t's a dull person who doesn't wake up Christmas Morning with a curiously ticklish sense of Tinsel in the pit of his stomach!—A sort of a Shine! A kind of a Pain!
So much was born on Christmas Day! So much has died! So much is yet to come! Balsam-Scented, with the pulse of bells, how the senses sing! Memories that wouldn't have batted an eye for all the Gabriel Trumpets in Eternity leaping to life at the sound of a twopenny horn! Merry Folk who were with us once and are no more! Dream Folk who have never been with us yet but will be some time! Ache of old carols! Zest of new-fangled games! Flavor of puddings! Shine of silver and glass! The pleasant frosty smell of the Express-man! The Gift Beautiful! The Gift Dutiful! The Gift that Didn't Come! Heigho! Manger and Toy-Shop,—Miracle and Mirth,—
Flame Nourice certainly was willing to laugh at the years. Eighteen usually is!
Waking at Dawn two single thoughts consumed her,—the Lay Reader, and the humpiest of the express packages downstairs.
The Lay Reader's name was Bertrand. "Bertrand the Lay Reader," Flame always called him. The rest of the Parish called him Mr. Laurello.
It was the thought of Bertrand the Lay Reader that made Flame laugh the most.
"As long as I've promised most faithfully not to see him," she laughed, "how can I possibly go to church? For the first Christmas in my life," she laughed, "I won't have to go to church!"
With this obligation so cheerfully canceled, the exploration of the humpiest express package loomed definitely as the next task on the horizon.
Hoping for a fur coat from her Father, fearing for a set of encyclopedias from her Mother, she tore back the wrappings with eager hands only to find,—all-astonished, and half a-scream,—a gay, gauzy layer of animal masks nosing interrogatively up at her. Less practical surely than the fur coat,—more amusing, certainly, than encyclopedias,—the funny "false faces" grinned up at her with a curiously excitative audacity. Where from?—No identifying card! What for? No conceivable clew!—Unless perhaps just on general principles a donation for the Sunday School Christmas Tree?—But there wasn't going to be any tree! Tentatively she reached into the box and touched the fiercely striped face of a tiger, the fantastically exaggerated beak of a red and green parrot. "U-m-m-m," mused Flame. "Whatever in the world shall I do with them?" Then quite abruptly she sank back on her heels and began to laugh and laugh and laugh. Even the Lay Reader had not received such a laughing But even to herself she did not say just what she was laughing at. It was a time for deeds, it would seem, and not for words.
Certainly the morning was very full of deeds!
There was, of course, a present from her Mother to be opened,—warm, woolly stockings and things like that. But no one was ever swerved from an original purpose by trying on warm, woolly stockings. And from her Father there was the most absurd little box no bigger than your nose marked, "For a week in New York," and stuffed to the brim with the sweetest bright green dollar bills. But, of course, you couldn't try those on. And half the Parish sent presents. But no Parish ever sent presents that needed to be tried on. No gay, fluffy scarfs,—no lacey, frivolous pettiskirts,—no bright delaying hat-ribbons! Just books,—illustrated poems usually, very wholesome pickles,—and always a huge motto to recommend, "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men."—To "Men"?—Why not to Women?—Why not at least to "Dogs?" questioned Flame quite abruptly.
Taken all in all it was not a Christmas Morning of sentiment but a Christmas morning of works! Kitchen works, mostly! Useful, flavorous adventures with a turkey! A somewhat nervous sally with an apple pie! Intermittently, of course, a few experiments with flour paste! A flaire or two with a paint brush! An errand to the attic! Interminable giggles!
Surely it was four o'clock before she was even ready to start for the Rattle-Pane House. And "starting" is by no means the same as arriving. Dragging a sledful of miscellaneous Christmas goods an eighth of a mile over bare ground is not an easy task. She had to make three tugging trips. And each start was delayed by her big gray pussy cat stealing out to try to follow her. And each arrival complicated by the yelpings and leapings and general cavortings of four dogs who didn't see any reason in the world why they shouldn't escape from their forced imprisonment in the shed-yard and prance home with her. Even with the third start and the third arrival finally accomplished, the crafty cat stood waiting for her on the steps of the Rattle-Pane House,—back arched, fur bristled, spitting like some new kind of weather-cock at the storm in the shed-yard, and had to be thrust quite unceremoniously into a much too small covered basket and lashed down with yards and yards of tinsel that was needed quite definitely for something else.—It isn't just the way of the Transgressor that's hard.—Nobody's way is any too easy!
