From The Best Stories of Mary E. Wilkins (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1927)
Copyright, 1891, by Harper & Brothers. Copyright, 1919, by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.
It was snowing hard, as it had been for twenty-four hours. The evergreen trees hung low with the snow. Nicholas Gunn's little house was almost hidden beneath it. The snow shelved out over the eaves, and clung in damp masses to the walls. Nicholas sat on his doorstep, and the snow fell upon him. His old cap had become a tall white crown; there was a ridge of snow upon his bent shoulders. He sat perfectly still; his eyes were fixed upon the weighted evergreens across the road, but he did not seem to see them. He looked as calmly passive beneath the storm as a Buddhist monk.
There were no birds stirring, and there was no wind. All the sound came from the muffled rustle of the snow on the trees, and that was so slight as to seem scarcely more than a thought of sound. The road stretched to the north and south through the forest of pine and cedar and hemlock. Nicholas Gunn's was the only house in sight.
Stephen Forster came up the road from the southward. He bent his head and struggled along; the snow was above his knees, and at every step he lifted his feet painfully, as from a quicksand. He advanced quite noiselessly until he began to cough. The cough was deep and rattling, and he had to stand still in the snow while it was upon him. Nicholas Gunn never looked up. Stephen bent himself almost double, the cough became a strangle, but Nicholas kept his calm eyes fixed upon the evergreens.
At last Stephen righted himself and kept on. He was very small; his clothes were quite covered with snow, and patches of it clung to his face. He looked like some little winter-starved, white-furred animal, creeping painfully to cover. When he came opposite the house he half halted, but Nicholas never stirred nor looked his way, and he kept on. It was all that he could do to move, the cough had exhausted him; he carried a heavy basket, too.
He had proceeded only a few paces beyond the house when his knees bent under him; he fairly sank down into the snow. He groaned a little, but Nicholas did not turn his head.
After a little, Stephen raised himself, lifted his basket, and went staggering back. “Mr. Gunn,” said he.
Nicholas turned his eyes slowly and looked at him, but he did not speak.
“Can't I go into your house an' set down an' rest a few minutes? I'm 'most beat out.”
“No, you can't,” replied Nicholas Gunn.
“I dunno' as I can git home.”
Nicholas made no rejoinder. He turned his eyes away. Stephen stood looking piteously at him. His sharply cut delicate face gleamed white through the white fall of the snow.
“If you'd jest let me set there a few minutes,” he said.
Nicholas sat immovable.
Stephen tried to walk on, but suddenly another coughing fit seized him. He stumbled across the road and propped himself against a pine tree, setting the basket down in the snow. He twisted himself about the snowy tree trunk, and the coughs came in a rattling volley.
Nicholas Gunn looked across at him, and waited until Stephen got his breath. Then he spoke. “Look-a-here!” said he.
“If you want to set in the house a few minutes, you can. There ain't no fire there.”
It was some time before Stephen Forster gathered strength enough to return across the road to the house. He leaned against the tree, panting, the tears running down his cheeks. Nicholas did not offer to help him. When at last Stephen got across the road, he arose to let him pass through the door; then he sat down again on the doorstep.
Stephen Forster set his basket on the floor and staggered across the room to a chair. He leaned his head back against the wall and panted. The room was bitterly cold; the snow drifted in through the open door where Nicholas sat. There was no furniture except a cooking stove, a cot bed, one chair, and a table; but there were ornaments. Upon the walls hung various little worsted and cardboard decorations. There was a lamp mat on the table, and in one corner was a rude bracket holding a bouquet of wax flowers under a tall glass shade. There was also a shelf full of books beside the window.
Stephen Forster did not notice anything. He sat with his eyes closed. Once or twice he tried feebly to brush the snow off his clothes, that was all. Nicholas never turned his head. He looked like a stone image there in the doorway. In about twenty minutes Stephen arose, took his basket up, and went timidly to the door.
“I'm much obleeged to ye, Mr. Gunn,” said he. “I guess I can git along now.”
Nicholas got up, and the snow fell from his shoulders in great cakes. He stood aside to let Stephen pass. Stephen, outside the door, paused, and looked up at him.
“I'm much obleeged to ye,” he said again. “I guess I can git home now. I had them three coughin' spells after I left the store, and I got 'most beat out.”
