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Title: Pictures in the Snow
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
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Language: English
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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: Pictures in the Snow
Author: Fred M White

*


PICTURES IN THE SNOW

By

FRED. M. WHITE,


Author of "The Robe of Lucifer," etc., etc.

*

Published in the Examiner, Launceston, Saturday 21 December, 1901.

*



CHAPTER I.

On the whole Billy was graciously pleased to be satisfied with the
Christmas programme. And Billy had all the pessimism that goes to youth
in the hour of misfortune. "Soccer" is a great game, indeed Billy
regarded the Michaelmas Term as being specially designed with a view to
the exigencies of Association football, but when you lose your House
Eleven Cap and break a small bone in your leg within six weeks of the
festive season, you are bound to own that it's rough on a chap.

Thus Billy, hopping about the great oaken hall at Castle End on
Christmas morning helping the girls with the decorations. Such a lovely
Christmas morning, too--none of your damp clinging fogs or blanketty
snow, but clear and bright as a star and two inches of polished
malachite on the lake down yonder behind the beeches where the deer
huts were.

Billy pounded over the polished floor recklessly with his crutch, a
usually happy Eton lad of twelve, but not without a touch of cynicism.
That Billy was in the way of the three Castle girls and the professor
he never dreamed. Not that the professor minded much so long as he
could have the dark corner behind the painted Oriel window to Kitty
Castle and himself. He didn't know that Billy had other views for
Kitty, who was charming and an heiress in her own right. Still, for a
Cambridge man who went in for "stinks," and who wrote learned papers
anent meteoric phenomena, the professor was not a bad chap. He had
carried Billy down to the lake earlier in the day, and under his
approving eyes had executed figures of amazing dexterity and grace.
Also he looked much better in knicker-bockers than Billy had expected.
And Billy had just learned incidentally that John Brodie was an old
"footer" Blue.

It was very warm and cosy there with a huge leaping yellow and
crocus-blue wood fire leaping in the deep fireplace and casting up
green shadows on the holly and pale mistletoe that festooned the hall
and draped gracefully round the family portraits. The girls had nearly
finished now, and were looking round for some place to hang the last
superfluous trailing rope of ivy.

"Put it yonder," said Billy, "where Reggie's portrait used to hang."

The three girls gasped at the audacity of the suggestion. Squire Castle
would be furious--everybody called the master of Castle End "The
Squire"--even to his nieces and grandchildren. And Reggie had been
his only son. There had been no reason why he should not have married
the late rector's only daughter save that the black-browed squire
had chosen to oppose the match from the first. Reggie could choose
between his father and his sweetheart, and he chose the latter. It was
a painful story. Whatever Jasper Castle felt nobody knew, save that
during the last two years he had grown grimmer and blacker, and those
awful graver lines on his forehead had deepened like sabre cuts.

"Shove it up," Billy said truculently. "I'd give my Christmas grub to
see Reggie back again."

Kitty Castle bent down and kissed Billy before Professor John Brodie's
admiring eyes. There was no other "chap" about to witness the
indignity, so Billy accepted it with manly resignation. There was just
a catch in his voice when he spoke again.

"The place ain't the same without Reggie," he said. "And Bet was jolly,
too. I always looked upon Bet as being as good as a boy."

"That is high praise," Brodie said gravely.

"You didn't know her," Billy went on eagerly. "Personally I can't
complain of the squire. He always tips handsomely. But over Reggie he
behaved like a beast."

Kitty gasped and her pretty winsome face grew pale. Even the professor
was not without the suggestion of embarrassment. For a big man with a
dark face and white hair had come into the hall, a huge man in breeches
and gaiters by the side of whom Brodie looked small. He stood regarding
the unconscious Billy with grim disapproval.

"What are you saying, young man?" the squire asked.

Billy gasped for his crutch with a view to strategic movements. But
somebody had dropped a trail of ivy over it. In Billy's own vernacular,
there was nothing left but to "cheek it." The little round face was
very pale, but the eyes were resolute enough.

