THE CHRISTMAS ROOM
Alice Ross Colver
T WAS Christimas Eve.
Inside her little house. Leila Henderson sat by the lire, a book in her hand.' But try as she would, she could not read, and at last, with a gesture of passionate impatience quickly controlled, she firmly closed her book, as if by doing that she could keep within its covers the image of David. Why in the world should she think of him tonight? Her glance touched on the title of the story in her lap - Foreign Gardens. Ah, the reason was clear enough. Whenever she read anything that took her out of familiar places, Dave was with her. Everywhere that her mind travelled Dave went also. Yet she must read. She must escape. She ...
No, she must not escape. That was just what she must not do, what she had learned so perfectly not to do. not even to seem to want to do. Her life, her heart was here. Here in this little house, this lovely room where Jack still dwelt though he was dead, where small Jack lived. Resolutely, with the strength of a long habit, she reined in her rebel thoughts and turned to answer her son’s long sigh.
“What is it, dear?”
"Do you think reindeers would be afraid of going out in this snow? Do they catch cold easily?”
“I think not. Anyway, Santa probably has an airplane for such nights as this.”
Jack left the chair where he had been kneeling by the window and came running to the sofa. His light, free movements gave her great delight, as did his blonde hair with its lovely glints of gold and his blue eyes in which there dwelt now a look of deep gravity. But before he spoke lie paused with sudden intuition of her love for him, and, as if in answer to it, gave her the radiance of his smile. How had he known she wanted that? Oh. but he was rare! He was precious. Not molded by her marriage, thank heaven, into the dull image she had become. Nor was he like his unsurprising father. How had he ever escaped? Instead, he was like deep woods shot with sunlight, like an azure lake over which a wild little wind blew. Regarding him, joy twisted its fierce sweet way through her. But what was bothering him?
With an air of immense relief as he felt her attention at last, little Jack cast the burden of his anxiety upon her.
"Mother, is Santa Claus someone I can count on?"
“You mean—rain or snow?”
“No. I don’t mean that.”
Startled, Leila lifted the boy to her lap, and, pushing
back his thick hair, looked into his eyes, trying to sec if disillusionment had come at the tender age of live. Meeting his steady enquiry, she experienced, as she so often did. a disconcerting feeling of unfamiliarity, of being not related to him at all. So much that was unguessed lay behind that dear gaze that she felt a moment of utter panic. How could she - -alone? She strove to concentrate on the young voice struggling slowly for the exact words that would frame his thought.
“I mean, if he knows 1 want something—oh, worse n anything. 1 f I want it as much as -as much as the sky—will he give it to me? Or will he fool me?”
Caution prompted an answer in the form of another question. Jack had been known to want such extraordinary things.
“What is it you want, dear?”
"Because I’m not going to ask him and be fooled. I’d rather ask you. I know I can count on you.”
“You’d better ask him,” said Leila hastily,
"Well then, mother, let’s write the letter.”
SO LEILA got paper and pencil, while Jack scrambled to the davenport beside her, remembering just in time to keep Ins small tan-shod feet extended over the plum-colored covering of the antique sofa and not to rub his head against the old Paisley shawl that draped its back. Perhaps, after all. he had better take his usual place on the stool at her feet. But she was smiling down in answer to his fleeting, silent question.
“It's all right tonight. Jack, dear. It’s rather a special night.”
"That’s good. Yes, 1 know it is. But I don’t forget that this is a special room, too. Mother, how can it possibly be a Christmas room?”
"A Christmas room?”
“Tony’s Christmas room is always all mussed up and all fulled up. Everything and even.’bod y is in it. Is this a Christmas room like Tony’s?”
"Tony, you know, has lots of brothers and sisters. Where there are so many, rooms are lx>und to be mussed up and filled up. I rather think, Jack darling, that Santa Claus knows this is my room and he’ll find another place for your toys. But it won’t matter where they are. just so you have them, will it?”
Suppressing a sigh which he could not explain, Jack replied
politely that it did not matter at all except that he did not want any toys this year. That is, he did not want the kind that could be kept exactly in a single place. What he wanted was something that kind of moved around. He cast an anxious glance at her.
“A scooter?” she asked.
“No—yes—well, I’ll say it and you write it in the letter."
So he dictated while Leila, troubled, struggled silently with an unexpected problem as she wrote.