Nicholas grunted, and sat down again. Stephen looked at him a minute; then he smiled abashedly and went away, urging his feeble little body through the storm. Nicholas watched him; then he turned his head with a stiff jerk.
“If he wants to go out in such weather, he can. I don't care,” he muttered.
It was nearly four o'clock in the afternoon, the snow was gradually ceasing. Presently a yellow light could be seen through the woods in the west. Some birds flew into one of the snowy trees, a wood sled creaked down the road, the driver stared at Nicholas in the doorway, he turned his head and stared again. It was evident that he was not one of the village people. They had witnessed the peculiarities of Nicholas Gunn for the last six years. They still stared, but not as assiduously.
The driver of the wood sled, as soon as he went down the slope in the road and could no longer see Nicholas, began to whistle. The whistle floated back like a wake of merry sound.
Presently Nicholas arose, took off his cap, and beat it against the doorpost to rid it of its dome of snow; then he shook himself like a dog and stamped; then he went into the house, and stood looking irresolutely at the cold stove.
“Should like a fire to heat up my hasty puddin' mighty well, so — I won't have it,” said he.
He took a wooden bucket, and went with it out-of-doors, around the house, over a snow-covered path, to a spring. The water trickled into its little basin from under a hood of snow. Nicholas plunged in his bucket, withdrew it filled with water, and carried it back to the house. The path led through the woods; all the trees and bushes were white arcs. Some of the low branches bowed over the path, and Nicholas, passing under them, had to stoop.
Nicholas, back in the house, got a bowl out of a rude closet; it was nearly full of cold hasty pudding. He stood there and swallowed it in great gulps.
The light was waning fast, although it lasted longer than usual on account of the snow, which, now the clouds were gone, was almost like a sheet of white light.
Nicholas, when he had finished his supper, plunged out again into this pale dusk. He tramped, knee-deep, down the road for a long way. He reached the little village center, left it behind, and went on between white meadow lands and stretches of woods. Once in a while he met a man plodding down to the store, but there were few people abroad, the road would not be cleared until morning.
Finally Nicholas turned about, and went back until he reached the village store. Its windows and glass door were full of yellow light, in which one could see many heads moving. When Nicholas opened the clanging door and went in, all the heads turned toward him. There was hardly a man there as tall as he. He went across the store with a kind of muscular shamble; his head, with its wild light beard, had a lofty lift to it. The lounging men watched him furtively as he bought some Indian meal and matches at the counter. When he had gone out with his purchases there was a burst of laughter. The storekeeper thrust a small sharp face over the counter.
“If a man is such a darned fool as to live on meal and matches, I ain't got nothin' to say, so long as he pays me the money down,” said he. He had a hoarse cold, and his voice was a facetious whisper.
There was another shout of laughter; Nicholas could hear it as he went down the street. The stranger who had driven the wood sled past Nicholas's house was among the men. He was snowbound overnight in the village. He was a young fellow, with innocent eyes and a hanging jaw. He nudged the man next him.
“What in creation ails the fellar, anyhow?” said he. “I seed him a-settin' on his doorstep this afternoon, and the snow a-drivin' right on him.”
“He ain't right in his upper story,” replied the man. “Somethin' went again him; his wife run off with another fellar, or somethin', an' he's cracked.”
“Why don't they shet him up?”
“He ain't dangerous. Reckon he won't hurt nobody but himself. If he wants to set out in a drivin' snowstorm and tramp till he's tuckered out, it ain't nothin' to nobody else but himself. There ain't no use bringin' that kind of crazy on the town.”
“'Twouldn't cost the town much,” chimed in another man. “He's worth property. Shouldn't be surprised if he was worth three thousand dollars. And there he is a-livin' on corn meal and water.”
An old man, in a leather-cushioned armchair beside the stove, turned his grizzly quizzical face toward the others and cleared his throat. They all bent forward attentively. He had a reputation for wit.
