Skip to main content
Source File: cat.ss032.xml

The Home Monthly

by Willa Cather.

From The Home Monthly, VI (December 1896):  13, 14, 24.

The Strategy of the Were-Wolf Dog.

THIS is a tale of the bleak, bitter Northland, where the frost is eternal and the snows never melt, where the wide white plains stretch for miles and miles without a tree or shrub, where the Heavens at night are made terribly beautiful by the trembling flashes of the Northern lights, and the green icebergs float in stately grandeur down the dark currents of the hungry polar sea. It is a desolate region, where there is no spring, and even in the short summers only a few stunted willows blossom and grow green along the rocky channels through which the melting snow water runs clear and cold. The only cheerful thing about all this country is that far up within the Arctic circle, just on the edge of the boundless snow plains, there is a big house of gray stone, where the lights shine all the year round from the windows, and the wide halls are warmed by blazing fires. For this is the house of his beloved Saintship, Nicholas, whom the children the world over call Santa Claus.

Now every child knows this house is beautiful, and beautiful it is, for it is one of the most home-like places in the world. Just inside the front door is the big hall, where every evening after his work is done Santa Claus sits by the roaring fire and chats with his wife, Mamma Santa, and the White Bear. Then there is the dining room, and the room where Papa and Mamma Santa sleep, and to the rear are the work shops, where all the wonderful toys are made, and last of all the White Bear's sleeping room, for the White Bear has to sleep in a bed of clean white snow every night, and so his room is away from the heated part of the house.

But most boys and girls do not know much about the White Bear, for though he is really a very important personage, he has been strangely neglected by the biographers of Santa Claus. But that is often the way of the historians: they concentrate themselves upon a single important figure of a place or time, and forget to mention at all other factors quite as important. Then after a while some one takes up the people whom the historians have left in the dark, and tries to do them long-delayed justice. Now I would consider it quite a sufficient purpose in life and a very considerable accomplishment if I could set the White Bear right with history, and convince the world of his importance. He is not at all like the bears who carry off naughty children, and does not even belong to the same family as the bears who ate up the forty children who mocked at the Prophet's bald head. On the contrary, this bear is a most gentle and kindly fellow, and fonder of boys and girls than any one else in the world, except Santa Claus himself. He has lived with Papa Santa from time immemorial, helping him in his workshop, painting rocking horses, and stretching drum heads, and gluing yellow wigs on doll babies. But his principal duty is to care for the reindeer, those swift, strong, nervous little beasts, without whom the hobby horses and dolls and red drums would never reach the little children in the world.

One evening, on the 23rd of December—the rest of the date does not matter—Papa Santa sat by the fire in the great hall, blowing the smoke from his nostrils, until his ruddy round face shone through it like a full moon through the mist. He was in a happier mood even than usual, for his long year's work in his shop was done, the last nail had been driven and the last coat of paint had dried. All the vast array of toys stood ready to go into the sealskin bags and be piled into the sleigh.

Opposite him sat Mamma Santa, putting the last dainty stitches on a doll dress for a little sick girl somewhere down in the world. Mamma Santa never kept track of where the different children lived; Papa Santa and the White Bear attended to the address book. It was enough for her to know that they were children and good children, she didn't care to know any more. By her chair sat the White Bear, eating his dog sausage. The White Bear was always hungry between meals, and Mamma Santa always kept a plate of his favorite sausage ready for him in the pantry, which, as there was no fire there, was a refrigerator as well.

As Papa Santa bent to light his pipe again, he spoke to the White Bear:

"The reindeer are all in good shape, are they? You've seen them to-night?"

"I gave them their feed and rubbed them down an hour ago, and I never saw them friskier. They ought to skim like birds to-morrow night. As I came away, though, I thought I saw the Were-Wolf Dog hanging around, so I locked up the stable."

"That was right," said Papa Santa, approvingly. "He was there for no good, depend on that. Last year he tampered with the harness and cut it so that four traces broke before I reached Norway."