"I voted for sticking up some ivy where Reggie's portrait used to be,
sir," he sad. "And I said Christmas was not the same without Reggie and
Bet."

No smile relaxed the grim face of the squire.

"I fancied that you said more than that," he suggested.

"Well, I did," Billy admitted desperately. "I said that--that you
behaved, behaved like a beast over Reggie. And, what's more, everybody
else says the same."

The squire smiled ever so slightly. Billy was carrying the war into
the enemy's country with a vengeance. And the squire ever loved a good
fighter.

"Do they?" he asked. "Do Grace and Maud say so, for instance, and Kitty
here? Has Mr. Brodie been good enough to express his opinion on my
exercise of parental authority?"

"Not aloud, sir," Brodie said pointedly. "You forget that Reggie
is a friend of mine. Master Billy must be responsible for his own
criticisms."

"That's a nasty one for the squire," Billy said, unconsciously.

Jasper Castle laughed aloud to everybody's intense amazement, but it
cleared the air.

"Billy it quite right, and I beg your pardon for my senseless display
of temper. Brodie," he said. "Would that everybody was so loyal to
their friends. And if you particularly desire to 'stick' some holly up
there, Billy, I have no objection."

The squire passed on heavily, the gleam of light dying in his eyes as a
snow wrack races over a pallid winter sun. Billy stood trembling there,
yet fully conscious of his victory. It would be a fine thing to tell
the other "chaps" when they came back from skating.

"I flatter myself that I gave it him pretty straight," he said. "If you
had only backed me up we might have done something really handsome for
Reggie."

There was no more to be said on this head now, for the younger fry
were coming in red and noisy from the lake. A bigger house party than
usual had gathered at Castle End this year, although the master of the
house appeared to derive but little pleasure from the festive colony.
There were quite a score of children, for the Castle family was large,
and, for the most part, the men of the clan were warriors, doing their
country's work in many climes, so that the children from school usually
took possession of the grand old house in holiday time.

There were a good many "grown ups" besides who were to dine more or
less solemnly at eight o'clock, the dinner of the juveniles being fixed
for three, after which there would be games and a wonderful biograph
display engineered by the professor. On Boxing Day the children sat up
as long as they liked, but the squire expected them to be in bed on
Christmas Day by dinner time.

They came in now, a noisy, ruddy group, clamouring for mince pies and
cake, they clung round Kitty and the other girls like the happy hearty
young brigands that they were. Kitty stopped her little ears against
the din.

"Mercy on us," she exclaimed. "You only breakfasted at nine and such a
breakfast, too!"

"You just go back to school and try the toke there again," Billy
suggested.

A couple of big footmen came in bearing trays full of dainties and
jingling glasses. In the foray that followed Kitty and the professor
managed to get a few words to themselves. A long lance of sunshine
filtered in through the painted window, and touched the girl's pretty
eager face with a tinge of amber glory.

"If you only knew how anxious I felt," she said.

"I am not without my qualms," Brodie smiled; "still I fancy that a good
deal of the squire's grimness is only assumed. You could hardly have
expected to see him bow the knee to Billy like that."

"I was never more astonished, Jack. You might have knocked me down with
the proverbial feather. And I don't feel nearly so frightened as I did.
I only hope the risk we are running will be attended with the success
it deserves."

"It is a piece of gross impertinence on my part," Brodie said, gravely.
"If the squire orders me out of the house I shall only have myself
to blame. I am like a general who disobeys orders. If I fail I am
ignominiously disgraced; if I succeed, why I am pretty certain of my
promotion. And I shall have you."

There was a pause here broken by a suggestion on Kitty's part that
the children----. Then Kitty passed red and smiling through the hall
on her way to the housekeeper's room. As she flitted by the library,
the squire came out and stopped her. He was smoking a cigarette and
looking, for him, comparatively amiable.

"I hope the children don't disturb you, grandfather," said Kitty. "If
so----"

"They don't disturb me at all," the squire growled. "Fact is, I opened
the door on purpose to listen to them. And Kitty, see that Billy comes
to no harm on the polished floor with that crutch of his. Plucky lad
that. Who put him up to tilt me just now?"

