Father Christmas's Understudy
J. J. BELL
THE valet, having ushered Mr. John Burton into his master’s bedroom, retired, closing the door noiselessly. Mr. John Burton, his usually hard features softened somewhat with real concern, approached the bed.
“George, my boy, this is ill luck! Your message upset me, I can tell you, when it caught me at the club. How did it happen?”
The bald-headed, clean .shaven, plump-faced man on the bed smiled ruefully.
“Banana,” he replied.
“Banana!” Mr. Burton seated himself, muttering a bad word. “I see,” he said aloud. “Eve always said that the police ought to have greater powers. The person who drops banana or other peel on the pavement ought to be taken by the neck and made to eat it. Damme, that’s my opinion! Suffering pain?” he inquired more gently.
“Xot so much now. But Em fixed here for six weeks or so. It’s confoundedly awkward, especially on Christmas Eve.” Mr. George Berry sighed.
“No more awkward than on midsummer eve,” the other remarked shortly, and muttered another bad word. “However, there’s no good in adding worry to bodily discomfort. If there’s anything I can do for you, command me.”
After a short pause, “There is something you can do for me, John,”
said the invalid. “I sent for you for that reason.”
“Name it !”
Mr. Berry hesitated, glancing furtively at the face of his oldest and best friend.
“Name it” repeated Mr. Burton somewhat grandly. He twisted his grey moustache, and looked straighily at his oldest and best friend.
“Well,” said Mr. Berry, as though he had made up his mind, “Ell name it.” He cleared his throat. “You, John, are of course aware that for some years past I have spent Christmas Eve at my married sister’s
house in Brandon Gardens-”
“I am. I am also aware that for some years past I have spent Christmas Eve at my club. Proceed !” “You would have been welcome at my sister’s.”
Mr. Berry smiled. He knew his friend. He continued:
“You are not, however, aware in what capacity I have spent so many Christmas Eves at my sister’s. As a matter of fact, no one is aware of that excepting my sister, her husband, and myself. So far the children, and even the grown-ups present, have never suspected my identity. You will think it absurd of me, John, but the fact is that I have always masqueraded as — ahem ! — Father Christmas.”
“Great Caesar’s ghost!”
“At any rate,” said Mr. Berry, a
trifle apologetically, “the children liked it.”
"You liked it yourself,” the other drily observed.
“Possibly I did, John, possibly I did. I confess I am sorry I cannot be there to-night. I fear it may be a disappointment to the children.” "A pity—but it can’t be helped. As I have already said, the police ought to be empowered to—”
"Yes, yes. But, John I wish you to do me a favor.”
“I’m waiting for you to name it.” “Can’t you guess what I want?” “Ah, I see! You wish me to go now and explain the situation to your sister. Certainly, my dear boy, certainly—with all the pleasure in life.”
Mr. Berry suppressed a groan. “Thank you, John. But—er—that is not exactly what I desire of you.” “Give it a name, then, give it a name,” said Mr. Burton with kindly impatience.
“Well, the favor is simply this. I want you to take my place to-night —to go to my sister’s as —ahem !— Father Christmas.” With these words the victim of a plebeian, if passionate, lover of bananas turned his countenance to the wall—at the risk of straining his injured limb. He could not have faced his oldest and best friend just then.
His oldest and best friend opened his mouth, gasped, closed his mouth, opened it again, and in a voice of infinite dismay ejaculated :
“Jumping Jehoshaphat You’re joking, George.”
“And you’re alliterating,” returned Mr. Berry, with a feeble snigger, drawing the bedclothes over the back of his neck. “B—but I’m really quite serious,” he went on. “I know I’m asking a deuce of a lot of you, old chap—”
“Oh, don’t mention it,” said Mr. Burton dully. “I suppose you’re bound to be a bit feverish. Perhaps I’d better clear out.”
"No, no! Don’t go, John!” Mr. Berry, with a painful grunt, faced his friend once more. “Er—don’t desert me! You see, I hate to break my engagement. And—and it’s awful to disappoint all those children. Er—isn’t it, John?”