Mamma Santa sent her needle through the fine cambric she was stitching with an indignant thrust, and spoke so emphatically that the little white curls under her cap bobbed about her face. "I cannot understand the perverse wickedness of that animal, nor what he has against you, that he should be forever troubling you, or against those World-Children, poor little innocents, that he should be forever trying to defraud them of their Christmas presents. He is certainly the meanest animal from here to the Pole."

"That he is," said Papa Santa, "and there is no reason for it at all. But he hates everything that is not as mean as himself."

"I am sure, Papa, that he will never be at rest until he has brought about some serious accident. Hadn't the Bear better look about the stables again?"

"I'll sleep there to-night and watch, if you say so," said the White Bear, rapping the floor with his shaggy tail.

"O, there is no need of that, we must all get our sleep to-night, for we have hard work and a long journey before us to-morrow. I can trust the reindeer pretty well to look after themselves. Come, Mamma, come, we must get to bed." Papa Santa shook the ashes out of his pipe and blew out the lights, and the White Bear went to stretch himself in his clean white snow.

When all was quiet about the house, there stole from out the shadow of the wall a great dog, shaggy and monstrous to look upon. His hair was red, and his eyes were bright, like ominous fires. His teeth were long and projected from his mouth like tusks, and there was always a little foam about his lips as though he were raging with some inward fury. He carried his tail between his legs, for he was as cowardly as he was vicious. This was the wicked Were-Wolf Dog who hated everything; the beasts and the birds and Santa Claus and the White Bear, and most of all the little children of the world. Nothing made him so angry as to think that there really are good children in the world, little children who love each other, and are simple and gentle and fond of everything that lives, whether it breathes or blooms. For years he had been trying in one way and another to delay Santa Claus' journey so that the children would get no beautiful gifts from him at Christmas time. For the Were-Wolf Dog hated Christmas too, incomprehensible as that may seem. He was thoroughly wicked and evil, and Christmas time is the birthday of Goodness, and every year on Christmas eve the rage in his dark heart burned anew.

He stole softly to the window of the stable, and peered in where the swift, tiny reindeer stood each in his warm little stall, pawing the ground impatiently. For on glorious moonlight nights like that the reindeer never slept, they were always so homesick for their freedom and their wide white snow plains.

"Little reindeer," called the Were-Wolf Dog, softly, and all the little reindeer pricked up their ears. "Little reindeer, it is a lovely night," and all the little reindeer sighed softly. They knew, ah, how well they knew!

"Little reindeer, the moon is shining as brightly as the sun does in the summer, the North wind is blowing fresh and cold, driving the little clouds across the sky like white sea birds. The snow is just hard enough to bear without breaking, and your brothers are running like wild things over its white crust. And the stars, ah, the stars, little brothers, they gleam like a million jewels, and glitter like icicles all over the face of the sky."

The reindeer stamped impatiently in their little stalls. It was very hard.

"Come, little reindeer, let me tell you why all your brothers run toward the Polar Sea to-night. It is because to-night the Northern lights will flash as they never did before, and the great streaks of red and purple and violet will shoot across the sky until all the people of the world shall see them, who never saw before. Listen, little reindeer, it is just the night for a run, a long free run, with no traces to tangle your feet and no sledge to drag. Come, let us go, you will be back again by dawn and no one will ever know."

Dunder stamped in his stall, it made him long to be gone, to hear what the Were-Wolf Dog said. "No, no, we cannot, for to-morrow we must start with the toys for the little children of the world."

"But you will be back tomorrow. Just when the dim light is touching the tops of the icebergs and making the fresh snow red, you will be speeding home. Ah, it will be a glorious run, and you will see the lights as they never shone before. Do you not pant to feel the wind about you, little reindeer?"

Then Cupid and Blitzen could withstand his enticing words no longer, and begged, "Come, Dunder, let us go to-night. It has been so long since we have seen the lights, and we will be back to-morrow."

