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A Free excerpt from “The New Year’s Bargain”
by Susan Coolidge author of “What Katy Did Next” etc.

 

AND now the last evening of November was come; and Winter, stealing a march on the departing Autumn, let loose, as if in a hurry to begin, his first storm upon the world. Strong winds raged in the Forest, driving the leaves in clouds before them, and snapping and rending the patient, tortured trees. Ink-black clouds scared away the Moon, when she tried to shine; sharp sleet struck the windows of the Woodman’s hut, like a myriad of tiny fists; and the blast wailed and moaned about the chimney, like the voice of one in pain.

 

Max and Thekla heard the uproar, and trembled, as they sat by the fire. Often before had they listened to storms with a certain pleasurable sense that home was rendered snugger by the contrast. But now they shivered and clung together, and tears were in Thekla’s eyes as she nestled her head upon her brother’s shoulder. The kitchen did not wear its usual cheery look. And no wonder! There was sorrow in the cottage; for dear old Grandfather, who had loved them both so fondly, and been so loved in return, was gone away forever!

 

Only a week before he had died, quietly, painlessly, with a smile on his lips, and blessing them at the last. The far-away neighbors had assembled; and with pitying looks and kind words had taken the aged form, and laid it to rest beside other graves where slept the friends of his youth. But still, in spite of the lonely house and the vacant chair, Thekla could not feel that Grandfather was far away; and every hour she silently did this thing or that because it would once have pleased him to have them done, and the thought that he still knew and was pleased comforted her. And perhaps Thekla was right in her innocent faith, for the friends we can no longer see may be nearer to us than we think.

 

When an old tree is blown down, all the delicate grasses and sweet herbs which cluster at its foot are uprooted by the shock. So it was with these two little human flowers. The fall of their sheltering friend tore them from their accustomed place. Already the neighbors had talked over and settled what the children must do. Max was to be bound apprentice to a clockmaker in the distant town, and Thekla to live with a farmer’s dame who had offered to take and train her as a servant. The thought of parting was dreadful to them; and they had begged so hard and so tearfully to be allowed to stay together in the hut for a few weeks longer,—just till a new Ranger should take possession,—that at last, won by their distress, consent was given. There was wood and meal and vegetables enough in the cellar to keep them without expense to anybody. If the poor things liked to eat the stores themselves, instead of selling them, why it was a good plan, people said. So there the two sat on this stormy evening, alone in the lonely Forest, and expecting the arrival of December, last of that wonderful company who had made the year so strangely interesting.

 

They had not long to wait. There came a lull in the wind, and far off in the distance a voice was heard raised in a commanding tone, and gradually drawing nearer.

 

image“There! there!” were the first words they caught: “that will do. Leave the oaks alone, you rascals! Time enough for such pranks when I’m gone. As for that hemlock,—winds will be winds, I know, and what’s done can never be undone; but don’t let me catch you at another.” Here the voice ceased; then there was a rattling at the latch, and next moment the door opened, and in came a tall figure leaning on a staff, but moving so lightly and easily that it suggested anything rather than age or infirmity.

This was December, a fine, stately man, dressed in white and green, with a fur cloak flung about his shoulders and a hat decked with holly sprigs. Age and youth seemed funnily contrasted in his face; for, while hair and beard were white as hoar-frost, the cheeks were like ripe winter-apples, and the blue eyes sparkled with fun and fire. He entered with a sort of jolly rush; but, when he saw Thekla’s black frock and the traces of tears upon her cheeks, his mood changed at once. Closing the door gently, he sat down before the fire, and, holding out his hand with an expression of indescribable kindness, said in a tone full of sympathy, “My poor children!”

 

That was all: but in another moment Thekla’s arm was round his neck on one side, and Max’s on the other;—he had drawn them on to his knees, and they were sobbing out their griefs as if they had known him always. They told how sorry they were to part, how lonely the cottage seemed, how forlorn it was to be poor and at the mercy of others; and December listened, his eyes glistening with pity and his kind arms hugging them close. It was like having Grandfather back again, the children thought.

 

The new friend was wise. He did not interrupt or try to comfort till they had got quite through. It was wonderful what relief came just from telling all to somebody who cared to listen. By the time the story was over the boy and girl felt happier than for days; and not till then did December speak.

