp winter air.
"Will you find my Jan at the shop, and tell him to fetch Nicholas from the Widow Lufvitch where he's been staying?" called Greta after the last woman.
"That I will, Greta; then I must hurry to my baking. I almost forgot the Christmas feast tomorrow, with all this talk about the orphan."
So it was that Nicholas came to his first home-for-a-year on Christmas Eve, to kindly people who tried their best to make a lonely little five-year-old boy forget the tragic events of the past week. In spite of the festivities of the day, he curled himself up in a corner of the storeroom, and with heartbroken sobs for his lost mother and father and beloved Katje, tried to drown out the sounds of merrymaking in the cottage. But the door opened, and a little form was seen in the ray of light.
"What do you want? " asked Nicholas almost roughly. "Go away; I want to be alone."
The other little boy's mouth quivered. "My boat's broken," he cried, "my new boat I got for the Christmas feast, and Father's gone out, and Mother can't fix it." He held up a toy fishing boat.
Nicholas dried his eyes on his sleeves and took the broken toy in his hands. "I'll fix it for you," and he turned back to his corner.
"Oh, come in here where there's more light," said the youngest Bavran.
So Nicholas went in where there was more light, and more children, and more laughter.
As the year passed, the little boy gradually forgot his grief in the busy, happy life of the Bavran household. The other three children played with him, quarreled with him, and came to accept him as one of themselves. Nicholas, in his turn, was not too young to appreciate the happy year he spent with his new brother and sisters, and when he heard talk in the household that Christmas Day would soon bring to a close his stay with the Bavrans, his mind was confused with many different thoughts. There was sorrow in his heart at leaving, a fear of what unknown life was awaiting him in the next house, and a growing desire to do something, no matter how small, to show his benefactors how much he loved them and their children. The only things he owned in the world were the clothes he wore, an extra coat and trousers, a sea-chest and a jack-knife which had belonged to his father. He couldn't part with any of these, and yet he wanted to leave some little gift. A happy thought struck him—Katje had always loved the little dolls and animals he had made for her out of bits of wood; maybe now, with the help of the jack-knife, he could fashion something even better. So, for the last two weeks of his stay, he worked secretly in the dark storeroom, hiding his knife and wood when he heard anybody approaching, and struggling furiously the last few days so that all would be finished by Christmas morning; because, since it was Christmas when the Bavrans had taken him last winter, he must be passed along in exactly a year's time.
The toys finally were finished. Nicholas gave them a last loving polish, and looked at them admiringly—a handsome doll, dressed in a bright red skirt, for Margret, the eldest; a little doll-chair, with three straight legs and one not so straight, for the next little girl, Gretchen; and a beautiful sleigh for his playmate, Otto.
So the next day, when the three children were weeping loudly as they watched the little sea-chest being packed, and their father was waiting at the door to take Nicholas to Hans the rope-maker's house, the departing orphan slowly drew from behind his back the rough little toys he had made, and forgot to cry himself as he watched the glee with which the children welcomed their gifts. And a lovely glow seemed to spread itself over his heart when he heard their thanks and saw their happy faces.
"Well, I'll be going now. Good-by, Margret; good-by, Gretchen; good-by, Otto. Next year I can make the toys better. I'll make you some next Christmas, too."
And with this promise, Nicholas bravely turned his back on the happy scene, to face another year some place else. His small form looked smaller still as he trudged along in the snow beside the tall figure of Jan Bavran. His thin brown face, surrounded by a shock of yellow hair, seemed older than his six years, saddened as it was by this parting, but the blue eyes were still gay and warm at the thought of the happiness he had left behind him.
"Well," he thought to himself as they approached the rope-maker's house, "maybe the five children here will be just as nice to me as the Bavrans, and I can make toys for them, too. Christmas can be a happy day for me, too, even if it is my moving day."