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Title: Christmas Cards
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1601271.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: Nov 2016
Date most recently updated: Dec 2016

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: Christmas Cards
Author: Fred M White



CHRISTMAS CARDS


BY


FRED M. WHITE


Author of "The Christmas Carol," "A Christmas Star," etc.


Published in the Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW : 1894 - 1939), Thursday
12 December 1935.



The mighty roar of the traffic diminished to a dull rumbling as
the last bus rolled jerkily up the Strand, and the intermittent
hooting of a belated taxi echoed through the comparative silence of
a foggy December evening. Inside the great hotel, where crowds still
congregated in the ball-room, the crooning voice of a thin tenor
begged the lady of his choice to kiss him good-night, and presently
the strains of "God Save the King" indicated to the sleepy guests
who had already retired that the evening's festivities had come to
an end. Then, in groups the guests were conveyed upwards to their
rooms in purring electric lifts, while those who had come in for the
dinner-dance clamored outside for taxis to convey them home. One by
one, the twinkling lights disappeared, and, as Big Ben boomed the
half hour, a little man emerged from one of the lounges, and crept
stealthily down the steps that led on to the Embankment, and vanished
in the humid pall of the fog.

"Lord, what a sentimental fool, I should look if any of my friends
could see me now," he told himself whimsically, as he crossed the
glistening, damp road, and, leaning on the Embankment wall, under
which the silent waters of the Thames rolled bleakly, put a hand in
his breast pocket and produced a wad of Treasury notes. "I'm afraid
even the most unsophisticated child would never mistake me for Father
Christmas. Still, I can't bear to think of those poor devils suffering
while I have plenty of this world's goods."

And, pulling his overcoat well across the gleaming white shirt-front
underneath, he stole quietly towards the nearest seat, on which
sat four poor derelicts who slept the heavy, cramping slumber of
heart-breaking fatigue. Taking four notes from the pile that he had
stuffed into his overcoat pocket, he gently placed one in each of
the pockets of the benumbed sleepers, and passed quietly on. Thence
he crept to the next seat, where he performed the same rite, smiling
softly to himself as he thought of the happy surprise they would have
on their awakening.

"At least that will give them a comfortable bed and some warming
food to-morrow night," he thought. "I couldn't sleep comfortably at
Christmas time if I thought I hadn't done something to alleviate some
of this terrible suffering. It seems so unfair that I should have so
much, and they so little. What a tragedy it all is."

And so he continued on his errand of mercy, stepping lightly from one
to the other, his slim form veiled in the lowering mist, until he came
at last to the end seat, on which a solitary man slept restlessly, his
right hand clutching the lapel of his shabby overcoat as if in mute
protection of some treasure that lay in the thread-bare pocket beneath.

Martin Irwin stood watching him as he tossed uncomfortably on his
hard makeshift bed, frightened to approach him lest he disturb the
forgetfulness that Morpheus brings, but determined to wait until he
should have the chance to press his offering into the man's pocket.

Half an hour he waited while the cold fog penetrated his limbs, until
the unhappy derelict seemed to settle into a more peaceful sleep, then,
approaching softly, he pressed gentle fingers into the slumberer's
pocket. He was just withdrawing them when a hand clutched his and in a
second, the man was on his feet grasping him by the throat.

"You dirty thief," he snarled. "You must be pretty filthy scum to sink
so low as to rob the poor down-and-outs on the Embankment. Thought
you'd have my last few shillings, did you? Well, you're mistaken, and,
what's more, I'm going to give you the hiding of your life, despite the
fact that I haven't had a square meal for over a week."

"Steady, steady," murmured Irwin, softly. "You're rather jumping to
conclusions. I was only trying----"

"Trying to rob me," interrupted the man furiously. "Well, take that.
That'll teach you to keep your fingers to yourself."

[Irwin.jpg]

Irwin stepped back a pace as his assailant clenched his first and
lunged savagely in his direction. It was the action of a desperate man,
feeling justly that he had been made the victim of a dastardly outrage.
But, probably from weakness or blind rage, his blow fell short, and he
merely succeeded in grasping Irwin by the coat collar.

The garment came loose, displaying the white shirt-front and evening
tie beneath. This was so surprising a development that all the outcast
could do was to stare in amazement at his antagonist. For the moment,
at any rate, all passionate anger vanished, for it seemed an incredible
thing that a man attired in the last cry of evening fashion should so
far forget himself as to pilfer from one of the world's unfortunates
whilst he slept.

"It's all right," Irwin said, taking advantage of the change in the
other's attitude. "All right, my dear fellow--merely a mutual mistake.
God, bless my soul, I don't want to rob you. Quite the contrary."

The fog lifted for a second or two, so that the men had a better
sight of one another. And as the nomad looked into the eyes of the
man he would have assaulted, he saw something there that softened him
strangely.

