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The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by  Amelia C. Houghton
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[47]

L AURENS and Friedrik were two little newcomers in the village. Their mother and father were even poorer than most of the other families, which made them poor indeed, because nobody in the village had a great deal of money. Ever since the day of their arrival, they had been met by misfortune. Their father was a fisherman and used to be able to keep his family supplied with enough food to eat and enough fuel to keep them warm; but one day his boat had been caught in a storm, and the heavy mast had fallen on him, paralyzing him so that he had been forced to stay in bed and watch his little family grow thinner and thinner from lack of enough food to eat.

Their neighbors gave them as much of their meager supplies as they themselves could spare, and the mother worked occasionally in the household of the Squire or some of [48] the more well-to-do families of the village, but there were still many meals in the little cottage which consisted solely of a piece of dried bread or fish, or a dish of thin gruel.

Laurens was now the man of the family, although he was only eight years old. He built fires, shoveled the heavy snow from the cottage door, kept the house neat and clean while his mother was out working, and took care of his little brother Friedrik. One of his principal duties was going into the forest and helping the wood-cutter, receiving in return for this service enough wood to keep his family supplied with fuel. He rather enjoyed this task, for he met many of the other boys while he was out. Although he worked while they played, he enjoyed being with children his own age after long hours spent in the house with his sick father and four-year-old brother.

One cold winter afternoon, as he was returning from the forest with his sled piled with the wood he had helped cut, he met a merry group of boys who were building a snow fort a few hundred yards away from the cottage of Nicholas, the wood-carver.

One of the boys noticed the little figure dragging the heavy sled and called out, "Ho there, Laurens! Want to be on our side?"

[49] Laurens paused and looked wistfully at the boys playing in the snow. "I guess not," he answered. "I ought to get this wood home before nightfall."

"Oh, you have plenty of time," one of them replied. "There's a good hour yet before the sun goes down, and we'll help you drag your wood if you'll stay."

Laurens hesitated, then dropped the rope of his sled and joined the group. After all, his mother was home that afternoon, so his father and Friedrik would be taken care of, and there was enough fuel in the house to keep the fire going until evening. And it was a long time since he had played in the snow. So for a merry, carefree hour he forgot the troubles and duties of his house, and was only an eight-year-old boy having a good time. When it was his turn to storm the fort, he joined his side, and with breathless, gay courage, braved the storm of snowballs, climbed the icy walls of the fort, and took noisy possession. Then it was his turn to help his comrades hold the fort, so he warily kept out of sight, watching his chance to rise now and then above the white edge of the stronghold and hurl snowy missiles at the oncoming foe, and pausing every once in a while to make himself a new supply of ammunition.

It was during one of these moments, while he was busy [50] collecting snow and packing it into firm round balls, that he heard a glad shout from both sides, from his comrades inside the fort and his enemies outside,—"Nicholas! Hey, fellows, here's Nicholas!"—and looked up to see the tall figure of the wood-carver approaching the group. As he came nearer, he lifted his mittened hand to wave to the boys; his rosy, kindly face beaming a welcome, his blue eyes twinkling at the sight of the good time everybody seemed to be having.

"Well, well, a snow-fight! " he said in his deep voice. "It's a long time since I've had one of them; and when I was a boy, we knew how to take a fort. Now, I'd go about it like this."


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"WELL, WELL, A SNOW-FIGHT!"

He stooped swiftly and gathered up a handful of snow, and quickly packing and shaping it in his hands, took the finished snowball, and threw it with sure, accurate aim at the tallest boy behind the fort. It knocked the surprised fellow's hat clean off, and the other side, delighted with this new ally, rushed forward, Nicholas in their midst, and took the fort amid loud shouts and hurrahs.

Laurens looked at the tall man shyly. Of course he knew who Nicholas was; he had heard of him ever since his family had moved into the village last summer. He knew [52] that he was the man who kept the children supplied with toys and gifts on Christmas Day, but of course he also supposed that Nicholas only remembered the children he really knew.

The snow-party started to break up then, as most of the boys had to be home before nightfall, and the sun was already sinking in the west. They started towards home then, accompanying Nicholas as far as his cottage. At the gate, the wood-carver paused a moment, looking over the group with keen eyes that seemed to see everything.

"Is this a new boy in the village?" he asked, laying a hand on Laurens' shoulder, and looking down kindly into the shy brown eyes.

"Yes, his name is Laurens, and he has a little brother Friedrik . . ."

"And his father is paralyzed, and doesn't work, and his mother . . . "

One of the boys dug his elbow sharply into the side of the last speaker.

