ERY close to Nicholas' cottage was a thick grove of pine trees,—tall, beautiful dark green trees which lifted their branches high up into the sky and formed a perfect shelter for the ground beneath. Scattered in among the larger trees were clusters of firs, brave little trees, which kept their sturdy branches green all through the cold northern winter and came through each heavy snowstorm with their shiny needles still pointed to the sky.
The children used to love to play in this grove, because no matter how stormy the weather was outside, here they could find a warmer, more sheltered spot away from the bitter winds on the hills and roads. And in the summer time, it was a charming place, with the sharp, keen scent of the pine trees, and the soft murmuring of their branches in the breeze.
Nicholas loved this little grove, for in order to get there, the village children had to pass his cottage, and hardly a group went by his door without one or more of their number dashing in to say "Good-day" to their old friend and to watch him work at his fascinating little toys.
One winter day, toward the end of the year, Nicholas looked out of his cottage window and noticed an entire group of children, all running for dear life away from the grove. At first he thought it was some sort of game, but as they drew nearer, he saw that something must have frightened them. A few of the smaller ones were crying loudly, and the larger boys and girls were dragging them along, not one pausing for breath until they reached the wood-carver's cottage, where they all flocked in and stood still for a minute, panting for breath.
Nicholas picked up one of the babies and tried to soothe him. "Why, what's all this about? All you big boys looking so frightened! Did you see a bogie-man in the woods?"
The larger children began to look a little ashamed of themselves; then all began explaining why they had run so fast.
"We were playing robbers in the pine grove, and it was Niki's turn to take his side hiding so that they could spring out at us. We were the travelers who were going to be robbed, you see," the speaker explained to Nicholas, who nodded his white head understandingly.
"Well," the boy went on, "I was leading the band of
travelers, so I took them back a little way so we wouldn't
see where Niki had hidden his robbers. We waited long
enough for them to get away, then we started marching back.
And just as we reached the spot where we had left the
others"—here the boy's voice seemed to tremble a little,
and the other children shivered and drew closer to
Nicholas—"I saw a clump of evergreens move a little, so
I shouted, 'Robbers!' and we all ran over there,
"And a big black man walked out!" shrieked a little fellow hysterically.
"He wasn't really all black, you know, Nicholas," said Niki. "We heard the other fellows say, 'Robbers!' so we ran out of our hiding place, and we saw him too. He had long black hair and a terrible-looking mustache, and he had gold rings in his ears. And he looked at us and said something we couldn't understand. So we turned around and started to run, and we ran right into a whole lot more black men, and there were women and babies with them too."
"Yes, and when they saw us running, they all laughed at us, and said things to us in a strange language," added a little girl. "I wasn't afraid after I saw the babies. Really bad men don't go around with babies, do they, Nicholas?"
"No, I expect not, Sonya. They may have looked bad because they were different from the men you see in the village, but I think I know who they might be. Did they have any horses or carts with them?"
"Yes," answered one boy. "I saw three or four thin-looking horses standing by a big covered wagon."
"I saw the wagon, too," said Niki. "It was big, but one of the wheels had rolled right off, and it looked as though that cart would stay in the snow for a long time."
"You know, I think they might be gypsies," said Nicholas.
"Gypsies!" exclaimed all the children at once. "We never had any in the village before; are they robbers, Nicholas? Will they live here?"
"I don't know, children. Gypsies usually don't wander north in the winter time; this tribe may have lost their way. At any rate, they can't get any farther south now until the spring. Very few travelers can get over the pass in the mountains, and if their horses are old and their wagons broken down, they would be foolish to attempt it."
"But where will they live, Nicholas?" asked gentle little Sonya in a worried tone. "Those poor little babies and their mothers can't stay out in the cold all winter, can they? And there aren't any houses in the village where they can stay."
Nicholas shook his head. "That's true, my dear. But I guess gypsies are used to all sorts of weather. Why, I bet those babies would cry if they woke up at night and saw a roof over their heads instead of the stars."
"I'd like to live out in the open all the time like that," said one of the little boys who had been the most frightened. "Only, how can they hang up their stockings if they have no doors?"
This question drew forth an eager stream of still more questions.
"Yes, Nicholas, you couldn't visit those children, could you?"
"They haven't even a chimney like the old miser's grandchild, but they'd like toys too, wouldn't they? They're like other children, aren't they, Nicholas?"