 

“Courage!” he said. “It’s always darkest just before day. Why, the Lord takes care of birds and cats and squirrels, of a whole world full of tiny winged creatures, and all the fishes of the sea. Do you suppose he will forget just you two, out of all the little ones whom he protects? Never! Why, I could tell you,—but I must not, it is not permitted,—only, even a Month may venture on a hint, and so I’ll just say, wait, and see what’s ahead!” And December ended this mysterious sentence with pursing up his lips very tight, winking hard with both eyes, and nodding his head in a singular and provoking manner.

 

“Oh, what?” cried the children.

 

“I shan’t say another word,” replied December. “No! you needn’t look at me with such big, imploring eyes: it’s no use. But just you keep up brave hearts, and trust in God,—and you’ll see! As for the Grandfather,” here his voice grew deep and solemn, like the sound of bells, “I know you miss him sorely; but don’t cry for him anymore. He has gone where he is young again; and, when your turn comes to go too, you will wonder that ever you shed a tear because he was made so very happy.”

 

December’s face became beautiful as he spoke these last words, and Thekla stole the other arm tenderly about his neck. A glittering chain hung there, with pendants shaped like icicles. Touching it, she started, it was so very cold.

 

“Is it made of ice?” she asked.

 

“Well, you can call it so, if you like,” responded December, smiling; “but I say ‘crystallized gases.’ It sounds better, I think.

 

“I hope it won’t put you out,” he went on, “if I should ask leave to read my story, instead of telling it. I am so very, very old, you see,”—here his eyes twinkled with fun,—“that my memory is almost gone; and, unless I write things down, I am always forgetting them.” Whereupon he pulled a roll of paper from his pocket, and perching a pair of spectacles with tortoise-shell rims on his nose, very high up, looked from under them at the children in a comical manner. Thekla and Max could not help laughing. In spite of his white hair, it seemed somehow a great joke that December should call himself so very, very old.

 

“It’s a cheerful kind of a story,” continued he. “I picked it out on purpose, for I guessed I should find you moping; and I thought something lively would be good for you.”

 

Thus speaking, December pushed the glasses up higher on his forehead, so as to be able to see well from beneath them, and began to read,—

 

“How the Cat kept Christmas.”

 

“What a queer name for a story!” said Thekla.

 

“Yes; and it was a queer Cat too,” replied December. “I knew her. Tortoise-shell, with long whiskers, and rather a ragged tail.”

 

Then he went on.

 

“The ringers were practising the Christmas chimes in low, muffled tones. High up, the steeple rocked in the wind, the clouds drifted rapidly over the moon, and clear and sharp the frost-film glittered on the roofs. The watchman on his round clapped and stamped to warm hands and feet, as he called the hour, ‘Eight o’clock, and all’s well!’ But, to the poor Cat crouched beneath the kitchen-window, all was not well.

 

“‘Oh dear!’ she sighed to herself, ‘what a thing it is to have a Step-mother! Once we were happy! The good Papa loved me, and I slept in Gretchen’s arms. The fire was bright in those days. Porringers of hot milk stood by it, and always a saucer full for me. Ah, dear days! The moment I saw that nose of hers, I knew they were over! Such a nose! so red, so long. Why did the Papa marry her? Men are so foolish. I hissed, I spit, I warned,—nobody listened, and here I am. The good Papa dares not protect me. Gretchen weeps: the Step-dame bars the door. Hew! what a wind! What a Christmas Eve! Poor Gretchen! Poor me!’ Overcome by her sorrows, the Cat gave a loud wail, which rang out into the chilly night. Then the door opened softly.

 

“‘Puss! puss!’ said a small voice, ‘where are you?’

 

“Pussy ran forward into view, and jumped and leaped at her mistress.

“‘Oh, my Katchen,’ went on the little one, ‘how cold it is! You will freeze! you will die. Oh, if I dared but let you in!’

 

“‘I’ll scratch her eyes out!’ muttered the Cat.

“‘Shall I throw my little red shawl to you from the window?’ continued Gretchen. ‘My poor one! my Kitty!’

 

“‘Gretchen!’ screamed a voice, ‘if you let that good-for-nothing Cat into the house, you taste the stick! Dost hear?’