"Now you've done it," he said angrily. "Why can't you hold your tongue? You've hurt his feelings by talking about his family right out like that. Here, I'm going after him. Come on, fellows."

[53] And they ran after Laurens, leaving Nicholas alone at the gate, with a wise smile on his lips and a knowing shake of his head.

The group finally caught up with Laurens, who furtively wiped his eyes and mumbled something about having to be home anyway. The boys tried to distract his attention from the thoughtless remarks by talking about the man they had just left.

"That's Nicholas, the wood-carver, he's wonderful," volunteered one boy. "Every Christmas now, at least ever since I can remember, he's been leaving gifts at the doors in the village."

"Not every door," said another. "He only leaves them at the houses where he sees an embroidered bag. My mother told me that since the village has grown, Nicholas doesn't know every child the way he used to, so how does he know which house has children and which hasn't unless there's a bag there?"

"Yes," chimed in another, "and how would he even know how many gifts to leave unless there was a bag for each one?"

So they went on and on about the wonderful things Nicholas gave them, quite forgetting little Laurens, trudging [54] along with his heavy sled, and his heart growing just as heavy with each step.

When he reached home, his mind was still occupied with the information he had heard that afternoon. It would be wonderful for little Friedrik to have a gift from that kind man. Of course, it did not matter so much about him; he was eight years old and didn't mind—at least, not very much—if he didn't get a toy; because when in the world would he have time to play with toys? But the problem that began to spin round and round in his head was,—how could he fix it so that Nicholas would know there was a little boy in their house?

That night he tried to get his mother interested.

"Mother," he began somewhat doubtfully, for he well knew how tired she must be, and probably unwilling to listen to nonsense about Christmas toys when her mind was occupied with the problem of where the next meal was coming from. "Mother, do you suppose we have a bag in the house?"

"A bag! What kind of bag, child?" she asked, astonished.

"Well, it should be an embroidered bag, really, but I suppose any kind of bag would do. You hang it outside [55] the door Christmas Eve, and then when Friedrik wakes up the next morning, there's a fine toy for him. It's Nicholas, the wood-carver, who does it, and I thought that if there was only some kind of a bag around here . . ."

The mother sighed. "Things like potatoes and flour come in bags, child, and those are things we haven't seen for many days. And goodness knows, with all my worries, I have no time to make you one. Forget about this Nicholas person anyway," she finished bitterly. "I don't suppose he'd come to poor children like you, anyway."

So Laurens was forced to abandon the idea of a bag to hang outside the door for Friedrik's Christmas gift, but he couldn't forget about Nicholas. Why, out there in the for est, he looked like such a kind, jolly man; he wouldn't pass by a child's house just because he was poor. He thought and thought, until finally Christmas Eve arrived. He was sitting by the fire helping his little brother to undress. He sat staring into the fire while Friedrik capered around in his little night-shirt, taking advantage of his big brother's thoughtful moment to play just one more minute before going to bed. Laurens absent-mindedly began to make a neat pile of the little fellow's clothing so it would be ready for him in the morning. As he picked up a little stocking, [56] long and warm and woolly, he held it up, and said jokingly, "Now, that would hold some kind of gift, just as well as any embroidered bag . . ."

He stopped short, and stared intently at the stocking. "Why not?" he murmured, half to himself. "Why not?"

Little Friedrik looked frightened. "Laurens, Laurens, what are you looking at my stocking for? What are you going to do with it?"

Laurens gave a joyful shout. "Do with it? I'm going to hang it outside the door!" and with one leap, he flung open the cottage door.


* * * * * * *

Christmas Eve in the village—a bright winter moon shining in the star-filled sky—glistening, white snow banked everywhere—on the roads, on the rooftops, on the fences, and in the doorways; houses darkened and inmates all sleeping soundly; not a soul stirring in the streets but one figure, which stole silently from door to door, leaving bulging bags filled with gifts. At Laurens' doorway the figure paused. In the bright moonlight, there was a funny object to be seen dangling outside the door—a child's woolen stocking! Nicholas laughed silently, a kind, tender [58] laugh, then reached down into his pack and filled the lonely little stocking to the top. And with a snap of his whip and a jingling of sleighbells, he was off to the next house.


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THERE WAS A FUNNY OBJECT SEEN DANGLING OUTSIDE THE DOOR.

The next morning, little Friedrik was presented with not one, nor two, but five tiny little toys—boats and horses and sleighs; and in the bottom of the stocking, way down in the toe, were five large pieces of gold, enough to keep a whole family through the winter. Little Friedrik shouted with joy, the father almost sat up in bed in his excitement, the mother's eyes were bright with happy tears, and Laurens hugged close to his heart the first Christmas stocking.


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