“Makes me think of old Eph Huntly and the story Squire Morse used to tell about him,” said he. He paused impressively, and they waited. Then he went on. “Seems old Eph got terrible hard up one time. One thing after another went again' him. He'd been laid up with the rheumatiz all winter; then his wife she'd been sick, an' they was 'most eat up with medicine an' doctors' bills. Then his hay crop had failed, an' his pertaters had rotted, an' finally, to cap the climax, his best cow died, an' the int'rest money was due on the mortgage an' he didn't have a cent to pay it with. Well, he couldn't raise the money nohow, an' the day come when he s'posed the farm would have to go. Lawyer Holmes he held the mortgage, an' he expected to see him drive into the yard any time. Well, old Eph he jest goes out in the yard, an' he ketches a nice fat crower, an' he kills him an' picks him. Then he takes him in to his wife. She was takin' on terrible 'cause she thought the farm had to go, an' sez he, ‘Sukey Ann, I want you to go an' cook this crower jest as good as you know how.’ ‘Oh, Lor'!’ sez she, ‘I don't want no crower,’ an' she boohooed right out. But old Eph he made her go an' stuff that crower, an' cook him, an' bile onions, turnips, an' squash, an' all the fixin's. He said he never felt so bad in his life, an' he never got to sech a desprit pitch, an' he was goin' to have a good dinner, anyhow. Well, it so happened that Lawyer Holmes he driv into the yard jest as old Eph an' his wife were settin' down to dinner, an' he see that nice baked crower an' the fixin's all set out, an' he didn't know what to make on't. It seemed to him Eph couldn't be so dreadful bad off, or he wouldn't have any heart for extra dinners, an' mebbe he had some way of raisin' the money in prospect. Then Lawyer Holmes he was mighty fond of his victuals himself, an' the upshot of it was, he sot down to the table, an' eat a good meal of the crower an' fixin's, an' there wa'n't no mortgage foreclosed that day, an' before long Eph he managed to raise the money somehow. Now if Nicholas Gunn jest had a leetle grain of old Eph's sense, he'd jest git better victuals the wuss he felt, an' let one kinder make up for t'other, instead of livin' on Injun meal an' matches. I ruther guess I wouldn't take to no meal an' matches if my Ann Lizy left me. I'd live jest as high as I could to keep my spirits up.”
There was a burst of applause. The old man sat winking and grinning complacently.
“Nicholas Gunn is a darned fool, or else he's cracked,” said the storekeeper in his hoarse whisper.
Meanwhile Nicholas Gunn went home. He put the meal away in the closet; he lighted a candle with one of his matches; he read awhile in the Bible; then he went to bed. He did not sleep in the cot bed; that was too luxurious for him. He slept, rolled in a blanket, on the bare floor.
Nicholas Gunn, whether his eccentricities arose from mystical religious fervor or from his own personal sorrows, would have been revered and worshipped as a saintly ascetic among some nations; among New Englanders he met with the coarse ridicule of the loafers in a country store. Idle meditation and mortification of the flesh, except for gain, were among them irreconcilable with sanity. Nicholas would have had more prestige had he fled to the Himalayas and built himself a cell in some wild pass; however, prestige was not what he sought.
The next morning a wind had arisen; it blew stiff and cold from the north. The snow was drifted into long waves, and looked like a frozen sea. A flock of sparrows had collected before Nicholas Gunn's door, and he stood watching them. They were searching for crumbs; this deep snow had shortened their resources woefully; all their larders were buried. There were no crumbs before this door; but they searched assiduously, with their feathers ruffled in the wind. Stephen Forster came up the road with his market basket; it was all he could do to face the wind. His thin coat was buttoned tight across his narrow shoulders; his old tippet blew out. He advanced with a kind of sidewise motion, presenting his body like a wedge to the wind; he could not walk fairly against it.
When he was opposite Nicholas, the sparrows flew up at his feet; he paused and shifted his basket. “Good mornin', Mr. Gunn,” said he, in a weak voice.
Nicholas nodded. Stephen's face was mottled with purple; his nose and mouth looked shrunken; his shoes were heavy with snow.
“If you want to go in an' set down a few minutes, you can,” said Nicholas.
Stephen moved forward eagerly. “Thank ye, Mr. Gunn. I am kinder beat out, an' I'd like to set a few minutes,” he said.
He went in and sat down. The wind rushed in great gusts past the open door. Stephen began to cough. Nicholas hesitated; his face was surly; then he shut the door with a bang.
While Stephen rested himself in the house, Nicholas marched up and down before it like a sentinel. He did not seem to see Stephen when he came out, but he stood before him in his track.
“I'm much obleeged, Mr. Gunn,” said he.
Nicholas nodded. Stephen hesitated a minute; then he went on up the road. The snow blew up around him in a dazzling cloud, and almost hid him from sight.
“It's the last time I do it,” muttered Nicholas.