 

“Gretchen turned pale. ‘O Kitty!’ was all she said. She gave a sob of despair. Then the door was shut.

 

“‘This is a nice business,’ thought the Cat. ‘Oh, the witch! I hope the mice will come down to-night, and steal the very teeth out of her head. But I’ll have vengeance yet. There’s that big gray rat in the cellar: I’ll strike a bargain with him,—life and liberty, provided he plagues her to death, eats the linen, claws the jam, gnaws bung-holes in the cask, and lets the beer out! We’ll see! Meantime, I shall freeze unless something is done. Let me explore.’

 

“High and low did the Cat search,—over the fence, under the vine,—but no shelter could be found. The vine was leafless, the fence gave no hiding-place. At last she bethought herself of the roof, which it was easy to mount by means of a long and sloping rain-trough. Perhaps there might be a warm chimney there,—no bad pillow on a wintry night.

 

“There proved to be a warmish one; and, curling into a ball, Puss laid herself to rest against it. Perhaps it was not warm enough, perhaps the remembrance of wrong was too bitter within her; certain it is she could not sleep. She wriggled, she twisted; she sent forth melancholy cries, which rang strangely across the icy roofs as if some ghost afflicted with toothache had gone there for an airing. Nine—ten—eleven—had sounded before she fell into her first doze,—the clock was on the stroke of twelve, when a scraping and scratching sound close by roused her. Was it some other cat? or the big rat from the cellar, scaling the wall? Raising herself cautiously, after the manner of cats, she listened.

 

“No: it was neither rat nor cat. Light hoofs as of goats were climbing the tiles, bells tinkled, a small sledge came in view. Swift as light it flew along, paused at the next chimney, and a little old man jumped out. His face shone in the moonlight like a jolly red apple, his fat body was wrapped in fur, on his back was a bag. Puss had never seen him before; but she knew him well. It was St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Christmas.

 

“Down the chimney he went, with a motion like a bird’s; up again as fast. Then advancing, he searched in his bag. His kind face looked puzzled. The Cat saw his hesitation, and sprang forward.

 

“‘Well, Puss,’ said the Saint, ‘what cheer?’

 

“‘Bad,’ said the Cat, no ways abashed at finding herself in such company. ‘But never mind me, if only you’ve something nice for Gretchen. Such a dear child, St. Nicholas, and such a step-mother! Do put your hand in the pouch, and fetch out something pretty for her,—oh do! there’s a kind Saint!’ And she rubbed her soft fur coaxingly against his legs.

 

“‘Ah! a dear child and a step-mother, eh?’ said St. Nicholas. ‘Let me look again. Certainly! here’s something for Gretchen.—Wo-ho, reindeer! quiet a moment!’ And down the chimney he whipped, a present in his hand,—what, the Cat couldn’t see.

 

“Coming back, ‘Now about yourself?’ he asked, gathering up the reins. ‘What keeps you on the cold roof all night? Something must be done, you know: matters can’t be left this way. Wish a wish, if you have one. I’m in a humor for pleasing everybody while I’m about it.’

 

“So the Cat told her story. ‘And for a wish,’ she said, ‘if your Saintship would only permit me to slip in under your furs, and go along, I should be proud and happy. They look very warm and comfortable. I should sleep; or, if not, it would be most interesting to watch your Worship at work. And I take very little room,’ she added piteously.

If your Saintship would only permit me to slip in under your furs, and go along

“So the Cat told her story. ‘
And for a wish,’ she said, ‘if your Saintship would only permit me
to slip in under your furs, and go along,’—‘
Why, jump in at once,’ said St. Nicholas.”

“‘Is that all? Why, jump in at once,’ said kind St. Nicholas: ‘there is room for forty cats like you. My sledge is never full. Ho! ho! it would be a pretty joke if it were!’ And he laughed a jolly laugh.

 

“So Pussy jumped in. ‘You must let me out in the morning early,’ said she, ‘because Gretchen will be anxious.’

 

“‘Oh, yes!’ replied the Saint, smiling queerly, ‘I’ll let you out in the morning. I’m like a bat, you know, and never fly except by night.’

