Yule-Tide at Laidcourt Manor
HELEN E. WILLIAMS
ALLISON HOLT, of the firm Queechy, McQuillen, Laidlaw & Holt, sat in his swivel chair staring stupidly at the letter he held open on the desk before him with one hand, while he clutched vainly at his close-cropped hair with the other. He had found it, unopened, among the legal documents which Mr. McQuillen had handed him that morning to “just cast your eye over.” And as he had been delegated to answer all such correspondence as should come after the other members of the firm had left for the Christmas holidays, he had, as a matter of course, slid his finger under the flap, and glanced down the fine, old-fashioned writing to the slanting signature, Henry P. Strictman, at the bottom. It was dated back several days, and as he read his lips formed in a soundless whistle.
“Dear Mr. Laidlaw :—
“I find I shall have a two hours’ wait at Colchester on my way through to H— on Thursday next, Dec. the 24th inst. Remembering the cordial invitation which you extended to me some weeks ago, I take the liberty of advising you of my whereabouts on said night, so that if—as you gave me to understand was often the case —you should be spending the holidays at ‘Laidcourt Manor’, I may give myself the pleasure of waiting on you there.
“Looking forward to inspecting your father’s pictures—particularly the Tintoretto—should I hear nothB
ing to the contrary in the meantime, believe me to be,
Your obedient, humble servant.
“Henry P. Strictman.” Allison had almost forgotten a certain Sunday afternoon episode, now nearly three weeks old. He had been sauntering along Sherbrooke Street, when he encountered the multi-millionaire, Henry P. Strictman. who was occasionally in and out of their office, though it was a grievance with the firm that the bulk of his legal difficulties was carried elsewhere for solvence. He was near-sighted, and seldom recognized the young lawyer out of the office, so that the latter was somewhat surprised at the warmth of his greeting. And still more so when an instant later a lady joined them fiom a group behind to hear: “My dear, let me present Mr. Laidlaw. Mr. Laidlaw, Mrs. Strictman.”
“We were just speaking of you,” said that lady, graciously, before the astonished Allison could correct her husband’s error. “And of your charming chateau at Colchester. Do you still keep your gallery there? Mr. Strictman, as you know, is an enthusiast, where pictures are concerned, and we hear you have—■”
Allison tried to speak, but his stammering denials were laughed away as modest depreciations of recognized worth.
“Of course, you have to say that,” chirped Mrs. Strictman, “it wouldn’t be quite what you young people call ‘the thing,’ would it, to say anything else? Although when a collection has
received the recognition which Judge Laidlaw’s lias from other countries, it may almost be said to—”
Her husband broke in eagerly. “And I have never seen it !” His voice dropped at the amazing ignorance of which it accused itself. “You know the number of times that dates have been set, both by your father and bv me—and vet 1 have never seen it!”
Allison had by this time resigned himself to his fate. A block farther on and tie could resurrect an old habit of his, and call upon a college professor. Until then he might as well make the best of it, and play up to his part. Having decided which, he entered with a certain zest into the conversation.
"It is rather a jolly lot,” he agreed, boyishly. “Running across so often and Pater has naturally picked up a few rather good things.”
“And did he succeed in getting that Tintoretto?” the old man inquired with interest. “He was still negotiating the last time I saw him, and I never heard—”
For a passing moment Allison hesitated, then decided to do the handsome thing by the father of his friend.
“Surely. Had to haggle a bit—but he generallv gets his way, does the Pater.”
Mr. Strictman drew a long breath. “I should like to see it,” he said, a little shakily. “Twice I went to Florence, for no other purpose. I traced it to London, where I learned it had been shipped to an American. And now your father has it !” ,
They were nearly opposite the professor's house, now, and with deliverance in sight Allison had grown reckless.
“You must come out to Laidcourt and see it,” he said cordially. “Of course, the Pater is in Paris at present, but the rest of us are there every now and again, and would only be too delighted.” And he tore himself away with inward congratulations that he had not revealed his true identity.
Later, over the telephone, he had extracted still more entertainment from the situation, by calling up young Laidlaw and mystifying him by insisting that he, Holt, was Laidlaw. And when the piquancy of this waned he suddenly inquired if their art gallery numbered a Tintoretto among its treasures.