Now the reindeer knew well enough they ought not to go, but reindeer are not like people, and sometimes the things they want most awfully to do are the very things that they ought not to do. The thought of the fresh winds and their dear lights of the North and the moonlit snow drove them wild, for the reindeer love their freedom more than any other animal, and swift motion, and the free winds.

So the dog pried open the door, with the help of the reindeer forcing it from within, and they all dashed out into the clear moonlight and scurried away toward the North like gleeful rabbits. "We will be back by morning," said Cupid. "We will be back," said Dunder. And, poor little reindeer, they loved the snow so well that it scarcely seemed wrong to go.

O, how fine it was to feel that wind in their fur again! They tossed their antlers in the fresh wind, and their tiny hoofs rang on the hard snow as they ran. They ran for miles and miles without growing tired, or losing their first pleasure in it. Their nostrils were distended and their eyes were bright.

"Slower, slower, little reindeer, for I must lead the way. You will not find the place where all the beasts are assembled," called the Were-Wolf Dog.

The little reindeer could no more go slowly than a boy can when the fire engines dash by. So they got the Were-Wolf Dog in the center of the pack and fairly bore him on with them. On they ran over those vast plains of snow that sparkled as brightly as the sky did above, and Dasher and Prancer bellowed aloud with glee. At last there lay before them the boundless stretch of the Polar Sea. Dark and silent it was, as mysterious as the strange secret of the Pole which it guards forever. Here and there where the ice floes had parted showed a crevice of black water, and the great walls of ice glittered like flame when the Northern lights flung their red banners across the sky, and tipped the icebergs with fire. There the reindeer paused a moment for very joy, and the Were-Wolf Dog fell behind.

"Is the ice safe, old Dog?" asked Vixen.

"To the right it is, off and away, little reindeer. It is growing late," said the Were-Wolf Dog, shouting hoarsely.

And the heedless little reindeer dashed on, never noticing that the wicked Were-Wolf Dog stayed behind on the shore. Now when they were out a good way upon the sea they heard a frightful cracking, grinding sound, such as the ice makes when it breaks up.

"To the shore, little brothers, to the shore!" cried Dunder, but it was too late. The wicked Were-Wolf Dog where he stood on the land saw the treacherous ice break and part, and the head of every little reindeer go down under the black water. Then he turned and fled over the snow, with his tail tighter between his legs than ever, for he was too cowardly to look upon his own evil work.

As for the reindeer, the black current caught them and whirled them down under the ice, all but Dunder and Dasher and Prancer, who at last rose to the surface and lifted their heads above the water.

"Swim, little brothers, we may yet make the shore," cried Dunder. So among the cakes of broken ice that cut them at every stroke, the three brave little beasts began to struggle toward the shore that seemed so far away. A great chunk of ice struck Prancer in the breast, and he groaned and sank. Then Dasher began to breathe heavily and fell behind, and when Dunder stayed to help him he said, "No, no, little brother, I cannot make it. You must not try to help me, or we will both go down. Go tell it all to the White Bear. Good bye, little brother, we will skim the white snow fields no more together." And with that he, too, sank down into the black water, and Dunder struggled on alone.

When at last he dragged himself wearily A drawing of Mamma Santa sitting in her chair sewing while the White Bear sits near her eating.BY HER CHAIR SAT THE WHITE BEAR EATING HIS DOG SAUSAGE. upon the shore he was exhausted and cruelly cut and bleeding. But there was no time to be lost. Spent and suffering as he was, he set out across the plains.

Late in the night the White Bear heard some one tapping against his window and saw poor Dunder standing there all covered with ice and blood.

"Come out, brother," he gasped, "the others are all dead and drowned, only I am left. For this night the treacherous Were-Wolf Dog came to us and with enticing words lured us to go with him toward the Pole, promising to show us the Northern lights brighter than we had ever seen them before. But black Death he showed us, and the bottom of the Polar Sea."