 

“Off they went, the magic stillness of the flight broken only by the tinkling bells. First one chimney, then another; bag after bag full of toys and sweets; here a doll, there a diamond ring, here only a pair of warm stockings. Everybody had something, except in a few houses over whose roofs St. Nicholas paused a moment with a look half sad, half angry, and left nothing. People lived there who knew him little, and loved him less.

 

“Through the air,—more towns,—more villages. Now the sea was below them, the cold, moon-lit sea. Then again land came in sight,—towers and steeples, halls and hamlets; and the work began again. A wild longing to explore seized the Cat. She begged the Saint to take her down one specially wide chimney on his shoulder. He did so. The nursery within looked strange and foreign; but the little sleeping face in bed was like Gretchen’s, and Pussy felt at home. A whole bag full of presents was left here. And then, hey! presto! they were off again to countless homes,—to roofs so poor and low that only a Saint would have thought of visiting them, to stately palaces, to cellars and toll-gates and lonely attics; at last to a church, dim, and fragrant with ivy-leaves and twisted evergreen, where their errand was to feed a robin who had there found shelter, and was sleeping on the topmost bough. How his beads of eyes sparkled as the Saint awoke him! and how eagerly he pecked the store of good red berries which were his Christmas present, though he had hung up no stocking, and evidently expected nothing. To small, to great, to rich and poor alike, the good Saint had an errand. Little ones smiled in their sleep as he moved by, birds in hidden coverts twittered and chirped, bells faintly tinkled and chimed as in dream, the air sent up incense of aromatic smells, flying fairies made room for the sledge to pass; the world, unconscious what it did, breathed benediction, and in turn received a blessing as it slept,—a Christmas blessing.

 

“Off again. More sea, tumbling and tossed; then a great steamship, down whose funnel St. Nicholas dropped a parcel or two. Then another country, with atmosphere heavy with savory scents,—of doughnuts, of pumpkin pies, of apple turnovers, all of which had been cooked the day before. These dainties stay on earth, and are eaten; but their smell goes up into the clouds, and the ghosts dine upon it. The Cat licked her lips. Flying gives appetite. ‘When morning comes,’ she thought, ‘Gretchen will smuggle me a breakfast.’ But morning was long in coming, and there were many little ones to serve in that wonderful new land.

 

“And now, another continent passed, another ocean came in view. Island after island rose and sank; but the sledge did not stop. Then a shore was seen, with groves of trees, fan-shaped and curious; with rivers whose waters bore fleets of strange misshapen boats, in whose masts hung many-colored lanterns; and cities of odd build, whose spires and pinnacles were noisy with bells. But neither here did the sledge stop. Once only it dipped, and deposited a package in a modest dwelling. ‘A Missionary lives there,’ said the Saint. ‘This is China. Don’t you smell the tea?’

 

“On and on for hundred of leagues. No stay, no errand. St. Nicholas looked sad, for all his round face. ‘So many little children,’ he muttered, ‘and none of them mine!’ And then he cheered again, as, reining his deer upon a hut amid the frozen snows of Siberia, he left a rude toy for an exile’s child. ‘Dear little thing!’ he said, ‘she will smile in the morning when she wakes.’

 

“And now the air grew warm and soft. Great cities were below them, and groves of flowering trees. Some balmy fragrance wrapped the land. A vast building swept into sight, whose sides and roof and spires were traced in glittering lines of fire. It was a church hung with lamps. Odors sweet and heavy met their noses. St. Nicholas sneezed, and shook his head impatiently. ‘Confound that incense!’ he said. ‘It’s the loveliest country in the world, only a fellow can’t breathe in it!’ And then he forgot his discomfort in his work.

 

“Another country, and more smells,—of burning twigs, pungent and spicy; of candles just blown out. These set the Cat to coughing; but St. Nicholas minded them not at all. ‘I like them,’ he declared: ‘I like everything about a Christmas-tree,—singed evergreen, smoking tallow, and all. The sniff of it is like a bouquet of flowers to me. And the children,—bless them!—how they do enjoy it! They don’t object to the smell!’ He ended with a chuckle.

 

“And now the dawn began. The moon grew pale and wan; the stars hid themselves; dark things took form and shape, and were less dark; yellow gleams crept up the sky; the world looked more alive. And, among the roofs over which they were now driving, the Cat spied one which seemed familiar. It was! There stood the well-known chimney, with the thin, starved curl of smoke, telling of someone awake within. There was the little window which was Gretchen’s own. With a mew of delight, she leaped to the roof. The Saint laughed. ‘Good-by!’ he shouted, shook his reins, and was off. Whither the Cat knew not, nor could guess; for where St. Nicholas hides himself during the year is one of the secrets which no man knows.