Dear Santa Claus:
All I want this year is a dog. You needn’t bring me anything else unless you really want to. Of course I could use a scooter-bike, but the dog is the important thing. Boys generally like marbles and an Indian suit, too, but the dog is best of any of these. I would like a little dog tliat is little even when it reaches up to lick you.
I don’t care what color it is, just so long as it is some color. Also, I’d like a long enough tail to see it when it wags. I’d like a brother, too, or else a daddy, but mother says you don’t have those, so the dog will do for them. Please,
Santa Claus, bring me a dog for all my very own private. Jack.
His expression was so ecstatically confident that Leila was held dumb in dismay. She ought to have known, because this love of animals was her own and therefore to be expected. She had known, really, but she had not heeded. She had kept putting off the moment. It meant—what did it mean? A dog in this room, climbing all over her antiques, tearing around with muddy feet on her polished floors, dragging at her thick, silky rugs. It meant the ruin of a carefully constructed beauty. But it meant more than that. Something deeper. It meant a breaking up within her—
“Can you put in something more?"
"Then you’d better tell Santa, please, to make it a clean dog. You’d like a clean dog better than a dirty one, wouldn’t you, mother?”
Her voice had answered, but her mind went on. A breaking-up within her, because this room was her refuge. It hid her. It made her feel safe. It was like a smiling mask behind which she might weep but no one would ever know. What was more, the room was a habit, rooted in loyalty, in pride and in heartbreak. Changing the room meant changing herself. Could she do that again?
Rising, she carried the note to the chimney mantel.
“Now, Jack, dear, if Santa is to come you must get to bed. He never comes until you are asleep. See, here goes the note right on the stocking.”
rORGETFUL of the plum-colored davenport, Jack T drew up his feet, hugged his knees and watched her. There it was, indeed—a large white paper pinned securely on to the big red Santa Claus stocking. Nobody could help but see it.
“Gee ! If he doesn’t bring it now ! Will he put it in the stocking, do you think? Will I see its little head sticking out in the morning?”
“I don’t believe so. You must remember, Jack—"
“On the floor, then. Will Santa put it on the floor?
Shall I get a box? Gee! I’m not going to sleep all night. I bet anything. You know, mother, some boys say there isn’t any Santa Claus. Tony’s big brother says that. But there is, isn’t there?”
“Certainly there is someone that loves you very much, Jack. Enough to give you—well, nearly everything.”
“Enough to give me a dog, you mean?”
He leaped up, did a spontaneous little jig on the floor and then, prancing, ran up the stairs ahead of her, only to slide immediately down the banister again. All through his undressing he cavorted like an imp, shouting his glee, while she watched him.
Then suddenly he was thoughtful. Quietly he climbed into bed, drew the covers up over his pink pyjamas close to his pink cheeks and lay in solemn stillness, his face filled with a kind of holy rapture, his eyes the deep moist blue that they became when he was greatly moved.
“Mother, do you know what I’m thinking? I'm going to teach my dog to wipe his feet before he comes into the house.”
“Jack!” Dropping beside him she took his hands tightly in hers. "Darling, have you thought—Santa might not have a little dog. You haven’t given him much time—”
He turned upon her a look that smote her silent. So, stooping, she kissed him. His reproach was gentle.
“Don’t you remember? Santa Claus can do anything.
Even if he didn’t have a dog when he read my letter, he’d get one. He’d—he’d make one.”
“I had forgotten,” site admitted, filled with a feeling of utter helplessness. "Well, perhaps you’re right. Goodnight, little big boy."
“Little big boy! Hah! Pretty soon I’ll be a big big boy. And then, do you know what? I’ll tell you. I’m going to
be a cowboy. A cowboy and an Indian with a good horse and a good gun and a good dog, and I’ll go shooting and riding around like anything. All over! Nobody’ll stop me. Whoopee! Zing!” He ended his large proclamation by flinging his arms around his mother’s neck. She held him close. Darling small adventurer ! Incredible that he was the son of a man who had liked visible, close boundaries.
“Goodnight, mother. But don’t go yet. Put your cheek down on mine and let’s have a little love. Listen. I don’t think I’ll love my dog more than I do you. I’ll try not. But would you mind if I did in the daytime?”
j EILA KISSED HIM swiftly, hot quick little L kisses all over his face, then left him and went downstairs to settle the question that he had innocently and quite naturally raised.
