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Boreas Bluster's Christmas Present by Mrs. W. J. Hays

"'Tis an ill wind that blows no good."


CHAPTER I

It had been a hard, cold, cruel winter, and one that just suited old Frozen Nose, the Storm King, whose palace of ice was on the north shore of the Polar Sea. He had ordered Rain, Hail, and Snow, his slaves, to accompany Lord Boreas Bluster on an invasion of the temperate zone, and when they had done his bidding he harnessed up his four-in-hand team of polar bears and went as far south as he dared, just to see how well they had obeyed him. How he roared with laughter when he found nearly all vegetation killed, and the earth wrapped in a white mantle as thick as his own bear-skins piled six feet deep! There was no nonsense about that sort of work.

"Catch any pert, saucy little flowers sticking up their heads through such a blanket!" said Frozen Nose to himself. "No, no; I've fixed 'em for a few years, anyhow. They're dead as door-nails, and Spring with all her airs and graces will never bring them to life again. Ugh! how I hate 'em and all sweet smells! Wish I might never have anything but whale-oil on my hair and handkerchiefs for the rest of my life!"

"There's no fear but what you will, and stale at that," said the ugliest of his children, young Chilblain, giving his father's big toe a tweak as he passed, and grinning when he heard Frozen Nose grumble out,

"There's the gout again, I do believe!"

But Boreas Bluster, coming in just then, saw what was going on, and gave Chilblain a whack that sent him spinning out of the room.

To tell the truth, Boreas was not as hardhearted as he looked. He was the most honest and straightforward of all Frozen Nose's friends. To be sure, he had to obey stern commands, and do many things that required a show of fierceness, but in the course of his travels he often yielded to a kind impulse, and restrained his fury when to indulge it would have pleased old Frozen Nose mightily.

This very day he had met with a strange adventure, which had been the occasion of a hasty return to the palace, and had so stirred his heart that the whack he gave young Chilblain was but the safety-valve to his feelings—a sort of letting off of steam which otherwise might have exploded and burst every block of ice in the realm.

In the many furious storms which had occurred of late Boreas had seen the destruction of numerous forests, and had even assisted in laying waste the country. But one night an avalanche had buried a hamlet from which only one living soul had escaped, and that was a young child—a mere sprig of a girl, with hair like the flax and eyes like its flowers, a little, timid, crying child—whom B.B. had actually taken in his arms and carried all the way out of the woods, over the mountains, and finally into Frozen Nose's own palace by the Polar Sea.

Never had such a thing happened before. Never had the tones of a child's voice pierced his dull ears, and made that big sledge-hammer of a heart positively ache with its throbs. It was a new and even a dangerous feeling; for though he made young Chilblain's impertinence the pretext of an outburst, he might just as readily have given a cuff to the hoary-headed Prime-minister, Sir Solomon Snow-Ball—and then there would have been a revolution. But happily for the peace of the Polar Sea palace, B.B. was satisfied with Chilblain's howl of rage, and in another moment had sunk down into his favorite arm-chair of twisted walrus tusks, and was lost in thought.

It was a curious scene, these three old men half asleep in their bear-skins, smoking long pipes of smouldering sea-weed. No fire danced on the hearth, no lamp shed its lustre, but the moon's pale beams gleamed on the glittering walls and lit the ice-crystals with its silver rays. B.B.'s thoughts seemed to be of a troublesome nature, for he sighed heavily, almost creating a whirlwind, and at last, looking cautiously at his companions, and seeing they were asleep, he rose and went softly from the room. In the hall was a huge pile of furs, among which B.B. gently pushed until he found the object of his search, which, lifting carefully, he bound about him with thongs of reindeer hide. Then pulling on his immense snow-shoes, and drawing his cap closely about his ears, he went out into the night.

B.B. was aware that it would be impossible for him to keep his little Flax-Flower any longer in Frozen Nose's dominions; indeed, he had only hidden her in the hall until he could decide what course to pursue, for he knew only too well that Chilblain, in seeking revenge, would be sure to discover his secret, and do all he could to injure him. Personally he had little to fear, but the punishment for mortals entering Frozen Nose's realm was death, and Flax-Flower was mortal.

