BETTER LATE THAN NEVER
C. W. STEPHENS
SNOW had been falling almost without cessation for four and twenty hours. A strong wind had piled it in heavy drifts along the St. Omer road. It reached up to the windows of the little hillside schoolhouse of St.
Omer. It lay in great woolly masses on the boughs of the trees. The woods above the road stood out black and gaunt against the white background of the cleared lands. The frozen lake in the _
valley below rested in its long winter sleep under a spotless white coverlet.
Farmhouses dotted on the farther slope of the hills were like frosted Christmas oard sketches.
In fact, people who liked a white Christmas wero having their wishes gratified. The snow about the one-room school was untrodden, the chimney smokeless, the windows dark in the gathering dusk, for it was Christmas Eve and holiday time for the children. On the far side of the school yard, the gate leading to the teacher’s cottage was almost blocked by the snow; it lay in mountainous ridges along the lane that led to the main road, it covered the little garden of the cottage in pretty, fantastic, wind-blown wreaths. A thin cloud of blue smoke rising from the cottage chimney spoke of warmth and comfort within.
Ann Gordon, the teacher, was baking. A batch of bread lay near the stove rising, nearly ready for the oven. She was now scraping the remnants of dough from her kneading board, doing it slowly, every now and again glancing across the little kitchen toward. the window at which a boy stood looking out into the twilight.
She was a girl of twenty-two, tall and slenderly, but strongly, built, with pretty coloring in her well-featured face, and an orderly arranged mass of red-gold hair crowning her shapely head. The long cooking apron she wore did not rob her of any of her prettiness. Her rolled-up sleeves showed well-rounded arms.
IN her eyes—clear hazel eyes—was a look of wistfulness, as she glanced at the boy. There were just the two of them, and Dave was ten years old. Their mother had died at his birth. Three years ago the father had followed her. He had been a hillside farmer, none too successful, and when an accident in the woods brought him to an untimely end in the prime •f life, just when it seemed as if the luck was turning in his direction, the farm had been sold to satisfy the mortgage debt. It sold badly, for times were not good in St. Omer juät then, and, when everything was straightened obt, Ann and Dave had practically nothing left. The girl had been fairly well educated, considering country opportunities and home duties, and the neighbors had secured for her the position of teacher in the little rural school of St. Omer. It was not a very distinguished position, and the salary was «mall; three hundred dollars a year. It is the fashion m such country districts to pay those who train the afatds and mould the characters of the rising generation much less than those who tend cattle or mend
roads. Still there was a cottage rent-free, and the farmers supplied the teacher with stove wood, so, with what the garden produced, things might have been worse. Six dollars a week does not leave much margin, on the most economical basis, for luxuries and extravagance, and Ann had to do quite a bit of budgeting, planning, and pinching, to make the munificent sum paid for educating the youth of St. Omer provide food, clothing, and other necessaries for the boy and herself. She was, however, a capable girl, self-
reliant, very independent, hating debt and keeping out of it, and, on the whole, was not dissatisfied with life as it came to her.
It was not often that her face was cloudy, or that wistfulness was to be seen in her eyes, but Christmas E v e i s not the most
joyous time of the year when the pocketbook is lean. The day had been sunless, the sky a blur of grey seen dimly through the whirling snowstorm. It was almost time to light the lamp, for the kitchen was already in semi-darkness, the rays of light from the fire alone illuminating it, but she had hardly the courage to do it. With night-fall Christmas Eve would seem to be really ushered in and she wanted to put it off just as long as possible. She knew what Dave was standing at the window for. The most popular topic of conversation with him was Santa Claus, his reindeer team, and the piles of presents he brought in huge bags through the deep snows from the North Pole where he had been at work on their creation all the year round.
Though it was well on in the afternoon the mailman had not come along the road yet, and until he had como and gone there was always the chance that something sensational might happen. Dave, this year, was extremely doubtful about it, but still, until he had seen the mail carrier’s sleigh go by hope lived that something might come to show that the beneficent powers that rule the Christmas season had not forgotten the Gordons.