John sat silent, frowning and twisting his moustache.
"I suppose it was far too much to ask of you,” sighed George. “But it seemed a simple enough matter when I first thought of it. As I said to myself, all my dear old friend John Burton has got to do is to get into the costume here—my man will do the painting—”
“A little paint is required, and a little powder—not much, only a little. Then all he has got to do is to take a cab to 14 Brandon Gardens, arriving there at nine o’clock sharp. He has only to knock loudly, thrice, on the door, when he will be admitted, for everybody will be expecting —ahem — Father Christmas at that hour ; and then he has got nothing more to do but enter and make himself generally agreeable, and—er— distribute the gifts.”
“The gifts in his sack. Each gift has a name on it, you know, and a piece of poetry; you didn’t know I was a poet—eh, what?” Mr. Berry gave a dismal cackle. “And of course, as—ahem—Father Christmas reads out each name and each poem, the—the recipient comes forward. And if—if it’s a girl, you kiss her—only her brow, you know; and if it’s a boy, you shake hands or pat his head—depends on his size. And then—why, then, that’s really all ! Nothing in it to worry about—eh?” “Oh, that’s all, is it?” cried Mr. Burton. “My good friend, do you mean to tell me that you have been doing this annually for years?”
“For quite a number of years. There’s nothing so very awful about it, is there?”
“How old are the girls?” Mr. Burton demanded abruptly.
“Oh. from ten to sixteen, 1 should imagine. 1 never thought of their ages. They’re all young, anyway. Of course, I’ve always included my own sister and—er—my sisters-inlaw and other grown-ups present in mv—or—list of gifts.”
“Your sisters-in-law! You kiss ’em ?”
“On* the brow. John ; on the brow. There’s only Miss France, and Edith, and poor Mrs. Fairtre, and—”
“Mrs. Fairtre!” Mr. Burton’s voice fell to a whisper.
Mr. Berry silently cursed himself. He ought to have remembered the tragedy of his friend’s youth—the girl who had jilted—well, not exactly jilted — his friend for Fairtre who, with all his wealth, had made her life miserable for ten years. He called her “poor Mrs. Fairtre,” but “fortunate” would have been more appropriate, for she was now a widow.
“Perhaps,” said Mr. Berry with an effort, “the older members won’t be there to-night. In fact, it’s very likely that they won’t.” He roused himself. “Well, I’m an inhospitable beggar, John ! Ring the bell, will you ?”
“I daren’t. But you—”
“No thanks.” The visitor relapsed into gloomy silence.
The invalid began to speak of the news of the day, but presently his conversation failed also. There was a long, uncomfortable pause.
“I should imagine,” said Mr. Burton at last, “that you look a prize idiot in your masquerading outfit.”
“Possibly,” the invalid returned shortly. “But sometimes it is worth one’s while to look a prize idiot, as you put it.”
“Oh, I suppose it doesn’t matter how you look, so long as you don’t feel. By the way, what’s the costume like?”
Mr. Burton made the inquiry with such indifference that his friend glanced at him keenly.
“There’s no reason why you shouldn’t inspect the costume,” said Mr. Berry, with equal indifference. "Ring the bell, will you?”
“Nonsense ! I’m not interested,” returned Mr. Burton, rising and ringing the bell.
“Dakers,” said Mr. Berry, when his man appeared, “show Mr. Burton my—ahem !—Father Christmas costume. You had it laid out in the dressing-room, I think.”
“Yes, sir.” Dakers withdrew, and presently reappeared with the costume—or rather its component parts.
“Suffering Moses!” murmured Mr. Burton, as the garments were displayed—a voluminous scarlet cloak, edged with white fur, a cap to match, ornamented with holly and mistletoe ; a pair of high bots showing their sheepskin linings ; and among other things a white and patriarchal beard.
“And this contains the gifts, sir,” Dakers remarked, exhibiting a large sack.