With the speed for which he was so celebrated, Boreas slid over the ground in a southerly direction, never stopping until he had come upon what seemed to be a river which led down to a dark forest of pine-trees.

He was now at least three thousand miles from the Storm King's palace, and could afford to rest Wiping his brow, and panting still with his recent efforts, Boreas drew a corner of the bundle of furs away from the face of Flax-Flower, and looked at the sleeping child. As he did so a thrill of tenderness made him long to kiss her, but he knew that his rough caress would chill her with fear. So, softly wrapping her up again, he plunged into the pine forest. Stopping again when in the middle of it, he gave a shrill whistle, which was responded to by one fainter and farther away, and presently a dwarf in the garb of an Esquimau emerged from the dusky gloom, and bending low, said,

"What will you, my master?"

"I would see thy lord, the good St. Nicholas—the Storm King's enemy. Is he at home?"

"He is at home, but he is no man's enemy. What message shall I bear him?'

"Tell him that Boreas, of the Frozen Noses, awaits him." The dwarf vanished, and returned.

"My lord bids thee enter, but entreats thee to be gentle, and remember the manners of his court."

"That was a needless charge, considering my errand. Never has my mood been more peaceful. But it strikes me as passing strange thus to dictate terms to one of my station," responded Boreas, proudly.

"Pardon," answered the dwarf, "but we are no sticklers for ceremony, and recognize no rank save goodness. Follow me if it be thy wish to enter."

Pushing aside the heavy boughs on which the snow lay in icy masses that rattled and clashed like bolts and bars, he uncovered a low-arched opening into what seemed a vast snow-bank. Through this tunnel he and Boreas made their way to a broad court, which was as airy as a soap-bubble, round in shape, with pillars and dome of glass, through which streamed rays of light softer than sunshine and brighter than moonbeams.

From this court a broad, low stairway led to another apartment, which was as free from any show or splendor as the kitchen of a farm-house, and, indeed, in its suggestion of homely comfort and hospitality it was not unlike that cheery place. A Saxon motto, meaning "Welcome to those who hunger," was carved in the wooden frame of the fireplace. The floor was sanded, the tables and chairs were of oak, blackened by age, as were also the timbers of the ceiling, and cut and carved with curious devices.

On a big settle by the fire sat an old man, whose twinkling eyes could but just see through the shaggy and snowy brows which overhung them, and whose white beard fell in a flowing mass upon his breast. What could be seen of his face bore a kind expression.

"Ho, ho, old Bluster!" he cried, in a clear and merry voice, drawing up and around him the sheepskin mantle which was beside him, "What new freak is this of yours to enter our peaceful dwelling? Methought you were so sworn to do the Storm King's bidding that no power other than his rough sway could compel your presence. Come you on your own account or on his? Be it either, you are free to partake of our bounty. Ho, there, Merrythought! heave on more logs and heat the poker, that we may thrust it fizzing into our tankards: 'tis always bitter cold when Boreas is abroad."

The dwarf skipped quickly to his task, assisted by a dozen others, and Boreas, unstrapping his bundle, drew little Flax-Flower, still sleeping, from the furs.

"Mine is a strange errand, good Claus—so strange, that I hardly know myself to be myself. Rough and stormy as I am ever, a child's misery has made me once gentle. You know my mad career, my furious passions, and that they indeed are the strength of the Storm King's realm. Too well I knew that I should be but the sport of mocking derision if I appealed to his mercy in behalf of this suffering child. Mercy, did I say? He knows none. Death alone could have met this little creature, whose cries have aroused within me the deepest feelings I have ever known. To be honest, I have not always been the fierce being I appear. Many and many a time, unknown to you, I have followed you on your errands of love and pity, and watched with admiration the course you have pursued. This has induced me now to come and ask your favor for my treasure. Wake, little Flax-Flower, wake!" he continued, gently kissing the child's eyes, who, so stirred, rubbed her sleepy lids with rosy little fists, and looked around in astonishment.

