IT was Christmas Eve, and the fact immensely aggravated old Sir John Swaffham’s ill-temper as he sat all alone after dinner in the great dining-room at Swaffham Park.
On this particular Christmas Eve Sir John was very miserable indeed, and wished that he had never been sufficiently ill-advised to buy this country palace, although it was within fifteen or twenty miles of Sandringham. In his ignorance of Court etiquete, Sir John had imagined that the mere fact of his owning so princely a dwelling would ensure his being asked to dine at Sandringham, but the years had passed, and b> some mischance he had never yet received the coveted invitation. Knowing that it was a fixed idea with him, all his friends were careful never to mention the subject.
What was the use, when there weren’t any elephants left to kill, of having invented “Swaffham’s Swan Shot,” so called because, although it was originally intended to slay swans, he had improved it to such an extent that it slaughtered elephants as easily as a boy kills flies. What was the use of having been made a “Bart.” when he no longer cared to barter anything? What was the use of his enormous wealth, when he had quarrelled some five years ago with his only relation, his niece, Elsie, who had told him that love in a cottage with only a crust and an appetite and Dick Jerningham, a penniless but aristocratically-
connected bank clerk, was better than no appetite and a crusty uncle, who was always inventing things wherewith to destroy the vital spark of wild animals, which would never have a chance of retaliating by destroying his?
With an odd feeling of disgust at his own folly, Sir John had looked forward to an enjoyable Christmas, but, in spite of his wealth, he found himself alone. The village was three miles away. Every one except himself had family ties which kept them at home. Even the butler had respectfully, but somewhat incoherently, asked permission to retire, as he had a few friends waiting for him in the pantry. The dog was asleep, and his favorite cat—the one animal on which he did not desire to experiment with “Swaffham’s Pellets”—was occupied in the stables with a family of two days’ old, her fifth contribution to the fauna of Swaffham Park within the last twelve months.
To add to his general feeling of forlorn misery, the weather was not “Christmassy,” for it rained persistently. Most of the village Waits, especially the younger ones, who sang in the surpliced choir — surplices which the villagers had at first imagined to be night-gowns supplied by Sir John—had already contracted bronchitis and croup and were being nursed at home. In addition to Sir John’s other troubles, it had been a bad year for holly berries, and
there wasn’t one in the place. The wind, too, blew from Swaffham Park toward the village, so that even if anyone were sufficiently energetic to ring the church bells, it was impossible to hear them. Besides, Sir John dared not appear at the ball in the servants’ hall, knowing full well that his presence would inevitably cast a gloom over the assembly.
After much hesitation, he poured himself out a glass of port and then reluctantly put it back in the decanter. If he were to drink that glass of port, he would awaken to-morrow morning with a red-hot pain in his great toes. At the mere possibility of anything so unpleasant he was going to make use of a word beginning with the fourth letter of the alphabet, when he remembered the season and vowed a vow that he would not say anything rhyming with “jam” until the beginning of the New Year. And as a reward for his unwonted self-restraint, he heard the weird toot-toot of a motor, and a loud emphatic knocking at the door.
The butler somewhat unsteadily appeared at the door. Sir John could not fail to notice that he had already been assimilating “the spirit of Christmas” not wisely but too well. “What is it, Jones?” he asked.
“I don’t quite know what it is, Sir John, sir, but it’s mostly coat, sir,” said the butler incoherently. “It—it don’t look as ’appy as hus in the pantry, Sir John, sir.”
“I daresay not,” growled Sir John. “Probably hasn’t had the same reason. Well, whoever it is, why don’t you show him in out of the wet?”
“If you please, Sir John, sir, the hin-di-vidu-al”—he got the word out with an effort—“in the ’airy coat, Sir John, sir, says 'e ’as a message from his most graci-graci-o-u-s Mmajesty, the King, Sir John, sir, and it isn’t hetiquet for him to come in. You must come out, Sir John, sir.
I have brought you your c-coat sir.”
“A mesage from the King! Probably an invitation from Sandringham, which was forgotten until the last moment.”
“Hi think so, Sir John, sir,” said the butler unsteadily. “If we might preshume, sir, in the servants’ ’all, to drink the ’ealth of his most gragra-shus M-majesty, there’s some ’49 port, Sir John, sir—wunerful port, sir. You’d be s’prised how wunnerful it is, if you could only drink it, Sir John, sir.” \
“I daresay it is, but I hope to drink it myself some day when this infernal gout has been driven out of my system. After the holidays I shall make a few inquiries as to how you come to know so much about it. Give me my fur coat. You’re not sober.”
