THE STRANGE VISITOR

How shall I ever go through this rough world!
How find me older every setting sun!
How merge my boyish heart in manliness!
--Coxe.

The little seed that had been planted in Elmer's heart was not long in sending forth a sturdy sprout; for it was in fertile soil, and there was nothing to hinder rapid growth. Not only did he continue to watch Edwin's pockets for coveted articles like the stones, but from the match-safe in the kitchen to the purse of Mrs. Fischer in the bureau-drawer he stole frequently. Nor did it stop with this. At the village grocery he often slipped behind the counter and took articles for which he did not pay, and finally he visited the combination money-drawer.

Of much of Elmer's dishonesty Edwin was aware; but, feeling that his mother would believe no report about his cousin that he might bring, and dreading her punishments for tattling, he kept all such knowledge to himself. Even when blamed and abused for the things that Elmer had done, he bore it patiently, unless questioned; then he told the truth and took the consequences, usually a beating.

Elmer, on the other hand, while endeavoring to cover up his misdeeds, told lie after lie, and when accused and blamed by the grocer and others, he was screened and helped out of his difficulties by Mrs. Fischer.

When Edwin was about ten years of age, his mother moved from the village in which she had been living to a farm among the foothills of the Alleghany Mountains. Here it was that Edwin for the first time saw an outline of the wonderful Blue Mountain of which he had at Christmas time heard many weird and frightful legends. Blue Mountain was one of the tall mountain-peaks that stood out a little apart from the main ridge and was known among the people as the home of St. Nicholas and his elves. Strange stories were connected with the place, and all who believed them were full of superstition and awe.

It was reported that during the year St. Nick, as he was commonly called, was busy manufacturing and preparing wonderful toys to be distributed throughout the country among the children who were deserving. In order to know to whom the presents were to go, he sent out his elves into the homes to take an inventory of the lives of die children. These reports were to be returned just before Christmas eve so that he could use them as a guide in distributing his gifts. For all the children who were not entitled to presents tortures of many kinds were invented. These were to be inflicted when the annual tours were made.

All this and much more Edwin had heard in his former home at each Christmas-tide, and as the tortures had always been his lot, he did not like to think about the great mountain any more than he could help. It was little wonder that he felt this dread, for to him St. Nick was a fierce and terrible monster. But it was a great mystery to him why St. Nick had never found out about Elmer's misdeeds.

Even at the age of ten Edwin was very small, and his ignorance concerning the ordinary things of life was really painful. A dread of not being understood seemed constantly to hover over him, and as he had been taught to feel himself inferior and in the way, there was no opportunity for him to improve. When company came to the house, he was ordered to remain in the kitchen or in the yard, but never in hearing-distance, and he was always too busy to visit had he been permitted to do so. A few times he had been sent to school to help the smaller children through the snow or mud, but it was only occasionally and with no explanation as to the meaning of school or the value of learning.

Once the teacher sent word to Mrs. Fischer that if she cared to have her son learn to read she must supply him with a primer. Before doing as the teacher had told her, Mrs. Fischer took up a primer belonging to one of the other children, turned to a lesson well over in the book, and commanded Edwin to read the paragraph to which she was pointing. Seeing that he was unable to tell one letter from another, she shouted at him: "Ed, you blockhead! there is no use for you to try to learn anything, and I will never spend any money for books to help you to disgrace me any more." Then so great was her cruelty that the child fell prostrate at her feet in a swoon. But even this did not cause the heartless mother to be sorry for what she was doing to her child. Almost before he had recovered from the effects of this severe punishment, she ordered him, if he knew anything at all, to tell her the time of day. When he could not do this, he was again mistreated.

Shut away as he had been from the society of every one who could have helped him, he was, of course, unable to unravel the untruth that had been related to him about Blue Mountain; and when told that the time for St. Nick to pay them another visit was drawing near, he looked upon the event with increasing dread.

"No good thing, Ed, can you expect this year on Christmas eve," he heard Elmer say a few days before that eventful night. "He never has remembered you with any good, and I don't think he ever will."

Yes, Edwin knew all about the neglect. He remembered, too, that he had been told that upon Christmas eve, instead of going to bed, he must sit before the fireplace upon a certain chair in the sitting-room to await the arrival of St. Nick. Perfect obedience being so impressed upon his mind, Edwin obeyed, but imagined many things, one of which was that instant death would follow any refusal to do the bidding of St. Nick. Therefore when the appointed time arrived, Edwin was ready and seated in his chair even before the remainder of the family had retired. Then, while his cousins were thinking of the happiness the morrow held in store for them, and the children in other homes were dreaming of the sweet stories to which they had listened concerning the Christ-child and God's great love in sending his only Son as a Christmas gift to all the world, Edwin heard a sound in the yard as of heavy tramping. Then the lashing of a whip upon the window-pane and house caused him to spring from his chair and seek for a corner in which to hide. Presently he again heard the lashing upon another window-pane, followed by a fierce blow upon the kitchen-door, which had been purposely left ajar, and he saw the door fly open and beheld an object so completely hideous that he was more frightened than he had been upon any previous occasion.

