And now we come to a turning-point in the career of Santa Claus, and it is m_uty to relate the most remarkable that has happened since the world began o_ankind was created.
We have followed the life of Claus from the time he was found a helples_nfant by the Wood-Nymph Necile and reared to manhood in the great Forest o_urzee. And we know how he began to make toys for children and how, with th_ssistance and goodwill of the immortals, he was able to distribute them t_he little ones throughout the world.
For many years he carried on this noble work; for the simple, hard-workin_ife he led gave him perfect health and strength. And doubtless a man can liv_onger in the beautiful Laughing Valley, where there are no cares an_verything is peaceful and merry, than in any other part of the world.
But when many years had rolled away Santa Claus grew old. The long beard o_olden brown that once covered his cheeks and chin gradually became gray, an_inally turned to pure white. His hair was white, too, and there were wrinkle_t the corners of his eyes, which showed plainly when he laughed. He had neve_een a very tall man, and now he became fat, and waddled very much like a duc_hen he walked. But in spite of these things he remained as lively as ever, and was just as jolly and gay, and his kind eyes sparkled as brightly as the_id that first day when he came to the Laughing Valley.
Yet a time is sure to come when every mortal who has grown old and lived hi_ife is required to leave this world for another; so it is no wonder that, after Santa Claus had driven his reindeer on many and many a Christmas Eve, those stanch friends finally whispered among themselves that they had probabl_rawn his sledge for the last time.
Then all the Forest of Burzee became sad and all the Laughing Valley wa_ushed; for every living thing that had known Claus had used to love him an_o brighten at the sound of his footsteps or the notes of his merry whistle.
No doubt the old man's strength was at last exhausted, for he made no mor_oys, but lay on his bed as in a dream.
The Nymph Necile, she who had reared him and been his foster-mother, was stil_outhful and strong and beautiful, and it seemed to her but a short time sinc_his aged, gray-bearded man had lain in her arms and smiled on her with hi_nnocent, baby lips.
In this is shown the difference between mortals and immortals.
It was fortunate that the great Ak came to the Forest at this time. Necil_ought him with troubled eyes and told him of the fate that threatened thei_riend Claus.
At once the Master became grave, and he leaned upon his ax and stroked hi_rizzled beard thoughtfully for many minutes. Then suddenly he stood u_traight, and poised his powerful head with firm resolve, and stretched ou_is great right arm as if determined on doing some mighty deed. For a though_ad come to him so grand in its conception that all the world might well bo_efore the Master Woodsman and honor his name forever!
It is well known that when the great Ak once undertakes to do a thing he neve_esitates an instant. Now he summoned his fleetest messengers, and sent the_n a flash to many parts of the earth. And when they were gone he turned t_he anxious Necile and comforted her, saying:
"Be of good heart, my child; our friend still lives. And now run to your Quee_nd tell her that I have summoned a council of all the immortals of the worl_o meet with me here in Burzee this night. If they obey, and harken unto m_ords, Claus will drive his reindeer for countless ages yet to come."
At midnight there was a wondrous scene in the ancient Forest of Burzee, wher_or the first time in many centuries the rulers of the immortals who inhabi_he earth were gathered together.
There was the Queen of the Water Sprites, whose beautiful form was as clear a_rystal but continually dripped water on the bank of moss where she sat. An_eside her was the King of the Sleep Fays, who carried a wand from the end o_hich a fine dust fell all around, so that no mortal could keep awake lon_nough to see him, as mortal eyes were sure to close in sleep as soon as th_ust filled them. And next to him sat the Gnome King, whose people inhabit al_hat region under the earth's surface, where they guard the precious metal_nd the jewel stones that lie buried in rock and ore. At his right hand stoo_he King of the Sound Imps, who had wings on his feet, for his people ar_wift to carry all sounds that are made. When they are busy they carry th_ounds but short distances, for there are many of them; but sometimes the_peed with the sounds to places miles and miles away from where they are made.
The King of the Sound Imps had an anxious and careworn face, for most peopl_ave no consideration for his Imps and, especially the boys and girls, make _reat many unnecessary sounds which the Imps are obliged to carry when the_ight be better employed.
The next in the circle of immortals was the King of the Wind Demons, slende_f frame, restless and uneasy at being confined to one place for even an hour.
Once in a while he would leave his place and circle around the glade, and eac_ime he did this the Fairy Queen was obliged to untangle the flowing locks o_er golden hair and tuck them back of her pink ears. But she did not complain, for it was not often that the King of the Wind Demons came into the heart o_he Forest. After the Fairy Queen, whose home you know was in old Burzee, cam_he King of the Light Elves, with his two Princes, Flash and Twilight, at hi_ack. He never went anywhere without his Princes, for they were so mischievou_hat he dared not let them wander alone.
Prince Flash bore a lightning-bolt in his right hand and a horn of gunpowde_n his left, and his bright eyes roved constantly around, as if he longed t_se his blinding flashes. Prince Twilight held a great snuffer in one hand an_ big black cloak in the other, and it is well known that unless Twilight i_arefully watched the snuffers or the cloak will throw everything int_arkness, and Darkness is the greatest enemy the King of the Light Elves has.
In addition to the immortals I have named were the King of the Knooks, who ha_ome from his home in the jungles of India; and the King of the Ryls, wh_ived among the gay flowers and luscious fruits of Valencia. Sweet Quee_urline of the Wood-Nymphs completed the circle of immortals.
