XIII. A Christmas Adventure
 

Long before daylight one could hear the slowing of the wind. Its caravan now reaching eastward to mid-ocean was nearly passed. Scattered gusts hurried on like weary and belated followers. Then, suddenly, came a silence in which one might have heard the dust of their feet falling, their shouts receding in the far woodland. The sun rose in a clear sky above the patched and ragged canopy of the woods--a weary multitude now resting in the still air.

The children were up looking for tracks of reindeer and breaking paths in the snow. Sunlight glimmered in far-flung jewels of the Frost King. They lay deep, clinking as the foot sank in them. At the Vaughn home it was an eventful day. Santa Claus--well, he is the great Captain that leads us to the farther gate of childhood and surrenders the golden key. Many ways are beyond the gate, some steep and thorny; and some who pass it turn back with bleeding feet and wet eyes, but the gate opens not again for any that have passed. Tom had got the key and begun to try it. Santa Claus had winked at him with a snaring eye, like that of his aunt when she had sugar in her pocket, and Tom thought it very foolish. The boy had even felt of his greatcoat and got a good look at his boots and trousers. Moreover, when he put his pipe away, Tom saw him take a chew of tobacco--an abhorrent thing if he were to believe his mother.

"Mother," said he, "I never knew Santa Claus chewed tobacco."

"Well, mebbe he was Santa Claus's hired man," said she.

"Might 'a' had the toothache," Paul suggested, for Lew Allen, who worked for them in the summer time, had an habitual toothache, relieved many times a day by chewing tobacco.

Tom sat looking into the fire a moment.

Then he spoke of a matter Paul and he had discussed secretly.

"Joe Bellus he tol' me Santa Claus was only somebody rigged up t' fool folks, an' hadn't no reindeers at all."

The mother turned away, her wits groping for an answer.

"Hadn't ought 'a' told mother, Tom," said Paul, with a little quiver of reproach and pity. "'Tain't so, anyway--we know 'tain't so."

He was looking into his mother's face.

"Tain't so," Paul repeated with unshaken confidence.

"Mus'n't believe all ye hear," said the widow, who now turned to the doubting Thomas.

And that very moment Tom was come to the last gate of childhood, whereon are the black and necessary words, "Mus'n't believe all ye hear."

The boys in their new boots were on the track of a painter. They treed him, presently, at the foot of the stairs.

"How'll we kill him?" one of them inquired.

"Just walk around the tree once," said the mother, "an' you'll scare him to death. Why don't ye grease your boots?"

"'Fraid it'll take the screak out of 'em," said Paul, looking down thoughtfully at his own pair.

"Well," said she, "you'll have me treed if you keep on. No hunter would have boots like that. A loud foot makes a still gun."

That was her unfailing method of control--the appeal to intelligence. Polly sat singing, thoughtfully, the locket in her hand. She had kissed the sacred thing and hung it by a ribbon to her neck and bathed her eyes in the golden light of it and begun to feel the subtle pathos in its odd message. She was thinking of the handsome boy who came along that far May-day with the drove, and who lately had returned to be her teacher at Linley School. Now, he had so much dignity and learning, she liked him not half so well and felt he had no longer any care for her. She blushed to think how she had wept over his letter and kissed it every day for weeks. Her dream was interrupted, presently, by the call of her brother Tom. Having cut the frost on a window-pane, he stood peering out. A man was approaching in the near field. His figure showed to the boot-top, mounting hills of snow, and sank out of sight in the deep hollows. It looked as if he were walking on a rough sea. In a moment he came striding over the dooryard fence on a pair of snowshoes.

"It's Mr. Trove, the teacher," said Polly, who quickly began to shake her curls.

As the door swung open all greeted the young man. Loosening his snow-shoes, he flung them on the step and came in, a foxtail dangling from his fur cap.

He shook hands with Polly and her mother, and lifted Paul to the ceiling. "Hello, young man!" said he. "If one is four, how many are two?"

"If you're speaking of new boots," said the widow, "one is at least fifteen."

The school teacher made no reply, but stood a moment looking down at the boy.