Ann would have given a great deal of what the future might bring to her if she had possessed just a few dollars to spend on Christmas presents for the
boy. There had always been a Santa Claus visit up to this year. It had been the custom for Dave to go to bed early on Christmas Eve, leaving the biggest stocking he could find hanging over the rail at the foot of his bed, ready for the white-whiskered old gentleman with the big pack. He always waked in the cold darkless of Christmas morning and went groping round to see what had happened. Something invariably had happened, for he had never failed to find the stocking, jammed full of delightful things, hidden away in som« corner after the joking manner of the jovial old fellow who loves to play little tricks on children.
Ann had planned it all out this year. She had a list made out—a new sled, a warm tuque, a pair of thick mitten gloves, real up-to-date stylish things, a most wonderful flying machine. There was a sketch of th« machine in the mail order catalogue, and Dave had hoped that Santa had not overlooked something of th« kind. Then, of course, there had to .be apples and
oranges and some nuts and candies. Everything was neatly mapped out, and then, on the twentieth, when the twenty-five dollars of salary should have been paid to her, something had gone wrong with the school treasurer’s arrangements and he had told her that th« committee would not meet till after the incoming of th« new year to vota her money. Ordinarily the delay would not have mattered a great deal, but this month it meant the wrecking of much of the Christmas happiness of the little Gordon household. Ann had less than a dollar in her pocketbook, and you can’t do business with the stores, on the scale she had planned, on eighty-seven cents. Some of the things she might have procured on credit, but she had made a rule and would not break it. She would not spend what she had not got, and her determination to go without what sh« was not able to pay for hail stood her in good stead more than once.
It was good, moreover, for Dave to get into that sound way of financing too. Ann had Highland Scotch blood running in healthy Canadian veins, and th« co*abination makes ordinarily for sound money dealings.
But if ever her principles were put to the test it had been since the treasurer’s dire announcement on th« twentieth. She was a bit afraid too that Dave might think her hard and mean in the providing for th« Christmas feast but-!
A ND so she kept stealing a glance at him now and again and wishing and wishing and wishing, which is not the kind of thing one should be driven back upon on the the eve of Christmas.
“Shall I light the lamp, Dave?” she asked at last.
“No, I like this way best,” the lad replied, curling himself up on the window seat and glueing his nose to the frosty pane. “Atvful wild night I guess it’s going to be. Shouldn’t be a bit surprised if Santa didn’t get roiind. Philibert, the mailman, hasn’t gone past yet, and if he can’t make it I guess Santa would find it hard work.”
His decision suited Ann. She drew a chair up to the stove and opened the door to throw the warm light into the darkening room. Then, watching the burning embers of the wood fire, she began to dream. Pictures appeai-ed on the little red stage within the stove, wonderful landscapes and houses and ships and tall mountains. Every now and again they would crumble away and others come. And she saw faces painted in the lights and shadows of the crimson glow. Christmas Eve is ever a night of memories. It is then, of all times, that ghosts come from the shades and revisit the places of their human habitations. On this night one goes back rather than forward, dwells on the times that were and the people who lived in them, rather than those yet to be. She saw the mother, dead these ten years, the father taken away in the prime of life. Like the pictures in the fire, that dissolved while she looked at them, so life had been to her. Then all others vanished from the stage except one. He, too, belonged to the past. It was more than a year since she had seen or heard of Jim Davidson.
Christmas Eve touches memories with tenderness. She wondered if, after all, she were not a hard woman. Love suffereth long and is kind, so the Book had taught her. When Jim was down and everybody was scorning his failure and weakness she had laid the lash of her anger upon him. It was not, she told herself, because he had failed in his mining ventures. That would not have mattered. She would have stood shoulder to shoulder with him through the hardest battle, for she had no fear of poverty or struggle. It was because, in the testing time, when things were going against him, he had failed as a man. He had quit, stopped fighting, and her pride in him had been sharply wounded. Yet, to-night, she felt that it was just in such an emergency that she should have helped him. But she had gone with the rest, though not with the same motive. For a time she had thought that she had driven him out of her heart, and then she had discovered that the task was not as easy as she had thought it would be. There had been other men, from the farms
and mines, who would have been glad to take her out of the ill-paid drudgery of school teaching and make her mistress of a comfortable home where money troubles would never be likely to come, but they had never been in luck’s way.
Jim Davidson’s memory always stood in the way.
