(By CLARE SIMON
NE ear cocked, all his senses alert for any un
usual sound, Nobby, the big black and white farm dog, looked out into the eight.
He felt rather than saw the stretch of snow in front of his kennel, the network of lacy branches against the heavy sky, the rooks crying over the bare fields. It was late December and very, very cold.
Nobby stepped out cautiously. He looked up at the snow-laden roofs, and down at the frost spangled cow-path. The same roofs-the same path. But all so white. It was most peculiar.
Nobby was not yet a year old and no one had told him anything about
snow. This is the first night it had happened and he didn't like it. He shook his shaggy paw and tried to get the strange cold stuff out of his toes.
In the cowshed milking was over. It was warm among the cows and
Nobby could smell the sour sweetness of their breath as it rose and turned into silvery drops on the
window-panes. He paused on the threshold. He thought : " The cows aren't frightened. They can't have noticed what's happened outside. They will get a shock when they go out tomorrow morning 1"
NOBBY was rather tempted not to say anything about the curious whiteness on the ground outside but he couldn't resist going up to his old friend Strawberry to find out if site knew what it meant.
Strawberry was the oldest cow on the farm and she was fond of Nobby although he sometimes snapped at her heels when she wouldn't go as fast as he wanted. So she didn't laugh when he asked her what was happening. although it came as rather a shock to her that there was anyone in the world lucky enough not to have heard of snow. Snow ! 1 hat horrible cold stuff that caked between her hoofs and soaked into her pretty red and white coat.
" You'll have to get used to it," she told him. " It comes every year. I hate it myself but 1 know some people pretend to enjoy it. Humans, for instance."
" Yes, but where does it come from." Nobby persisted.
" No one knows where it comes from." Strawberry looked very wise. " But I know why it comes."
" Why ? Surely no one can eat it ?"
" They say it's sent to make a catpet for St. Nicholas on Christmas Night," Strawberry said.
"St, Nicholas ? I never heard of St. N;thohts."
Strawberry told him.
"St. Nicholas is the children's saint. He comes on Christmas night with a sack full of toys for good children. He dresses in a little warm red coat and he has a long beard-while like the snow, They say he arrives from Heaven in a sledge drawn by six reindeer. I wish I was one of St. Nicholas' reindeer," Strawberry said wistfully, " and then perhaps I could play in the clouds instead of trudging up and down the old cow-path, day in day out. But it's because their hoofs are so soft from walking on the clouds that snow is sent for them on Christmas night."
* * NOBBY was silent for a whole minute, taking in the wonder of it. 1 hen he said :
"Have you ever seen St. Nicholas with your own eyes, Strawberry?"
"Well, not exactly," Strawberry hedged. "But you'll see, there'll be his footmarks in the snow tomorrow outside. And I've often spoken to people who have actually seen him. My sister-in-law's cousin-"
Nobby interrupted rather rudely for he knew all about Strawberry's sister-in-law's cousin.
" All right, I believe you ! Tell me more about St. Nicholas. We've got puppies up in the stable. Will he bring presents for them ?"
"I'm afraid not. I don't know why it is but St. Nicholas and the other saints don't seem to take much interest in us animals. I don't mean St. Francis. He's always been
most thoughtful. But as for the others. . . It's really most curious," Strawberry said, flicking her tail
angrily from side to side. "That first Christmas night, we were most attentive. The ox and the ass, you know. .."
Nobby did not know and he waited politely for Strawberry to tell him. But she went on : "I've never had a sight of St. Nicholas, and I really don't think it's more than a step from the house up to the cow-shed. And with those great lazy reindeer too. The times I've lain here and I would have welcomed a nice chat about Heaven. But-oh, no',-Mr. St. Nicholas wasn't going to trouble himself for a beast like me."
" Perhaps he didn't know you wanted to see him ?" Nobby said timidly. He was frightened of Strawberry in this mood-she looked as if she might kick out at any moment.
" There-I'm a cross old thing.
He's a very busy man, we mustn't forget that. And it must be cold for him too. To think of him up there galloping along above the stars. How I wish I could see him." Her kind face was full of longing. Nobby said :
Look here, Strawberry, I'll go out tonight and meet St. Nicholas as he
comes in. He's sure to come in to sec you when he hears how much you want him."
" I couldn't allow it." Strawberry was grateful but firm. " No Nobby, I can't let you do that for me. Why you might be trampled underfoot by those nasty stuck-up reindeer. I tell you, they don't look where they tread and they're twice-no, three times. as big as any of us."
"1'11 keep out of their way, 1 can promise you." Nobby said, his eyes twinkling.
" You really mean you'll go ?" Strawberry's eyes were bright. " Thank you so much, it's a kind thing to do for a poor old thing like mt. To think of seeing St. Nicholas-! hey tell me that wherever he goes he takes two little angels with golden wings to hold his beard out of the snow and stop it getting tangled up in his reins, It's a wonderful feeling," said old Strawberry, smiling with pleasure, " to he seeing St. Nicholas for the first time -with his reindeer and all. But there--I daresay he won't bring the reindeer right in here. Perhaps he'll take me out to have a look at, them.!' Strawberry went off into a day-dream. Nobby crept out.