"It's a cold day," said Polly.

"I like it," said the teacher, lifting his broad shoulders and smiting them with his hands. "God has been house cleaning. The dome of the sky is all swept and dusted. There isn't a cobweb anywhere. Santa Claus come?"

"Yes," said the younger children, who made a rush for their gifts and laid them on chairs before him.

"Grand old chap!" said he, staring thoughtfully at the flannel cat in his hands. "Any idea who it is?"

"Can't make out," said Mrs. Vaughn; "very singular man."

"Generous, too," the teacher added. "That's the best cat I ever saw, Tom. If I had my way, the cats would all be made of flannel. Miss Polly, what did you get?"

"This," said Polly, handing him the locket.

"Beautiful!" said he, turning it in his hand. "Anything inside?"

Polly showed him how to open it. He sat a moment or more looking at the graven gold.

"Strange!" said he, presently, surveying the wrought cases,

Mrs. Vaughn was now at his elbow.

"Strange?" she inquired.

"Well, long ago," said he, "I heard of one like it. Some time it may solve the mystery of your Santa Claus."

An ear of the teacher had begun to swell and redden.

"Should have pulled my cap down," said he, as the widow spoke of it. "Frost-bitten years ago, and if I'm out long in the cold, I begin to feel it."

"Must be very painful," said Polly, as indeed it was.

"No," said he, with a little squint as he touched the aching member. "It's good--I rather like it. I wouldn't take anything for that ear. It--it--" He hesitated, as if trying to recall the advantages of a chilled ear. "Well, I shouldn't know I had any ears if it weren't for that one. Come, Paul, put on your cap an' mittens. We'll take a sack and get some green boughs for your mother."

He put on snow-shoes, wrapped the boy snugly in a shawl, and, seating him on a snowboat, made off, hauling it with a rope over white banks and hollows toward the big timber. The dog, Bony, came along with them, wallowing to his ears and barking merrily. Since morning the sun had begun to warm the air, and a light breeze had risen. The boy sat bracing on a rope fastened before and looped around him. As they went along he was oversown with sparkling crystals. They made his cheeks tingle, and almost took his breath as he went plunging into steep hollows. Often he tipped over and sank in the white deep. Then Trove hauled him out, brushed him a little, and set him back on the boat again. Snow lay deep and level in the woods--a big, white carpet, seamed with tiny tracks and figured with light and shadow. Trove stopped a moment, looking up at the forest roof. They could hear a baying of hounds in the far valley. Down the dingle near them a dead leaf was drumming on a bough--a clock of the wood telling the flight of seconds. Above, they could hear the low creak of brace and rafter and great waves of the upper deep sweeping over and breaking with a loud wash on reefs of evergreen. The little people of this odd winter land had begun to make roads from tree to tree and from thicket to thicket. A partridge had broken out of her cave, and they followed the track of her snow-shoes down the side-hill to a little brook. Under its ice roof they could hear the tinkling water. Above them the brook fell from a rock shelf, narrow and high as a man's head. The fall was muted to a low murmur under its vault of ice.

"Come, Paul," said Trove, as he lifted the small boy; "here's a castle of King Frost. There are thousands in his family, and he's many castles. Building new ones every day somewhere. Goes north in the spring, and when he moves out they begin to rot and tumble."

He cleared a space for the boy to stand upon. Then he brushed away the snow blanket flung loosely over the vault of ice. A wonderful bit of masonry stood exposed. Near its centre were two columns, large and rugose, each tapering to a capital and cornice. Between them was a deep lattice of crystal. Some bars were clear, some yellow as amber, and all were powdered over with snow, ivory-white. Under its upper part they could see a grille of frostwork, close-wrought, glistening, and white. It was the inner gate of the castle, and each ray of light, before entering, had to pay a toll of its warmth. On either side was a rough wall of ice, with here and there a barred window. The snow cleared away, they could hear the song of falling water. The teacher put his ear to the ice wall. Then he called the boy.

"Listen," said he; "it's the castle bell." Indeed, the whole structure rang like a bell, if one put his ear down to hear it.