Critical neighbors said that usually was the case. The girl who might be expected to make a sensible marriage was the one to take up with a shiftless ne’er-do-weel.
Jim amounted to nothing— such was the general impression of the staid farmer folk. A good enough man in his way, a worker, with brains, but slack and easy-going, with a weakness for drink. He ought to have stuck to his farm, so they said, but instead of that had the mining madness in his head.
TTE and Ann had always been friends away back in child days and sweethearts after girl and boy fashion in their teens. It had always seemed that marriage was the natural outcome of their friendship.
Jim had always figured on it as the supreme reward of his labors when the luck should come, and Ann had dreamed of it in her quieter way.
Then luck had gone against him, or rather had been destroyed by his weakness, and he had wilted under the sharp disappointment. He had made his strike and had gone down to St. Omer to renew his expired option on the lands on which he had been working.
At the house of a neighbor who had lent him some money he talked too much when in drink, and his strike was snatched away from him. When he went on the next day to complete his deal he found that the
lands had been sold, all his long labors gone for nothing, all his dreams had vanished. So bitter had been his disappointment and self-reproach that he had not gone to see Ann. She had heard that he had lost his farm—sold to pay the mortgage that he had put on it to help out his mining work—and was in the next village to St. Omer drinking up what money he had left, having quit everything. There had been many to bring the news to her, glad to prove to her how wise their forecastings had been. She heard of him from Dave who had seen him several times and was one of Jim’s staunchest defenders.
“I don’t care what they say, Ann,” Dave had said to his sister. “Jim’s a good man, and just because he’s down and everybody against him, that’s no reason why I shouldn’t speak to him. They say he drinks, but I like Jim better than anybody else in the world, except you.”
She had said no more but a few days later had gone along the road that passed the place where Jim was living. She saw him sitting outside the house, his chair tilted back against the wall. There was a glass of liquor on a table near his hand.
He did not notice her till she was quite near, then he looked up and a dull red overspread his face.
“Jim!” she called. Some of the people of the house came out, a frowsy-looking lot. He started to his feet and went over to her.
“You called me, Ann?” he said.
“Yes, I want you to walk a little way with me,” she told him. They went on in silence till the y were out of sight of the house.
“I was speaking to Dave about his coming over to see you,” she continued. “That boy is all I’ve got left, and I want you to 'leave him alone, Jim. H e’s been brought up to consider drunkenness one of the lowest and meanest habits there is. I want to make a man of him, a real man, and I like to have him mix with his own kind, not quitters. I know all you might say, Jim, that you were robbed and cheated, that you were struck down by a foul blow, but that’s no reason why you shouldn’t get to your feet again and fight back. If you lost out a dozen times the same way, t h a t’s no excuse. Folks are saying you are where you ought to be, in the only place you’re fit for, and you’re proving that they’re right.”
“I don’t say that 1 do care,” she answered, angrily. “We have always been friends, Jim, up to this, and I’d sooner know you were dead than that I should see you as you are now. It isn’t only yourself you are hurting, Jim, but it’s those, too, who used to believe in you. If you don’t want to get to your feet again for your own sake, can’t you do it for the sake of those who want to think well of you?”
“Does that mean you, Ann?” he asked.
“Leave me out of it,” she answered. “I once believed in you, but you’ve about killed all that.”
She said no more, and he had no excuses to make.
Continued on page 83
Continued from page 32
At the corner of the road he left her lest they should be seen together by any of the St. Omer people. The next day she heard that he had braced up and gone back north again.
MOW, to-night, in firelight dreams, he ^ ' had come back to her. She remembered how he used to talk in his eager, confident way, before the trouble came. It had always been of what he would do for her when the luck turned. The house he was going to build for her, the wonderful home they would have. She remembered his trapping tales. He had seen once in the wild lands a pair of marvellous black foxes, but had not been able to get them. One day, when the luck turned, she was going to wear black fox instead of cheap, worn furs she had. She smiled in the firelight as she remembered the confidence and pride with which he had spoken. Everything was to be for her, all his world was built ©n her. She wondered where he was this Christmas Eve, and was roused from her dreaming by the plash of tears on her folded hands.