There, clad in a pair of old trousers that were partly covered by a short petticoat, and wearing a bright red blouse elaborately trimmed with white cotton batting in imitation of white fur, a sunbonnet of faded blue, and a false face in the form of a mule's head, stood the object posing himself as St. Nicholas.

One glance at the frightful creature with the long whip in his hand would have been sufficient to strike terror through the heart of a more enlightened mind, and Edwin, with the remembrance of the suffering of previous years still fresh in his mind, was under a mental strain that was fearful indeed.

The strange form, pretending not to notice Edwin, laid down his whip and began loosening the large pack of toys that were upon his shoulders. As the sack was laid down in front of the old fireplace, a rubber ball rolled out upon the rug, whereupon Edwin heard him say in a gruff tone:

"Now, if that hain't a mess! Guess I've come off without that there list, after all. Thought those little imps wasn't going to get it in, and when they did"--here he pulled out a long strip of paper that appeared to have writing upon it and from which he began reading the names of the children and the presents that each one was to receive.

As Edwin saw the costly gifts that were one by one taken from the sack, there seemed to be nothing lacking and plenty for him to have at least one toy, but his name was not called. There was a hobby-horse, a top, a horn, a ball, a wagon, a doll, dishes, a rocker, candy, and nuts. A sudden longing came into his heart to be remembered.

As if divining Edwin's thoughts, the monster, who was the child's own uncle disguised, turned suddenly and, facing Edwin, said:

"Now, sir, I'll become acquainted with you! I'm the person that some folks call Santa Claus, but by others I'm known as St. Nick. To you, Edwin, I shall be St. Nick, and I want to say that if you touch any of these things that I have placed here for your cousins, you'll find out what Old Nick can do." Then with a wave of his hand he said, "Come on out here now before I leave to go to another home. I want you to look at each of these things, so that you will know just what they are like, and then you see to it that you keep your stupid hands forever off!"

In obedience to the commanding voice of the frightful being, Edwin went breathlessly forward and listened to the words:

"Do you see that horse? Well, that's Elmer's, and because he has been such a good boy he shall have the ball and the top. The other things are for his sister and brother. Now that you have seen these nice things that are for good children, I want to show you the part that is to be yours, but you will have to go out in the kitchen to see it."

On the way to the kitchen Old Nick, who had taken up his whip, flourished it to hurry the child along, saying as he did so, "Now, you little gump, here's your treat." Then he threw a few nuts upon the kitchen-floor and ordered Edwin to hurry and pick them up. As the child obeyed, down came the lash of the whip upon his fingers, and the blood began at once to ooze from the deep gashes. When the hand was withdrawn, the lash fell upon his body. Next he was told to dance and then to sing and at last to pray. As he each time tried to obey, the whip was used upon him. The dance and the song were both very crude, but the prayer was the words that he had learned from the old lady at the alms-house. Those words Edwin felt were appropriate because Old Nick had knelt beside a chair when explaining what he wanted him to do, and he remembered that he had knelt thus at the old lady's knee. But before the list of terrible tortures was exhausted, Edwin could stand no more. Weakened by the loss of blood from his wounds and by the extreme fear, he fell as though dead.

How long he was there or what happened after he had fainted Edwin could never tell, but when he became conscious, he was alone and the room was cold. Painfully he arose and by the aid of the lamp that was still burning low, he crept away to his bed, which was fortunately very close to the kitchen.

As the sun arose in the eastern sky, it cast its bright rays upon the snow-covered ground around the home of Mrs. Fischer and caused a dazzling brightness, but it did not erase the many footprints that had been made the evening before by the supposed St. Nicholas, nor was it sufficient to soothe the poor little aching head of the unfortunate Edwin.

Edwin had been in bed but a few hours when he heard the children's voices. He listened to their remarks as they examined in turn the beautiful gifts, and then--was it possible? He thought he heard the youngest child in a tone of disappointment saying, "Why, where are Ed's stocking and things? Didn't he get anything at all?"

The answer from Elmer was spoken differently. "No, hush!" he said. "Ed hasn't anything here. Santa Claus, you know, doesn't bring gifts to every one. There are only certain people who are allowed presents."

Then Edwin heard his cousin explaining the story of Blue Mountain and St Nicholas as he had often heard it before; but when his cousin said, "The reason that Ed wasn't remembered is because he does so many bad things," Edwin wondered again what kind of report the elves had carried concerning the pebbles and the other things that Elmer had taken dishonestly and what explanation they had given regarding the lies. But there was seemingly no way for Edwin to know these things. His storehouse of knowledge was apparently closed, but still he was not discouraged in well-doing nor was he tempted to do evil. Like Job, he could have said: "Thou knowest that I am not wicked ... I am full of confusion ... Even when I remember I am afraid, and trembling taketh hold on my flesh" (Job 10:7, 15; 21:6).