For a long time she stood by the mantelpiece, staring with wide dark gaze at her room, at the oldfashioned wall paper with its colorful design of small purple, rose and blue flowers—really charming with the rich lustre of her mahogany pieces—at the rugs toned to dull and lovely shades, at the long white curtains with their crisp ruffles hung so meticulously by the small-paned windows, at the old prints and the gleam of copper. It was all quite perfect, quite right. Could she bear to see it destroyed?
Yet why should she care? It was not her room. It was her husband’s—Jack’s. It had always been Jack’s, his heaven and her—prison. Ah! There, it was out. In this beautiful little room had died Leila Allbright, that dreaming girl with the wild heart, the girl who could stand on her tiptoes and touch the stars, who could stretch out her arms and feel the dark mysterious East on the one hand and the tingling West on the other and love them both, who could fly to the North or drift to the South and be at home anywhere. And here had been bom Leila Henderson, Jack’s wife, the contented and model housekeeper. Here she had learned to play a new rôle through the long bitter-sweet years into which she had so blindly plunged. Here she had taught herself to hold her restless hands and feet to accustomed tasks, had made her restless heart brood over her little house through stupid, endless days.
Because of her husband she had kept the wings of her restless spirit folded close so that no one would know, no one would guess—as no one, not even Jack, had ever guessed. If, now at last, the room perished, would not Leila Henderson perish also? And then what would she be? And who? And where? Would she just be nothing, a lost and lonely soul wandering through the days? Would she have to make herself over to still another pattem? Oh, not a second time ! It was too much !
Uneasily she moved about, tom between two certainties—that she was making a great fuss over nothing and that she was at another important crossroads. The room stood for so much—that was the thing. It was the symbol of her wedded happiness. It was her splendid lie. Its order and peace meant that her mind and heart were ordered and peaceful. It was like a monument, really, seen and admired by the world. If she toppled it in the dust now, would she be able to help stamping on its mins and shouting aloud her joy? And if she did that, woüld not Jack die again in heaven? Dear Jack ! Darling, stupid Jack, who had loved her so tenderly, so worshipfully, so—too much. It was all very difficult. She did not care what people said about her if she stamped and shouted, but she simply was no more able to risk hurting Jack now than when he was alive. How had it happened, anyway, that anything so material and impersonal as a room had come to be so significant?
Her mind drifted back. It was her fault. She was caught in a web of her own spinning. Yet that was not entirely true. One cannot help one’s instinctive impulses, and first there had been that wild frenzied need to change the scene where David’s figure had played a part so many times. In a kind of madness she had set about remodelling the old house which she had inherited, moving the tiny kitchen which for years had been entered by the big front door, off to one side so that she could throw that space and the back room together into this one big living room. In the midst of it she came to the slow realization of what this all meant to Jack. They were building a new home together—theirs. And it was to be beautiful, liKe their life, perfect like their love. Fumblingly, with tears in his eyes, Jack had tried to say this to her as he felt it, terribly sensitive to the possibility of her laughing at his sentimentality, but she had not. Instead she had nodded gravely, despite the panic in her soul because it was so far from the truth. Yet gradually that was what the room came to be—an outward expression of an inner harmony that never had existed except in Jack’s mind. Her aching pity for him, which was all she had ever been able to give him in return
for his passionate devotion, had held her to a brave pretense through the years.
It was all wrong for her, but it had made him so happy. And if at times—when thoughts of Dave stabbed through her—she escaped from Jack’s embrace, leaving him standing with hurt and puzzled gaze, she gave the room as her excuse. There was a dragging curtain, or a crooked chair, or a fleck of dust. That always made Jack smile tolerantly, as if he understood her exactly. And when—apologetic, quiescent, numb from her fight to hide her rebellion—she had finally brought herself to return to his arms, she found his blindness a clumsy comfort. No, Jack had never guessed what a secret the room held. She had kept it safe from him and all their world. It was all she could do, the most and the least, since it was she who had flown to Jack like a wounded bird after David had departed.
David had gone so suddenly. There had been no hint of his intention, not a word of farewell. There had been simply a June night tremulous with beauty, in which the scent of flowers in her rambling old garden, the soft silver radiance of the moon and the unexpected turning of David’s body toward hers had startled her to a breathed whisper of his name. She could remember still how her heart pounded terribly as he róse and faced her. But David had only said it was late and he must go, and the next moment the garden was empty. Still bright, still fragrant, but empty. A dead place.