But it was not. Every morning, storm or shine, Stephen Forster toiled painfully over the road with his market basket, and every morning Nicholas Gunn invited him into his fireless hermitage to rest. A freezing hospitality, but he offered it, and Stephen accepted it with a fervent gratitude.
It grew apparently more and more necessary. Stephen crept more and more feebly over the road; he had to keep setting his basket down. Nicholas never asked him if he was ill; he never questioned him at all, although he knew nothing about him but his name. Nicholas did not know the names, even, of many of the village people; he had never offered nor invited confidences. Stephen also did not volunteer any information as to his circumstances during his morning calls upon Nicholas; indeed, he was too exhausted; he merely gave his gentle and timid thanks for the hospitality.
There came a night in January when the cold reached the greatest intensity of the season. The snow creaked underfoot; the air was full of sparkles; there were noises like guns in the woods, for the trees were almost freezing. The moon was full and seemed like a very fire of death, radiating cold instead of heat.
Nicholas Gunn, stern anchorite that he was, could not sleep for the cold. He got up and paced his room. He would not kindle a fire in the stove. He swung his arms and stamped. Suddenly he heard a voice outside. It sounded almost like a child's. “Mr. Gunn!” it cried.
Nicholas stopped and listened. It came again — “Mr. — Gunn!”
“Who's there?” Nicholas sung out, gruffly.
“It's — me.”
Then Nicholas knew it was Stephen Forster. He opened the door, and Stephen stood there in the moonlight.
“What are ye out for this time of night?” asked Nicholas.
Stephen chattered so that he could hardly speak. He cowered before Nicholas; the moonlight seemed to strike his little, shivering form like a broadside of icy spears. “I'm 'fraid I'm freezin',” he gasped. “Can't ye take me in?”
“What are ye out for this time of night?” repeated Nicholas, in a rough, loud tone.
“I had to. I'll tell you when I git a leetle warmer. I dunno' but — I'm freezin'.”
Stephen's voice, indeed, sounded as if ice were forming over it, muffling it. Nicholas suddenly grasped him by one arm.
“Come in, then, if ye've got to,” he growled.
He pulled so suddenly and strongly that Stephen made a run into the house, and his heels flew up weakly. Nicholas whirled him about and seated him on his cot bed.
“Now lay down here,” he ordered, “and I'll cover ye up.”
Stephen obeyed. Nicholas pulled off his boots, gave his feet a fierce rub, and fixed the coverings over him with rough energy. Then he began pacing the room again.
Presently he went up to the bed. “Warmer?”
“I guess — so.” Stephen's shivering seemed to shake the room.
Nicholas hustled a coat off a peg, and put it over Stephen. Then he paced again. Stephen began to cough. Nicholas made an exclamation, and stamped angrily out of the house. There was a little lean-to at the back, and there was some fuel stored in it. Nicholas came back quickly with his arms full of wood. He piled it into the stove, set a match to it, and put on a kettle of water. Then he dragged the cot bed, with Stephen on it, close to the stove, and began to rub him under the bedclothes. His face was knit savagely, but he rubbed with a tender strength.
“Warmer?” said he.
“Yes, I — be,” returned Stephen, gratefully.
The fire burned briskly; the sharp air began to soften. Soon the kettle steamed. Nicholas got a measure of meal out of his cupboard, and prepared some porridge in a little stewpan. When it began to boil he bent over the stove and stirred carefully, lest it should lump. When it was thick enough, he dished it, salted it, and carried it to Stephen.
“There, eat it,” said he. “It's the best I've got; it'll warm ye some. I ain't got no spirits; never keep any in the house.”
“I guess I ain't — very hungry, Mr. Gunn,” said Stephen, feebly.
Stephen raised himself, and drained the bowl with convulsive gulps. Tears stood in his eyes, and he gasped when he lay back again. However, the warm porridge revived him. Presently he looked at Nicholas, who was putting more wood on the fire.
“I s'pose you think it's terrible queer that I come here this way,” said he; “but there wa'n't no other way. I dunno' whether you know how I've been livin' or not.”
“No, I don't.”
“Well, I've been livin' with my half-sister, Mis' Morrison. Mebbe you've heard of her?”
“No, I ain't.”