THE boy turned from the window with -*■ a heavy sigh. He was a smart, sturdy little chap with Ann’s bright coloring, and her heart ached doubly as she saw how heroically he was trying to hide his real feelings. He stuck his hands to the bottoms of his trousers pockets and began to whistle, but, somehow, he could not get the tune straight. Then he took the stove lifter, raised one of the lids and looked into the fire. After he peeped under the white cover spread over the rising loaves.
“Gee, Ann! That cake looks slick,” he declared.
She had managed to find materials in the house for a couple of Christmas oakes, not very rich ones, but good plain stuff with lots of raisins in it. To-night she was a bit on edge as to nerves, and she hastily swept her sleeve across her eyes.
“I wish it could have been better, Dave, with icing to put on it, but there it is, the best we have. We’ll get the •ther kind when our ship comes home and brings the money with it. I’d like to have my fingers on the ears of that old Sflhool Committee. You shan’t be cheated out of your Christmas cake, Dave, any way, though it will have to come late,” she promised.
“I don’t know that I care an awful lot about that iced cake,” he said. “When I was a kid it used to taste pretty good, but when you get older you don’t think so much about sweet things. This will be just as good. What’s Christmas anyway? Just like any other day, only you fancy it’s different. I wonder what’s happened to the mail man. Usually he goes by at one, and now it's close on five. Maybe he’s passed and I didn’t see him. Anyway, it wouldn’t make much difference.”
“Probably the storm has delayed him,” suggested Ann. “Then round Christmas time he’s heavily loaded with mail and passengers. The roads too are drifted terribly.”
Isn t it queer the fuss people make over Christmas, Ann?” observed Dave. “Of course it’s all bluff. I mean about Santa. There isn’t really any Santa, is there? All this talk about him coming round with his reindeer team and climbing down chimneys and filling kids' stockings is just pretending. It’s all right for little kids that don't know any better, but I’m on to it. There’s nothing m it. I’ve got past all that now, and never mean to hang my stocking up again.”
He began to whistle louder than eve and went back to his seat in the window
Ann thought it the most tragic her esy she had ever listened to. She knei there were extremely wise people in th w,orJd> roofál people, who condemn ea the deception” played on innocenl unprecocious children by the perpetua tío« of the Santa Claus legend, but sh did not think a great deal of either thei goodness or sagacity. That Dave should i i -n years> abandon hanging up hi stocking was, to her, nothing short of ; horrible calamity. He was young to be come a sceptic. She knew what it al meant. He was trying to ease her trou ble. He knew about the holding up of th school money, and what it meant to Anr and was putting up an even greate bluff than that of Santa Claus to heli her out.
“Of course it’s nice in a way to pre tend to believe,” the young ¡conocías went on. And it’s jolly to get things but what difference does it make whethe you get them at Christmas or any othe:
+i,me>n /ou get oranK«s and candy they11 all be «aten the next day, but i
y?,U L°” * ?et thrm tiU New Year, there’; all that extra time to think about then coming. I know all about it, Ann, you’r Santa, so you needn’t worry any mort about that old stocking fake. It’s time 1 gave all that up. My old sled’s pretty good yet, and there’s nothing I want so bad that I wouldn’t just as soon wait for. It’ll be all the better when it comes. ; Gosh! Ann, I wish I could grow up faster.”
“But I don’t want you to, Dave,” she said, dropping into the chair and pulling him to her lap. The darkness was j deeper now, but the glow of the stove very cheery. She put her a^n about | his neck and drew him to her bosom. “You’ve been my baby for a long, long I time, but I don’t want to lose you so | soon. It’s nice to - es you growing up a fine, husky boy, but you’ll De a man quite soon enough.”
“I want to earn money,” he told her. ■ “Then I’ll play Santa to you, Ann. I’d ¡ just ljke to be Santa this night, with a I pocket jammed full of money. I’d buy J you a fine, new dress and a dandy jacket, j all fine fur, and a hat, and—oh, heaps of things! You know you are awful pretty, Ann, and I’d like to see you dressed up like the finest lady.”