"Heavens, no!” called back Laidlaw. “You’ll be asking if we have ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ next. There really are limits, my dear fellow, though you don’t seem to recognize them.”
Whereupon Allison had informed him that if he didn’t actually possess the picture, he had the next best thing—the credit of doing so. Explanations had been requested and given, in the midst of which young Laidlaw hung up the receiver in disgust. The two had had a little goodnatured sparring, when they met, about the wisdom of confusing identities, especially with Strictman, who daily seemed more disposed to come into confidential relations with the firm.
“He’s a big man—and a very small one,” Laidlaw had summed up in conclusion. “Has to be handled with gloves sometimes, for he’s a cantankerous old boy, and his queer, dry humor is not of the dependable kind. If one once got into his bad books it would settle his fate for good and all, so far as Strictman is concerned, I fancy.”
Allison Holt remembered these and sundry other warnings as he sat scowling at the stiff little note. His financial status was hardly such as made him desirous of having his fate so settled. During the poorly-concealed elation attending the scattering of his senior partners, he had affected an exemplary absorption in his work to crowd out the thought of his own sacrificed trip to his far-away home, and of the family circle, -incomplete, because he still ‘had his way to make.’ Unless he thought to the purpose, and quickly, that ‘way’ might not be an enviable one. For some minutes he
kept the line busy. But only learned that Arthur Laidlaw was spending the Christmas holidays in the country near Colchester—his man had forgotten the name of the place—with Senator Stowe, to whose daughter he was engaged ; and that the man of vast concerns was out, and was expected back for a few minutes, only, prior to his taking the express for H—.
“Which helps me a lot, seeing that I knew it all before,” ruminated Allison. “If I could only have caught Laidlaw—Well, this is pleasant, I
must say! Mighty pleasant! This kills all chance of his giving us that corporation case, which means that little Allison boy will be told politely, oh ! very politely, that the firm is reorganizing, and as his presence in it was only provisional, they have decided to take in the son of an old friend.”
Allison knew many such who would jump at the chance. He saw them in prevision using his things, sitting in his place. And all because— He dismissed the office boy, with a “Merry Christmas,” which sounded hollow to his own ears, and a tip which he knew to be extravagant. Leaving St. James’ Street behind he drifted with the crowd, and presently found himself in the shopping district.
Here the stores were brave with Christmas decorations, Christmas toys —all the thousand and one ingenious inventions, so dear to the heart of believers in Santa Claus. He fell to watching the children, rich and poor, commingling, who stopped to gaze, spellbound, through windows at their most cherished dreams come true and smiling benignly down upon them in the shape of beautifully dressed dolls, or attracting worshipful glances, such as would have melted the stoniesthearted parent, when the coveted possession was a steamboat with marvellous machinery, a toy automobile, a gun. The spirit of Christmas had somehow got into the air, into the sleighbells, into the happy, hurrying, merry throng. Tt seemed to soften and deepen where the Cathedral loom-
ed greyly through the mist of falling snow, to identify itself with the bass, organ tones of the church bells, summoning to choir practice, and yet to find its way into the poorer parts of the great city, and in the guise of selfsacrifice and loving service, beautify and redeem the ugliness of extreme poverty and squalor.
Allison, strolling, stopping, “taken back” a dozen times to other scenes and other years, could not help reflecting how differently it would all have looked if he could only have got hold of Laidlaw—if he only was Laidlaw. Suddenly, a little vein on his forehead began to beat. What if— why couldn’t—-the resemblance between them was slight, but the old fellow had mistaken him once— And he could act a bit, as per example, his old college plays.
“By Jove!” he exclaimed aloud, “I’ve a good mind to try it !”
