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Title: Christmas Cards Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1601271h.html Language: English Date first posted: Dec 2016 Most recent update: Jan 2017 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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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 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."
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