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This Way to Christmas by  Ruth Sawyer


 

 

THE TRAPPER'S TALE OF THE FIRST BIRTHDAY

[100]

T
HE snow was still falling steadily next morning and David came down to breakfast with an anxious face.

"Now don't be worrying, laddy," was Barney's reassuring greeting. "It takes a powerful lot o' snow to keep a man housed on these hills when he has something fetching him out."

And Johanna, coming in with her hands full of steaming griddle-cakes, brought more encouragement.

"Sure, it's a storm, but not too fierce for a strong man like Barney to brave for them that's in trouble. And I've a can of good soup jelly and a fresh-baked loaf of bread and some eggs for ye to fetch with ye."

"Oh!" David dug his two hands down deep in his pockets and smiled ecstatically. "I suppose—it's too bad going for me." He appealed to Barney.

[101] "Aye, it is that! Wait till afternoon. The storm may break by then and ye could get out for a bit. But there's too much weather afoot for a little lad just now."

So David watched Barney make ready alone. Johanna's things were bundled and strapped on his back that his two arms might be free. Then he made fast his snow-shoes—it was no day for skees—and pulling his fur parka down to cover all but his eyes he started off. He looked like a man of the northland. David watched him out of sight, and then he and Johanna fell to the making of a mammoth Christmas cake. There were nuts to be cracked and fruits to be chopped; all good boy work, as Johanna said, and he was glad to be busy.

At noon Barney returned with great news. He had left the South-Americans comfortable and happy. Alfredo was back on his open porch with a monstrous fire roaring up the outside chimney and wood enough stacked within their reach for them to keep it going for a week. The mother had wept over Johanna's gifts. They had lived for days on canned things and stale bread; and she had blessed them all in what Barney had termed "Spanish lingo."

[102] "Sure, ye needn't be fearing about them longer, laddy; they've the hearts back in them again, and, what's more, they'll stay there, I'm thinking."

As Barney had prophesied, the snow stopped at noon; and after dinner David set forth on his last quest. Warnings from Johanna and Barney followed him out of the lodge: not to be going far—and to mind well his trail. All of which he promised. It was not so very far to the trapper's and the trail was as plain as the hillside itself.

There was no sign of the locked-out fairy, and David expected none. There was but one path left to take. Why should any one come to show him the way? Although the trail lay down the hill David's going was very slow. He sank deep at every step and where the drifts were high he had to make long detours, which nearly doubled the distance. When he reached the hut at last he met the trapper at his very door-sill. The pack on his back looked full, and David guessed he had just been down to the village for supplies. He eyed David with a grave concern through the opening in his parka; and David wondered whether the rest of the face would be grave, or kind, or forbidding.

[103] "Nicholas Bassaraba has few visitors, but you are welcome."

The voice was gruff but not unkindly, and the trapper pushed open the door of his hut and motioned David inside. They stood stamping the snow from their boots; and then the trapper lifted his hood and David saw that he was not at all like the Grimm picture of Bluebeard. He was dark and swarthy-skinned, to be sure, but he wore no beard—only a small mustache and his eyebrows were not heavy and sinister-looking and his mouth was almost friendly. If the line of gravity should break into a smile David felt sure it would be a very friendly smile. The trapper proceeded to remove the rest of his outer garments and David did the same. When the operation was over they stood there facing each other solemnly—a very large, foreign-looking man and a small American boy.

"Come! This is a day to sit close to the fire and to smoke, if one is big. If one happens to be small, there is—let me see—I think there is chocolate."

The trapper opened a small cupboard and drew out a tinfoiled package which he tossed over to David; then from his pocket he brought [104] a pipe and a pouch. He held the pipe empty between his teeth, while he rebuilt the fire that was low on the hearth. When the fresh wood began to snap he drew up a chair for each of them, close, and proceeded to fill his pipe.

David gazed curiously about the room. It was large and it seemed to serve as kitchen, dining-room, sleeping and living quarters, all combined. The end where they sat by the open fireplace was for living and sleeping; the two comfortable chairs, the table with a reading-lamp, the small case with books, and the couch plainly told this. At the other end was a cook-stove, the cupboard, water-pails, dish-rack, frying-pans and pots hanging against the wall, and a rough pine table with a straight chair. The walls were covered with skins and guns, cartridge-belts, and knives of all descriptions. Altogether David found it a very interesting place, almost as interesting as the man who lived there. His eyes came back to the trapper, who again was considering him gravely.