"He--he didn't know that you were there," Kitty stammered.

"But not one of you seemed eager to correct the lad?"

"Perhaps it was because we agreed with him, squire," Kitty said,
boldly. "Perhaps it was because our hearts ache for Reggie and Bet at
this blessed Christmas tide, perhaps at the bottom of our hearts we
feel that Billy was right and that you are wrong."

On the whole it was perhaps the most audacious speech the squire had
ever heard. But his face was blank as a wall, and no sign of anger or
passion escaped him. He looked out across the fair demesne, the sonless
old man who must soon part with it all.

"Where are those people now?" he asked. "I won't be so foolish as to
assume that you are not fully posted in all their movements."

"They are in lodgings at Failsworth," said Kitty. "I--I saw Bet
yesterday, she came over to see her father's grave. This time last year
they were in London. I am afraid that they are having a hard time of
it."

"Um, it isn't more than five miles to Failsworth. And----"

Kitty waited anxiously. She saw the grim face soften for a moment
before the clouds fell again.

"You were going to say something, squire?" she said.

"Was I?" Castle growled. "Oh, yes. You had better shut the door as you
go out. Those youngsters are making more noise that I care for, after
all."

Kitty closed the door behind her. Had she not been a lady, she might
have been accused of banging it.




CHAPTER II.

The bright happy day ran speedily along, the big footmen were lighting
lamps and drawing curtains and closing shutters. The village children
had come and sung their carols and gone away repleted, the squire and
some of his male guests were playing pool in the billiard room. The
rest of the house was given over entirely to the children.

The oaken floors were strewn with tinsel and powder and confetti,
fantastic caps adorned golden curly heads, the white dresses of the
girls showed prettily against the dark green clad walls. A laughing
scrambling tea at six had followed dinner, and now the professor was
pinning a huge white sheet against one end of the hall. At the other
a weird-looking machine was mounted on a stand and guarded from the
curious by an equally curious footman. There was one constant ripple
of laughter, a choir of fresh young voices, a constant fusillade of
crackers. A few chairs had been placed at the back of the hall for
the adults, the children could sit on the floor. The professor wore a
grave, not to say worried, look.

Billy pattered across the floor towards the entertainer.

"I say," he whispered eagerly. "It's not going to be stiff, eh?"

"I don't quite understand you," said Brodie.

"Well, too dry. Nothing to improve the mind? Nothing about stars or
bodies in space or skittles of that kind. Cause it's holiday time, you
know."

"I assure you," Brodie said gravely, "that there isn't a star in the
whole performance. They are nothing but a series of moving pictures,
most of them taken by myself, and all of them having something to do
with Christmas. What do you say to a real live harlequinade. Billy--and
a scene on the ice and sailors dancing hornpipes?"

"Hooray," Billy cried. "And no speeches. I can see Barkis the curate
yonder just bursting to have a shy at a few words to the young people.
If Barkis wants to say anything, just punch his head by way of a hint
to keep his mouth shut. He's spoony on Kitty. Barkis! Just to think of
it! And a spiffin' girl like Kitty, too."

Brodie assured the deputation earnestly that the harmony of the
occasion should be marred by no parochial addresses. As Billy reached
his corner a muffled cheer followed. Then the elders came in and the
show commenced in earnest.

A brilliant disc flashed on the sheet, and immediately a moving
picture stood out boldly. There was the deck of a great ship adorned
everywhere with greenery. In the centre stood a sailor in clean white
ducks smoking a pipe, the vapour of which could be seen issuing from
his lips. He pointed to a "Happy Christmas" in holly over his head,
winked playfully at the audience, and immediately executed a hornpipe
of amazing brilliance and celerity.

A perfect yell of applause followed this lifelike exhibition, a yell
redoubled as a dozen or more sailors came on playing leap-frog over
each other's backs ere they settled down to a hornpipe lasting quite a
long time, after which an officer came on and served out champagne to
the performers.

