XII. The Santa Claus of Cedar Hill
 

Christmas Eve had come and the year of 1850. For two weeks snow had rushed over the creaking gable of the forest above Martha Vaughn's, to pile in drifts or go hissing down the long hillside. A freezing blast had driven it to the roots of the stubble and sown it deep and rolled it into ridges and whirled it into heaps and mounds, or flung it far in long waves that seemed to plunge, as if part of a white sea, and break over fence and roof and chimney in their downrush. Candle and firelight filtered through frosty panes and glowed, dimly, under dark fathoms of the snow sheet now flying full of voices. Mrs. Vaughn opened her door a moment to peer out. A great horned owl flashed across the light beam with a snap and rustle of wings and a cry "oo-oo-oo," lonely, like that, as if it were the spirit of darkness and the cold wind. Mrs. Vaughn started, turning quickly and closing the door.

"Ugh! what a sound," said Polly. "It reminds me of a ghost story."

"Well," said the widow, "that thing belongs to the only family o' real ghosts in the world."

"What was it?" said a small boy. There were Polly and three children about the fireplace.

"An air cat," said she, shivering, her back to the fire. "They go 'round at night in a great sheet o' feathers an' rustle it, an' I declare they do cry lonesome. Got terrible claws, too!"

"Ever hurt folks?" one of the boys inquired.

"No; but they're just like some kinds o' people--ye want to let 'em alone. Any one that'll shake hands with an owl would be fool enough to eat fish-hooks. They're not made for friendship--those owls."

"What are they made for?" another voice inquired.

"Just to kill," said she, patting a boy's head tenderly. "They're Death flying round at night--the angel o' Death for rats an' rabbits an' birds an' other little creatures. Once,--oh, many years ago,--it seemed so everything was made to kill. Men were like beasts o' prey, most of 'em; an' they're not all gone yet. Went around day an' night killing. I declare they must have had claws. Then came the Prince o' Peace."

"What did he do to 'em, mother?" said Paul--a boy of seven.

"Well, he began to cut their claws for one thing," said the mother. "Taught 'em to love an' not to kill. Shall I read you the story--how he came in a manger?"

"B'lieve I'd rather hear about Injuns," said the boy.

"We shall hear about them too," the mother added. "They're like folks o' the olden time. They make a terrible fuss; but they've got to hold still an' have their claws cut."

Presently she sat down by a table, where there were candles, and began reading aloud from a county paper. She read anecdotes of men, remarkable for their success and piety, and an account of Indian fighting, interrupted, as a red man lifted his tomahawk to slay, by the rattle of an arrow on the buttery door.

It was off the cross-gun of young Paul. He had seen everything in the story and had taken aim at the said Indian just in the nick of time.

She read, also, the old sweet story of the coming of the Christ Child.

"Some say it was a night like this," said she, as the story ended.

Paul had listened, his thin, sober face glowing.

"I'll bet Santa Claus was good to him," said he. "Brought him sleds an' candy an' nuts an' raisins an' new boots an' everything."

"Why do you think so?" asked his mother, who was now reading intently.

"'Cos he was a good boy. He wouldn't cry if he had to fill the wood box; would he, mother?"

That query held a hidden rebuke for his brother Tom.

"I do not know, but I do not think he was ever saucy or spoke a bad word."

"Huh!" said Tom, reflectively; "then I guess he never had no mustard plaster put on him."

The widow bade him hush.

"Er never had nuthin' done to him, neither," the boy continued, rocking vigorously in his little chair.

"Mustn't speak so of Christ," the mother added.

"Wal," said Paul, rising, "I guess I'll hang up my stockin's."

"One'll do, Paul," said his sister Polly, with a knowing air.

"No, 'twon't," the boy insisted. "They ain't half 's big as yours. I'm goin' t' try it, anyway, an' see what he'll do to 'em."

He drew off his stockings and pinned them carefully to the braces on the back of a chair.

"Well, my son," said Mrs. Vaughn, looking over the top of her paper, "it's bad weather; Santa Claus may not be able to get here."

"Oh, yes, he can," said the boy, confidently, but with a little quiver of alarm in his voice. "I'm sure he'll come. He has a team of reindeers. 'An' the deeper the snow the faster they go.'"

Soon the others bared their feet and hung their stockings on four chairs in a row beside the first.

Then they all got on the bed in the corner and pulled a quilt over them to wait for Santa Claus. The mother went on with her reading as they chattered.

Sleep hushed them presently. But for the crackling of the fire, and the push and whistle of the wind, that room had become as a peaceful, silent cave under the storm.

The widow rose stealthily and opened a bureau drawer. The row of limp stockings began to look cheerful and animated. Little packages fell to their toes, and the shortest began to reach for the floor. But while they were fat in the foot they were still very lean in the leg.

Her apron empty, Mrs. Vaughn took her knitting to the fire, and before she began to ply the needles, looked thoughtfully at her hands. They had been soft and shapely before the days of toil. A frail but comely woman she was, with pale face, and dark eyes, and hair prematurely white.

She had come west--a girl of nineteen--with her young husband, full of high hopes. That was twenty-one years ago, and the new land had poorly kept its promise.

And the children--"How many have you?" a caller had once inquired. "Listen," said she, "hear 'em, an' you'd say there were fifteen, but count 'em an' they're only four."

The low, weathered house and sixty acres were mortgaged. Even the wilderness had not wholly signed off its claim. Every year it exacted tribute, the foxes taking a share of her poultry, and the wild deer feeding on her grain.