Sir John struggled into h’s fur coat, and Jones cautiously opened the door. The immediate result of this was a gust of wind which made Sir John hastily turn up his coat collar as the driving rain blew into his face. “A most gracious act,” he said to his butler, “that His Majesty should have condescended to send for me in this weather, and expose so valuable a motor-car to all the fury of the elements. On second thoughts, Jones, as it is Christmas, I will say no more about that little matter of the ’49 port.”
Waving aside Jones’ incoherent thanks, Sir John waddled down the wide stone steps to where a tall man stood holding open the door of the covered car. Curiously enough, there was no light inside. In the confusion of the moment, Sir John did not notice this.
“I understand that you have a ‘command’ for me to Sandringham,” he said excitedly. “My man will bring my things in a minute. You can find room for him beside the chauffeur?”
The tall man bowed. “I am sorry. Sir John,” he said in the voice of one who has an exceedingly bad cold, “that I must ask you to be good
enough to accompany me without a valet. My man will place himself at your disposal. But Sandringham, where his Majesty awaits your coming, is so full up for the festivities that every available inch is occupied. If the wind doesn’t blow us off the road, we shall soon do the fifteen miles.”
He motioned to Sir John to enter the car pulled to the door, drew a rug over their knees, and the motor glided away into the darkness.
Sir John made an unsuccessful attempt to carry on a conversation. “May I ask whom I have the honor of addressing?”
“I am the King’s Messenger,” said the other occupant of the car, buttoning his fur coat more closHv around him.
“You appear to have a very bad cold,” said Sir John graciously. “Try a trochee. I always carry them myself. His Majesty is well, I trust?”
“Extremely well,” said the King’s Messenger, “but I must apologise for the fact that my throat is so extremely painful that I fear I shall have to rob myself of the pleasure of conversing with you.”
Sir John also apologised, and relapsed into an uncomfortable silence, only broken on his part by an expressive “Oh my!” when the car jolted over the rough road. It seemed to him that they were whizzing through the darkness at a most dangerous rate. “I suppose,” he hazarded, “that the usual restrictions as to speed do not apply on such an occasion as this?”
“They do not apply,” croaked the King’s Messenger; and drew his fur coat more closely around him.
Just as Sir John was beginning to wish that he were well home again, the motion of the car ceased suddenly, a lodge gate was opened, and the scrunch-scrunch of the tires announced that they were moving slowly up a gravel drive.
“We have arrived,” said the 66
King’s Messenger gravely. “Permit me to help you to alight.”
"Don’t mention it,” replied Sir John, and, with surprising agility for a man of his years, he got nimbly out of the car.
In spite of the fur rug, Sir John was so cold that his teeth chattered. As he looked round the modest entrance hall, he was somewhat surprised that the footman wore an almost ostentatiously plain livery. “If you would like to come to your room, sir, for a moment,” the latter said respectfully, as he took up Sir John’s bag, “I will show you the way.”
Sir John looked round for the King’s Messenger, but that gentleman had disappeared. He followed the footman along a spacious but by no means regal passage, and was shown into an exceedingly comfortable room, in which blazed a brilliant fire. There was a beautiful set of silver hair-brushes with a big “S” on the backs, and Sir John could not conceal his gratification at this delicate attention. Indeed, so pleased was he that he promptly presented the footman with a sovereign, and, after artistically arranging across the crown of his head the one lock of iron-grey hair, which did duty for the rest, announced that he was ready.
“This way, if you please, sir,” said the footman respectfully. “If you’ll kindly follow me, sir.”
Sir John somewhat diffidently followed the footman downstairs. The ambition of a lifetime was about to be realized. In another moment, he would be presented to Royalty. Would his Majesty shake hands with him or content himself with a stately bow? And ought he, Sir John, to address the King as “Your Majesty” or “Sir?” He began to wish that he had had another look at his tie. “Of course, they couldn’t expect me to be in Court dress at such short not-
ice,” he mused, and turned to the footman. “One moment, please. Is my tie straight?”
“Puffickly straight, sir,” said the footman. He threw open the door. “Sir John Swaffham !”
Sir John, still vainly endeavoring to appear as though he were accustomed to meet Royalty every day, advanced slowly into the room to where a lady and a gentleman in evening dress stood on the white hearth-rug. He was a little shortsighted, and did not, for the moment, perceive that the lady held a surpassingly beautiful little four-year old girl in her arms. When he did, he was immensely gratified. “Must be the Prince and Princess of Wales, and they’re keeping the child up to show me,” he thought. In his gratification he made so profound a bow that his foot became entangled in a black bearskin, and he was violently precipitated into the arms of the Prince as that gentleman came forward to meet him.