Billy's crutch kept up a constant thunder of applause.

"Spiffin," he muttered, "no heavenly bodies and tommy rot as to the
distance of the earth from the moon. Blow me if the squire isn't as
interested as anybody."

"Are there going to be any clowns?" one little voice piped anxiously.

Apparently there were, for the next picture was devoted to clowns.
A gaily-dressed "Joey" came staggering across the sheet carrying a
Titanic policeman on his back, a policeman some four times the size
of the clown, who appeared to be sliding, contrary to the Act of
Parliament, made and provided as clowns are prone to do. Amidst a roar
of laughter the clown came to grief, and the policeman, under the
horrified eyes of his captor, immediately began to collapse until he
became no larger than an average boy.

The quaint carved rafters rang with mirth as the clown proceeded to
blow up the unhappy policeman again and stuff a huge turnip in his
mouth to keep the air in. Even the grim old squire relaxed into a
hearty chuckle, the like of which had not been heard in Castle End any
time the last two years.

"That's a feather in the professor's cap," said Billy as the figures
gradually faded under a colossal fall of snow. "We'll see the squire
dancing a hornpipe yet."

Other and still more amazing pictures followed, till the big stable
clock booming the hour of seven told amazed little ears that they had
been in a land of delight for over an hour. Some very small tinsel
crowned heads were already nodding happily. The professor, who hitherto
had displayed an unexpected turn of jocularity, grew somewhat grave.

"I have nearly come to the end of my entertainment," he said; "in
fact, I have only two more pictures to show you. I am afraid my
little performance has been lacking in the instructive qualities
which--which----"

"Makes kids' shows so beastly slow," said Billy, encouragingly. "Go on."

"Which are prone to pall on the juvenile mind," the professor said
gravely. "The next picture will be familiar to most of you. It depicts
some pretty and pleasing incidents that happened two years ago this
very day."

A long, handsome old drawing-room flashed on the screen. A big wood
fire glowed on the grate. There were flowers and ferns and evergreens
everywhere. With a yell of delight every child recognised the
drawing-room of Castle End. A footman drawing the curtains was received
warmly as an old friend.

"William! William!" they cried, "with his wig all on one side."

Then there filed into the room a score of familiar figures. Foremost
the squire, big and dignified as usual, but with a smile that had been
out of suit with his face for many a day. There were Kitty and Grace
and Maud with the professor, and a pretty, dainty girl who came behind,
followed by a handsome young man who smiled at her. Then the squire
stood under a huge forest of mistletoe pendant from a chandelier, and
the pretty girl advanced and kissed him.

"He kissed her back that time," Billy yelled. "I saw him. Poor old Bet!"

Before the words were out of the lad's mouth the squire was seen to
turn and smilingly repay the salute. And by his side the handsome young
man stood beaming.

"Bet, Bet," the children cried shrilly. "And Reggie."

"I'd give ten bob to see him here now," said Billy sotto voce.

None of the elders had anything to say, most of them were furtively
watching the squire. He stood a little apart from the rest, his face
black and grim. Kitty crept quietly to his side. She could glean
nothing except that the squire's lips we're twitching. As yet he
made no show of anger--perhaps he had not gathered the full meaning
of the trick they were playing upon him. He took a pinch of snuff
ostentatiously.

"Wonderfully realistic, Mavern, is it not?" he said.

Lord Mavern muttered something, inwardly wondering what his old friend
could be made of. All the time the moving pictures were flashing and
clicking as they reeled off a marvellous reproduction of Sir Roger de
Coverly. There was a fall at one part of the picture--a footman with a
tray of glasses. Save for the tiny ones now nearly asleep, most of the
company recollected the incident perfectly.

"It was Billy who tripped him up," a small voice piped admiringly.

"So that has come out at last," the squire growled. "Really a wonderful
show, Brodie. Like all good entertainers, I suppose you have kept the
best till last."

