FTEN after that, Holly brought a bouquet of her flowers to Nicholas, and she and the wood-carver soon became very good friends. Nicholas would sit at his bench and work at his little toys, and Holly would sit on a stool at his feet and talk and talk. Without the little girl's suspecting it, her old friend would lead her to tell him of her fears, and she discovered that talking about them here in this cosy little room made them seem somehow less important.
"Did a mouse ever sit still and look at you?" asked Nicholas.
"Oh, no," said little Holly terrified. "I'd die if he did that."
"Well now, why do you suppose he runs when he sees you? Does he ever run at you?" pursued the old man, with a twinkle in his bright blue eyes.
"No, he always runs the other way," said Holly.
"Now I wonder why he does that," remarked Nicholas. Holly laughed,—a somewhat ashamed little laugh. "I suppose he's afraid of me, " she said slowly, discovering a new idea.
"Exactly," said wise old Nicholas.
Another time he said in a conversational tone, "Now take rabbits, for instance. Are you afraid of rabbits, Holly?"
"Oh, no," answered the little girl proudly. "That's one thing I know to be even more timid than I am. Why, they'd even run at my shadow!"
"That's true; they are fearful little creatures," said Nicholas. Then he continued, "Did you ever see where rabbits live, Holly?"
"Yes, they go down into little holes in the ground, don't they?"
"Mmmm," answered Nicholas, seeming to be busy examining a little doll's face he was carving. "They must be terribly dark, those little holes, don't you think so, Holly?" The little girl nodded her head. "And yet those little animals you think are so timid go way down there to bed every night and probably don't think anything of it."
Holly's forehead wrinkled. "I see what you mean, Nicholas. But if my room were really as dark as a rabbit's hole, maybe I wouldn't mind; but you see, it's only half dark, and the chairs and tables look so terrible in the dim light that comes through the window. I sometimes think they are goblins."
Nicholas put down his toy and turned a surprised face towards the little girl. "Goblins!" he exclaimed. "Now here am I well past sixty years old, and I never heard of goblins. What are they, Holly?" he asked in an interested tone.
Holly looked confused, then a doubtful expression crept into her voice. "Why, I don't exactly know," she confessed. "But I've always heard of them," she ended firmly.
"You little silly," laughed Nicholas tenderly, drawing the child up on his knee. "Now, you listen to me, Holly," he went on seriously. "We're friends, aren't we?"
The little girl smiled lovingly at the kind, rosy face so close to hers and nodded her head vigorously.
"And you believe I wouldn't tell you something that wasn't true, don't you?"
Holly nodded again.
"Well, I'm going to tell you something. There aren't any goblins, and there aren't any bogie-men, and there aren't any terrible creatures who just run around trying to harm little children. If you're a good girl, and say your prayers before you go to bed every night, nothing can harm you. Do you hear me? Nothing. "
Holly looked very much impressed.
"It'll be hard at first," she said. "But if I think I see a goblin in my room, I'll just say to him, 'Nicholas says you just aren't, you old goblin!' "
They both laughed, and Nicholas hugged the little girl and told her it was time to run home to her supper.
The winter months passed this way, and when spring arrived, just when it was time for planting, Holly fell sick. All through the short summer weeks, she lay on her bed, weakened by a fever, recognizing no one, not even her beloved Nicholas. He brought flowers to her, hoping that they might bring back the wandering little mind, but she only pushed them away and went on with her delirious ravings of big black giants and horrible goblins. For with her illness, all her almost-forgotten fears had returned, and with a heavy heart, Nicholas realized that all their friendly little talks during the winter had been completely wiped from her mind.
She gradually recovered. The fever left her the same pale timid little girl she had been when she had first brought a bouquet to Nicholas' door. She trembled in her dark little room and, during the day, sat at the window and stared dejectedly out at the bare, cold little yard, where there were no flowers. It was winter again, but this year the interior of her cottage was just as bare of blossoms as the garden, because there had been no flower-growing during her illness.
Holly was more heavy-hearted than she had ever been during her entire life. Everything seemed black to her. Her nights were terror-filled in spite of all Nicholas had told her; but more than anything else she worried because she had no flowers. For long months to come, she would have nothing to bring to Nicholas,—nothing for her kind old friend, who had tried to do so much for her. She pressed her thin little face against the window pane and looked with tear-filled eyes out into her bleak front yard.
Two boys were passing the gate and paused to wave kindly at her. Holly waved back and wiped her eyes. She pushed open the casement a little and called out, "What's that green stuff you have under your arm, Karl?"
The boys came over to the window. Karl held up an armful of beautiful branches,—lovely little warm red berries scattered among shiny pointed green leaves.
"Why, it's beautiful!" exclaimed Holly, clasping her hands, and her dull eyes beginning to sparkle a little. "What is it? Where did you get it, Karl?"
"We got it in the woods,—way back in the part they call the Black Forest. It grows like this, right in the middle of the winter. I don't know what the name of it is."
"Oh, it's pretty," said Holly again. "But—but—did you say the Black Forest?"
"Yes," answered Karl, "and it's black all right. The sun hardly ever gets through those trees, and if you get lost there, I guess you'd stay lost."
