Here to return to
IT was Mr. Clark, who as soon as the door was opened stepped within and taking off his hat began to shake the snow from it, even while he greeted James and wished him a merry Christmas.
James liked Mr. Clark. He did not rate him very highly in the matter of intelligence; but he recognized him as a gentleman, and appreciated his kindly courtesy to himself. He knew it came from a good heart.
Many a man who drove up to the door in a carriage, James relieved of his coat and showed into the drawing-room in silence; but the downcast eyes were averted to conceal inconvenient thoughts and the expressionless face was a mask to hide views which the caller might not have cared to discover. Mr. Clark, however, always treated James with consideration, and James reciprocated the feeling and returned the treatment.
Mr. Clark was giving James his hat when the butler took in that he had come to see Mr. Livingstone.
“Mr. Livingstone begs to be excused this evening, sir,” he said.
“Yes.” Mr. Clark laid a package on a chair and proceeded to unbutton his overcoat.
“He says he regrets he cannot see any one,” explained the servant.
“Yes. That’s all right. I know.” He caught the lapels of the coat preparatory to taking it off
“No, sir. He cannot see anybody at all this evening,” insisted James, confident in being within his authority.
“Why, he told me to come and bring his books! I suppose he meant —!”
“No, sir. He is not very well this evening.” Mr. Clark’s hands dropped to his side.
“Not well! Why, he left the, office only an hour or two ago.”
“Yes, sir; but he walked up, and seemed very tired when he arrived. He did not eat anything, and — the doctor is coming to see him.”
Mr. Clark’s face expressed the deepest concern.
“He has been working too hard,” he said, shaking his head. “He ought to have let me go over those accounts. With all he has to carry!”
“Yes, sir, that’s it,” said James, heartily.
“Well, don’t you think I’d better go up and see him?” asked the old clerk, solicitously. “I might be able to suggest something?”
“No, sir. He said quite positive he would not see anybody.” James looked the clerk full in the face. “I was afraid something might ‘ave ‘appened down in the — ah —?”
Mr. Clark’s face lit up with a kindly light.
“No, indeed. It’s nothing like that, James. We never had so good a year. You can make your mind easy about that.”
“Thank you, sir,” said the servant. “We’ll have the doctor drop in to see him, and I hope he’ll be all right in the morning. Snowy night, sir.”
“I hope so,” said Mr. Clark, not intending to convey his views as to the weather. “You’ll let me know if I am wanted — if I can do anything. I will come around first thing in the morning to see how he is. I hope he’ll be all right. Good-night. A merry Christmas to you.”
“Good-night, sir. Thankee, sir; the same to you, sir. I’m going to wait up to see how he is. Good-night, sir.”
And James shut the door softly behind the visitor, feeling a sense of comfort not wholly accounted for by the information as to the successful year. Mr. Clark, somehow, always reassured him. The butler could understand the springs that moved that kindly spirit.
What Mr. Clark thought as he tramped back through the snow need not be fully detailed. But at least, one thing was certain, he never thought of himself.
If he recalled that a mortgage would be due on his house just one week from that day, and that the doctors’ bills had been unusually heavy that year, it was not on his own account that he was anxious. Indeed, he never considered himself; there were too many others to think of. One thought was that he was glad his friend had such a good servant as James to look after him. Another was pity that Livingstone had never known the joy that was awaiting himself when at the end of that mile of snow he should peep into the little cosy back room (for the front room was mysteriously closed this evening), where a sweet-faced, frail-looking woman would be lying on a lounge with a half-dozen little curly heads bobbing about her. He knew what a scream of delight would greet him as he poked his head in; and out in the darkness and cold John Clark smiled and smacked his lips as he thought of the kisses and squeezes, and renewed kisses that would be his lot as he told how he would be with them all the evening.