“You silly boy!” she laughed, hugging him closer. “But, Dave, I’m glad you’re being so wonderfully brave. I’d have liked to get some things for the table, but I’ve just eighty-seven cents in my purse, and that will have to spin out till the treasurer pays me. I might have got candies and fruit at the store, they would be glad enough to let me have them, and I think perhaps I ought to have done it, just this once, but you know, Dave, how I hate debt. I remember all the trouble it gave us at home in father’s time, and I said then I would never get what I couldn’t pay cash for. It’s not hard to go without things when you make up your mind to it, except at times like this, so we’ll be as happy as we can with what we’ve got. We have everything we need. I bought a little roast of beef for to-morrow’s dinner— of course it isn’t turkey-”
“I don’t think an awful lot about turkey,” he interrupted. “Beef with lots of gravy and nice mashed potatoes is just as good.”
“Then we’ll have a pudding with a bit of holly stuck into it. And there are these cakes. I’ve got some maple sugar left, and a few apples. We’ll just pretend. Presently we might bring in a few sprigs of green from the bushes round the garden and trim up the place. But, Dave, it’s time I got my bread into the oven. Jump up, boy mine, we’ll light the lamp and get busy.”
A T OST of the clouds seemed to have vanished. She lit the hanging lamp, opened the oven door and put her loaves in. Dave hustled into this overcoat and prepared to go out after firewood and holly, peeping out of the window meantime. Suddenly he stopped, one arm in the coat, the other out. There was the sound of a loudly carolling voice on the road. Somebody evidently was pretty full of Christmas cheer, and was letting the snowy world know about it. It was a rollicking song of Noel, an old French song that came with the followers of Champlain from Old France overseas.
“It’s the mail man, Philibert!” exclaimed Dave. “There he comes!”
They went to the door and watched the lumbering old sleigh with its pair of horses come along the road, dimly silhouetted against the snowy background. The horses -were making heavy weather of it through the high-piled drifts, but time and weather were of no moment, whatever, to Philibert. He lay back in his sleigh bawling his chanson at the top of his not unmelodious voice.
“There, he’s going by!” said Dave, in a hushed voice, and there was, to Ann, the least trace of disappointment in his tones. Trees at the corner of the school lane hid the musical traveler for a few moments. “No, he’s turning down here!” almost screamed the boy as the song ceased and Philibert addressed some pointed remonstrances to his horses for their lack of intelligence.
And so he was. In a couple of minuteä the sleigh drove up to the gate.
“Ah, Mademoiselle Arm and Dave! B’Jour, Mademoiselle. Merr-ee Chreesmas! And Dave, mon fils! Behold Santa Claus! Am not I a fine Santa Claus? See me!”
And the gay old Frenchman certainly was not at all a bad imitation, lacking the whiskers. His fur cap was snow covered. The long coonskin coat was white about the shoulders. A crimson scarf was knotted about his burly waist. His long moustache was frozen solid.
“Two fine, big package, Mademoiselle, and nothing to pay. Everything paid. Just given to Philibert Gagnon Santa Claus with order I bring them here. The real old Santa, Dave, is very busy this night. Ter-r-rible busy, and the roads are bad—too much snow, so he say to me: ‘Philibert, mon brave! Here are
two package. You take them to Mademoiselle Gordon of the School of St. Orner—sure—or, by Gar! what will I not do to you!’ So I come. Here are the package.”
“But, Philibert, there must be some mistake,” said Ann.
“Mistek! Non, Mademoiselle. Non! Non! I make no mistek. Here are the package.” And he brought them into the kitchen and read off the addresses: “ ‘Mees Ann Gordon. School House, St. Orner.’ Am I right, or do I make mistek, Mademoiselle ?”
XTO, there was no mistake. They were I ^ wooden boxes, one quite a chest, the other smaller but more carefully nailed up. Ann had not the remotest notion who the sender could be.
“Once more for the road,” said Philibert cheerfully, very proud of his role as Santa.
“I’m afraid I have nothing to offer you to drink, Philibert,” smiled Ann. “Only tea or coffee.”
“Merci, Mademoiselle. I have drunk many healths this day—out of very many bottles. 1 will with pleasure drink yours in coffee.” And so he did, violating all his Christmas principles. Then off he went into the gale roaring his song of the glory of Noel.
“What can they be, and who can have sent them?” asked Ann, womanlike. Dave, with the practical instincts of his sex, fetched the hammer and screwdriver to solve the problem. On the top of the big box were several parcels, marked, “Not to be opened in Dave’s presence.” So the laughing boy was banished till they were put out of sight. Then he came back and they investigated further the numerous packages.