For David was gone, not only from the garden but from the town, with no further good-by to her in spite of all their hours together. For two days she waited for some word, some message. Then, just after she and Jack had slipped away to the next city to be married, came David's letter. She had left the dazed, triumphant Jack at the bank where he worked, and had gone rather soberly home to break the news to her mother and to plan for her future; and there was the big white envelope addressed to her in Dave’s familiar hand. Without a word she had taken it up to her room. How thankful she had been for this brief freedom from Jack’s presence— and for her mother’s wisdom—while she struggled to catch her balance in a whirling world. Certain lines still scorched her eyes, still stood in letters of red in her mind.
Pal. darling, I don’t know how to write this. You are so young. Do you know how young you are? So eager for life and adventure. What right have I to snatch you from both and keep you for my own? You must, I think, pal dear, try life first before you try love. Try life. And if you find then that you want to try love—my love—it will be waiting.
TRY LIFE ! Leila stirred now in her deep chair.
Surely she had done that, though not, perhaps, as Dave had meant her to. Try life ! Well, life had tried her at any rate. Would Dave think so if he could see her now? Would he find her as changed as she felt herself to be?
But these were idle thoughts. If she had ever been going to hear from him she would have heard before this—at the time of her wedding, of her little boy's birth, of Jack’s death. Surely some news would finally have reached David in his wanderings. And yet how? Only chance would have informed him of what had happened to her. No, she would never see him or hear from him again. Her life was bounded by and bound up in Jack—her beloved son. She must accept that fact once and for ever.
This brought her squarely back to the problem of the dog. Yet suddenly it was no longer a problem, for a thought had streamed into her mind like a great white light. All the stalwart qualities that she so loved in her little boy — his darling, instinctive understanding of her—those were the qualities of his which had been like David’s. It was extraordinary, impossible—yet it was true. The idea flew like a dove into her heart and folded soft wings.
Well, that being so, what did a room matter?
Jack, her husband, for whom she had made her gallant pretense, was dead. The room’s continuation was both futile and cowardly. The spoken demands of the living are more important than the silent demands of those who are gone. She would present her husband’s room to her husband’s son, who could do with it as he liked. That would be quite right. If little Jack junked it—what of it? Little Jack was like David, so she would have to give him much more than a room before she was through. She would have to give him the world.
“I’m going to go riding and shooting around like anything. All over! And nobody’ll stop me—”
Yes, she would have to give him the world. Outside of this little space where she sat was the world—that bright, strange, beautiful world which Dave had brought to her in their long walks and talks together. She had thought she
would see that world with Dave—with David guiding her to those places he had made so real—the burning yellow stretch of Sahara desert, the pale frosty summit of Fujiyama, the pearly Taj Mahal standing washed in moonlight, the little white butterfly boat on the blue Nile, the steaming green jungle, the white North. But now, instead, she would see them with little Jack 1
It was a tremendous idea. Like a great, strong, clean wind, it swept through the ordered room, lifting Leila to her feet. Let confusion come ! Let monuments fall ! Though she was at the end of one thing, she was at the beginning of another. Out of the dust of the wreck she would make, she would find herself again; her old lost self and her old life. Honest life.
Swiftly and eagerly she went to her evening’s work. First there was the tree to trim with narrow ribbons of shining silver tinsel. It stood in the dining room in a bay window, where it was out of the way and where she had planned all the toys could be grouped without marring the perfect unity of her own living room. Too late to move that tonight. It was much too heavy. But never mind, this year. There would be just that much more space in the sacred room for the dog. Smiling, she placed the last tiny colored electric light on the tree and then tiptoed upstairs to be sure little Jack was asleep. He was, his face in a frown, one arm flung out as if in impatience at the creeping night. Thus it was safe to bring out the presents from garret and cellar— the scooter as well as the scooter-bike, the Indian suit and the cowboy suit, and in addition a new sled, a diminutive pair of roller skates, a drum and a train with tracks. Did she spoil him? What of it ! Now for the red stocking which at once became too full to be hung again. She leaned it against the wood basket. And now for the puppy dog !
She went with hurried happiness to the telephone as though this moment might escape her before she had lived it, and had just given an out-of-town call for a man whom she knew raised collies when there came a knock at her front door. Bother! Who could it be at this hour? The grandfather’s clock said nearly ten. Too early for Anna, the maid. Too late for a stranger. Yet if it were any of her friends they would raise a shout or whistle before knocking, and burst right in after it. The knocker dropped again— twice—imperatively. Leila spoke into the transmitter.
“Delay that Hambridge call until I ring you again, please. Thank you.”
Rising from her desk, she went swiftly to the switch for the outside light, opened the door—and stared unbelievingly at the figure of David standing in the bright illumination !