"It's a bully good place for a man to live in," was David's enthusiastic comment.

"It is good enough for one who must live a stranger, in a strange land."

For all his rough clothes and his calling, the [105] man spoke more like a scholar than a backwoodsman; David had noticed that the first time he had spoken. He spoke with as educated a tongue as his own father; there was a slight foreign twist to it, that was the only difference.

"Where is your country?"

David asked it simply, not out of idle curiosity, but to place the man at home in his own mind.

"My country? Ah, what used to be my country is a little place, not so big as this one state of yours. It is somewhere near the blue Mediterranean, but it is nearer to Prussia. Bah! What does it mutter? Nicholas Bassaraba knows no country now but the woods; no people but those." He pointed to the skins on the walls.

"And you kill them!" The accusation was out before David realized it was even on his tongue.

"Ah, what would you have me do? I must live. Is that not so? And is it not better to live on the creatures of the woods than on one's fellow-men? I kill only what I need for sustenance; for the rest I hurt not one."

There was a hidden fierceness back of the [106] soft voice and David felt immediately apologetic:

"Excuse me! Of course it's all right. I only thought when you spoke of them as your people, and then pointed to their pelts hung around, it sounded sort of barbaric. Sort of like the Indians showing off their scalps, or the head-hunters showing their skulls."

The trapper smiled, and the smile was friendly.

"Youth is ever quick to accuse and as quick to forgive. I know. It is hard for you to understand how I can make them my friends through the long summer; and then, when winter comes and there is a price on their fur, trap them and kill them. But Nicholas Bassaraba kills only enough to bring him in the bare needs of life, and then only for one half the year. For the rest, I am a guide; I carry the packs for the gentlemen campers; I build their fires; I draw their water."

The smile changed to a contemptuous curl of the lips. "Such it is to be a man locked out of his own country."

David watched him uncomfortably for an instant. Then he laughed—he could not help it.

[107] "You're not the only one. There are two more of us; and I don't know but what you'd call the flagman another, and Uncle Joab, and maybe the South-Americans, too. You see, I'm just sort of locked out, but the others are truly locked out." And David launched into an account of himself and of what he knew of the others, all but the fairy.

"And is that all? I thought you said there was another person," reminded the trapper.

David blushed consciously. Not that there was the slightest reason for blushing. He certainly felt no shame in his acquaintanceship with the locked-out fairy. It was rather the feeling of shyness in having to put it all into words, and there was always the uncertainty of how a stranger would take it. You never could tell how people were going to take fairies, anyhow. Besides, maybe there were no fairies in what had been this man's country.

"The other is not exactly a person," David began, slowly, "not exactly. Say, did you ever see a fairy?"

A look of amazement filled the face of the trapper. It seemed to well up from his eyes and burst forth from his mouth.

"You mean the little people?" he asked at [108] last. "The nixies and the dwarfs and the kobolds, that live under the earth and play pranks on us unsuspecting mortals?"

David nodded.

"Sort of. Have you ever seen one?"

The trapper shook his head vehemently.

"Well, I  have!" And without in the least understanding why he was doing it David told the story of the locked-out fairy.

When he had finished, the trapper was smiling again.

"Ah, the poor manikin! And here there are three, five, seven of us, all locked out from our homelands; and here was I, Nicholas Bassaraba, thinking I was the only one to feel the homesickness. Bah! Sometimes a man is a fool!"

He thought a minute.

"And you say he wore the squirrel coat—the very one I missed from the shed door where it was drying? And all the time I think it was the African from the lumber-camp who takes it."

He laughed aloud and stretched his arms out with a little cry of pleasure.

"Ah, it is good, very good, for one outcast to clothe another. To-night I must put out [109] some bread and honey, as my people used to for the little spirits; the manikin may be hungry."

"Tell me," said David, suddenly, "do your people have any stories—stories of Christmas?"

"Christmas!"

The trapper repeated it—almost as if it were a strange word to him. "Wait a minute—keep very still. I will see can I think back a story of Christmas."