IT was very still and dark out
side. Everyone seemed to be in bed. It had stopped snowing sonic time ago and the fallen snow lay like a carpet over the fields.
There was a sort of excitement in the air, Nobby thought. He lay, nose on paws, just inside the gate. Would St. Nicholas come this way ? If he were fly ing he might not. Nobby waited silently, his eyes gleaming in the darkness.
Just before midnight the farm
stirred. Down in their boxes the horses stamped. The young calves looked up wondering at the pale light in the barn. In Ihe cow-shed Strawberry trembled with excitement. Nobby stood up quivering.
St. Nicholas was coming ! He could almost hear the reindeers' bells ringing in the sky !
Then-an interruption. Nobby saw a little old man creaking up the farm drive. He was bowed down
under the weight of a huge untidy
bundle. Drops of water trickled forlornly off the brim of his big hat. Nobby was disappointed. Perhaps this might mean he would miss seeing St. Nicholas ! The old man couldn't he a burglar. he was far too thin and old. And he had a nice kind face. He smiled down at Nobby.
" Would you be so very kind as to take me up to the farm, old man ?" he said, " I'm afraid I've lost my way in this confounded snow." Nobby hesitated. He didn't want to be disobliging but really this was most annoying. He said : " Look, would you mind waiting inside the gate. You see, we're all -waiting for St. Nicholas to pass. It's a most important moment,"
The old man looked puzzled. He said :
" What's all this ? St. Nicholas ? But, my dear good creature, I ant St. Nicholas !"
"VOLT, St. Nicholas!" Nobby
"YOU, "I mean 1 don't want to be rude or anything but I was told St. Nicholas came in a sledge drawn by reindeer. Was it too cold for them or something?"
" It's too cold for anyone," St.
Nicholas said sadly. He added : "It's a good thing people see me so rarely, isn't it ? I wonder what they would all say if they knew that I lost my poor reindeer quite a while ago. Dear, good creatures -not showy but faithful. One Christmas nightfive winters or so ago when we were passing overhead one of these infernal machines down below had the check to fire at us ! Those reindeer haven't dared poke their noses out of Heaven since. And as for me, I've had to use my two feet. It's cold work," St. Nicholas said, drawing his shabby coat tightly around him.
" Time and again I've tried to get one of the other saints to take it over. I tell them I'm getting too old to be out in this sort of weather but they won't listen to me ! No consideration for their elders, these young things."
"You'd get on well with my friend Strawberry," Nobby said. "She's always complaining about the way the calves treat her."
Then he remembered and looked at the saint with troubled eyes.
* * "WHAT is it?" St. Nicholas said kindly.
Nobby said awkwardly :
"It isn't easy to explain. You see-it was Strawberry who told me about the reindeer and about -about everything else. Your red cloak and beard. She most par titularly wanted to see you. But I'm afraid-she may be terribly disappointed."
" She wouldn't think me grand enough, eh ?" St. Nicholas said shrewdly. " Well, if she feels like that I don't suppose it's much good ray going in to see her. I'm sorry," he said wistfully. " I'm sure Strawberry would like me if she saw me."
" I'm sure she would," Nobby said tactfully. " But you know what old ladies arc like."
Do I not ?" St. Nicholas
chuckled. "I've known some old
tartars in my time, Nobby. One or two of those females up aboveyou wouldn't believe me."
He was silent a moment. Then he said : " Look, Nobby. You'll have to tell Strawberry that I was in the most terrible hurry-that I just hadn't the time to come in. Tell her I'll make a special point of coming in next year. When I've dressed up a bit," he added.
"Won't you leave a present for her ?" Nobby said timidly.
" Good idea. What do you think
she'd like ?" He delved into his sack and pulled out a baby's rattlethen a cigar case.
"Not that." Nobby said firmly. St. Nicholas tried again and brought out a packet of lump sugar tied up in blue ribbon. "Just the very thing." he said joyfully.
Nobby took the packet, He said: ." It's been nice talking to you, I do hope you won't get too cold." " I shall freeze up as likely as not," St. Nicholas said gloomily. " But-there-it's worth it, It makes the children happy and I always loved children."
He turned away and Nobby watched him, a little bent figure, make his way up towards the house.
INSIDE the cowshed old Strawberry was lying in her bed of
hay. She looked up eagerly when Nobby pushed open the door.
"Well?" she said, and Nobby saw she was tense with excitement, He said :
"It's a disappointment, I'm afraid. St. Nicholas was in the most awful hurry. He could hardly stop to hand me this present for you. But he told me to wish you every good wish and to,say"-Nobby could not go on. He saw Strawberry's lips trembling with disappointment. She took the little packet with a shaking hoof. She said bravely : " What a wonderful present, Nobby. It was nice of him to think of me. And we mustn't forget he's a very busy man."
She looked up wistfully. " Tell me, Nobby, was he very fine ? Did you get a sight of the reindeer ?"
When he was a puppy, Nobby's mother had told him that whatever else he did, he must never, never tell a lie. But in that moment Nobby knew what he must say to the old cow with her hopeful pleading face.
" I never saw anything so wonderful as those reindeer in all my life, Strawberry," he said gently.
Strawberry settled herself comfortably in her stall and looked at Nobby expectantly : " You must tell me all about it," she said.