A little beggar of a dog, that now lay in the firelight, had offered himself one day, with cheerful confidence, and been accepted. Small, affectionate, cowardly, irresponsible, and yellow, he was in the nature of a luxury, as the widow had once said. He had a slim nose, no longer than a man's thumb, and ever busy. He was a most prudent animal, and the first day found a small opening in the foundation of the barn through which he betook himself always at any sign of danger. He soon buried his bones there, and was ready for a siege if, perchance, it came. One blow or even a harsh word sent him to his refuge in hot haste. He had learned early that the ways of hired men were full of violence and peril. Hospitality and affection had won his confidence but never deprived him of his caution.

Presently there came a heavy step and a quick pull at the latch-string. An odd figure entered in a swirl of snow--a real Santa Claus, the mystery and blessing of Cedar Hill. For five years, every Christmas Eve, in good or bad weather, he had come to four little houses on the Hill, where, indeed, his coming had been as a Godsend. Whence he came and who he might be none had been able to guess. He never spoke in his official capacity, and no citizen of Faraway had such a beard or figure as this man. Now his fur coat, his beard, and eyebrows were hoary with snow and frost. Icicles hung from his mustache around the short clay pipe of tradition. He lowered a great sack and brushed the snow off it. He had borne it high on his back, with a strap at each shoulder.

The sack was now about half full of things. He took out three big bundles and laid them on the table. They were evidently for the widow herself, who quickly stepped to the bedside.

"Come, children," she whispered, rousing them; "here is Santa Claus."

They scrambled down, rubbing their eyes. Polly took the hands of the two small boys and led them near him. Paul drew his hand away and stood spellbound, eyes and mouth open. He watched every motion of the good Saint, who had come to that chair that held the little stockings. Santa Claus put a pair of boots on it. They were copper-toed, with gorgeous front pieces of red morocco at the top of the leg. Then, as if he had some relish of a joke, he took them up, looked them over thoughtfully, and put them in the sack again, whereupon the boy Paul burst into tears. Old Santa Claus, shaking with silent laughter, replaced them in the chair quickly,

As if to lighten the boy's heart he opened a box and took out a mouth-organ. He held it so the light sparkled on its shiny side. Then he put his pipe in his pocket and began to dance and play lively music. Step and tune quickened. The bulky figure was flying up and down above a great clatter of big boots, his head wagging to keep time. The oldest children were laughing, and the boy Paul, he began to smile in the midst of a great sob that shook him to the toes. The player stopped suddenly, stuffed the instrument in a stocking, and went on with his work. Presently he uncovered a stick of candy long as a man's arm. There were spiral stripes of red from end to end of it. He used it for a fiddle-bow, whistling with terrific energy and sawing the air. Then he put shawls and tippets and boots and various little packages on the other chairs.

At last he drew out of the sack a sheet of pasteboard, with string attached, and hung it on the wall. It bore the simple message, rudely lettered in black, as follows:--

  "Mery Crismus.  And Children i have the
  honnor to remane, Yours Respec'fully
    SANDY CLAUS."

His work done, he swung the pack to his shoulders and made off as they all broke the silence with a hearty "Thank you, Santa Claus!"

They listened a moment, as he went away with a loud and merry laugh sounding above the roar of the wind. It was the voice of a big and gentle heart, but gave no other clew. In a moment cries of delight, and a rustle of wrappings, filled the room. As on wings of the bitter wind, joy and good fortune had come to them, and, in that little house, had drifted deep as the snow without.

The children went to their beds with slow feet and quick pulses. Paul begged for the sacred privilege of wearing his new boots to bed, but compromised on having them beside his pillow. The boys went to sleep at last, with all their treasures heaped about them. Tom shortly rolled upon the little jumping-jack, that broke away and butted him in the face with a loud squawk. It roused the boy, who promptly set up a defence in which the stuffed hen lost her tail-feathers and the jumping-jack was violently put out of bed. When the mother came to see what had happened, order had been restored--the boys were both sleeping.

It was an odd little room under bare shingles above stairs. Great chests, filled with relics of another time and country, sat against the walls. Here and there a bunch of herbs or a few ears of corn, their husks braided, hung on the bare rafters. The aroma of the summer fields--of peppermint, catnip, and lobelia--haunted it. Chimney and stovepipe tempered the cold. A crack in the gable end let in a sift of snow that had been heaping up a lonely little drift on the bare floor. The widow covered the boys tenderly and took their treasures off the bed, all save the little wooden monkey, which, as if frightened by the melee, had hidden far under the clothes. She went below stairs to the fire, which every cold day was well fed until after midnight, and began to enjoy the sight of her own gifts. They were a haunch of venison, a sack of flour, a shawl, and mittens. A small package had fallen to the floor. It was neatly bound with wrappings of blue paper. Under the last layer was a little box, the words "For Polly" on its cover. It held a locket of wrought gold that outshone the light of the candles. She touched a spring, and the case opened. Inside was a lock of hair, white as her own. There were three lines cut in the glowing metal, and she read them over and over again:--

  "Here are silver and gold,
  The one for a day of remembrance between thee and dishonour,
  The other for a day of plenty between thee and want."

She went to her bed, presently, where the girl lay sleeping, and, lifting dark masses of her hair, kissed a ruddy cheek. Then the widow stood a moment, wiping her eyes.