Some hours later he jumped down upon the little country platform at Colchester into a confusion of joyous re-unions, laughing voices, jingling bells, bumping hampers and trunks. Making his way through the crowd, he “took his bearings,” and was soon plunging knee-deep through the soft, new-fallen snow. The country looked very different from the time he last saw it, when he came out for a week-end’s trout fishing in early summer. But he had no difficulty in finding his way. The short winter afternoon was fast closing in as he sighted the massive cobblestone pillars, and snow-bowed Norway spruces, marking the entrance to “Laidcourt.” And a few minutes’ brisk walking brought him within sight of “Laidcourt Manor” itself. It was a large, widespreading building with numerous additions and picturesque turrets and balconies, and with its heavy frosting of white it looked not unlike a mammoth wedding cake. But as Allison steered for the tower, which was the picture gallery, he felt inclined to rub his eyes. Lights glimmered and twinkled from one side of the house. What could it mean? Could Laidlaw have
brought his friends here, after all? If he had !
“Extreme cases call for extreme measures.” murmured Allison, and went from window to window to reconnoitre. At last he was rewarded. “Now. who in creation might you l>e?” he muttered, belligerently. “Not Laidlaw's crew, at any rate.”
Through the window of what would appear to be the living-room an open fire danced and flickered across the faces of some eight or ten young people. a!Engaged in Christmas preparations. A boy of about eighteen was popping corn, which two girls, seated Arabwise on the floor, were respectively stringing to swell the snowy cascade already depending from the back of a chair, and shaking down among candies and nuts in small, cheese-cloth bags, which drew up at the top with bright-colored wool. In a corner of the room two boys were having a good deal of merriment initiating a verv lively old lady into the intricacies of converting boughs of spruce into the long ropes with which another couple could be seen festooning the walls and pictures of a room beyond. And before a table on which were heaped all sorts of bright, homemade prettinesses, sat a girl, with her back to the window, doing up and labeling neat little parcels, each adorned with iaunty sprigs of holly. Even as he looked, another girl, decked out in a big kitchen apron, appeared on the threshold, and looked about her approvingly.
“Tt really begins to look and smell quite Christmassy,” she observed.
“Poor Nell! You do like to have things festive, don’t you?”
“Come here and see if you think this wreath is imposing enough to make a respectable showing in the hall.”
“How’d vour candy turn out, Nell?”
Nell raised a plate, holding what were obviously samples. “Perfectly fine.” she said. “The foundant is ail ready to be worked up into chocolates and date candy, while the fudge is out cooling now. Want to test
them, Bobby? Now, isn’t that a dandy grain?”
“Fairish,” conceded Bobby, without enthusiasm. “But don’t be discouraged. When your maple cream and fudge is not so humpy, and your chocolates take heart of grace and sit up a little straighter, why then—”
But she had turned away to the table. “You are doing a land-office business here, Marianne. What sweet little notes you have written. By the way. which of you boys are going to play Santa Claus for us?” ,
At the clamor, which this question evoked, the girl at the table turned round, and Allison caught at the shrub, behind which he was standing, to steady himself. That piquant ivory face, beneath the glory of red-brown hair, could belong to but one girl— the girl he had been trying all winter to meet. As he turned away from the window one foot felt strangely heavy, and he shook off something, which resisted obstinately—what, he was too perturbed to notice.
He waded across to the tower, more than ever anxious to avoid detection now. He had all a man’s distaste for needless explanations, and such explanations as were due, he preferred making to Laidlaw direct. Above all, not in the presence of the girl whose face made every other that he saw noticeable only as not being hers. In his hours of castle-building, he had sometimes visualized the scene df their first meeting. It was not the meeting which would ensue were he discovered to-night. Grimly he formulated plans which would lessen the chances of this. His simplest course would be to trust to luck and to the party’s being engrossed in their work to pilot Strictman safely through the grounds. While once inside, the heavy wooden shutters, which, he observed with satisfaction, were closed just as the family had left them in the fall, would prevent the slightest glimmer of light from escaping. Mounting the steps, he was surprised to find the key in the door—a negligence explained an instant after, when he pressed the but-
ton, and saw by the tracks of snow still on the floor, that somebody had been in lately, and had evidently forgotten to remove the key upon leaving. Allison spent some minutes moving from picture to picture, with the view of seeing how much his application to certain art journals, in whose pages he had buried himself on the way out, would stand him in stead for the coming ordeal. Then he switched off the lights again, and turning up his coat collar, sat down to pass the remaining three-quarters of an hour before it should be time to go to the station. He was just reflecting that it promised to be rather a tame affair, after all, and turning over ways in his mind by which he could effect an entrance to the house-party, to whom Laidlaw had evidently given the freedom of his place, once old Strictman was disposed of, when a sound, suspiciously like the crunching of snow under foot, caught his ear. He listened. Yes. Surelv there was a movement outside. The blur of voices. Even as he wondered what it could mean, the door was jerked open.