There were bags and boxes of candy, oranges, great red-cheeked apples, figs and nuts and crackers for pulling and others for eating. At the bottom, snugly boxed and packed, was a turkey, packages of sausages, and a bag ' of cranberries. The load covered the table. There was a Christmas pudding and a box of iced cakes. Whoever had sent the things had an excellent notion of what a Christmas dinner should be. There were little wax candles and pretty table decorations. When the last parcel was taken out of the box the two stood back to survey the amazing sight.
“Ann!” said Dave, speaking first. “Is there a Santa Claus after all?”
“I guess there is,” she replied.
“Now the other box!” he exclaimed, and they proceeded to open that. There was a suit of clothes and an overcoat, just about the size for a husky lad of ten and under these packages was another box addressed to Ann." It bore the business label of a big firm of city merchants. She lifted the box out and untied the fastenings.
llfHEN the cover was removed there were tissue wrappings to be unfolded. Slowly, with fast beating heart and eager eyes, the girl revealed the contents. There was a set of beautiful, glossy black fox furs. She knew something of fur. There was no more beautiful fox in all the country round about than that which lay before her wondering eyes. She carried them into her bedroom and took off her apron and working dress and put on her outdoor clothes. Then she flung the stole over her shoulders, placed the jaunty little cap on her fair head and thrust her hands into the muff. She regarded herself in the glass, Dave dancing about her in ecstacy.
After she had put them carefully »way and had stored the other packages, she removed the almost forgotten bread from the oven and prepared supper,
Dave’s tongue busy, but not more so than her mind.
Scarcely w-as supper over and the dishes washed than Dave announced that he was tired and ready for bed. It was a confession that he made but once a year.
“Going to hang up your stocking, Dave?” Ann asked, as he appeared in nightshirt after a record-beating undressing.
“You bet!” he answered. The sceptic was coming back to faith again.
SHE went into the little room an hour after he went to bed. He was bluffing sleep, the stocking over the bed rail. She went back into the kitchen to think things over, wonder about them, and do some more dreaming over the fire. She revised her plans for the morrow' and laid out Dave’s presents, examining each one admiringly, the sled, the handsome suit and coat, the gloves, the rubber boots such as Dave had longed for from the day he first wore real boots, a couple of boy’s books and a pair of skates.
Never had Santa Claus, even in their best days, been in a mood so lavish.
“I say, Ann!” a voice called from the bedroom. “I can’t sleep, it’s too early. Santa w'on’t be coming for a long time jet. Can’t I get up again?”
“Yes, if you like, for a little while.” she answered, and he dressed and reappeared.
“I’ve been thinking, Ann,” he said, leaning toward the stove. “I’ve been thinking and I believe I know who Santa Claus is.”
She laughed but gave him no answer. “There’s only one person in the world who w'ould be so good to us,” he cont-nued. “I bet Jim Davidson K.J something to do with it. Oh, Ann, you’re blushing. That makes it sure,”
“It makes it nothing of the kind, and I’m not blushing as you call it. The kitchen’s very warm. You talk a lot of terrible nonsense sometimes,” she said.
“Who’d be likely to send those furs?” the wise young man observed. “Black fox costs a heap of money, doesn’t it?” “I never bought any, but I believe it does,” she said.
“And Jim does trapping in the winter,” continued Dave. “And Jim’s always been terrible fond of you, Ann. I know it, for when he’s home if he meets me six times a day he always wants to know how you are, and he gives me dimes and quarters and sometimes a dollar. I like Jim, but not just for that.” “Cupboard love, you greedy little pig,” she teased him.
“No, it isn’t. I like him other ways too,” Dave defended. “He’s fine and big and good-natured. They say he can lick anj’man foi miles around, and he’s a great trapper and hunter. I don’t care ’cause people do say he drinks more than he ought sometimes. I like Jim. and he sure is awful fond of you. He’d take good care of you, Ann, if he was to get married to you, I bet, and if he' knew you hated drinking, I don’t think he’d do it any more.”