"Very well," he said. "I am down and out. I have in my pocket four or
five shillings which stand between me and utter destitution. You might
wonder why I am trying to sleep on this hard seat when I have the means
to pay for a bed. Yes, but what sort of a bed? And, when I had paid for
it, where would my food for the morrow come from? I----"

Once more, the speaker's expression changed. Just for an instant there
had been tears in his voice, and something like a break in what Irwin
recognised as pride, still stern and indomitable. Then the stranger
staggered back and a low cry broke from his lips.

"Good heavens!" he stammered. "Martin Irwin."

"Yes," Irwin said. "That is my name. But surely--Oh, at last I have
found you! You are Trevor Cross."

"Trevor Cross it is," the other said with a tinge of bitterness.
"Sleeping on the Embankment with a bit of silver between myself and
starvation, and my once comrade and partner, apparently enjoying the
height of prosperity. Yes, that is what the whirling of time brings
about. Still, there was a time, not many years ago, when we were
working to one common end. We had money then, money we had saved for a
certain purpose. Nearly two thousand pounds, I think."

"And a few shillings over," Martin smiled. "But why should we stand
here in the freezing cold, when we should be much more comfortable
under a roof? My flat is not very far away, and there I can give you
all the hospitality that you need. I can explain, too; in fact, it
seems to me that there is an explanation due on both sides. Now, come
along."

With no further word said, the two crossed the Embankment and went up
towards the Strand by way of the Temple station. A little later they
were seated in the dining room of a perfect bachelor flat, where Martin
lost no time in placing the best part of a cold chicken and a syphon,
together with a bottle of whisky, on the table. Then, for some little
time he pretended to be busy with a sheaf of papers he had taken from
a drawer, whilst his guest satisfied an appetite that was perfectly
wolfish.

"Now then, Trevor," the host said, when they were seated on either side
of the fire and a cigarette box had passed from one to the other. "Let
us see if we can unravel this tangle. In 1918 we were both young and
both in the same battalion of the British Army, fighting with our backs
to the wall to keep the great German push from breaking through and
rolling us up with victory nearly in sight. Remember that?"

"Am I likely to forget it?" Cross asked. "I was taken prisoner and
pretty badly wounded into the bargain."

"Yes, and you were reported missing, believed dead. I believed you were
dead--everybody thought so."

"Now, that's a most remarkable thing," Cross explained. "I was under
the impression that you also were dead. Surely that was what was said
about you in the casualty lists?"

"Perfectly true. But, you see, so long as we both believed the other to
be wiped out, and the records declared that we were so, then I didn't
see much to be gained by making inquiries. You remember telling me once
that you were the last of your race, and that you didn't believe you
had a single relation in the world."

"I am still of that opinion."

"Very well, then. We had pooled our resources and saved money from the
time we joined the Army till 1918. Result, two thousand pounds. You
remember what that was for?"

"Of course I do. It was all paid into your banking account so that, if
everything went well, we could buy ourselves a nice practice and set up
in London as Irwin and Cross, solicitors."

"Well, so far, so good," Irwin went on. "I did buy that practice. There
was nothing else for me to do. I was quite ready to hand over the money
in case some relation of yours came along. But then, you had none.
Moreover, the practice I bought from an old gentleman who was retiring
has turned out to be a veritable little gold mine. There is more in
it than I shall ever require, and, anyhow, the half of it belongs to
you. I suppose I must have saved three or four thousand pounds, though
meanwhile I have stinted myself nothing. It will be an easy matter to
get your name restored to the roll of solicitors, since you qualified
just before you joined the Army, and if you can see cause why my firm
should not be known in future as Irwin and Cross, then I should be glad
to hear it. Now then, my friend."

Irwin had done his best to speak lightly and easily, but there was a
choke in his voice and he could see that Cross was furtively wiping his
eyes.

"I don't know what to say," the latter murmured. "It all sounds like a
dream to me. God knows what a time I have had the last few years. After
my recovery in Germany, I came back to England penniless. Of course, I
had no idea where my share of that money was, the more so, because I
regarded you as dead and buried. Mind you, Martin, I never doubted you
for a moment. I thought the money was somewhere, but where? Ah, that
was the rub. Well, I got odd jobs here and there, and then found myself
in quite a fair position in the offices of a firm that had a great
reputation in the City. On the strength of that situation, I married."

The speaker paused and lighted a fresh cigarette.

"Six months later," he resumed, "the three partners in the concern I
speak of were in bankruptcy. More than that, they had got away with
over a hundred thousand pounds of their client's money. It was only by
a bit of good luck, and the evidence of one of the witnesses at the
trial that I did not find myself in the dock with the rest. Yet though
everybody knew that I was perfectly blameless, I could not get a job,
even as a junior clerk. Everything I touched went wrong. But why labour
the subject? You found me to-night, by the grace of God, at my last
gasp."