"Yes, those little gypsies out there in the pine grove are real children just like you, even if their curls are black and yours are yellow." And Nicholas tweaked the locks of the nearest flaxen-haired child, and then Vixen poked his head through the window to see if he was missing anything. So the children forgot the bad scare they had received and started to play robbers with the naughty little reindeer, who was a splendid playmate, because he was always willing to be the one to do the chasing.
It was a band of gypsies the children had seen, and just as Nicholas had supposed, they had been caught in an unexpectedly early winter storm which closed all the roads and prevented them from reaching the warmer southlands. A few of the men talked the language of the village and tried to explain their troubles to the sympathetic townsfolk, who generously gave them as much food as they could spare. So the gypsies were not in any danger of starving to death, but there was no chance of anyone having shelter to offer them. They would just have to make the best of their few wagons and tents in the sheltered pine grove, with the thick little evergreens keeping out the bitter blasts of the winter winds.
Once the children of the village had recovered from their first fright they soon made friends with the little black-haired gypsies, and there were many gay times in the camp. The gypsy fathers would build big fires, then all would gather round, yellow heads shining in the firelight close to gleaming dark heads. And the children would teach each other new words, and the gypsy youths and maidens would dance strange wild dances and sing their sweet haunting songs.
Towards Christmas, the village children entertained their visitors with long stories about Nicholas,—how he came every Christmas on a beautiful sleigh drawn by eight fine reindeer; how he was dressed in a bright red suit trimmed with fine white fur; how he went around from house to house filling stockings with beautiful toys and sweets and nuts; and how he even went down a chimney one Christmas because there was no other way of getting into the house.
The gypsy children were much impressed, and listened with wide-open black eyes at the stories. Then they would look down at their ragged dresses and trousers, or glance over at the rough tents and cluster of fir trees that were their houses, and would shake their heads.
"He couldn't visit us," they said. "We have no doors, and no chimneys, and we never wear stockings."
Little Sonya, who wanted everybody to be happy, reported some of these things to Nicholas, and came away from his cottage with a contented mind, for she knew that the wise smile on his lips meant that he had a plan in his kind old head.
Christmas Eve finally arrived, and this year, after he had finished going to each house in the village, Nicholas, to the astonishment of his reindeer, drove them right past the cottage and out into the forest. He stopped at the edge of the pine grove, where he was met by a dark figure. It was Grinka, the leader of the gypsy band.
Nicholas handed the man some white objects. "Here are the candles, Grinka. Remember what I said you're to do?" The man nodded. "Good! You do your part, and I'll follow along with these things."
"These things" consisted of Nicholas' sack, which he carried along with him as he followed Grinka. The gypsy paused at every little fir tree in the grove, deftly twisting a piece of cord around the base of each candle, and so tying it to a branch. Then Nicholas would finish decorating the tree, tying to the green branches shiny red apples, brown nuts, and of course, a sample of every one of his hand-carved toys. It was a long task, because there were over ten of the little evergreens to be trimmed; but Nicholas insisted on having a tree for every family of gypsy children. So it was almost dawn when they finally finished their work.
"Now for the lights," said Nicholas.
They both went around quickly from tree to tree, touching a taper to each candle, until the whole dark grove was twinkling and glowing like the center of a warm hearth-fire.
"I think that's the prettiest part of it all," said Nicholas, "and you must be sure to awaken the children before the sun gets through the pine trees and spoils the effect."
"All right," said Grinka, "I'll go and wake them up now, before you go."
"Oh, no!" said Nicholas alarmed. "They mustn't see me. The children must never see me. It would spoil it all. Now I must go!"
And he jumped into his sleigh and was off, with a jingling of silver bells and a crack of his long black whip.
A few moments after his departure, Grinka had aroused all the children in the camp, and Nicholas should have stayed just to see the joy on the thin little faces as they capered around among the trees, each one discovering something new to exclaim about.
"It's the lights on these lovely little dark green trees that make everything so beautiful," said one child.
"No, it's the gifts!" exclaimed another. "Just look at this pretty little doll I have!"
"It's the fruit and nuts," added one half-starved-looking little waif, who was stuffing his mouth with goodies.
"I think everything is beautiful because it's Christmas," decided one wise little boy.
"Yes, yes, because it's Christmas!" they all shouted, dancing around. "And these are our Christmas Trees!"