The door-key, though, was exactly where the old Butler had said it would be,—under the door mat, and the key itself turned astonishingly cordially in the rusty old lock. Never in her whole little life having owned a door-key to her own house it seemed quite an adventure in itself to be walking thus possessively through an unfamiliar hall into an absolutely unknown kitchen and goodness knew what on either side and beyond.
Perfectly simply too as the old Butler had promised, the four dog dishes, heaping to the brim, loomed in prim line upon the kitchen table waiting for distribution.
"U-m-m," sniffed Flame. "Nothing but mush! Mush!—All over the world to-day I suppose—while their masters are feasting at other people's houses on puddings and—and cigarettes! How the poor darlings must suffer! Locked in sheds! Tied in yards! Stuffed down cellar!"
"Me-o-w," twinged a plaintive hint from the hallway just outside.
"Oh, but cats are different," argued Flame. "So soft, so plushy, so spineless! Cats were meant to be stuffed into things."
Without further parleying she doffed her red tam and sweater, donned a huge white all-enveloping pinafore, and started to ameliorate as best she could the Christmas sufferings of the "poor darlings" immediately at hand.
It was at least a yellow kitchen,—or had been once. In all that gray, dank, neglected house, the one suggestion of old sunshine.
"We shall have our dinner here," chuckled Flame. "After the carols—we shall have our dinner here."
Very boisterously in the yard just outside the window the four dogs scuffled and raced for sheer excitement and joy at this most unexpected advent of human companionship. Intermittently from time to time by the aid of old boxes or barrels they clawed their way up to the cobwebby window-sill to peer at the strange proceedings. Intermittently from time to time they fell back into the frozen yard in a chaos of fur and yelps.
By five o'clock certainly the faded yellow kitchen must have looked very strange, even to a dog!
Straight down its dingy, wobbly-floored center stretched a long table cheerfully spread with "the Rev. Mrs. Flamande Nourice's" second best table cloth. Quaint high-backed chairs dragged in from the shadowy parlor circled the table. A pleasant china plate gleamed like a hand-painted moon before each chair. At one end of the table loomed a big brown turkey; at the other, the appropriate vegetables. Pies, cakes, and doughnuts, interspersed themselves between. Green wreaths streaming with scarlet ribbons hung nonchalantly across every chair-top. Tinsel garlands shone on the walls. In the doorway reared a hastily constructed mimicry of a railroad crossing sign.
Directly opposite and conspicuously placed above the rusty stove-pipe stretched the Parish's Gift Motto—duly re-adjusted.
"Peace on Earth, Good Will to Dogs."
"Fatuously silly," admitted Flame even to herself. "But yet it does add something to the Gayety of Rations!"
Stepping aside for a single thrilling moment to study the full effect of her handiwork, the first psychological puzzle of her life smote sharply across her senses. Namely, that you never really get the whole fun out of anything unless you are absolutely alone.—But the very first instant you find yourself absolutely alone with a Really-Good-Time you begin to twist and turn and hunt about for somebody Very Special to share it with you!
The only "Very Special" person that Flame could think of was "Bertrand the Lay Reader."
All a-blush with the sheer mental surprise of it she fled to the shed door to summon the dogs.
"Maybe even the dogs won't come!" she reasoned hectically. "Maybe nothing will come! Maybe that's always the way things happen when you get your own way about something else!"
Like a blast from the Arctic the Christmas twilight swept in on her. It crisped her cheeks,—crinkled her hair! Turned her spine to a wisp of tinsel! All outdoors seemed suddenly creaking with frost! All indoors, with unknownness!
"Come, Beautiful-Lovely!" she implored. "Come, Lopsy! Miss Flora! Come, Blunder-Blot!'"
But there was really no need of entreaty. A turn of the door-knob would have brought them! Leaping, loping, four abreast, they came plunging like so many North Winds to their party! Streak of Snow,—Glow of Fire,—Frozen Mud—Sun-Spot!—Yelping-mouthed—slapping-tailed! Backs bristling! Legs stiffening! Wolf Hound, Setter, Bull Dog, Dalmatian,—each according to his kind, hurtling, crowding!