“She keeps boarders. We ain't lived in this town more'n three years; we moved here from Jackson. Mis' Morrison's husband's dead, so she keeps boarders. She's consider'ble older'n me. I ain't never been very stout, but I used to tend in a store till I got worse. I coughed so, it used to plague the customers. Then I had to give it up, and when Mis' Morrison's husband died, and she come here, I come with her; she thought there'd be some chores I could do for my board. An' I've worked jest as hard as I could, an' I ain't complained. I've been down to the store to get meat for the boarders' dinner when I couldn't scarcely get along over the ground. But I cough so bad nights that the boarders they complain, an' Mis' Morrison says I must go to — the poorhouse. I heard her talkin' with the hired girl about it. She's goin' to get the selectmen to the house tomorrow mornin'. An' — I ain't a-goin' to the poorhouse! None of my folks have ever been there, an' I ain't goin'! I'll risk it but what I can get some work to do. I ain't quite so fur gone yet. I waited till the house was still, an' then I cut. I thought if you'd take me in till mornin', I could git down to the depot, an' go to Jackson before the selectmen come. I've got a little money — enough to take me to Jackson — I've been savin' of it up these three years, in case anything happened. It's some I earned tendin' store. I'm willin' to pay you for my night's lodgin'.”
Nicholas nodded grimly. He had stood still, listening to the weak, high-pitched voice from the bed.
“It's in my vest pocket, in my pocketbook,” said Stephen. “If you'll come here, I'll give it to you, and you can take what you think it's worth. I pinned the pocket up, so's to be sure I didn't lose it.”
Stephen began fumbling at his vest. Nicholas lifted a cover from the stove.
“I don't want none of your money,” said he. “Keep your money.”
“I've got enough to pay you, an' take me to Jackson.”
“I tell ye, stop talkin' about your money.”
Stephen said no more; he looked terrified. The air grew warmer. Everything was quiet, except for the detonations of the frost in the forest outside, and its sharp cracks in the house walls. Soon Stephen fell asleep, and lay breathing short and hard. Nicholas sat beside him.
It was broad daylight when Stephen aroused himself. He awoke suddenly and completely, and began to get out of bed. “I guess it's time I was goin',” said he. “I'm much obleeged to you, Mr. Gunn.”
“You lay still.”
Stephen looked at him.
“You lay still,” repeated Nicholas.
Stephen sank back irresolutely; his timid, bewildered eyes followed Nicholas, who was smoothing his hair and beard before a little looking-glass near the window. There was a good fire in the cooking stove, and the room was quite warm, although it was evidently a very cold day. The two windows were thickly coated with frost, and the room was full of dim white light. One of the windows faced toward the east, but the sun was still hidden by the trees across the road.
Nicholas smoothed his hair and his wild beard slowly and punctiliously.
Stephen watched him. “Mr. Gunn,” he said, at length.
“I'm afraid — I sha'n't get to the depot before the train goes if I don't start pretty soon.”
Nicholas went on smoothing his beard. At length he laid his comb down and turned around. “Look a-here!” said he; “you might jest as well understand it. You ain't a-goin' to any depot today, an' you ain't a-goin' to any train, an' you ain't a-goin' to any depot tomorrow nor any train, an' you ain't a-goin' the next day, nor the next, nor the next, nor the next after that.”
“What be I a-goin' to do?”
“You are a-goin' to stay jest where you are. I've fought against your comin' as long as I could, an' now you've come, an' I've turned the corner, you are a-goin' to stay. When I've been walkin' in the teeth of my own will on one road, an' havin' all I could do to breast it, I ain't a-goin' to do it on another. I've give up, an' I'm a-goin' to stay give up. You lay still.”
Stephen's small anxious face on the pillow looked almost childish. His helplessness of illness seemed to produce the same expression as the helplessness of infancy. His hollow, innocent blue eyes were fixed upon Nicholas with blank inquiry. “Won't Mis' Morrison be after me?” he asked, finally.
“No, she won't. Don't you worry. I'm a-goin' over to see her. You lay still.” Nicholas shook his coat before he put it on; he beat his cap against the wall, then adjusted it carefully. “Now,” said he, “I'm a-goin'. I've left enough wood in the stove, an' I guess it'll keep warm till I get back. I sha'n't be gone any longer than I can help.”
“I ruther guess I'd better be a-goin'.”
Nicholas looked sternly at Stephen. “You lay still,” he repeated. “Don't you try to get up whilst I'm gone; you ain't fit to. Don't you worry. I'm goin' to fix it all right. I'm goin' to bring you something nice for breakfast. You lay still.”
