EN more years passed, and every Christmas morning the children found their stockings filled with toys and candy and nuts. Poor families found baskets filled with good things to eat,—wild fowl, vegetables, flour, and meal. Sometimes even bundles of clothing for every member of the family were placed on the doorsteps. For Nicholas was now a prosperous old man and shared all he had with the less fortunate townsfolk.
But as the years went on, and his good deeds increased, he was growing more and more feeble. The villagers, who loved and venerated him, grew sad when their children prattled happily on Christmas morning over their toys, and the fearful thought in every parent's heart was,—maybe next Christmas he won't be with us.
One year, a group of men and women called on Nicholas at his cottage with a suggestion.
"We thought, Nicholas," said one man a little hesitantly, "we thought that since it's so cold filling stockings outside the door, and sometimes there are five or six to each family, why couldn't the children leave their stockings inside by the fireplace?"
"Then you could come in and get warm and take your time about it," added one woman kindly.
Nicholas raised his white head from the work he was always doing and smiled all over his rosy face. He placed one gnarled hand, grown old in service for others, on a man's shoulder.
"The idea of you coming here to tell me how to do my work," he joked. "Why, I remember filling an embroidered bag for you when you were tinier than your own children are now. And then they started putting stockings out instead of bags, and now you're going to pull the stockings in. Well, times change, I suppose, and I must keep up with the times. So indoors I will go, and I thank you all for your warm fires."
So after that year, Nicholas would creep into houses on Christmas Eve, and would settle his bulky old form comfortably before the fire and fill the stockings leisurely. The firelight would leap up merrily as if to help him at his work, and the peaceful old face with the halo of white hair and beard would beam warmly at the little toys he stuffed into the stockings, and the wrinkled hands would caress lovingly the little boats and dolls that a child's hands would fondle the next morning.
One Christmas Eve, old Nicholas found it more and more difficult to leave each fireplace for the next house. The warm blaze made him drowsy, and his old bones protested as he heaved himself up wearily to be on with his work. It was slow progress he made from house to house, but he finally reached his last stop, his back tired from the bulky sack, his head drooping with sleepiness, and his heart heavy as he realized how old he must be when the task he had done for so many years was now beginning to wear him out.
The last house was reached, and Nicholas dropped in the settle by the fire with a deep sigh of relief. It was a long time before he recovered sufficiently to start filling the stockings; even then he did it slowly, reaching painfully down to his sack, and each time straightening himself with growing difficulty. He filled four of the five stockings that were hanging over the fireplace; then, with the fifth one still empty in his hands, the old head drooped drowsily, and Nicholas was fast asleep.
He awoke with a start an hour later when a man anxiously shook him by the shoulder.
"Are you all right, Nicholas?" asked a worried voice. "I got up to see if the fire had gone out and found you still here, and look, it's almost dawn!"
Nicholas shook himself, then stood up wearily. "Yes, lad, it's Christmas morning, and I haven't finished my work," he said sorrowfully.
"I'll do the last one for you, Nicholas," answered the man kindly. "You just leave the toys and things here and go home to bed. I'll finish it. Go along now, before the children get up and see you."
Nicholas, thinking of his warm comfortable bed, handed the stocking to the man and went out into the gray dawn.
Five minutes later, a little nightgowned boy stood in the doorway of the living room. "Why, Father," he exclaimed in a disappointed tone, "I thought it was Nicholas who gave us the toys, and here you are filling my stocking!"
The child looked ready to cry, but his father, caught with the half-filled stocking in his hand, hastened to reassure him.
"Your Nicholas is getting old, my boy," he said, "and sometimes he gets so tired we parents have to help him in his work. But don't you forget, it's always Nicholas who leaves you the toys."
"That's all right then!" said the little fellow. "It isn't half so much fun when you think your mother and father prepare the gifts."
"I should say not," said the father sternly, "and you must never doubt Nicholas. Why, he might be so hurt at a little boy thinking he didn't fill the stockings, that he might never come to his house again. Think how terrible that would be!"
"Yes," whispered his son in a frightened voice. "What would Christmas be without Nicholas?"