Was it really he? Yes. That was Dave in the old, faded, orange and green mackinaw, his hair and mustache as black against the bronze of his face as she remembered, and his eyes glowing like molten sunlight beneath his dark brows. But his coming now—note— at this moment when she was scrapping the past. What a miracle ! She wanted desperately to rush at him in the old way, to pour out all she had been thinking during the evening in a torrent of words, sure of his dear understanding. Yet she just stood there in a trance.
“Leila ! It’s Dave ! Don’t you remember?”
THROUGH the roaring in her head she heard her voice, composed to a flat level, as she had learned to keep it for her husband, Jack, who had so often been startled by her vehemence.
“Of course,” she answered. “Come in. I'm glad to see you.”
He came in with the lithe grace that his outdoor life had given him, but she could feel that her restraint had chilled him. He would be cautious now. Yes, his eyes had turned from the color of warm sunlight to cold copper. And yet his words were not cold.
“What’s happened?” he demanded with his old directness. “To you? To the house? Where’s the kitchen? I thought I’d walk into it. I even thought I smelled your mother’s gingerbread. Instead, all this glory.” He swept out a hand.
“You could hardly expect to find everything the same.”
She was penned up within herself, frozen, as she had been ever since David had left, and he had no way of knowing that the same old torrents boiled beneath the ice. He straightened, and formality fell upon them for a moment as she took his coat and put it out of sight, but as soon as they were before the fire the old familiarity asserted itself once more. He turned his look upon her in that way he had of stripping away the husks and getting at the kernels of truth at all costs, instinctively she put out her hand to a lamp near by.
“Don’t do that,” he said quietly. “It’s no use. I’ve seen —and now I want to know why.”
“You are just the same,” she evaded.
“Yes,” he replied absently. “Just the same. Still a wanderer over the face of the earth. At home everywhere —and nowhere. I thought I would be at home here, but I don’t recognize a thing.”
All the time he was talking he was considering her, trying
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to see in this low-toned, poised woman the flaming girl of eighteen whom he remembered.
Her hair was long now and coiled on her neck.
Was that the difference? She was as slim, her eyes were as big. Ah! He had it now. It was her eyes. The fire in them was burned out. It was drowned in deep dark pools. He bent forward.
“You’ve stayed right here?”
"I’m guessing, Leila. I don’t know a thing. I’ve never heard. You didn’t answer my letter and I just got here tonight. I came right over. I have no idea—”
Her heart hammered wildly. How she wanted to fling out both hands to him ! What a ghastly trick her self-control was playing on her —that hard-won self-control! It was like a steel casing that wouldn’t let her move. He leaned back at last, his eyes on her left hand and, searching in his pockets, brought his pifie out, lit it and said casually: “You’re married, I see.”
She nodded again.
“I suppose that’s the answer. You can’t be the same—” He broke off abruptly. “A boy in town, of course. Foolish Leila.” Rising, he began prowling about the room, looking slowly at all the alterations that had been made. "You don’t mind? This room is astonishing. I need hardly add it’s a success. When did you do all this?”
“When I married. We came here to live.” She paused, a little breathless beneath his steady gaze, puzzled and hun; by his easy retreat. “Mother was alone and not well. So it seemed best—and I couldn’t bear—I had to change— I mean, I wanted everything to look new like a bride’s.”
“Of course.” He was helping her and she was suddenly furious at him. “Your mother?”
“She lived only two years after Jack and I were married.”
“I’m sorry. I was always so fond of her. I really hoped to see her tonight. Do you remember her gingerbread? She always had it ready for us when we got back from those long tramps over the mountain. Jove! It was good. She saw the changes here. then. Didn’t she mind?” He stopped suddenly and moved to the tiny stairway. “But these are the same,” he said, laying a hand affectionately on them. “I used to have to go up sideways and all bent over.” He peered up. “Yep, I still would. Where are the dogs?”
“Rags was run over. Tatters died soon after that.”
“Hm-m. And the garden?”
“It doesn’t straggle any more.”
“Neat and tidy. Like the room. No wild weeds there or anywhere any more. And the pony? Lady that was her name. Is she dead, too? Or does she still straggle?”
Leila smiled faintly.
"She straggles quite safely enough for little Jack.”