"Well, I am afraid not," said Brodie in a slightly unsteady voice.
"It is by way of being a bit of a contrast. It was taken without the
principal actors' knowledge last Christmas, and I call it 'the other
side of the medal.' It shows another kind of Christmas altogether. Two
at least of the characters in the play are known to most of you."

"Sounds serious," Billy said, sotto voce. "Hope he ain't going to spoil
the whole show by any snivellin' business at the finish. By gum, it
looks little like old Salby's lodge in Windsor lane where we get the
pop from. Here, professor, you are not going to tell us that's poor old
Reggie----"

For the moment the boy had utterly forgotten himself. He stood leaning
on his crutch, in full sight of them all, a trembling, eager, slightly
hysterical figure, defiant perhaps, but thrilling to his finger tips
with honest intentions.

"Reggie, Reggie," he cried. "It is Reggie. Oh, what a beast!"

The round brilliant trembling disc showed a sordid, miserable room, a
room evidently in the last stage of decay and dinginess. In the centre
of the room dinner was laid, or what passed for dinner. One dish made
up the banquet. There were smoking potatoes steaming unblushingly in a
basin. Three cups of coffee flanked the repast.

Nobody said anything, nobody applauded. There was an electric feeling
in the air. The face of the squire was hidden in gloom. He altogether
ignored Billy's obvious challenge. And all eyes were watching the
shabby haggard-looking figure in the picture. Not much like Christmas
this, save for the fact that a dry sprig of mistletoe dangled from a
gas bracket painfully in need of repair.

Presently another figure entered, a genuine street arab cowering half
defiant until coaxed to the table by the smell of the banquet and the
smiles of the haggard man. The little nomad seemed to be fascinated
by the coffee. The haggard man gave him a cup which he swallowed with
amazing rapidity. Then the haggard man filled up the empty cup with
water and placed it hurriedly by his own seat as somebody else entered.
Obviously the giver of the feast intended to assume that his coffee
stood intact. A little murmur followed as the cups were dexterously
changed.

"Just like Reggie," Billy muttered tearfully. "Bet, Bet; here's Bet."

The new comer was a woman, young, bright, and wonderfully pretty
despite her shabby dress. Everybody present seemed to understand the
picture without any words from the professor. Those poor outcasts were
sharing their meal with one poorer still and bringing a bright spot
into a life otherwise filled with deepest darkness.

"And that," the professor concluded lamely; "is all."

The lights flared up again on a silent and troubled group. Towering
above his guests, the squire came forward. Whatever he felt he showed
no emotion whatever on his features. He touched Brodie significantly on
the arm.

"I thank you for a unique and entertaining series of pictures," he
said, coldly, "if you are quite at liberty I should like to see you in
the library. William, will you bring Mr. Brodie's hat and overcoat and
gloves into the hall?"

Billy pushed his way forward. His eyes were blazing.

"Don't do it, squire," he cried. "Don't be a bigger beast
than--then----"

He paused, unable to proceed. It would never do for the other "chaps"
to see him break down. And after he had called the squire a beast and
all!

"The others will go to bed," the squire said, in the same hard level
voice. "Billy will stay up. I shall have something to say to him
presently. This way, Brodie."

Kitty watched the two disappearing with anxious eyes. Her lips were
quivering. Already a long white flash of child-life was disappearing
slowly upstairs. Billy crept up to Kitty for comfort and sympathy.

"Perhaps he isn't in such an awful wax after all," he said, hopefully.
"He didn't say Mr. Brodie as he would have done when he's precious
polite and going to be uncommon nasty. Perhaps you noticed that, Kitty.
But I expect I'll get beans presently."

Meanwhile the door had closed behind Jasper Castle and his guest. The
former had not moved a muscle of his face.

"Of course, I will not pretend to misunderstand your parable," he said.
"You are a very bold man to beard me like that, Brodie. I should like
to know what my--what Reginald had to do with it."

"Why insult your son, sir?" Brodie asked quietly. "He is a gentleman,
and his great fault is yours--a wicked, stiff-necked pride. The idea
was partly mine and partly Kitty's."