Yes, he was undoubtedly sorry for Livingstone, a poor lonely man in that great house; and he determined that he would not say much about his being ill. Women did not always exactly understand some men, and when he left home, Mrs. Clark had expressed some very strong views as to Livingstone which had pained Clark. She had even spoken of him as selfish and miserly. He would just say now that Livingstone on his arrival had sent him straight back home.
No, Mr. Clark never thought of himself, and this made him richer than Mr. Livingstone. When Mr. Clark reached home his expectation was more than realized. From the way in which he noiselessly opened the front door and then stole along the little passage to the back room, from which the sound of many voices was coming as though it were a mimic Babel, you might have thought he was a thief.
And when he opened the door softly and, with dancing eyes, poked his head into the room, you might have thought he was, Santa Claus himself. There was one second of dead silence as a half-dozen pair of eyes stretched wide and a half-dozen mouths opened with a gasp, and then, with a shout which would have put to the blush a tribe of wild Indians, a half-dozen young bodies flung themselves upon him with screams and shrieks of delight. John Clark’s neck must have been of iron to withstand such hugs and tugs as it was given.
The next instant he was drawn bodily into the room and pushed down forcibly into a chair, whilst the whole half-dozen piled upon him with demands to be told how he had managed to get off and come back. No one but Clark could have understood them or answered them, but somehow, as his arms seemed able to gather in the whole lot of struggling, squeezing, wriggling, shoving little bodies, so his ears seemed to catch all the questions and his mind to answer each in turn and all together.
“‘How did I come?’ — Ran every step of the way. — ‘Why did I come back?’ — Well! that’s a question for a man with eight children who will sit up and keep Santa Claus out of the house unless their father comes home and puts them to bed and holds their eyelids down to keep them from peeping and scaring Santa Claus away! — ‘What did Mr. Livingstone say?’ — Well, what do you suppose a man would say Christmas Eve to another man who has eight wide-awake children who will sit up in front of the biggest fire-place in the house until midnight Christmas Eve so that Santa Claus can’t come down the only chimney big enough to hold his presents? He would say, ‘John Clark, I have no children of my own, but you have eight, and if you don’t go home this minute and see that those children are in bed and fast asleep and snoring, — yes, snoring, mind, — by ten o’clock, I’ll never, and Santa Claus will never —’
“‘Did I see anything of Santa Claus?’ Well, if I were to tell you — what I saw this night, why, — you’d never believe me. There’s a sleigh so big coming in a little while to this town, and this street, and this house, that it holds presents enough for —. When will it be here?’ Well, from the sleigh-bells that I heard I should say —. My goodness, gracious! If it isn’t almost ten o’clock, and if that sleigh should get here whilst there’s a single eye open in this house, I don’t know what Santa Claus might do!”
And, with a strength that one might have thought quite astonishing, John Clark rose somehow from under the mass of little heads, and, with his arms still around them, still talking, still cajoling, still entertaining and still caressing, he managed to bear the whole curly, chattering flock to the door where, with renewed kisses and squeezes and questions, they were all finally induced to release their hold and run squeaking and frisking off upstairs to bed.
Then, as he closed the door, Clark turned and looked at the only other occupant of the room, a lady whose pale face would have told her story even had she not remained outstretched on a lounge during the preceding scene.
If, however, Mrs. Clark’s face was pale, her eyes were brilliant, and the look that she and her husband exchanged told that even invalidism and narrow means have alleviations, so full was the glance they gave of confidence and joy.
Yet, as absolute as was their confidence, Mr. Clark did not now tell his wife the truth. He gave her in a few words the reason of his return. Mr. Livingstone was feeling unwell, he said. He had not remembered it was Christmas Eve, he added; and, turning quickly and opening the door into the front room he guilefully dived at once into the matter of the Christmas-tree which was standing there waiting to be dressed.
Whether or not Mr. Clark deceived Mrs. Clark might be a matter of question. Mr. Clark was not good at deception. Mrs. Clark was better at it; but then, to-night was a night of peace and good-will, and since her husband had returned she was willing to forgive even Livingstone.Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.