"See!" said he, presently, stirring a heap of tiny crystals in his palm. "Here are the bricks he builds with, and the water of the brook is his mortar."

Near the bank was an opening partly covered with snow. It led to a cavern behind the ice curtain under the rock floor of the brook above.

The teacher took off his snow-shoes. In a moment they had crawled through and were crouching on a frosty bed of pebbles. A warm glow lit the long curtain of ice. Beams of sunlight fell through windows oddly mullioned with icicles and filtered in at the lattice of crystal. They jewelled the grille of frostwork and flung a sprinkle of gold on the falling water. The breath of the waterfall, rising out of bubbles, filled its castle with the very wine of life. The narrow hall rang with its music.

"See the splendour of a king's home," said the teacher, his eyes brimming.

The boy, young as he was, had seen and felt the beauty and mystery of the place, and never forgot it.

"See how it sifts the sunlight to take the warmth out of it," the teacher continued. "Warmth is poison to the King, and every ray of light is twisted and turned upside down to see if he has any in his pocket."

They could now hear a loud baying on the hill above.

As they turned to listen, a young fox leaped in at the hole and, as he saw them, checked a foot in the air. He was panting, his tongue out, and blood was dripping from his long fur at the shoulder. He turned, stilling his breath a little as the hounds came near. Then he trembled,--a pitiful sight,--for he was near spent and between two perils.

"Come--poor fellow!" said the teacher, stroking him gently.

The fox ran aside, shaking with fear, his foot lifted appealingly. With a quick movement the teacher caught him by the nape of his neck and thrust him into the sack. The leader now had his nose in the hole.

"Back there!" Trove shouted, kicking at him.

In a moment he had rolled a heavy stone to the hole and made it too small for the hounds to enter. Half a dozen of them were now baying outside.

"We'll give him air," said the teacher, as he cut a hole in the sack and tied it. "Don't know how we'll get him out of here alive. They'd be all over me like a pack of wolves."

He stood a moment thinking. Bony had wriggled away from Paul and begun to bark loudly.

"I've an idea," said the teacher, as he cut the foxtail from his cap. Then he rubbed it in the blood and spittle of the fox and tied it to the stub tail of Bony. The dog's four feet were scented in the same manner. The smell of them irked him sorely. His hair rose, and his head fell with a sense of injury. He made a rush at his new tail and was rudely stopped.

"He's fresh, and they'll not be able to catch him," said the young man, as Paul protested. "Wouldn't hurt anything but the tail if they did."

Then breaking the ice curtain, as far from the hole as possible, he gave Bony a spank and flung him out on the snow above with a loud "go home." The pack saw him and scrambled up the bank in full cry. He had turned for a glance at his new tail, but seeing the pack rush at him started up the hillside with a yelp of fear and the energy of a wildcat. When the two came out of the cavern they saw him leaping like a rabbit in the snow, his hair on end, his brush flying, and the hounds in full pursuit.

"My stars! See that dog run," said the teacher, laughing, as he put on his snow-shoes. "He don't intend to be caught with such a tail and smell on him."

He put the sack over his shoulder.

"All aboard, Paul," said he; "now we can go home in peace."

Coming down out of the woods, they saw a pack of hounds digging at one side of the stable. Bony had gone to his refuge under the barn floor.

As he entered, one of them had evidently caught hold of his new tail, and the pack had torn it in shreds. Two hunters came along shortly, and, after a talk with the teacher, took their dogs away. But for three days Bony came not forth and was seen no more of men, save only when he crept to the hole for a lap of water and to seize a doughnut from the hand of Paul, whereupon he retired promptly.

"He ain't going to take any chances," said the widow, laughing.

When at last he came forth, it was with a soft step and new resolutions. And a while later, when Trove heard Darrel say that caution was the only friend of weakness, he understood him perfectly.

"Not every brush has a fox on it," said the widow, and the words went from lip to lip until they were a maxim of those country-folk.

And Trove was to think of it when he himself was like the poor dog that wore a fox's tail.