"Whose? Oh, Kitty's. So that's the way the wind lies. Well, Kitty is
her own mistress, and you are a pretty good parti as things go----"

"And got those photos last year and the year before," Brodie struck
in eagerly. "Of course, Reggie knew nothing about it or his wife
either. We hoped that there would have been no occasion to have--you
understand?"

The squire nodded grimly.

"I understand perfectly," he said. "Will you kindly put on your coat
and hat. It is five minutes past seven, and before eight o'clock----"

"I can catch the train to Oxford," Brodie said stiffly. "I ask your
pardon for my unwarrantable interference in the matter. But I can
assure you that I was dictated all the time by the best of intentions."

"A common fault with good-hearted people," said the squire. "As a
matter of fact your journey has nothing whatever to do with Oxford, and
you are not going alone. You are going to have me for a companion."

"Yes," Brodie gasped. "I am an----"

"Ass," said the squire with a catch in his throat, "but that is not as
bad as being a beast, Brodie. I want you to take me in to Failsworth."




CHAPTER III.

All the children were in bed with the exception of the proud, yet
anxious, Billy, and most of the grown ups were dressing for the formal
eight o'clock dinner. There was no news beyond the fact that the squire
and Brodie had gone off together in the direction of the stables, where
a dogcart was waiting for them. The whole manoeuvre had been executed
so skilfully that no single sign had passed between the professor and
Kitty. The big clock in the hall was staggering majestically towards
a quarter to eight. Grace and Maud had already been carried off vi et
armis by their maids.

"Oh, dear, I must go," Kitty sighed. "I dare not stay here any longer.
I wish being late for dinner was not an unpardonable sin. What do you
think of it, Billy?"

"Dunno," Billy said uneasily, but with dignity. "I only hope I put it
strong enough. I was a bit rough upon him, wasn't I? And yet what is
the good of a chap who isn't ready to do anything for a pal? No fun for
me to-morrow, you bet. I say, Kitty; couldn't you manage to sneak me a
lot of grub upstairs?"

Kitty stooped and kissed the boy affectionately.

"You shall make yourself positively ill on goodies," she said. "Now I
must go, Billy. And I had looked forward to to-day with such pleasure.
For Jack's sake----"

"Oh, so Jack's the man. Well, seeing he's a 'blue,' and one of the
swell's of the London Skating Club, I don't raise any objections. At
one time I began to fancy it was that Barkis chap. All the same I
shan't mind calling the professor Jack."

"Shall I kiss you again or box your ears?" Kitty laughed.

"It don't make so much difference," said the stolid young Etonian. "You
cut upstairs and rig yourself out in your warpaint; that jolly dress
with the fluffy stuff round the neck--whilst I lie low for signs of the
foe. If anything happens I'll come and let you know."

The next thing that happened was the forcibly dragging off of Billy by
a stern old nurse who saw him into a white waistcoat and tie to match,
averring that these were the squire's orders, and that she didn't know
any more than Chloe what it was all about. Thus gorgeously attired,
Billy hopped down to the hall.

"If there was a pantomime anywhere handy," he said. "I should know what
it meant. Perhaps there's a man short, and they want me to take a girl
into dinner."

Billy dropped into one of the big beehive chairs by the glowing
yule logs and chuckled over the dry humour of the suggestion. It
was five minutes to eight by the time, and most of the guests were
in the drawing-room. As yet there was no sign of the squire or the
mysteriously vanishing professor.

A cold breath of air, the dancing and whirling of a million red and
purple sparks up the chimney, and Billy awoke from his doze. There
stood the squire in evening dress, his big fur-lined overcoat pushed
back, and such a queer, broken, wavering jolly smile on his face that
Billy had never seen before. A man who could smile like that when
nobody was looking might forgive many things on due deliberation. Billy
thought--such things as being called a beast, for instance. Behind him
came the professor with the same unsteady smile as if he'd been crying
over something and was ashamed of it. The old butler Marshall stood
there crying in the most simple unaffected manner; Marshal, so please
you, who might have passed for a bishop anywhere.