 

“Down the long spout ran Puss, with an airy bound. There was the door; and close to it she stationed herself, impatient of the opening. She had not long to wait. In a moment the latch was raised, and a face peeped timidly out,—Gretchen’s face,—pale and swollen with crying. When she saw the Cat, she gave a loud scream, and caught her in her arms.

 

“‘O Katchen!’ she cried, hugging her close. ‘Where have you been all this time? I thought you were dead! I did, I did, my Katchen!’

 

“Pussy stared, as well she might.

 

“‘All day yesterday,’ went on the little one, ‘and all night long. I cried and cried,—how I cried, my Kitty! It wasn’t a bit a nice Christmas, though the Christ-child brought me such a doll! I could think of nothing but my Katchen, lost all day long.’

 

“Puss stood bewildered. Were her night’s adventures a dream? Had she ever studied geography, she might have guessed that chasing morning round the world is a sure way to lose your reckoning. As it was, she could only venture on a plaintive, inquiring ‘Mew?’ Hunger was more engrossing than curiosity. She devoured breakfast, dinner, supper, all at once. The Stepmother had more reason than ever when she grumbled at being ‘eaten out of house and home by a beast.’ But Gretchen’s tears the day before had so moved her Father, that he took courage to declare that Puss must be restored to her former privileges. Warm corner, dainty mess, and the protecting arms of her little mistress became hers again, and are hers to this day.

 

“And that was St. Nicholas’s Christmas present to the Cat.

 

“Well,” said December, rolling up the paper, “how do you like my story?”

 

“So much! oh, so much!” the children cried. “It was almost the nicest of all.”

 

“As for my present,” he went on, “I am not going to give you that just now. It shall come on the Christmas-tree. And mind you look bright, and greet the Christ-child with a smile, or he will be grieved, and go away sorrowful.”

 

“I don’t believe we shall have any tree this year,” said Thekla, sadly. “There isn’t anything to put on it. And beside”—but her voice faltered. Grandfather had always helped to dress the tree.

 

“Oh, but,” cried December, “this will never do. Why, you must have a tree! Never mind if there isn’t anything to put on it. The Christ-child and I will see to that. Now I’ll tell you,—you just cut a nice fir-bough, and set it here against the door, and I’ll pledge my word, as an honest Month, that something shall come from outside and fall upon it. Do you give me your promise that you will?”

 

They promised,—half doubtful, half believing. And then December asked for the can, and, turning it upside down, poured out the last particles of sand.

 

“Dear! dear!” he said reflectively, “what a blessing that these are not lost! How the babies would have cried at being forced to go to bed half an hour sooner on Christmas night! And the Anthem would have been cut short on the blessed morning too, and the bells been cheated of their chime. It’s a great mercy I have got them safely back.”

 

“Good-by! good-by!” cried the children, following him to the door.

He stooped, and kissed both the round faces.

 

“Good-by!” he said. “Remember Christmas Eve.”

‘O Katchen!’ she said, ‘where have you been

“‘O Katchen!’ she said, ‘where have you been?’”

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Chapter 12 from “The New Year’s Bargain” by Susan Coolidge author of “What Katy Did Next” etc.

ISBN: 9788835399308

CLICK the Download Link: https://bit.ly/2UE1Zhb

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TABS/KEYWORDS: The New Years Bargain, Max, Thekla, folklore, fairy tale, fairytale, myth, legend, fable, storyteller, narrator, Little one, child, children’s,  cried, old. Good, great, come ye away, voices, poor, Grandfather, woods, forest,  April, Dotty, cat, brown, hair, girls, boy, march September, red, August, fairy, squirrel, wild, friends, brother, snow, November, sun, turkey, sketch, laughter, flowers, December, Greedy, boat, Bargain, Months, Bear, Little Tot, Maria, May, Little Housekeepers, Last of the Fairies, Little Spark, Desert Island, Nippie Nutcracker, Chusey, Christmas, Conclusion, What was on the Tree