"Oh, dear me, dear me," struggled Flame. "Maybe a carol would calm them."
To a certain extent a carol surely did. The hair-cloth parlor of the Rattle-Pane House would have calmed anything. And the mousey smell of the old piano fairly jerked the dogs to its senile old ivory keyboard. Cocking their ears to its quavering treble notes,—snorting their nostrils through its gritty guttural basses, they watched Flame's facile fingers sweep from sound to sound.
"Oh, what a—glorious lark!" quivered Flame. "What a—a lonely glorious lark!"
Timidly at first but with an increasing abandon, half laughter and half tears, the clear young soprano voice took up its playful paraphrase,
It was just at this moment that Beautiful-Lovely, the Wolf Hound,—muzzled lifted, eyes rolling, jabbed his shrill nose into space and harmony with a carol of his own,—octaves of agony,—Heaven knows what of ecstasy,—that would have hurried an owl to its nest, a ghoul to a moving picture show!
"Wow-Wow—Wow!" caroled Beautiful-Lovely. "Ww—ow—Ww—ow—Ww—Oo—Wwwww!"
As Flame's hands dropped from the piano the unmistakable creak of red wheels sounded on the frozen driveway just outside.
No one but "Bertrand the Lay Reader" drove a buggy with red wheels! To the infinite scandalization of the Parish—no one but "Bertrand the Lay Reader" drove a buggy with red wheels!—Fleet steps sounded suddenly on the path! Startled fists beat furiously on the door!
"What is it? What is it?" shouted a familiar voice. "Whatever in the world is happening? Is it murder? Let me in! Let me in!"
"Sil—ly!" hissed Flame through a crack in the door. "It's nothing but a party! Don't you know a—a party when you hear it?"
For an instant only, blank silence greeted her confidence. Then "Bertrand the Lay Reader" relaxed in an indisputably genuine gasp of astonishment.
"Why! Why, is that you, Miss Flame?" he gasped. "Why, I thought it was a murder! Why—Why, whatever in the world are you doing here?"
"I—I'm having a party," hissed Flame through the key-hole.
"A—a—party?" stammered the Lay Reader. "Open the door!"
"No, I—can't," said Flame.
"Why not?" demanded the Lay Reader.
Helplessly in the darkness of the vestibule Flame looked up,—and down,—and sideways,—but met always in every direction the memory of her promise.
"I—I just can't," she admitted a bit weakly. "It wouldn't be convenient.—I—I've got trouble with my eyes."
"Trouble with your eyes?" questioned the Lay Reader.
"I didn't go away with my Father and Mother," confided Flame.
"No,—so I notice," observed the Lay Reader. "Please open the door!"
"Why?" parried Flame.
"I've been looking for you everywhere," urged the Lay Reader. "At the Senior Warden's! At all the Vestrymen's houses! Even at the Sexton's! I knew you didn't go away! The Garage Man told me there were only two!—I thought surely I'd find you at your own house.—But I only found sled tracks."
"That was me,—I," mumbled Flame.
"And then I heard these awful screams," shuddered the Lay Reader.
"That was a Carol," said Flame.
"A Carol?" scoffed the Lay Reader. "Open the door!"
"Well—just a crack," conceded Flame.
It was astonishing how a man as broad-shouldered as the Lay Reader could pass so easily through a crack.
Conscience-stricken Flame fled before him with her elbow crooked across her forehead.
"Oh, my eyes! My eyes!" she cried.
"Well, really," puzzled the Lay Reader. "Though I claim, of course, to be ordinarily bright—I had never suspected myself of being actually dazzling."
"Oh, you're not bright at all," protested Flame. "It's just my promise.—I promised Mother not to see you!"
"Not to see me?" questioned the Lay Reader. It was astonishing how almost instantaneously a man as purely theoretical as the Lay Reader was supposed to be, thought of a perfectly practical solution to the difficulty. "Why—why we might tie my big handkerchief across your eyes," he suggested. "Just till we get this mystery straightened out.—Surely there is nothing more or less than just plain righteousness in—that!"