Then the White Bear hastened out in his nightcap, and Dunder told him all about the cruel treachery of the Were-Wolf Dog.

"Alas," cried the White Bear, "and who shall tell Santa of this, and who will drag his sleigh to-morrow to carry the gifts to the little children of the world? Empty will their stockings hang on Christmas morning, and Santa's heart will be broken."

Then poor Dunder sank down in the snow and wept.

"Do not despair, Dunder. We must go to-night to the ice hummock where the beasts meet to begin their Christmas revels. Can you run a little longer, poor reindeer?"

"I will run until I die," said Dunder, bravely. "Get on my back and we will go."

So reluctantly the White Bear got on Dunder's back, for bears cannot run themselves, and they sped away to the great ice hummock where the animals of the North all gather to keep their Christmas.

The ice hummock is a great pile of ice and snow right under the North Star, and all the animals were there drinking punches and wishing each other a Merry Christmas. There were seals, and fur otters, and white ermines, and whales, and bears, and many strange birds, and the tawny Lapland dogs that are as strong as horses. But the Were-Wolf Dog was not there. The White Bear paid no heed to any of them, but climbed up to the very top of the huge ice hummock. Then he stood up and cried out:

"Animals of the North, listen to me!" and all the animals ceased from their merry making and looked up to the ice hummock where the White Bear stood, looking very strange up there, all alone in the star light, with his night cap still on.

"Listen to me," thundered the White (Continued on page 24.) The Strategy of the Were-Wolf Dog. (Continued from page 14.) Bear, "and I will tell you such a tale of wickedness and treachery as never came up among us before. This night the wicked Were-Wolf Dog, who is ever raging in his black heart against the innocent World-Children, came to the reindeer of Santa Claus and with enticing words lured them Northward, promising to show them the great lights as they never shone before. But black Death he showed them, and the bottom of the Polar Sea." Then he showed them poor bleeding Dunder, and told how all the tiny reindeer had been drowned and all the treachery of the Were-Wolf Dog. And all the animals were very indignant and ashamed that one of their number should be guilty of such a thing. And the big whale flapped his tail, and all the bears growled.

"Now, O animals," the White Bear went on, "who among you will go back with me and draw the sleigh full of presents down to the little World-Children, for a shame would it be to all of us if they should awaken and find themselves forgotten and their stockings empty."

But none of the animals replied, for though they felt sorry enough for what had been done, they all loved their freedom and to race over the star-lit snow, and were loath to give it up even for the snug, warm stables of Santa Claus.

"What," cried the White Bear, "Is there not one of you who will take this reproach from us and go back with me to the stables of Santa Claus and take the place of our brothers who are dead? A warm stable shall each of you have, and your fill of clean dry moss-feed, and snow water to drink."

But the animals all thought of the wide plains and the stinging Northwind and their scampers of old, and hung their heads and were silent. Poor Dunder groaned aloud, and even the White Bear had begun to despair, when there spoke up a poor old seal with but one fin, for he had fallen into the seal fishers' hands and been maimed. He had been drinking too much punch, and he spoke thickly, but he had a good heart, that old crippled seal. "It wrings my heart, brothers, that you should be silent to such a call as this, when for the first time since Christmas began it seems that the little children of the world will not get their presents. I am only an old seal who have been twice wounded by the hunters, and am a cripple, but lo, I myself will go with the White Bear, and though I can travel but a mile a day at best, yet will I hobble on my tail and my one fin until I have dragged the sleigh full of presents to the World-Children."

Then the animals were all ashamed of themselves, and the reindeer all sprang forward and cried, "We will go, take us!"

So the next day, a little later than usual, Santa Claus wrapped himself in his fur lap robes, and seven new reindeer, headed by Dunder, flew like the winged wind toward the coast of Norway. And if any of you remember getting your presents a little late that year, it was because the new reindeer were not used to their work yet, though they tried hard enough.