David sat without stirring, almost without breathing, as the trapper puffed silently at his pipe. He puffed the bowl quite empty, then knocking the ashes clean out of his pipe he put it back in his pocket again and looked up at David with the old grave look.

"There is a people in our country who are called wanderers; some say they have been wanderers for two thousand years. You call them gipsies or Egyptians; we call them 'Tzigan.' Now, they are vagabonds, for the most part, dirty, thieving rascals, ready to tell a fortune or pick a pocket, as the fancy takes them; but—it was not always so. Some say that they have been cursed because they feared to give shelter to Mary and Joseph and the Child when the King of Judea forced them to [110] flee into Egypt. But the gipsies themselves say that this is not true; and this is the story the Tzigan mothers tell their children on the night of Christmas, as they sit around the fire that is always burning in the heart of a Romany camp."


It was winter—and twelve months since the gipsies had driven their flocks of mountain-sheep over the dark, gloomy Balkans, and had settled in the southlands near to the Ægean. It was twelve months since they had seen a wonderful star appear in the sky and heard the singing of angelic voices afar off.

They had marveled much concerning the star until a runner had passed them from the South bringing them news that the star had marked the birth of a Child whom the wise men had hailed as "King of Israel" and "Prince of Peace." This had made Herod of Judea both afraid and angry and he had sent soldiers secretly to kill the Child; but in the night they had miraculously disappeared—the Child with Mary and Joseph—and no one knew whither they had gone. Therefore Herod had sent runners all over the lands that bordered the Mediterranean with a message forbidding every one giving food or shelter or warmth to the [111] Child, under penalty of death. For Herod's anger was far-reaching and where his anger fell there fell his sword likewise. Having given his warning, the runner passed on, leaving the gipsies to marvel much over the tale they had heard and the meaning of the star.

Now on that day that marked the end of the twelve months since the star had shone the gipsies said among themselves: "Dost thou think that the star will shine again to-night? If it were true, what the runner said, that when it shone twelve months ago it marked the place where the Child lay it may even mark His hiding-place this night. Then Herod would know where to find Him, and send his soldiers again to slay Him. That would be a cruel thing to happen!"

The air was chill with the winter frost, even there in the southland, close to the Ægean; and the gipsies built high their fire and hung their kettle full of millet, fish, and bitter herbs for their supper. The king lay on his couch of tiger-skins and on his arms were amulets of heavy gold, while rings of gold were on his fingers and in his ears. His tunic was of heavy silk covered with a leopard cloak, and on his feet were shoes of goat-skin trimmed with fur. [112] Now, as they feasted around the fire a voice came to them through the darkness, calling. It was a man's voice, climbing the mountains from the south.

"Ohe! Ohe!" he shouted. And then nearer, "O—he!"

The gipsies were still disputing among themselves whence the voice came when there walked into the circle about the fire a tall, shaggy man, grizzled with age, and a sweet-faced young mother carrying a child.

"We are outcasts," said the man, hoarsely. "Ye must know that whosoever succors us will bring Herod's vengeance like a sword about his head. For a year we have wandered homeless and cursed over the world. Only the wild creatures have not feared to share their food and give us shelter in their lairs. But to-night we can go no farther; and we beg the warmth of your fire and food enough to stay us until the morrow."

The king looked at them long before he made reply. He saw the weariness in their eyes and the famine in their cheeks; he saw, as well, the holy light that hung about the child, and he said at last to his men:

"It is the Child of Bethlehem, the one they call the 'Prince of Peace.' As yon man says, [113] who shelters them shelters the wrath of Herod as well. Shall we let them tarry?"

One of their number sprang to his feet, crying: "It is a sin to turn strangers from the fire, a greater sin if they be poor and friendless. And what is a king's wrath to us? I say bid them welcome. What say the rest?"

And with one accord the gipsies shouted, "Yea, let them tarry!"

They brought fresh skins and threw them down beside the fire for the man and woman to rest on. They brought them food and wine, and goat's milk for the Child; and when they had seen that all was made comfortable for them they gathered round the Child—these black gipsy men—to touch His small white hands and feel His golden hair. They brought Him a chain of gold to play with and another for His neck and tiny arm.

"See, these shall be Thy gifts, little one," said they, "the gifts for Thy first birthday."