"What a splendid idea!" capitulated Flame. "But, of course, if I'm absolutely blindfolded," she wavered for a second only, "you'll have to lead me by the hand."
"I could do that," admitted the Lay Reader.
With the big white handkerchief once tied firmly across her eyes, Flame's last scruple vanished.
"Well, you see," she began quite precipitously, "I did think it would be such fun to have a party!—A party all my own, I mean!—A party just exactly as I wanted it! No Parish in it at all! Or good works! Or anything! Just fun!—And as long as Mother and Father had to go away anyway—" Even though the blinding bandage the young eyes seemed to lift in a half wistful sort of appeal. "You see there's some sort of property involved," she confided quite impulsively. "Uncle Wally's making a new will. There's a corn-barn and a private chapel and a collection of Chinese lanterns and a piebald pony principally under dispute.—Mother, of course thinks we ought to have the corn-barn. But Father can't decide between the Chinese lanterns and the private chapel.—Personally," she sighed, "I'm hoping for the piebald pony."
"Yes, but this—party?" prodded the Lay Reader.
"Oh, yes,—the party—" quickened Flame.
"Why have it in a deserted house?" questioned the Lay Reader with some incisiveness.
Even with her eyes closely bandaged Flame could see perfectly clearly that the Lay Reader was really quite troubled.
"Oh, but you see it isn't exactly a deserted house," she explained.
"Who lives here?" demanded the Lay Reader.
"I don't know—exactly," admitted Flame. "But the Butler is a friend of mine and—"
"The—Butler is a friend of yours?" gasped the Lay Reader. Already, if Flame could only have seen it, his head was cocked with sudden intentness towards the parlor door. "There is certainly something very strange about all this," he whispered a bit hectically. "I could almost have sworn that I heard a faint scuffle,—the horrid sound of a person—strangling."
"Strangling?" giggled Flame. "Oh, that is just the sound of Miss Flora's 'girlish glee'! If she'd only be content to chew the corner of the piano cover! But when she insists on inhaling it, too!"
"Miss Flora?" gasped the Lay Reader. "Is this a Mad House?"
"Miss Flora is a—a dog," confided Flame a bit coolly. "I neglected—it seems—to state that this is a dog-party that I'm having."
"Dogs?" winced the Lay Reader. "Will they bite?"
"Only if you don't trust them," confided Flame.
"But it's so hard to trust a dog that will bite you if you don't trust him," frowned the Lay Reader. "It makes such a sort of a—a vicious circle, as it were."
"Vicious Circe?" mused Flame, a bit absent-mindedly. "No, I don't think it's nice at all to call Miss Flora a 'Vicious Circe.'" It was Flame's turn now to wince back a little. "I—I hate people who hate dogs!" she cried out quite abruptly.
"Oh, I don't hate them," lied the Lay Reader like a gentleman, "it's only that—that—. You see a dog bit me once!" he confided with significant emphasis.
"I—bit a dentist—once," mused Flame without any emphasis at all.
"Oh, but I say, Miss Flame," deprecated the Lay Reader. "That's different! When a dog bites you, you know, there's always more or less question whether he was mad or not."
"There doesn't seem to have been any question at all," mused Flame, "that you were mad! Did you have your head sent off to be investigated or anything?"
"Oh, I say, Miss Flame," implored the Lay Reader, "I tell you I like dogs,—good dogs! I assure you I'm very—oh, very much interested in this dog party of yours! Such a quaint idea! So—so—! If I could be of any possible assistance?" he implored.
"Maybe you could be," relaxed Flame ever so faintly. "But if you're really coming to my party," she stiffened again, "you've got to behave like my party!"
"Why, of course I'll behave like your party!" laughed the Lay Reader.
"There is a problem," admitted Flame. "Five problems, to be perfectly accurate.—Four dogs, and a cat in the wood-shed."
"And a cat in the wood-shed?" echoed the Lay Reader quite idiotically.
"The table is set," affirmed Flame. "The places, all ready!—But I don't know how to get the dogs into their chairs!—They run around so! They yelp! They jump!—They haven't had a mouthful to eat, you see, since last night, this time!—And when they once see the turkey I'm—I'm afraid they'll stampede it."
"Turkey?" quizzed the Lay Reader who had dined that day on corned beef.