“Your boy, 1 suppose.” He pondered. “Oh —yes, I remember the Jack you married. A pleasant, polite lad who took you to the club dance the night I met you and wanted to kill me every day after that, but was too well brought up. Yes, he was hopelessly in love with you. Why didn’t I foresee? And so you married him and now have a child. Well, of course. Why not?” "Yes. Why not?”
There was a moment of silence. He dropped it quietly.
"A boy,” be said slowly. “I’d never guess.” His gaze went around the room, came back to lier and to the knobby scarlet stocking near her feet. “That’s the only give-away. Doesn’t he play here, Leila? The old place would have been better for him. Forgive me, my dear, but this room isn't like you. It isn’t you. I’m—I'm lost in it.” He frowned, puzzled and then he moved to the chimneypiece, where he stood above her. close-too close—looking down at her intently. For the first time, he seemed to discover she was wearing black and white.
“Great heavens. Leila! You’ve entered wifehood and motherhood since I last saw
you. Do you mean to say you’re alsoreached over and touched her dress.
She nodded for the third time.
“When did your husband die?”
“Nearly a year ago.”
“So.” There was an odd interval of silence, then, finally, the question she had been dreading. “How old is your boy?”
“Five. He’s really quite a darling. He—”
"Five.” He broke through her hurried words. “Let me see. Then you must have been married the year I left. Very soon after, in fact.”
She made no reply, and against her will her hand flew to her throat to cover the beating pulse there. But he had seen. He knew, then, everything. Or didn’t he? If he did—and still cared. But how could he still care now that he had found her so different? Yet until she knew how he felt she would have to hide her feelings—and there was nothing in which she might conceal herself save this stiff garment of silence, this icy cloak of composure. His look gave her no quarter, but her eyes asked for none.
“I hope you were happy, Leila.”
Happy ! With her real life a dream and her dream life a poignant bitter reality ! Until the birth of little Jack she had been able to impose a terrific restraint upon herself, but after that some change was wrought in her that was stronger than her mind, stronger than her will. Happy ! If Dave could only know that the only happy moment she had ever had with her husband was the time when she had savagely struck his hungry arms from her !
“Don’t ever touch me again!” she had exclaimed. “I can’t stand it, I tell you! I hate it!”
Bewildered, hurt past telling, her husband had groped for an explanation and found it with awkward relief in her experience. Gasping, her senses reeling, she had let him rest on that, had choked herself, buried herself—for one had to go on. One had to build no matter how many times the sand shifted.
IKE A SWIMMER up from the sea, blinded, staggering through the surf, Leila came out of the past and looked at David. Without telling him a thing, she had yet told him everything; and all her pride, coupled with her habitual defense of Jack—her passionate need to make up to her husband even though he was gone—was fierce upon her in tine presence of this man who had driven her to Jack.
“You’re mistaken. Jack was good to me. Oh, too good! He was perfect. I didn’t deserve such adoration. If there was any unhappiness it was always my fault. But we were happy, I tell you. Why, he gave me everything in this room. Everything! It’s exactly as—as we wanted it.”
“I see.” David merely said.
Did he? What did he see? How much? She stared at him. stony-faced, until he, with a little shrug as if dismissing everything, lifted the white letter she had taken from the red stocking and left on the shelf. “A note to Santa. May I read it?” Thankful for a moment’s respite, she agreed. A log in the fireplace fell apart with a crash, and in her heart there thundered an echo as the wild hope that his coming had brought fell to pieces. It was all no good. With one clenched hand tucked beneath her dress, she forced herself to face it. The past was past. The knowledge of this was brought to her indubitably on the quivering antennae of her sensitiveness. It might not have been —if he had found her the same, but she was not. Moment by moment she had seen him withdraw before this barrier of beautiful things she had erected against the world. But not against him. Couldn’t he see through them? Couldn’t she explain them away?
“So he wants a dog. That sounds like you, Leila. Is he like you?”
“I don’t know. He’s not like Jack a
bit. He’s like—” She checked the breaking thought. “I can’t think what I might have been like if I’d been a boy. Can you?”
“What kind of a dog did you get for him?”
Now was the time ! Now, if ever, must she say something to reach David, for she had seen the limit of his understanding in his eyes. Yet even as she began to explain she was restrained by a stiff perversity. She had counted so on his instant recognition of all she could not say, on his old intuition which had always made words so unnecessary. But his failure had tipped their moods against each other. Everything was horribly awry. There was no use in trying to straighten them out now. Her reply sounded harsh even in her own ears, but she was desperate.
“I didn’t get any.”