"Ha!" said the good St. Nicholas; "This is indeed a strange story for you to tell, friend Bluster. Ho, there, Merrythought! send for Mrs. Christmas, my house-keeper. The child may be frightened at our grim faces. But what a pretty little dear it is!" said Claus, in the kindest tones, putting out his big fat hand to caress her. To Boreas's surprise Flax-Flower did not shrink from his salute, but with a bright smile bounded into the old man's arms and kissed him.

Turning away with a pang of jealousy, Boreas muttered, "She wouldn't kiss me; but no matter. That settles it. She's in the right place, and I'll leave her. Farewell, Claus; I'm off. No, no; I've no time for eating and drinking. Frozen Nose will be thundering at my absence already. There's a storm brewing even now; I feel it in my bones." So saying, he tramped noisily out of the apartment, nearly knocking over a fleshy dame in ruffled cap and whitest apron, whose rosy cheeks were like winter apples, and who bore in her hands a huge mince-pie in which was stuck a sprig of mistletoe.


CHAPTER II

"Come mother, cease thy spinning, and look at the lovely tree that Olaf has brought thee; it stands as straight as himself in the best room. Surely thou wilt deck it to please him."

"Ah, Fritz! how can I?" said the forester's wife, rising from her wheel, with a sad but sweet smile, in obedience to her husbands wishes.

"But there is surely no reason for longer indulging thy grief. Our child is too happy in heaven to wish her return to earth, and whatever the good God sends of pleasure or innocent mirth we should take with thankfulness. Look at the tree; it is the very image of Olaf's own strong youth. Make it pretty to-night, and he will be glad. A good friend is he for two lonely beings like us to possess."

"You are right, Fritz," said the wife, wiping a tear from her eyes. "For Olaf's sake I will dress the tree and bake a cake." So saying, she tidied up her best parlor, and took from a brass-bound chest the gay ribbons and trinkets which had not been used since the Christmas eve her little one last spent on earth.

Very lonely and sad would these two people have been but for Olaf, the son of their nearest neighbor. It was he whose clear ringing voice might be heard in the forest when returning from his work, and Fritz said that it made labor light but to hear him. It was he, too, who, when Fritz had been lamed by the fall of a tree, had borne him home on his strong young shoulders; so it was no wonder that the good wife was grateful to him. Often at evening he made their fireside bright with his songs and merry stories, and now it was but just that they should shake off their sorrow for his sake; so the good wife drew out her spotless board, and kneaded spice-cakes, and spread her best damask, and set out the fine china.

"Ah, if I had my little one!" murmured the good woman. "but God knows best," she quickly added, as she remembered many blessings.

"Here comes Olaf!" shouted Fritz from below. "Come quickly, lest he think thee tardy."

"Yes, yes, I come. I see him," was her reply. "but what is that he carries—something he has picked up on the way?"

"A Christmas gift for thee," was the merry answer from Olaf's ringing voice, as he laid a strange bundle in her arms.


CHAPTER III

Little Flax-Flower had been with St. Nicholas a whole long week. In that time she had been in every nook and corner of his dwelling. She had seen all his elves and dwarfs at work manufacturing every known toy to be found in the world. She had watched the dolls' dress-makers; she had ridden the toy horses; she had blown the brass bugles and beaten the drums until Mrs. Christmas had to put cotton in her ears.

Now all this was very delightful, and made Santa Claus laugh long and loud. He would not have cared if she had brought the house down on his ears, so long as she had a bright smile and a kiss for him. But when Boreas Bluster stopped to see how his young ward was getting on, he shook his head gravely and told Mrs. Christmas he feared she was spoiling Flax-Flower. But Mrs. Christmas laughed just in the same manner that Santa Claus had done, and declared that the child must have all she wanted.

Unfortunately, Flax-Flower went into the kitchen one day, and finding all the cooks busily making sugar-plums, helped herself so largely to taffy that she was made very ill; she ate, besides, quite a menagerie of lemon-candy elephants, camels, and kangaroos, which disagreed with themselves and with her; so that her head ached, and she had to be put to bed, with a hot-water bottle and a mustard draught for companions. This happened just as Boreas had stopped in to inquire about his pet, and he shook his head gravely when Mrs. Christmas related the incident. But Santa Claus only laughed till the air seemed full of merriment.