“Do you give away pianos as. well as sideboards?” inquired Mr. Burton of the invalid, who smiled and explained that the recipients numbered upwards of fifty.
“Oh, Shakespeare!” muttered Mr. Burton, adding: “These things are far too big for me. Besides—”
“What’s that you say,-John?” the invalid exclaimed. “You don’t mean—”
Mr. Burton reddened. “I never go back on my ward,” he said sulkily. “I as good as promised, didn’t
“Dakers,” cried Mr. Berry, “Mr. Burton dines here—and afterwards you will dress him. You may go.”
“Very good, sir.”
The door opened and closed. Mr. Burton dropped upon a chair.
“John, my dear old friend,” began
Mr. Berry warmly, “I can never thank you for—”
“Shut up !”
“Fourteen Brandon Gardens.”
Mr. Burton gave the address as distinctly as a mouthful of beard permitted, and with as much dignity as he could muster in the face of the cabby’s broad grin. Dakers had already placed the sack of gifts in the cab, and now, with a discreet smile, assisted the entrance of his master’s friend, who fairly rumbled with bad words.
“Dakers, are you positive that these—boots will stick on?”
“Positive, sir—if you take a little care, sir.”
“And this—beard, Dakers? Is it straight ?”
“Perfectly, sir. I saw that it was securely fixed. As for your eyebrows, sir—”
“Oh—my eyebrows! Tell him to drive on.”
The cabby drove on. To Mr. Burton it seemed no time until the cab stopped and interrupted his mental list of tortures suitable for persons who dropped banana skins on pavements.
“Is this the house, driver?”
“Yes, sir. Pity the rain’s come on. Rather dark, too, sir. But you can see the ’ouse through the tree.”
“Hang the house—the trees—the rain !” muttered Mr. Burton, getting out with the sack and handing the cabby a piece of silver. “Come back at ten sharp.”
“Right! and thankee, sir.” The man repressed a guffaw as his fare, hugging the sack, entered the gate opening upon a short but gloomy avenue. A church clock boomed the hour of nine.
“Hang the time!” sighed Mr. Burton.
The gravel was unusually abundant and deep, and he went forward with a sort of waddling gait. Pres-
ently he realised that the house he approached was in darkness.
^ “Some silly game, I suppose. They’ll turn on the lights when I arrive, and make me look a g'reater fool than ever. Where the deuce is the bell? No! confound it! I was to knock loudly three times. Idiotic performance !”
He knocked thrice, and hurriedly rehearsed the words he had been instructed to say as soon as the door was flung wide. The words were something like these:
“I am Father Christmas, who craves a welcome this Merry Christmas Eve.”
Through the glazed panels of the door he perceived a light slowly approaching. It was rather a feeble light.
“Looks as if their gas had been cut off,” he thought cynically.
A sound of bolts and chains reached his ears, and at last the door was cautiously opened—about six inches.
“I am Father—”
A female face, very wizzened and encircled with red flannel, peeped through the aperature. A screech of terror rent the air, and the door was slammed.
For a moment or two Mr. Burton remained stunned. Then the furious barking of a dog roused him. He could not run, but he moved as rapidly as his boots would allow, and, utterly speechles with wrath, reached the gate, on one of the pilars of which he discovered, in faded figures, the number “40.”
While he wondered which way to go a couple of message-boys came along. On sighting him they started and were silent, then burst into vulgar laughter.
“ ’Ere’s a bloomin’ Christmas Card a-goin’to post itself!” cried one.
“Coin’ to a fancy ball, guv’nor?” inquired the other, more respectfully, scenting business. “Shall I get yer a keb?”
Mr. Burton’s desire for murder evaporated.
“How far is No. 14 from here?” he demanded, resisting the temptation to have a cab and—go home in it.
"Two minutes,” said the second boy. disappointedly.
"Show me the way, and I’ll give you a shilling apiece.”
“What’s all this?” inquired a policeman, coming softly upon the grou* He laid his hand none too lightly on Mr. Burton’s sleeve. “I saw you coming ont 0’ No. 40. I suppose it’s all right, but the family’s away, and I’ve got my orders. What ’ave vou got ’ere?”