Rising, she led David to the dining room and pointed out the rich display of toys. “I had all these, you see.”
Slowly David turned to her, and once again his eyes were warm and glowing, but with anger this time.
“My dear Leila! He’d rather have the dog than any of that truck. Didn’t you know that?”
“Yes, I knew. Certainly.” (If only she could hurt him!) “But”—she made a
gesture back to her living room—“can you imagine a puppy in there? The room would be ruined in two minutes.”
She faced him, her eyes black in her white face, and stared at him. Stared and stared, because she must stare him down. Finally David held out his hand.
“I see,” he said for the second time. “Well, it’s late and you look tired. I must go.”
“For six more years?” she managed lightly.
“I’m at my aunt’s. She left the place to me, you know, but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to come back. I’m staying a while; can’t say how long. I want to get it in shape to sell. Good night, Leila.”
WHEN LEILA THOUGHT of her telephone call again, it was long past midnight and she was lying tense in bed. Well, there was nothing to do about it now. Little Jack would have to bear up, that was all, if Santa Claus disappointed him. Life was full of such disappointments. He might as well learn young. The only thing she could do now was to drive over to Hambridge directly after breakfast.
But when she came down in the morning, following Jack’s excited rush past her door, she found that her midnight philosophy could not stand up under the weight of his wretchedness. It was unbearable. The tears were in her throat as she looked at him on his knees, peering under the sofa and whispering to himself.
“Nope. Not here. And not in my stocking. Where—”
Into the dining room he dashed, and, with scarcely a glance at the collection of toys there, began hauling them apart in the search for a dog.
“Not here, either. Gee! That’s funny. Maybe—”
There was a swirl of pink wrapper and he was out in the kitchen.
“Mother, I haven't any dog,” he whispered. “I haven’t any dog!” Suddenly he was upon her, his arms clinging.
Breakfast was tragic. Jack was composed now, but rigidly polite with the effort, and so far removed from her in his thoughts that she was frightened. Was he blaming her? Or Santa? ‘7 can count on you." His words sank heavily into her heavy heart.
“Jack, you know Christmas isn’t over yet—”
“But the Santa Claus part is.”
Then it was Santa he blamed !
“Darling, I told you he might not have
“If there was a Santa there’d be a dog.”
A flare of anger licked through her. If it hadn’t been for Dave! If he hadn’t come just when he had! Now Jack's Christmas was ruined, his happy faith gone !
"Maybe the dog got away in the night,”
she improvised on an inspiration. “Maybe he slipped out when Anna came in. and he was so little she didn’t see him. I tell you. I’ll go out in my car. up and down all the streets. Just maybe I’ll find him.”
Hope starred Jack’s eyes.
“May I go, too?”
“But, darling, suppose he comes back here? And you’re not here?”
Leaving him with Anna, she made all haste to Hambridge, but it was as she feared. The man never had puppies at this time of year.
“Oh, but don’t you know of anyone who has a little dog? Any kind. It doesn’t have to be a collie—a thoroughbred. I’d pay a good price just the same. I must have one.” The tall Scotsman shook his head.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he repeated. “If you had come just a day sooner—”
It was too bad, but it couldn’t be helped. Now there was nothing for it but a farm-tofarm canvass all the way back to the village. What a Christmas ! Jack’s heart broken, her own broken—this wasn’t living. Life was laughter, not tears. Anyway, one ought at least to be able to find a puppy. The world blurred before her eyes, and the next moment she had skidded off the slushy road and was sunk deep in the gutter.
There was a collection of mean houses half a mile back. To the door of the first came a slatternly woman and half a dozen dirty children, silent, curious. What wretchedness ! No Christmas here either. She ought to be thankful. Jack ought to be. She’d tell him about this, about the children’s bitten look, their blue legs. It would help him forget his own troubles.
“You haven’t—have you a telephone?”
The woman eyed her resentfully and made a sound that was meant to be a laugh while she kicked at her crowding brood. "Telephone? No. We ain’t got nuthin’.” “I’m in trouble. My car’s ditched. Is there a telephone anywhere around here?” “Crost the street. At the grocery store.” Leila was about to turn away with thanks when a shadow caught her eyes. No, it was not a shadow. It was a forlorn animal, a shivering, horribly dirty little dog of nondescript breed and decidedly variegated ancestors that staggered out from under the stoop and crawled feebly up to the rows of legs above him. There he stood, his long ears drooping, his brown eyes—the only appealing thing about him—beseeching her silently.