“I beg your Royal Highness’s
par-” he stammered. Then a
cold prespiration of rage broke out all over him. “Jerningham! You here! What does this mean? Are you also invited? Impossible!”
The beautiful woman at Jerningham’s side (she was too far off to hear what had been said) came forward. “This is indeed most kind of you, uncle. I was so afraid that you would not congratulate us on our good fortune now that Dick has come into his own.”
In spite of Sir John’s half-hearted protest,'she kissed him affectionately. “Now you must kiss baby Joan,” she declared. “Joan was as near as we could get to John, uncle. Joan, darling, this is Uncle Swaffham. Kiss him, Joan.”
She placed the golden-haired mite in Sir John’s arms.
For the moment the child seemed inclined to cry.
“Buck up, Joan,” said Jerning-
ham. “What have you been wishing people all day?”
Joan “bucked up.” “A melly Christmus, and a—a-”
“Happy New Year and many of ’em,” prompted her father.
“And a happy many of ’em Uncle Swappy,” said Joan triumphantly bursting into a peal of baby laughter.
“It was so kind of you to come in response to my letter,” said Mrs. Jerningham, again kissing Sir John most affectionately, “though you are too late for dinner. Still, you must be hungry after your ride. We are going to have a Christmas Eve supper directly.”
The bewildered Sir John remembered that he had received a letter from his niece that very morning, but, concluding that it was a begging appeal, he had thrust it, unopened, into the fire. Presently he found himself sitting in a comfortable armchair, in the most benevolen of moods, actually teaching that engaging small person, Joan Jerningham, how to play with his watchchain. Then he put his watch to her ear and let her count the ticks.
After a little while, Joan’s golden head began to droop, she nestled more closely to him, and buried her face in his shoulder.
“Come, Joan darling, bed-time,” said her mother warningly. “Say (good-night’ to Uncle Swaffham, and I’ll carry you up to the nursery.”
“I’se not sleepy,” began Joan ; and immediately disproved the assertion by falling fast asleep.
Mrs. Jerningham took the child and left the two men together.
When they were alone, Sir John turned fiercely on Dick Jerningham. “Now, sir, what is the meaning of this outrage?” he demanded with well-feigned anger.
The good-looking young fellow shut his teeth together with a click. “I hoped you wouldn’t take it like that, Sir John,” he said sternly. “I’m
the kidnapper. Mv wife doesn’t know anything about it. She thinks you’ve come in answer to her letter. 1 told her that I’d had an answer from you. and that I was going over to fetch vou.”
“Because,” said the young fellow, “because, Sir John, she’s very fond of you, and I couldn’t bear to see her grieve at your continued silence. Bike all young men who are in love, I’ve no doubt made myself very objectionable. But I love her so much, and she’s so very sorry for you.” “Sorry for me! Why?”
"You’re all alone in the world, and we have each other and the kiddie. That’s why she’s so sorry for you. She nearly broke down last Christmas because she wanted to see you so much.”
Sir John, although visibly softened, was a stubborn man. “It was a mean trick to play upon an old man’s vanity and—and loyalty to his sovereign. A mean trick.”
“It was a mean trick,” Jerningham admitted. “A very mean trick. A trick for which I OWQ, you the profoundest apology. Now that I have come into a lot of money, I can make that apology without any suspicion of interested motives. I couldn’t think of any other way to get you here, or I wouldn’t have turned kidnapper.”
“But my servants! I shall be the
laughing-stock of the county,” fumed Sir John.
"Oh, no, you won’t. Only the butler heard my yarn, and he was nearly drunk. You can easily say that you come over here to see us, and no one will doubt it for a moment. I’m very much ashamed of myself for having played this trick on you, but it was for my wife’s sake. You saw how happy she was to meet you again. Say what you like to me—I deserve it all—but don’t make her unhappy. You’re the only relation she has in the world, and she has never ceased to love you. I don’t talk cant, Sir John, but, if a young man may presume to say so to a much older one, this is a time of the year when most people strive to forget and forgive.”
The door opened, and Mrs. Jerningham came in, her beautiful face flushed with happiness. “Joan was too sleepy to say her prayers,” she said smilingly. “She’s going to show ‘Uncle Swappy’ her golliwog in the morning.”
The footman announced supper.
Sir John hesitated no longer. “I’m ferociously hungry, Jerningham, and I haven’t yet thanked you for bringing me over on such a beastly night.” Tie turned to his niece. “My love, may I have the privilege of taking you in to supper? I—I shall enjoy ic much more than I did my solitary dinner.”
And lie did.
It is hard to say which is the more difficult—living down a past, or living up to a future.—Jean Milne.
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