“All pure rot, as I told Marianne,” scolded a voice. “If by any chance one of their gang has been prowling about, is it likely he would be fool enough to hide in such an obvious place ?”
“How do you account for the footprints on Nell’s fudge, then?” inquired another voice. And Allison, shrinking farther back into the darkness. ejaculated inwardlv, “The deuce! I did put my foot in it !”
“And the tracks in the snow?” pursued the voice. “Where the dickens is that button? Those girls won’t rest easy now till we’ve ransacked the house, and looked under every bed. and behind every blooming— Hello! Well, by Tove!”
He had found the switch, and a white radiance flooded the room. Directly in their line of approach, and blinking before the sudden rush of light, stood Allison, a questionable figure, with his turned-up collar, and
uneasy smile. The two boys exchanged silent glances. Allison came forward.
“You are surprised to see me here,” he began,, “but if you will listen a few minutes I will—” he plunged into his tale, omitting only such details as he thought as well left unsaid. But neither of the boys followed him very closely, and the one called Bobby soon cut him short.
“Very pretty,” he observed, dryly. “Very neat, and well worked up, too. It does credit to—er—your profession. It would be a pity to waste such ingenuity entirelv upon our unappreciative ears. We will consequently give you an opportunity to relate your story before a larger, a more august audience. In other words, we will escort you to the sheriff, my friend.”
“You don’t believe me,” cried Allison, “but I tell you I am Laidlaw’s junior partner—I am Holt.”
His captors bowed with exasperating politeness. “Exactly. You arc Holt,” they agreed. “And now, Mr. Holt, we are going to put you behind a bolt.”
“I am damned if you are !” muttered Allison. “You don’t realize the seriousness of this matter,” he continued, with some heat.
“Perhaps not,” laughed Bobby, “but I realize the chilliness of this room, all right. Come on. No more heroics, my friend.”
“Have you got him?”
“So that’s the monster that spoiled my lovely fudge !”
With one consent they turned to the door, through which came a group of girls in hastily donned toques and loose coats, casting fearful glances at Allison’s wrathful face, as they advanced. He snatched off his cap, and set his lips as he saw the girl with the glorious hair regarding him dubiously.
“Was he really going to—to take some of Judge Laidlaw’s pictures?" she asked.
“Not he!” Bobby laughed. “Nothing so crude as that ! He was only go-
ing to display them to a pal of his. Only have a little art appreciation, so to speak—what more natural on a night when people are obviously absorbed in perpetrating the Santa Claus act ?"
The girl turned troubled eyes upon Allison. “He doesn't look like a—” she Mushed, and stopped. “What does he say?" she amended, “what is his story?"
“Oh. the usual cooked-up species— with variations. See here. Marianne, don’t you girls butt in. This isn't girls' business. You don't understand. Now run back to the fire, and leave us men to settle with—er—Mr. Holt. We'll hustle him over to McClatchie's," he went on, beguilingly, as the girls made no move to go, “and if lie's what he says, well and good, it will be proved. If not—”
“But that will take time, and knock mv business all out,*’ groaned Allison, taking his turn in the conversation again. “See here." he addressed himself to Bobby, “I know this looks mighty suspicious. And in your place I expect I might draw the same conclusions—probably would. I don't blame you. And I don't ask you to trust me alone a single minute. What T do ask is that you give me my chance to show this picture crank what he wants to see. As I said before—” rapidly he sketched the situation again from start to finish. “There’s the whole thing in a nut-shell,” he concluded. “and I can't help saying that you’ll be making a big mistake, if you don't believe me.”
Bobby drew some of the boys aside. “What do you think?” he whispered. “Of course, if it should turn out to be really as he says—if Arthur’s firm has lately annexed a new partner— Everyone knows that Strictman is daft over pictures, and if our interference should queer some important deal— he's a touchy old lobster. I’ve heard
“You fellows see the difficulty in this, of course r” queried Austen.