But in the center of the circle sat three others who possessed powers so grea_hat all the Kings and Queens showed them reverence.
These were Ak, the Master Woodsman of the World, who rules the forests and th_rchards and the groves; and Kern, the Master Husbandman of the World, wh_ules the grain fields and the meadows and the gardens; and Bo, the Maste_ariner of the World, who rules the seas and all the craft that float thereon.
And all other immortals are more or less subject to these three.
When all had assembled the Master Woodsman of the World stood up to addres_hem, since he himself had summoned them to the council.
Very clearly he told them the story of Claus, beginning at the time when as _abe he had been adopted a child of the Forest, and telling of his noble an_enerous nature and his life-long labors to make children happy.
"And now," said Ak, "when he had won the love of all the world, the Spirit o_eath is hovering over him. Of all men who have inhabited the earth none othe_o well deserves immortality, for such a life can not be spared so long a_here are children of mankind to miss him and to grieve over his loss. W_mmortals are the servants of the world, and to serve the world we wer_ermitted in the Beginning to exist. But what one of us is more worthy o_mmortality than this man Claus, who so sweetly ministers to the littl_hildren?"
He paused and glanced around the circle, to find every immortal listening t_im eagerly and nodding approval. Finally the King of the Wind Demons, who ha_een whistling softly to himself, cried out:
"What is your desire, O Ak?"
"To bestow upon Claus the Mantle of Immortality!" said Ak, boldly.
That this demand was wholly unexpected was proved by the immortals springin_o their feet and looking into each other's face with dismay and then upon A_ith wonder. For it was a grave matter, this parting with the Mantle o_mmortality.
The Queen of the Water Sprites spoke in her low, clear voice, and the word_ounded like raindrops splashing upon a window-pane.
"In all the world there is but one Mantle of Immortality," she said.
The King of the Sound Fays added:
"It has existed since the Beginning, and no mortal has ever dared to clai_t."
And the Master Mariner of the World arose and stretched his limbs, saying:
"Only by the vote of every immortal can it be bestowed upon a mortal."
"I know all this," answered Ak, quietly. "But the Mantle exists, and if it wa_reated, as you say, in the Beginning, it was because the Supreme Master kne_hat some day it would be required. Until now no mortal has deserved it, bu_ho among you dares deny that the good Claus deserves it? Will you not al_ote to bestow it upon him?"
They were silent, still looking upon one another questioningly.
"Of what use is the Mantle of Immortality unless it is worn?" demanded Ak.
"What will it profit any one of us to allow it to remain in its lonely shrin_or all time to come?"
"Enough!" cried the Gnome King, abruptly. "We will vote on the matter, yes o_o. For my part, I say yes!"
"And I!" said the Fairy Queen, promptly, and Ak rewarded her with a smile.
"My people in Burzee tell me they have learned to love him; therefore I vot_o give Claus the Mantle," said the King of the Ryls.
"He is already a comrade of the Knooks," announced the ancient King of tha_and. "Let him have immortality!"
"Let him have it—let him have it!" sighed the King of the Wind Demons.
"Why not?" asked the King of the Sleep Fays. "He never disturbs the slumber_y people allow humanity. Let the good Claus be immortal!"
"I do not object," said the King of the Sound Imps.
"Nor I," murmured the Queen of the Water Sprites.
"If Claus does not receive the Mantle it is clear none other can ever clai_t," remarked the King of the Light Elves, "so let us have done with the thin_or all time."
"The Wood-Nymphs were first to adopt him," said Queen Zurline. "Of course _hall vote to make him immortal."
Ak now turned to the Master Husbandman of the World, who held up his right ar_nd said "Yes!"
And the Master Mariner of the World did likewise, after which Ak, wit_parkling eyes and smiling face, cried out:
"I thank you, fellow immortals! For all have voted 'yes,' and so to our dea_laus shall fall the one Mantle of Immortality that it is in our power t_estow!"
"Let us fetch it at once," said the Fay King; "I'm in a hurry."
They bowed assent, and instantly the Forest glade was deserted. But in a plac_idway between the earth and the sky was suspended a gleaming crypt of gol_nd platinum, aglow with soft lights shed from the facets of countless gems.
Within a high dome hung the precious Mantle of Immortality, and each immorta_laced a hand on the hem of the splendid Robe and said, as with one voice:
"We bestow this Mantle upon Claus, who is called the Patron Saint o_hildren!"
At this the Mantle came away from its lofty crypt, and they carried it to th_ouse in the Laughing Valley.
The Spirit of Death was crouching very near to the bedside of Claus, and a_he immortals approached she sprang up and motioned them back with an angr_esture. But when her eyes fell upon the Mantle they bore she shrank away wit_ low moan of disappointment and quitted that house forever.
Softly and silently the immortal Band dropped upon Claus the precious Mantle, and it closed about him and sank into the outlines of his body and disappeare_rom view. It became a part of his being, and neither mortal nor immorta_ight ever take it from him.
Then the Kings and Queens who had wrought this great deed dispersed to thei_arious homes, and all were well contented that they had added anothe_mmortal to their Band.
And Claus slept on, the red blood of everlasting life coursing swiftly throug_is veins; and on his brow was a tiny drop of water that had fallen from th_ver-melting gown of the Queen of the Water Sprites, and over his lips hovere_ tender kiss that had been left by the sweet Nymph Necile. For she had stole_n when the others were gone to gaze with rapture upon the immortal form o_er foster son.