"Ah, my dear Claus, I see you have too easy and gentle a nature to deal with wilful little mortals in an every-day way; besides, you have to think of so many that it unfits you for the care of a single one," said Boreas, in his least gruff manner. "I shall have to find another home for Flax-Flower."

"Well," replied St. Nicholas, "I confess I can refuse nothing to a good child. Children to me are all like so many empty stockings—made to be filled. But I have had some doubts about keeping Flax-Flower. Mrs. Christmas and I are afraid it will make the others jealous; it is that, and not the stuffing down lollipops, that makes me think you are right. Now her feast-day comes soon—I mean Mrs. Christmas's day," said Santa Claus, with a nod—"And if you will just give my sleigh a lift, I think I can tuck in Flaxie and carry her to some people I know—some people who will appreciate her and be kind to her; yes, and even cross in a wholesome way, seeing that's what you approve of."

Here Santa pretended to be very gruff himself, but Boreas saw through it. He knew that St. Nicholas, on the whole, believed that Flaxie would be better off without so much amusement and without so many temptations to do nothing but play all day long, and this was the way the matter ended.

Just before Christmas day Santa Claus's sleigh was brought out into the beautiful court I have described; eight lively young reindeer were harnessed to it, and thousands of toys were packed in it; furs were wrapped around Flaxie, who was now quite well, and Mrs. Christmas herself made up a box of delicacies for her to eat on the way.

"Think of us often, dear child," she whispered, "And give my love to everybody."

Then the dwarfs gave the sleigh a push from behind, the bells of the harness rang out a merry peal, the reindeer pranced, Santa Claus snapped his whip, and away they flew, with Boreas behind them on his snow-shoes.

"Now, Flaxie," said Santa Claus, after they had skimmed over the snow with lightning speed for hours, "before you go to sleep, as I see you are doing, I want to speak to you. I want you always to remember this visit to my house with pleasure, and tell all the children you may meet how much I love them, how much it pleases me to know that they are good, and how it really distresses me when they are not; tell them, too, that as long as Mrs. Christmas lives we will do all we can for their happiness, and all we ask in return is a grateful spirit. Do you think you can remember all this? Well, as you say you can, tell them also to hang up an extra stocking, whenever there is room by the chimney, for some little waif that hasn't a stocking to hang up for himself. Now go to sleep as soon as you please, and may your dreams be sweet!"

Cuddled down in the comfortable furs, Flaxie knew nothing more till she found herself awake and in the arms of a tall young fellow whose name was Olaf, and who carried her into the brightest, nicest little parlor, and set her down in front of a fine Christmas-tree, saying,

"There, Mistress Kindheart, see what Christmas has brought you. I found her in the forest, and a great bearded giant told me to bring her to you."

"Oh, Olaf, it is my little Lena come back, I do believe!" cried the woman, while tears of joy ran down her face.

"Nay, mother, nay," said her husband; "but she shall take our lost one's place. Come, little one, tell us who thou art and from whence thou art come."

Then Flaxie told the story of her visit to St. Nicholas, while Olaf, Fritz, and his wife listened in amazement.

Much as Flax-Flower had enjoyed all she had seen and done, it was delightful to be again with people of her own flesh and blood, and learn to say the sweet word "Mother."

That Christmas was a merry one, but no merrier than the many which came after, for Flax-Flower became a dutiful daughter to the kind people who gave her a home. She and Olaf were like sister and brother to each other, and they were known throughout all the country-side for their kindness to the poor and unfortunate, especially at Christmas-time.

Frozen Nose still reigns in his palace on the Polar Sea, and it is mainly owing to him and his wicked son Chilblain that nothing more is known of that still unexplored region; but Boreas Bluster spends much of his time with good St. Nicholas and Mrs. Christmas. He tires of the severity of his life, and likes a snug corner where he can relate the story of his finding Flax-Flower, whom he still loves very tenderly. Often on an evening he ventures down to take a peep at her in her happy home, and little does she suspect that the cooling breeze at the close of a warm day is Boreas's gift of thoughtful kindness.