"But didn't you say you were married?" Irwin asked.

"Oh, I am married, right enough. One of the dearest and best women in
the world. Thank heaven, she has been spared, so far, from sharing my
misfortunes. Of course, she knew that I had lost my situation, but she
believes now that I am in a job again, with a prospect of starting
our little home once more. I dare say it was weak on my part, but I
simply dare not tell her the truth. She went to her own people who, by
the way, are almost as pinched as I am, happy in the knowledge that I
had got my foot on the ladder again, that very shortly we should be
reunited."

To all of which Irwin listened with sympathy and understanding. It
seemed to him good that he should let Cross open his heart in this
simple fashion, for he could see plainly enough how deeply the other
had suffered.

"I wonder how many thousands of people like you there are in the
country to-day?" Irwin murmured. "Do you know, I always think more and
more about poverty and distress amongst people in our class at this
time of year--the time of year when everybody ought to be happy and
comfortable, and the spirit of Christmas is in the air. Like it is
to-night, for instance. Only three days to Christmas, and a full round
of rejoicing and gaiety. I dare say you wonder----"

"I do," Cross said. "Yes, I wonder how long you have been engaged, at
this time of year, in pottering about the Embankment trying to pick
people's pockets."

"Good Lord, I'd almost forgotten," Irwin said with a hearty laugh. "My
dear old chap, I have been doing nothing of the kind. When I left the
hotel to-night, after attending a Christmas week party, I had about
forty one-pound notes in my pocket. And those notes, one by one, I
got rid of by putting them into the pockets, and pinning them on the
dresses, of the unfortunates who can find no better rest for their
heads than a hard seat on the Embankment. I had disposed of most of
those notes before I came to you. I could see, even in the fog, that I
was in contact with a gentleman, though your boots are broken and your
wardrobe--well, the less said about that, the better. And you thought I
was trying to rob you of the last few shillings you had."

"I most certainly did," Cross declared.

"Yes, and you sprang up, ready to murder me. I wonder why you stopped
suddenly."

"Well, when I tore your overcoat open and saw that you were one of
the elect, so to speak, I was so staggered that, for a few moments, I
could do nothing. But heaven knows how near I was to strangling you
when I felt your fingers in my pocket. Don't you ever find yourself in
trouble? I mean, isn't there a time, now and again, when the police get
a bit suspicious. And how long has this sort of thing been going on?"

"Oh, four or five years now," Irwin said. "I dare say you may think
it's a queer whim on my part, but I have never regretted it, and still
less shall I do so now, after the wonderful happening of this evening."

"And what is the next move?" Cross asked.

In the last half hour, he had become a different man. The sullen,
fighting light had died out of his eyes, there was colour in his cheeks
and a smile on his lips.

"Well," said Irwin, "I think that's pretty obvious, isn't it? We can
leave the legal side of the business in abeyance for a day or two,
during which time, you can draw on me for as much as you like. Anything
up to a thousand pounds won't unduly strain my--I beg your pardon--our
banking account. You see what I mean, eh? First of all, we will get rid
of all those rags you are wearing, and get a real nice hot bath for
you. There is a spare bedroom here which is at your disposal, and you
are to use it as long as you like. But I shouldn't stay here, if I were
you--not after to-morrow. I have a shrewd idea that you have quite a
first-class wardrobe tucked away in various pawnshops, and----"

"Oh, I have," Cross, smiled. "And the pawn tickets, for what they are
worth. I have with me at the present moment."

"Good," Irwin exclaimed. "Hand them over to me and I will redeem the
whole lot, as soon as the shops open in the morning. Then, properly
dressed, and looking like the prosperous solicitor that you really are,
you are going down into the country with a pocket full of money, and a
story that ought to fill your wife's heart with joy and happiness. Now,
look here, old chap, I am going away for Christmas myself, and taking
my man with me. Meanwhile, this flat is entirely at your disposal,
and, if you take my advice, you will bring your wife up here and have
a good time, without any sort of anxiety. Only one stipulation shall I
make. You are carefully to disguise the fact that I found you down and
out on the Embankment, or that I am the sort of eccentric ass who goes
about at Christmas time scattering pound notes amongst the submerged
tenth under the arches, and elsewhere. That's to be our secret. We ran
together by accident, which, in itself, is an extraordinary story, so
that your wife is not likely to ask too many questions. Of course, she
knows all about our friendship?"

"Oh, yes, I told her that," Cross said. "You see, there was always the
chance of my finding my share of that partnership money. There is just
one more little thing I should like you to do for me, and that is to
hand over that particular pound note you intended for my pocket--my
Christmas card. I should like to have that to keep as a mascot. And may
everybody's Christmas be as happy as mine is likely to be."


THE END.


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