Stephen stared at him; his thin shoulders hitched uneasily under the coverlid.
“You're goin' to lay still, ain't you?” repeated Nicholas.
“Yes; I will, if you say so,” replied Stephen. He sighed and smiled feebly.
The truth was that this poor cot in the warm room seemed to him like a couch under the balsam-dropping cedars of Lebanon, and all at once he felt that divine rest which comes from leaning upon the will of another.
“Well, I do say so,” returned Nicholas. He looked at the fire again; then he went out. He turned in the doorway and nodded admonishingly at Stephen. “Mind you don't try to get up,” he said again.
Nicholas went out of sight down the road, taking long strides over the creaking snow. He was gone about a half hour. When he returned his arms were full of packages. He opened the door and looked anxiously at the bed. Stephen twisted his face toward him and smiled. Nicholas piled the packages up on the table and lifted a stove cover.
“I've seen Mis' Morrison, and it's all right,” said he.
“What did she say?” asked Stephen, in an awed voice.
“Well, she didn't say much of anything. She was fryin' griddle cakes for the boarders' breakfasts. She said she felt real bad about lettin' you go, but she didn't see no other way, an' she'd be glad to have you visit me jest as long as you wanted to. She's goin' to pack up your clothes.”
“I ain't got many clothes. There's my old coat an' vest an' my other pants, but they're 'most worn out. I ain't got but one real good shirt besides this one I've got on. That was in the wash, or I'd brought it.”
“Clothes enough,” said Nicholas.
He crammed the stove with wood and began undoing the packages. There were coffee, bread, and butter, some little delicate sugar cookies, some slices of ham, and eggs. There were also a pail of milk and a new tin coffeepot.
Nicholas worked busily. He made coffee, fried the ham and eggs, and toasted slices of bread. When everything was ready, he carried a bowl of water to Stephen for him to wash his hands and face before breakfast. He even got his comb and smoothed his hair.
Then he set the breakfast out on the table, and brought it up to the bedside. He had placed a chair for himself, and was just sitting down, when he stopped suddenly. “I don't know as it's just fair for me not to tell you a little something about myself before we really begin livin' together,” said he. “It won't take but a minute. I don't know but you've heard stories about me that I wa'n't quite right. Well, I am; that is, I s'pose I am. All is, I've had lots of trouble, an' it come mainly through folks I set by; an' I figured out a way to get the better of it. I figured out that if I didn't care anything for anybody, I shouldn't have no trouble from 'em; an' if I didn't care anything for myself, I shouldn't have any from myself. I 'bout made up my mind that all the trouble an' wickedness in this world come from carin' about yourself or somebody else, so I thought I'd quit it. I let folks alone, an' I wouldn't do anything for 'em; an' I let myself alone as near as I could, an' didn't do anything for myself. I kept cold when I wanted to be warm, an' warm when I wanted to be cold. I didn't eat anything I liked, an' I left things around that hurt me to see. My wife she made them wax flowers an' them gimcracks. Then I used to read the Bible, 'cause I used to believe in it an' didn't now, an' it made me feel worse. I did about everything I could to spite myself an' get all the feelin' out of me, so I could be a little easier in my mind.”
Nicholas paused a moment. Stephen was looking at him with bewildered intensity.
“Well, I was all wrong,” Nicholas went on. “I've give it all up. I've got to go through with the whole of it like other folks, an' I guess I've got grit enough. I've made up my mind that men's tracks cover the whole world, and there ain't standin' room outside of 'em. I've got to go with the rest. Now we'll have breakfast.”
Nicholas ate heartily; it was long since he had tasted such food; even Stephen had quite an appetite. Nicholas pressed the food upon him; his face was radiant with kindness and delight. Stephen Forster, innocent, honest, and simple-hearted, did not in the least understand him, but that did not matter. There is a higher congeniality than that of mutual understanding; there is that of need and supply.
After breakfast Nicholas cleared away the dishes and washed them. The sun was so high then that it struck the windows, and the frostwork sparkled like diamonds.
Nicholas opened the door; he was going down to the spring for more water; he saw a flock of sparrows in the bushes across the road, and stopped; then he set his pail down noiselessly and went back for a piece of bread. He broke it and scattered the crumbs before the door, then went off a little way and stood watching. When the sparrows settled down upon the crumbs he laughed softly and went on toward the spring over the shining crust of snow.