"Yes, sir," added the other boy. "I wouldn't go there alone, I can tell you. Well, come on, Karl. We've got to go."
The two boys went on their way, leaving Holly with the picture of the bright red berries and shiny green leaves still in her mind. How Nicholas would love that cheery little plant! The warm little berries somehow reminded her of him, so bright and rosy. But the Black Forest! She shuddered.
"There must be all kinds of terrible things in that place," she thought. " Wild animals and strange noises, and maybe, behind the trees,—goblins!"
She shook a little; then, suddenly, she had a mental picture of herself in Nicholas' cottage, saying, "I'll just look at him and say, 'Goblin, Nicholas says you just aren't!' "
Holly buried her tortured little face in her hands. "Oh, if I only dared to do it," she almost sobbed. "He says to do a thing when you are really afraid is braver than if you felt no fear at all. But that's a horrible place; even the boys are afraid to go there alone. But I haven't any flowers for him! And he's so kind to us children, and spring is so far away!"
So she sat there for a long time, her mind turning from one decision to the other. "I've got to do it, to show him. No, I can't, I can't! Something terrible would happen to me. But he said nothing could harm a good child, and I've tried to be good. It's a bright day; maybe there would be some sun in the forest. If I hurried and found the berries quickly, maybe I could be back again before nightfall. I—think—I'm going to do it!"
And she almost ran for her cloak, before she had a chance to change her mind, and before her mother returned from the village.
Nicholas looked up from his work and saw a little figure flying along the road, right past his cottage and into the woods.
"That looked like Holly," he thought startled. "No, it can't be. She's not well yet,—besides," he shook his head sadly, "the poor little thing would be too terrified to go into the woods. It must be some other village child."
An hour later, however, he was interrupted in his work by a frantic woman. It was Holly's mother. "Oh, I thought she was here," the woman said distracted. "When I came home and found her gone, I was angry that she had gone out while she was still so weak, but I was sure I'd find her with you. Oh, where has she gone? She's lost! And it's beginning to storm!"
Nicholas was rapidly pulling on his bright red coat and fur-trimmed cap. "I'll find her, don't you worry." He looked out at the gray afternoon sky, filled with leaden-colored clouds. Already the air was filled with millions of snowflakes, scurrying and tumbling in every direction, and striking fear in the heart of the man and woman who knew there was a little girl out somewhere in the storm.
"I know where to look," said Nicholas. "I'll take the small sled and Vixen; he's the best one for narrow passing, and he's sure-footed over rocks and steep places. You sit down here and get comfortable, and I'll have your Holly here before the snow covers my front walk."
So the round little figure bustled about, energetic and sound in spite of his sixty-odd years, and in a few moments was lost in the wild flurry of snow.
Holly, meanwhile, had found the red berries with the shiny green leaves, and her joy on seeing the cheerful little plant almost chased away the thoughts of what awful things might be lurking behind the huge tree trunks or hiding on the boughs waiting to spring down at her. She gathered a large armful of the plants, and then started back again, her heart beginning to pound once more as the light inside the forest grew dimmer and dimmer.
"I can't understand it," she murmured, her knees trembling as she tried to find the narrow path. "It can't be any later than three o'clock and the sun was quite bright when I came in here. Oh!" she finished in a terrified tone, as she felt the cold touch of a snowflake on her cheek, then another, then another. "I don't mind the snow so much," she continued as she hurried along in the dim light. "The trees grow so thick I don't think there would be enough snow to block my way, but it's getting darker and darker."
She started to run now, as the snow whirled in white mists around her, wrapping the trees in its ghostly mantle and making little white spirits out of low bushes and shrubs. The wind whistled through the branches and moaned high up in the tree-tops; it caught at Holly's cloak and whirled it around her head. In her terrified fancy, it seemed that some ghostly hand was plucking at her and trying to keep her in this terrible place.
She began to run, her arms clutching her bundle of berries, her head bent to breast the storm, her feet tripping over rocks and stumps hidden in the snow. She breathed heavily; in spite of the biting wind, she felt her head grow hotter and hotter; her heart was pounding so hard she thought it would burst through her ribs.
"I can't see anything," she sobbed. "It's getting darker and darker; I can't lift my feet; the trees are falling on me. OH!" she shrieked aloud as her terrified eyes saw a huge form looming at her through the clouds of snow. She closed her eyes and fell face down in front of Nicholas and Vixen.
When she next opened her eyes, she was in the wood-carver's cottage. Her mother was holding her in her arms; Nicholas' kind face was bent over her.
"Where are my flowers?" was her first question. "I went in the Black Forest alone to get them for you. Where are they?"
Nicholas put the red berries in her arms. "Here they are, dear. Did you bring them to me?"
"Yes, Nicholas. And I was afraid; but I never will be again. I know that now."
Nicholas wiped his eyes. "You shouldn't have gone so soon after you were sick. But I love the little blossom. What is its name?"
"I don't know, but I liked it because it reminded me of you; it's so round and red and shiny," said the little girl with a mischievous laugh.
"That's funny," answered Nicholas, "it reminded me of you, somewhat. It's so brave and gay growing out there in the darkness and the cold, and the little berries have the blood-red of courage in them. So I think I'll christen your little flower. From now on we'll call it 'Holly.' "