“Xone of us knowing Strictman by sight, you mean? Yes. I’ve thought
of that.” Bobby rubbed his nose, perplexedly. “And why couldn’t he have come and asked, in the first place?” he blurted out. “He had a tongue, hadn’t he? So many of the summer cottages have been broken into this fall, and to calmly let in a sharper to spy out the lay of the land, even if he doesn't actually abstract anything this time—to be ‘done,’ and with our eyes open— Well, what do you say?” he broke off to ask.
But before the others had time to answer, the girls surrounded them, unable to restrain their curiosity any longer. What were they talking about all off there by themselves? What had they decided ? They, the girls, that is, had decided that he was all right. And Marianne had gone to tell Parker to have the room properly heated, and the sleigh brought round at once, as the train was nearly due. And when the male element suggested that they were in something of a hurry, what did they know about Holt except what he chose to tell them, himself, they waxed highly indignant.
“Now, you are hor-rid—simply horrid !” declared Nell. “He’s a gentleman. The tone of his voice, the very look of him—”
“Oh, he’s good enough looking, if you come to that,” admitted Bobby, “and plausible enough, too—if that counts for anything. I should rather say it didn’t, though. It’s the tack the high-grade burglar takes these days.”
Marianne now joined their circle, her cheeks a little flushed, mocking lights in her eyes challenging their criticism.
“ The die is cast,” she cried, gayly. “Good people all. the play goes on. Now Bobby, Austen,” she quickly forestalled their objections, “don’t be silly, and grave, and scold, and put on that grieved, you’ll-rue-it-till-yourlife’s-end look. I assume the entire responsibility, and will be answerable to Judge Eaidlaw for everything.” She glanced from one to the other with the winning look which few could
resist. "Please,” she said, “let me have my way.”
Austen showed symptoms of wavering.
“Suppose we let her, Bob?”
“Yes, and be told after that, of course, she didn’t know any better, but that we should have stopped her.” “Oh, you are cross !” mourned Marianne. “And they can’t keep him there any longer. He is coming over.” She clasped her two hands over his arm and looked up at him. “Robert —please !”
“I only want to do what is for the best,” grumbled Bobby, trying to avoid her gaze. “It’s no particular pleasure to me, Marianne, to stand out against you.” And as her eyes continued to reproach him, silently, “well, have it your own way, then. It may be all—”
“Go and tell him,” commanded Marianne, pushing him forward. “Oh, hurry, hurry! The sleigh is at the door. He will still have time.”
And before Bobby well knew what he was about he found himself apologizing to the suspicious stranger in his very best manner for the delay they had caused him.
“That’s awfully good of you, you know,” said Allison, somewhat stiffly, for he had seen enough of what passed across the room to guess the rest. “But some of you chaps must stay in the room,” and as Bobby demurred, half-convinced in spite of himself, “I insist upon that,” he repeated.
* * * * *
“So this is the Laidlaw gallery !” Henry P. Strictman stood on the threshold, and looked about him. A few feet away two young men were seemingly deeply engrossed in studying an impressionalistic splurge of color. In a far corner lounged another group, conversing together in low tones, every now and again sending casual glances in the direction of the newcomer, whose remotely questioning look had come back to his companion’s face, as if for an answer. Allison, reading it, felt his blood quicken. Looking for that Tintoretto,
was he? It was up to him to keep him from more than looking, -until he was properly interested in something else. And unconsciously his spirits rose with the need to exert himself.
“Splinters were flying avove, below,
When Nelson sailed the Sound; ‘Mark you, I wouldn’t be elsewhere now,’
Said he, Tor a thousand pounds.’ ”
he muttered beneath his breath, and drew the other into the room with no more ado.
And presently he heard himself saying, glibly, “Yes, embodied simplicity, isn’t it?” as he brought the man who had tramped miles of the Louvre to a standstill before one of Helleu’s exquisite etchings. “Helleu has always seemed to be,” he ran on with nervous rapidity, “to have the delicate art of omission down cold—to know where to leave off. And that is an art, if you like. Reminds one of the artist who said it took two men to paint a good picture—one to wield the brush, and another a club, with which to belabor the painter át that critical point when he had finished, and didn’t know it.”