“In this ’ere sack, my man.”
“Look here!” cried Mr. Burton, boiling over. “What the deuce do you mean?”
“Language won’t help you,” the policeman coldly remarked. “Let’s 'ave a look.”
“Great Caesar’s ghost ! People who drop banana peel on the pavement ought to be hanged, drawn and quartered-”
“Crikee ! ’e’s dotty !” whispered one of the boys.
“D’you take me for a burglar?” demanded Mr. Burton. “Take the blessed sack ! Examine it ! Eat it, if you like, confound you ! I’m on my way to a children’s party at No. 14, but the driver left me here by mistake. Anything suspicious in the sack?”
The policeman was young and earnest. Apologies, especially before two message-boys, did not come easily, but he did his best, adding that he had only done his duty. Burglaries were getting too common.
“I’ll carry the stuff to No. 14 for you, sir.” He nearly called it “the swag.” “It’s a bit heavy.”
“It’s the least you can do,” retorted Mr. Burton, “and you needn’t expect anything from me.”
“Sir!” said the policeman. “Now, boys, you had better get out of this,” he supplemented sternly.
The boys protested. They had been engaged to conduct the gent to No. 14. Whereupon the gent grunted and parted with two shillings.
“Merry Christmas, sir, Merry Christmas ! Many ’appy returns !”
The rain had ceased, but Mr. Burton’s boots adhered to the mud at every step. Relieved of his burden, however, he got along somehow, and. fortunately, encountered no pedestrians.
At a brilliantly-lighted mansion, whence came sounds of dance music, he parted with the policeman, giving half-a-crown, and requesting him to look out for a cab at No. 40, at ten o’clock, and send the same on to No. 14. “And I say,” he added, “if ever you can do anything to hurt persons who drop banana peel on the pavement, do it, and may heaven reward you !”
“Merry Christmas, sir!” said the policeman, after scratching his head.
“Fudge !” said Mr. Burton lifting the knocker. ^
The music ceased ; there was a rush of many feet. The door was flung wide—really wide—and blinking in the glare, his sack held gingerly over his shoulder, he managed to mumble the prescribed sentence. Then kind hands drew him into the light and warmth and cheerfulness.
And all at once something within him seemed to melt. He couldn’t help smiling, though he felt desperately shy before that trop of dainty girls and grinning boys. But he looked at them, avoiding the seven or eight grown-ups. When they had all cheered him, his host and hostess, who had been advised by express letter of his identity, explained that Father Christmas, having come further than usual that evening, required a little rest and refreshment, and led him away to a quiet room,
where he got rid of mud and raindrops, and received the not unwelcome stimulus of a glass of champagne.
“It was exceedingly good of you to take my brother’s place on such short notice, Mr. Burton,” said his hostess very pleasantly. “The children’s evening would have been completely spoilt without a Father Christmas. And from what George has told us of you, I understand you do not care for parties of any kind.”
“I have had no experience—for a number of years,” he replied, glancing at himself in a mirror and wondering whether anyone who had once known him well could possibly recognize him now. “I fear,” he went on, with a nervous laugh, “I fear I shall not make a very successful understudy. Your brother could not, indeed, have chosen a worse. But I felt for your brother in his misfortune. As for the wretched persons who drop banana peel on the pavement-”
“Is Father Christmas coming soon, mother?” The door was opened and a pretty little girl looked in.
“Very soon, dear, very soon.”
Mr. Burton pulled himself together. Better get it over quickly, he told himself, and to his hostess he said :
“I am ready, madam,” in the tone of one for whom the executioner waits.
“Make way for Father Christmas !” the host shouted from the drawing-room doorway, and the grown-ups and older children cleared a passage to a low dais in the window.
Thither Mr. Burton proceeded, bowed beneath his pack of presents, his boots rubbing up and down his heels, his beard getting into his mouth.