“Oh—” she opened her purse eagerly— “I’ve been out all morning looking for a dog.
Is he for sale? I do hope so. I must have him for a Christmas present for my little boy. May I buy him?”
•The woman’s face turned crafty.
“Not unless you take the two of ’em. Shut up, Bob!”
“Oh, I will! Gladly. How much are they?”
The woman hesitated, tom between greed and need.
“Each? That’s quite all right. Here—well,
I seem to have nothing but five dollar bills, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t trouble. It’s Christmas, you know !”
The woman’s eyes glittered. Even Bob's regret over his lost pets vanished before this unexpected fall of fortune. ¿
“Could you carry them to the car for me? I’ll go across and telephone.”
It took only a moment. To Anna to delay the dinner, and then to the garage. They’d be right out. Shortly, she was walking beside Bob along the muddy road. He had put on shoes, great flapping shoes with no laces in them and no socks beneath. His hands were bare, his wrists exposed and his elbows appearing through his worn sweater. “Were they yours?”
“Yep. But their mother died and we can’t feed ’em.”
“I’ll take good care of them,” she promised. “My little boy will. Thank you so much. Let’s wrap them in this robe. That’s right. See, they’re going right to sleep. Now—for carrying them—and because they are your dogs—” She folded something that crackled into his stiff rough hand.
“Comes nearer it now, ma’am.”
PHE SAT HUDDLED in her fur coat, 0 waiting for the. derrick. Yes, it was nearer a merry Christmas for that family, anyway. And for Jack, too. with these— how could she explain Santa’s delay in making this present?
Wrhile she wondered, help came. In a few more moments she was on her way again, driving slowly as she planned her story to j her little son. Before she knew it she was ¡ home again, the car purring quietly before I her front door.
While she hesitated there came from within a sudden shout of merriment. Jack’s, then Dave’s, deep laugh. She lifted her head, closed the car door softly and stood listening. More shouts. A wild scrambling rush—what in the world was happening? Quickly she hurried up the steps and went in.
At her entrance Jack became rigid, his scared glance passing with horror over the wreck of his mother’s room, realizing its state now fully for the first time. Then he looked at Leila’s face. But she did not see him. She did not see him or the wrinkled rugs or the tom curtain at the window. She did not see the davenport pushed against her polished table, or even the puppy—a perfect puppy, a darling collie—though he was still tearing madly about, barking furiously, his little claws clicking on the bare floor, his woolly body a-quiver, his little tail wagging in a frenzy. Her look was fixed on the man in his faded orange and green mackinaw.
“I found a puppy wandering around this morning,” he explained, “and when I got up close to it there was a tag on it marked: For Jack Henderson, from Santa. So I brought it over. I hope you don’t mind?” Mind ! He had cheated her out of everything. Out of love, out of life, last night out of hope and today out of her Christmas gift to her boy. Her laugh was high and unsteady.
“Jack, darling. No wonder I couldn’t find it. But I did find something else that I j thought needed you. Out in the car. Slip j on a sweater.”
“Somethingelse, mother? Gosh!”
Jack was gone before she could say more, the collie at his heels, and behind the slam of the door the room fell utterly silent.
“You are furious, Leila, but you are all wrong.”
“Am I?” She was trembling. “How do you dare to judge me?”
“Because I know. I saw last night—” “You saw nothing last night! You were blind—blind !” She drew a long breath but was driven on. How wonderful it was to speak out in the old, wild, free way ! To feel the stone wall that had girdled her heart falling.
“You are here today because you didn’t trust me. No other reason. Just because you didn’t—”
His eyes shone warmly upon this Leila be knew—stormy, fearless. He took a step toward her.
“Didn’t trust you? What are you saying? Listen. I did trust you. I believed in you. It was because I did—-because I saw beneath everything last night—that I dared risk your anger today. I knew—” He broke off and held out his arms. “Oh, my dear ! Come here. Come here at once.”
Leila came. And in a few moments came Jack also, his face bent over the whimpering bundle in his arms, his compassion so stirred he could merely whisper.
“Mother! Aren’t they just too bad! Mother! They can’t walk. They just wobble. They must want some milk like anything. Mother, where can I lay them to keep warm while I go get some milk?”
And Leila, her eyes on fire beneath her tears, answered swiftly.
“Oh, my darling, anywhere. Anywhere at all. On the davenport—or on the floor with the old Paisley shawl for a bed. What does it matter! This is a Christmas room, Jack, dear. A Christmas room !”