“I never cared for Helleu, myself,” observed the old man, dispassionately, moving on.
“Hardly archaic enough for your taste, perhaps, Then this dusky-specimen of the Sienese school should appeal to you. Or this—this—diluted Botticelli,” with an unlucky remembrance of a stray phrase from his recent reading.
His companion turned to stare at him. “How can you say that !” he remonstrated. “Surely, surely, you must perceive this to be a copy of Ghirlandajo’s ‘Adoration of the Magi,” to my mind vastly superior to anything Botticelli, even at his best
Allison laughed mirthlessly, to cover the subdued snicker from the corner. “By Jove! I believe you are right, sir. You know more about the collection than I already, you see.”
•• That last’s the truth, at any rate,’’ he thought. Aloud, he was responding to Mr. Strictman's remark about the accuracy of Dutch painters. “Just what 1 felt when 1 tirse went to Holland," he declared, mendaciously. “I was really at some pains to determine whether the people walking about were real, or had just stepped out of the frame of a Gerald Dow.”
As they proceeded, however, he grew more and more silent, as the small change of his art conversation became exhausted. But a misapplied remark, a wandering eye speedily recalled him to his repsonsibility, and made him inwardly curse his thoughtless generosity in respect to the missing picture, even as lie cudgelled his brains to produce something which should bear some semblance to sense. He was on the point of delivering himself of the poetic, if hardly applicable, conceit that the colors of the Whistler, before which they chanced to be standing, seemed to sing, as it were, like new-fledged birds in spring, when the connoisseur interrupted his preamble.
“And your Tintoretto?” he asked, reverence in his voice. “You have perhaps reserved a place of special honor for him.”
Allison hesitated a moment, and in that moment it was borne in upon him that all fabrication of whatever kind soever was futile now. He stood silent. his head thrown back a little, his eyes on the door. Again came the tread of many feet on the stairs, the clatter of many voices, and one voice which laughed continuously.
“That's right. Laugh. Do. Don't mind me, I beg of you. I suppose it strikes you as being funny?”
“A—a little,” choked the other. “Don’t look so affronted, Holt. The idea of you, philistine that you are, rising so Art-fully to the occasion is —’’ Again laughter got the better of him.
Mr. Strictman had been looking searchingly from the stranger to Allison and back again. Now he put a
question. “Am 1 to infer that you are—?"
“Arthur Laidlaw,” finished the stranger, with a bow.
“Then this young man must be—?”
“Allison Holt, my partner.” And the story of how he came to be mixed up in the adventure got itself told, somehow. Mr. Strictman’s face did not relax once during the recital.
“Urn. Exactly. Well, I must not miss my train.” He got into his overcoat, shook hands with young Laidlaw’, bowed to the company at large, then looked squarely at Allison, 'who made no move. Suddenly his thin lips parted in a slow smile. “I have not seen my Tintoretto,” he remarked, dryly, “but it was not your fault, young man—not your fault.” The smile broadened. “You know a thing or two—enough to take me in at all events—but you have much to learn about pictures. If you will call round at my place after the holidays I will endeavor to show you the difference between a Botticelli and a Ghirlandaio. And—well, we will see. Now take me to my train.”
When Allison returned he found his friend pacing the verandah, waiting for him. “You’ve got him,” he called, as the sleigh drew up. “He’s yours for ever. How did I know ? Well, he doesn’t ask everyone to see his pictures, for one thing. Oh, you’ve got him fast enough, but what I’d like to be told is how?”
“Search me !” laughed Allison, running up the steps. “Seemed as pleased as anything. Kept rubbing his hands all the way to the station—rum start, eh? Thought I’d slipped up for sure, when I hard your he-haw. How’’d you come, anyway?”
Laidlaw began to laugh. “That ass Bobby! He ’phoned—wild things. We’ll have some fun rubbing it in. Which reminds me. My aunt, who is running this house party, told me to bring you right in, and,” he added, mischeviously, “I believe Miss Marianne De Witt wants, particularly, to meet you.”