According to the Berry tradition, he ought to have made a little speech on taking up his position on the dais, but the host relieved him of that
item of his troubles by making a few humorous introductory remarks and then calling upon Father Christmas to “shell out.” And Father Christmas, his eyes on the children only, smiled almost blandly, smoothed his beard away from his lips, and bringing from his sack a white packet, read the name thereon in a somewhat unsteady voice. Fortunately the policeman’s inspection had not seriously disarranged the sack’s contents, and the gifts came forth pretty much in the order intended by the thoughful Mr. Berry—girls first, and youth before wisdom.
So, in answer to her name, a sweet little maiden, extremely bashful, approached the dais. Whereupon Mr. Burton stumbled through the doggerel couplet attached to the packet —one of the many “poems” that had cost Mr. Berry several nights’ sleep. The little girl’s name, in this case, was Amy Lee, and the “poem” hoped that she might “happy be.”
Amy took her gift, said “Thank you” in a small voice, and—waited. Everyone in the room seemed to be waiting also. There was a solemn silence. But at last, happily, Mr. Burton remembered.
“Jumping Jehoshaphat !” he said to himself, and stooped and kissed little Amy’s forehead.
Whereupon everyone clapped hands, and little Amy retired, emitting a sneeze induced by the tickly beard.
As the girls got bigger, Mr. Burton got shyer, but he did his duty by them all. It so happened, however, that rather a big boy was the first of his sex to be called and Mr. Burton absent-mindedly saluted him on the brow, at which everyone shouted delightedly, while the poor big boy blushed furiously. Then Mr. Burton remembered again, and the other boys got nothing worse than a handshake or a pat on the head. On the retirai of the last boy Mr. Burton peered into his sack. How he wish-
el it had been empty! Yet sundry packets, tied together and labelled "grown-ups,” remained for distribution. He unfastened the string and took out the first packet that came to his hand. It was addressed to one of the aunts. He read the “poem” placed the gift in her hands, hesitated, but finally kissed her. One of the uncles cried “Hooray!” and all the boys sniggered. But when that particular uncle drew near to receive his git^ Father Christmas, who was rapidly getting reckless, caught him by the shoulders and gave him a smacking kiss, right on the bald spot on the top of his head. Whereat the boys yelled and the girls giggled.
And at last all the gifts had been dispersed save one. It was addressed to “Mrs. Fairtre.” Father Christmas seemed to have lost his voice when he came to it, and to this day no one knows what the “poem” was about. The lady, who was neither very young nor very beautiful, came smiling to receive her packet, and looked brightly up in the face of Father Christmas. No one noticed the lady give a tiny start; no one heard Father Christmas breathe a tiny sigh. But everyone applauded ; and immediately afterwards everyone began to talk hard and display their gifts to one another.
And soon Father Christmas departed to the tune of great cheering.
“A thousand thanks, John ! You’ve been a friend indeed!” said Mr. Berry from the bed.
“Shut up!” said Mr. Burton, peering in the glass to see whether the beard and eyebrows had left any marks. “It’s time you were asleep. I'll look you up to-morrow, about six.”
“Can’t you come earlier?”
Mr. Burton pulled his moustache and stared hard at the sprig of mistletoe on the mantelpiece.
“I’m going to call on Mrs. Fairtre to-morrow afternoon,” he said at last carelessly.
“Ah !” said Mr. Berry softly, and checked a smile. “Good-night, then, and a Merry Christmas to you, John.”
“Good-night, George. Er—same
Which is really the end of this story.
One day in January a certain small boy wandered along a certain street peeling a banana. He dropped the peel on the pavement.
“Pick it up and put it in the gutter,” said a gentleman with a fierce grey moustache. “And here’s a sixpence for you.”
“Why did you give that boy a sixpence, John?” asked the lady whom the gentleman rejoined—a lady who was neither very .young nor very beautiful.
But what the gentleman said to the lady then is none of our business.
A poor relation is not necessarily without money ; the poorest kind ot relation is one who has any amount of it and forgets to remember you in his will. —Jean Milne.