And long after all had fallen asleep the Child lay on His bed of skins beside the blazing fire and watched the light dance on the beads of gold. He laughed and clapped His hands together to see the pretty sight they made; and then a bird called out of the thicket close by.

[114] "Little Child of Bethlehem," it called, "I, too, have a birth gift for Thee. I will sing Thy cradle song this night." And softly, like the tinkling of a silver bell and like clear water running over mossy places, the nightingale sang and sang, filling the air with melodies.

And then another voice called to him:

"Little Child of Bethlehem, I am only a tree with boughs all bare, for the winter has stolen my green cloak, but I also can give Thee a birth gift. I can give Thee shelter from the biting north wind that blows." And the tree bent low its branches and twined a rooftree and a wall about the Child.

Soon the Child was fast asleep, and while He slept a small brown bird hopped out of the thicket. Cocking his little head, he said:

"What can I be giving the Child of Bethlehem? I could fetch Him a fat worm to eat or catch Him the beetle that crawls on yonder bush, but He would not like that! And I could tell Him a story of the lands of the north, but He is asleep and would not hear." And the brown bird shook its head quite sorrowfully. Then it saw that the wind was bringing the sparks from the fire nearer and nearer to the sleeping Child.

[115] "I know what I can do," said the bird, joyously. "I can catch the hot sparks on my breast, for if one should fall upon the Child it would burn Him grievously."

So the small brown bird spread wide his wings and caught the sparks on his own brown breast. So many fell that the feathers were burned; and burned was the flesh beneath until the breast was no longer brown, but red.

Next morning, when the gipsies awoke, they found Mary and Joseph and the Child gone. For Herod had died, and an angel had come in the night and carried them back to the land of Judea. But the good God blessed those who had cared that night for the Child.

To the nightingale He said: "Your song shall be the sweetest in all the world, for ever and ever; and only you shall sing the long night through."

To the tree He said: "Little fir-tree, never more shall your branches be bare. Winter and summer you and your seedlings shall stay green, ever green."

Last of all He blessed the brown bird: "Faithful little watcher, from this night forth you and your children shall have red breasts, [116] that the world may never forget your gift to the Child of Bethlehem."


The trapper smiled gravely at David.

"And that, my friend, was the robin."

"Yes, I know," said David, simply.

He felt very still and quiet inside, almost as if he had dreamed himself into the Romany camp beside the fire, and seen with his own eyes the coming of the Child. It seemed too real, too close to talk about just then; he even forgot to tell the trapper that he liked it. And then the trapper's next words brought him to his feet.

"You are not knowing, it may be, that the night has fallen and the snow is with it again. Come, I think Nicholas Bassaraba will guide you safely to your hilltop."

One glance through the window told David the truth of the words. It was almost dark outside and snow was very thick in the air.

Silently they put on their garments and fastened their snow-shoes. Then with the command to keep close at his heels, the trapper led the way up the trail.

The first thing of which David was conscious was that his strength was going amazingly fast. [117] It seemed but a moment since he had started, and the trapper was climbing very slowly; yet David began to find it unbelievably hard to pull one foot after the other. Gritting his teeth, he stumbled on a few yards farther. Then he fell, picked himself up, and fell again. The third time the trapper helped him to his feet, and, coming behind him, he put a strong hand at David's back and pushed. They struggled on this way for another ten minutes until David fell again. This time it was the trapper's strength alone which righted him, for David's had entirely gone. He stood looking with dazed eyes into the trapper's, ashamed and wholly spent.

"It is all right. It is nothing to be ashamed of." The trapper's voice seemed to come from very far away. "You have climbed many lengths farther than I expected. Now you shall see how Nicholas Bassaraba can pack a hundred pounds when he is guiding for a friend."

He stooped and lifted David on his back, drawing the boy's arms well over his shoulders, and slipping his own firmly under the boy's feet.

That was the last David knew until he felt the ground under his feet again and blinked [118] stupidly at the light Johanna was holding at the open door of the lodge.

"Laddy, laddy, wherever have ye been?"

He heard the distress in Johanna's voice even through his own numbness, and tried to smile reassuringly.

"Barney's been scouring the hill for ye this half-hour."

"He has been to visit a friend, and the friend has brought him back safely," said the trapper. And without another word he disappeared in the snow and the darkness.


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