"Oh, of course, mush was what they were intended to have," admitted Flame. "Piles and piles of mush! Extra piles and piles of mush I should judge because it was Christmas Day!... But don't you think mush does seem a bit dull?" she questioned appealingly. "For Christmas Day? Oh, I did think a turkey would taste so good!"
"It certainly would," conceded the Lay Reader.
"So if you'd help me—" wheedled Flame, "it would be well-worth staying blindfolded for.... For, of course, I shall have to stay blindfolded. But I can see a little of the floor," she admitted, "though I couldn't of course break my promise to my Mother by seeing you."
"No, certainly not," admitted the Lay Reader.
"Otherwise—" murmured Flame with a faint gesture towards the door.
"I will help you," said the Lay Reader.
"Where is your hand?" fumbled Flame.
"Here!" attested the Lay Reader.
"Lead us to the dogs!" commanded Flame.
Now the Captain of a ship feels genuinely obligated, it would seem, to go down with his ship if tragic circumstances so insist. But he never,—so far as I've ever heard, felt the slightest obligation whatsoever to go down with another captain's ship,—to be martyred in short for any job not distinctly his own. So Bertrand Lorello,—who for the cause he served, wouldn't have hesitated an instant probably, to be torn by Hindoo lions,—devoured by South Sea cannibals,—fallen upon by a chapel spire,—trampled to death even at a church rummage sale,—saw no conceivable reason at the moment for being eaten by dogs at a purely social function.
Even groping through a balsam-scented darkness with one hand clasping the thrilly fingers of a lovely young girl, this distaste did not altogether leave him.
"This—this mush that you speak of?" he questioned quite abruptly. "With the dogs as—as nervous as you say,—so unfortunately liable to stampede? Don't you think that perhaps a little mush served first,—a good deal of mush I would say, served first,—might act as a—as a sort of anesthetic?... Somewhere in the past I am almost sure I have read that mush in sufficient quantities, you understand, is really quite a—quite an anesthetic."
Very palpably in the darkness he heard a single throaty swallow.
"Lead us to the—mush," said Flame.
In another instant the door-knob turned in his hand, and the cheerful kitchen lamp-light,—glitter of tinsel,—flare of red ribbons,—savor of foods, smote sharply on him.
"Oh, I say, how jolly!" cried the Lay Reader.
"Don't let me bump into anything!" begged the blindfolded Flame, still holding tight to his hand.
"Oh, I say, Miss Flame," kindled the entranced Lay Reader, "it's you that look the jolliest! All in white that way! I've never seen you wear that to church, have I?"
"This is a pinafore," confided Flame coolly. "A bungalow apron, the fashion papers call it.... No, you've never seen me wear—this to church."
"O—h," said the Lay Reader.
"Get the mush," said Flame.
"The what?" asked the Lay Reader.
"It's there on the table by the window," gestured Flame. "Please set all four dishes on the floor,—each dish, of course, in a separate corner," ordered Flame. "There is a reason.... And then open the parlor door."
"Open the parlor door?" questioned the Lay Reader. It was no mere grammatical form of speech but a real query in the Lay Reader's mind.
"Well, maybe I'd better," conceded Flame. "Lead me to it."
Roused into frenzy by the sound of a stranger's step, a stranger's voice, the four dogs fumed and seethed on the other side of the panel.
"Sniff—Sniff—Snort!" the Red Setter sucked at the crack in the door.
"Woof! Woof! Woof!" roared the big Wolf Hound.
"Slam! Bang! Slash!" slapped the Dalmatian's crisp weight.
"Yi! Yi! Yi!" sang the Bull Dog.
"Hush! Hush, Dogs!" implored Flame. "This is Father's Lay Reader!"
"Your—Lay Reader!" contradicted the young man gallantly. It was pretty gallant of him, wasn't it? Considering everything?
In another instant four shapes with teeth in them came hurtling through!
If Flame had never in her life admired the Lay Reader she certainly would have admired him now for the sheer cold-blooded foresight which had presaged the inevitable reaction of the dogs upon the mush and the mush upon the dogs. With a single sniff at his heels, a prod of paws in his stomach, the onslaught swerved—and passed. Guzzlingly from four separate corners of the room issued sounds of joy and fulfillment.