“Dave, j'ou’ve got nearly as long a tongue as Philibert,” laughed Ann. “Of course, I’ll never get married. I’ll stay here in our little home, and you’ll grow up into a man and earn a lot of money, and wrhen I get an old, old maid, you’ll be very good to me, and I’ll have a dog and a cat and a parrot.”
“Do you see any green in my eye?” demanded the small youth with the flip precocity of the twentieth century bojr, even in the country. “Besides very likely I'll want to get married mj'sèlf. I wonder if Jim will ever come back? Did you and Jim have a quarrel, Ann?” “What should we quarrel about?” she asked.
“I don’t know, unless about his drinking. Folks say that it was you sent him away.” said Dave.
“Never you mind, Dave, about Jim and me,” she replied, gently. “I guess he’s all right wherever he is. I think you’d better go to bed. Santa might come any time, and if he found you up he might not be very well pleased.” “Right away,” he responded. “I just wanted to talk to you about J-!
Jiminy, there’s Santa coming now. He’s coming down the lane. Tell him to wait a minute, I’ll be asleep in a jiffy.”
HE made a dive for the bedroom, and Ann stood, the color deeper in her face, her ears catching the jingling melody of the sleigh bells. Some neighbor calling to give a friendly season’s greeting, most likely. She did not go to the door, but waited—waited. The jingling of the bells stopped. The wind seemed to have lulled, though the snow plashed softly on the window panes. She heard the gate opened, a man’s firm footstep on the steps of the veranda, then the knock on the door. She went and opened it.
Jim had come back, and she knew as she looked at him with shining eyes that he had come back in more ways than one. He was smartly dressed, wearing a heavy fur coat and looking prosperous ; but she cared little enough for that. It was the clean-cut, vigorous, fineness of the man that made her heart dance.
“May I come in just for a minute or two?” he asked, holding her hand. “Got to the station by the evening mail and drove straight out. Going back to the hotel there presently. Hello, there, Dave, boy. Getting as big as a house. I wonder, Dave, if you’d put on your coat and rubbers on and keep an eye on my horses just for a minute.”
“Sure,” Dave answered. There was a grin on his face 5s he went out. He wasn’t as yôung as he used to be, and was very fond of Jim.
“Ann! Ann! it’s been an awful long time,” said Jim, taking possession of her other hand. “But the coming back is worth it all. You’re prettier and sweeter than ever.” He dropped her hands, raised his own and placed them on her shoulders. “I’ve come back, Ann, both ways, three ways. Home—something of the man I hope you’d want me to be—and mining luck. I haven’t touched liquor since the day you came and pulled me out of hell. You believe it?” He looked straight into her eyes.
“Yes, I knew it,” she answered. “I always believed it, hoped it—yes, Jim, knew it. Nothing could beat you if you’d fight, and all these long months I believed you were fighting, so I knew that one day you’d come back.”
“Then there’s a chance for me, Ann?” he asked. “You know what I mean. I’m making money, plenty of it. I’ve been building a house this Fall, and it’s some house, too, Ann. It’s all ready, furniture in, and I want you and Dave to go back with me. Will you come?” “What do you think I’ve been waiting and hoping for?” she answered. “Maybe it’s shameless to say so right out, but it’s true, Jim. Perhaps the school people will let me off at short notice,” she laughed.
“It won’t make much difference what they want,” he replied. “Ann! Ann!” The rest of the conversation was spasmodic and not very coherent to outsiders.
THEY were drawn back to the present world by the loud whistling of Dave out in the snow. Jim snatched the girl to him again and kissed once more the pretty smiling lips. Then he lifted her left hand and slipped something over one of her fingers, then went to the door.
“Come in out of the cold, Dave. I guess they’ll stand all right,” he said. “Coming out in the morning to take you both to church. I say, Dave, how’d you like to move house?”
“Gee, you don’t mean it, Jim?” grinned Dave.
“Guess I do. Going to have a word for the parson in the morning. Well, I’ve got to be off. You just ask Ann about it. Are those horses bolting, Dave?” Dave shot out of the door, to find them in a state of placid slumber.
“No, they’re not bolting,” shouted Dave.
“All right, my mistake,” said Jim, having said good-night appropriately.
The two listened till the tinkle of the sleigh bells died out in the distance.
“So you’re going to get married, Ann?” observed Dave. “Some Santa Claus, I tell you, Ann!”