Taking Claus to a small clearing in the forest, the Master said: “Place your hand upon my girdle and hold fast while we journey through the air; for now shall we encircle the world and look upon many of the haunts of those men from whom you are descended.”
These words caused Claus to marvel, for until now he had thought himself the only one of his kind upon the earth; yet in silence he grasped firmly the girdle of the great Ak, his astonishment forbidding speech.
Then the vast forest of Burzee seemed to fall away from their feet, and the youth found himself passing swiftly through the air at a great height.
Ere long there were spires beneath them, while buildings of many shapes and colors met their downward view. It was a city of men, and Ak, pausing to descend, led Claus to its inclosure. Said the Master:
“So long as you hold fast to my girdle you will remain unseen by all mankind, though seeing clearly yourself. To release your grasp will be to separate yourself forever from me and your home in Burzee.”
One of the first laws of the Forest is obedience, and Claus had no thought of disobeying the Master’s wish. He clung fast to the girdle and remained invisible.
Thereafter with each moment passed in the city the youth’s wonder grew. He, who had supposed himself created differently from all others, now found the earth swarming with creatures of his own kind.
“Indeed,” said Ak, “the immortals are few; but the mortals are many.”
Claus looked earnestly upon his fellows. There were sad faces, gay and reckless faces, pleasant faces, anxious faces and kindly faces, all mingled in puzzling disorder. Some worked at tedious tasks; some strutted in impudent conceit; some were thoughtful and grave while others seemed happy and content. Men of many natures were there, as everywhere, and Claus found much to please him and much to make him sad.
But especially he noted the children—first curiously, then eagerly, then lovingly. Ragged little ones rolled in the dust of the streets, playing with scraps and pebbles. Other children, gaily dressed, were propped upon cushions and fed with sugar-plums. Yet the children of the rich were not happier than those playing with the dust and pebbles, it seemed to Claus.
“Childhood is the time of man’s greatest content,” said Ak, following the youth’s thoughts. “‘Tis during these years of innocent pleasure that the little ones are most free from care.”
“Tell me,” said Claus, “why do not all these babies fare alike?”
“Because they are born in both cottage and palace,” returned the Master. “The difference in the wealth of the parents determines the lot of the child. Some are carefully tended and clothed in silks and dainty linen; others are neglected and covered with rags.”
“Yet all seem equally fair and sweet,” said Claus, thoughtfully.
“While they are babes—yes;” agreed Ak. “Their joy is in being alive, and they do not stop to think. In after years the doom of mankind overtakes them, and they find they must struggle and worry, work and fret, to gain the wealth that is so dear to the hearts of men. Such things are unknown in the Forest where you were reared.” Claus was silent a moment. Then he asked:
“Why was I reared in the forest, among those who are not of my race?”
Then Ak, in gentle voice, told him the story of his babyhood: how he had been abandoned at the forest’s edge and left a prey to wild beasts, and how the loving nymph Necile had rescued him and brought him to manhood under the protection of the immortals.
“Yet I am not of them,” said Claus, musingly.
“You are not of them,” returned the Woodsman. “The nymph who cared for you as a mother seems now like a sister to you; by and by, when you grow old and gray, she will seem like a daughter. Yet another brief span and you will be but a memory, while she remains Necile.”
“Then why, if man must perish, is he born?” demanded the boy.
“Everything perishes except the world itself and its keepers,” answered Ak. “But while life lasts everything on earth has its use. The wise seek ways to be helpful to the world, for the helpful ones are sure to live again.”
Much of this Claus failed to understand fully, but a longing seized him to become helpful to his fellows, and he remained grave and thoughtful while they resumed their journey.
They visited many dwellings of men in many parts of the world, watching farmers toil in the fields, warriors dash into cruel fray, and merchants exchange their goods for bits of white and yellow metal. And everywhere the eyes of Claus sought out the children in love and pity, for the thought of his own helpless babyhood was strong within him and he yearned to give help to the innocent little ones of his race even as he had been succored by the kindly nymph.
Day by day the Master Woodsman and his pupil traversed the earth, Ak speaking but seldom to the youth who clung steadfastly to his girdle, but guiding him into all places where he might become familiar with the lives of human beings.
And at last they returned to the grand old Forest of Burzee, where the Master set Claus down within the circle of nymphs, among whom the pretty Necile anxiously awaited him.
The brow of the great Ak was now calm and peaceful; but the brow of Claus had become lined with deep thought. Necile sighed at the change in her foster-son, who until now had been ever joyous and smiling, and the thought came to her that never again would the life of the boy be the same as before this eventful journey with the Master.