But Billy had no eyes for any of these after the first moment. He was
gazing minutely at two figures behind, also in evening dress. There was
a lump in his throat, and his legs were staggering under him. It was
the haggard man and his pretty wife--the haggard man who never more
would play the fiddle in a music-hall orchestra, the pretty winsome
girl whose drudgery at evening parties was a thing of the past.

"Glad to see you again, Marshall," Reggie said cheerfully. "Shake
hands, Marshall. Why, Billy old boy, how you've grown to be sure.
Hasn't he, Bet?"

Billy advanced with dignity. He had some idea of making a speech. Then
what should the hero of the evening do but break down and cry as if
his heart would burst until sweet winsome Bet took him in her arms and
kissed and petted him as she had done when Billy had been down with
scarlet fever. It was a most dreadful thing for a "chap" who had got
his house colours to do, and Billy had a sad impression that he should
never be able to hold up his head again. Still there were tears in the
squire's face, and Bet was crying softly, while Marshall snivelled
audibly in the corner. There was balm, too, in the way in which the
squire shook hands with Billy.

"I'm sorry, too, sir," the boy faltered. "And really I did think
that you were a beast. Still, if you'll let me off all imposts for
tomorrow----"

"Sir," said the squire, gravely, "between gentlemen no more need be
said. You will do me the honour of dining with me to-night."

"Me," Billy exclaimed, delightedly, "Fen larks!"

The squire crossed to the drawing-room and flung it wide open. At the
same time Kitty came down the stairs. There was no time to say much.
Billy was the first of the group in the hall to recover himself.

"I've managed it, Kitty," he said. "And I'm dining with you to-night.
And, what's more, I'm going to take you in to dinner."

"So you shall," said Brodie; "come and see their faces."

"Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Castle," said Marshall, with a commendably grave
face and a voice that he strove in vain to render steady. "And dinner
is served, Miss Grace."

They filed into the dining-room, silent, astonished, filled with
curiosity, and yet all of them too well-bred to display the fact. There
was a certain air of reserve during the early part of the meal save
on the part of the squire, who seemed to have shed half a dozen years
from his shoulders. It was not till the dessert was on the table and
Marshall had withdrawn his subordinates with grave dignity that the
squire rose to make some sort of explanation.

"I ask you to drink the health of my son and his wife," he said. "Also
to the cause of science which brought home to me to-day a lesson I
shall, I hope, never forget. If I could have seen my boy and his dear
wife at any time the last two years I might----But I did see them
to-day. My friend Brodie was fearful that he had offended me. From the
bottom of my heart I thank him. Also Kitty, who was the authoress of
the little scheme. I suppose I should feel a certain sense of shame and
humiliation, but I am too happy for that. Then there is also Billy,
whose outspoken and subtle analysis of my character----"

"No, no," Billy said modestly. "I'll never use the word 'beast' again
as long as I live. I should be an awful beast myself if I----"

A loud burst of laughter cut short the speech and served to clear the
atmosphere wonderfully, during which the squire discreetly sat down.
Amidst the happy babel of sound and the rip of crackers Bet Castle
crept round to Billy.

"I have been hearing about you, dear old boy," she said. "It was
awfully good of you all to stick up for Reg and myself. And perhaps
if Reg had not been quite so proud there would have been no occasion
to speak of beasts and other zoological specimens. You are a big man
to-night, Billy."

"That's all right," Billy said modestly. "There's one thing, Bet; don't
you tell anybody I blubbered when you--you know what I mean. I couldn't
help it then, and I feel precious near to it now, I can tell you. But
what a stunning Christmas it has been!"

"Ay," said Bet softly. "Peace and goodwill."

She turned and met the squire's glance, and the smile that passed
between them spoke of a sweet accord to last all along this side of the
grave.

"Rippin'," said Billy as he tumbled sleepily into bed. "And I can only
hope every other chap has had a Christmas Day like mine."

And so say all of us.


THE END.



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