With an impulse quite surprising even to herself Flame thrust both hands into the Lay Reader's clasp.
"You are nice, aren't you?" she quickened. In an instant of weakness one hand crept up to the blinding bandage, and recovered its honor as instantly. "Oh, I do wish I could see you," sighed Flame. "You're so good-looking! Even Mother thinks you're so good-looking!... Though she does get awfully worked up, of course, about your 'amorous eyes'!"
"Does your Mother think I've got ... 'amorous eyes'?" asked the Lay Reader a bit tersely. Behind his spectacles as he spoke the orbs in question softened and glowed like some rare exotic bloom under glass. "Does your Mother ... think I've got amorous eyes?"
"Oh, yes!" said Flame.
"And your Father?" drawled the Lay Reader.
"Why, Father says of course you've got 'amorous eyes'!" confided Flame with the faintest possible tinge of surprise at even being asked such a question. "That's the funny thing about Mother and Father," chuckled Flame. "They're always saying the same thing and meaning something entirely different by it. Why, when Mother says with her mouth all pursed up, 'I have every reason to believe that Mr. Lorello is engaged to the daughter of the Rector in his former Parish,' Father just puts back his head and howls, and says, 'Why, of course, Mr. Lorello is engaged to the daughter of the Rector in his former Parish! All Lay Readers...."
In the sudden hush that ensued a faint sense of uneasiness flickered through Flame's shoulders.
"Is it you that have hushed? Or the dogs?" she asked.
"The dogs," said the Lay Reader.
Very cautiously, absolutely honorably, Flame turned her back to the Lay Reader, and lifted the bandage just far enough to prove the Lay Reader's assertion.
Bulging with mush the four dogs lay at rest on rounding sides with limp legs straggling, or crouched like lions' heads on paws, with limpid eyes blinking above yawny mouths.
"O—h," crooned Flame. "How sweet! Only, of course, with what's to follow," she regretted thriftily, "it's an awful waste of mush.... Excelsior warmed in the oven would have served just as well."
At the threat of a shadow across her eyeball she jerked the bandage back into place.
"Now, Mr. Lorello," she suggested blithely, "if you'll get the Bibles...."
"Bibles?" stiffened the Lay Reader. "Bibles? Why, really, Miss Flame, I couldn't countenance any sort of mock service! Even just for—for quaintness,—even for Christmas quaintness!"
"Mock service?" puzzled Flame. "Bibles?... Oh, I don't want you to preach out of 'em," she hastened perfectly amiably to explain. "All I want them for is to plump-up the chairs.... The seats you see are too low for the dogs.... Oh, I suppose dictionaries would do," she compromised reluctantly. "Only dictionaries are always so scarce."
Obediently the Lay Reader raked the parlor book-cases for "plump-upable" books. With real dexterity he built Chemistries on Sermons and Ancient Poems on Cook Books till the desired heights were reached.
For a single minute more Flame took another peep at the table.
"Set a chair for yourself directly opposite me!" she ordered. For sheer hilarious satisfaction her feet began to dance and her hands to clap. "And whenever I really feel obliged to look," she sparkled, "you'll just have to leave the table, that's all!... And now...?" Appraisingly her muffled eye swept the shining vista. "Perfect!" she triumphed. "Perfect!" Then quite abruptly the eager mouth wilted. "Why ... Why I've forgotten the carving knife and fork!" she cried out in real distress. "Oh, how stupid of me!" Arduously, but without avail, she searched through all the drawers and cupboards of the Rattle-Pane kitchen. A single alternative occurred to her. "You'll have to go over to my house and get them,—Mr. Lorello!" she said. "Were you ever in my kitchen? Or my pantry?"
"No," admitted the Lay Reader.
"Well, you'll have to climb in through the window—someway," worried Flame. "I've mislaid my key somewhere here among all these dishes and boxes. And the pantry," she explained very explicitly, "is the third door on the right as you enter.... You'll see a chest of drawers. Open the second of 'em.... Or maybe you'd better look through all of them.... Only please ... please hurry!" Imploringly the little head lifted.
"If I hurry enough," said the Lay Reader quite impulsively, "may I have a kiss when I get back?"
"A kiss?" hooted Flame. In the curve of her cheek a dimple opened suddenly. "Well ... maybe," said Flame.