Here to return to
IT was quite clear out now and the moon was riding high in a cloudless heaven. The jingle of sleigh-bells had increased and just as Livingstone turned the corner a sleigh dashed past him. He heard the merry voices of young people, and amid the voices the ringing laughter of a young girl, clear as a silver bell.
Livingstone stopped short in his tracks and listened. He had not heard anything so musical in years — he had not heard a young girl’s laughter in years-he had not had time to think of such things. It brought back across the snow-covered fields — across the snow-covered years — a Christmas of long ago when he had heard a young girl’s musical laughter like a silvery chime, and, standing there in the snow-covered street, for one moment Livingstone was young again — no longer a gray haired man in the city; but a young man in the country, somewhere under great arching boughs; face to face with one who was also young; — and, looking out from a hood that surrounded it like a halo, a girlish face flashed on him: cheeks like roses, brilliant with the frosty air; roguish eyes, now dancing, now melting; a laughing mouth from which came such rippling music that there was no simile for it in all the realm of silvery sound, the enchanting music of the joy of youth.
With a cry, Livingstone sprang forward with outstretched, eager hands to catch the vision; but his arms enclosed only vacancy and he stood alone in the empty street.
A large sleigh came by and Livingstone hailed it. It was a livery vehicle and the driver having just put down at their homes a party of pleasure-seekers was on his way back to his stable. He agreed with Livingstone to take him to his destination and wait for him, and Livingstone, giving him a number, sprang in and ordered him to drive rapidly.
The sleigh stopped in front of a little house, in a narrow street filled with little houses, and Livingstone getting out mounted the small flight of steps. Inside, pandemonium seemed to have broken loose somewhere up-stairs, such running and shouting and shrieks of joyous laughter Livingstone heard. Then, as he could not find the bell, Livingstone knocked.
At the sound the noise suddenly ceased, but the next moment it burst forth again louder than before. This time the shouts came rolling down the stairs and towards the door, with a scamper of little feet and shrieks of childish delight. They were interrupted and restrained by a quiet, kindly voice which Livingstone recognized as Clark’s. The father was trying to keep the children back.
It might be Santa Claus himself, Livingstone heard him urge, and if they did not go back to bed immediately, or into the back room, — or even if they peeped, Santa Claus might jump into his sleigh and drive away and leave nobody at the door but a grocer’s boy with a parcel. This direful threat had its effect. The gleeful squeals were hushed down into subdued and half-awed murmurs and after a little a single footstep came along the passage and the front door was opened cautiously.
At sight of Livingstone, Clark started, and by the light of the lamp the caller could see his face pale a little. He asked Livingstone in with a voice that almost faltered. Leaving Livingstone in the little passage for a moment Clark entered the first room — the front room — and Livingstone could hear him sending the occupants into a rear room. He heard the communicating door close softly. Every sound was suddenly hushed. It was like the sudden hush of birds when a hawk appears. Livingstone thought of it and a pang shot through him. Then the door was opened and Clark somewhat stiffly invited Livingstone in.
The room was a small front parlor.
The furniture was old and worn, but it was not mean. A few old pieces gave the room, small as it was, almost an air of distinction. Several old prints hung on the walls, a couple of portraits in pink crayon, such as St. Mimin used to paint, and a few photographs in frames, most of them of children, — but among them one of Livingstone himself.
All this Livingstone took in as he entered. The room was in a state of confusion, and a lounge on one side, with its pillows still bearing the imprint of an occupant, showed that the house held an invalid. In one corner a Christmas-tree, half dressed, explained the litter. It was not a very large tree; certainly it was not very richly dressed. The things that hung on it were very simple. Many of them evidently were of home-manufacture — knots of ribbon, little garments, second-hand books, even home-made toys.
A small pile of similar articles lay on the floor, where they had been placed ready for service and had been left by the tree-dressers on their hasty departure.
Clark’s eye followed instinctively that of the visitor.
“My wife has been dressing a tree for the children,” he said simply.
He faced Livingstone and offered him a chair. He stiffened as he did so. He was evidently prepared for the worst.
Livingstone sat down. It was an awkward moment. Livingstone broke the ice.
“Mr. Clark, I have come to ask you a favor — a great favor —”
Clark’s eyes opened wide and his lips even parted slightly in his astonishment.
“— I want you to lend me your little girl — the little girl I saw in the office this afternoon.”
Clark’s expression was so puzzled that Livingstone thought he had not understood him. ‘“The Princess with the Golden Locks,’” he explained.
“Mr. Livingstone! — I — I don’t understand.” He looked dazed.
Livingstone broke out suddenly: ““Clark, I have been a brute, a cursed brute!”
“Oh! Mr. Liv —!”
With a gesture of sharp dissent Livingstone cut him short.
“It is no use to deny it, Clark, — I have — I have! — I have been a brute for years and I have just awakened to the fact!” He spoke in bitter, impatient accusation. “ I have been a brute for years and I have just realized it.” The face of the other had softened.
“Oh, no, Mr. Livingstone, not that. You have always been just — and — just;” he protested kindly. “You have always —”
“Been a brute,” insisted Livingstone, “a blind, cursed, selfish, thoughtless —”
“You are not well, Mr. Livingstone,” urged Clark, looking greatly disturbed. “Your servant, James, said you were not well this evening when I called. I wanted to go in to see you, but he would not permit me. He said that you had given positive orders that you would not see —”
“I was not well,” assented Livingstone. “I was suffering from blindness. But I am better, Clark, better. I can see now — a little.”
He controlled himself and spoke quietly. “I want you to lend me your little girl for —” He broke off suddenly. “How many children have you, Clark?” he asked, gently.
“Eight,” said the old clerk. “But I haven’t one I could spare, Mr. Livingstone.”
“Only for a little while, Clark?” urged the other; “only for a little while. — Wait, and let me tell you what I want with her and why I want her, and you will — For a little while?” he pleaded.
He started and told his story and Clark sat and listened, at first with a set face, then with a wondering face, and then with a face deeply moved, as Livingstone, under his warming sympathy, opened his heart to him as a dying man might to his last confessor.
“And now will you lend her to me, Clark, for just a little while to-night and to-morrow?” he pleaded in conclusion.
Clark rose to his feet. “I will see what I can do with her, Mr. Livingstone,” he said, gravely. “She is not very friendly to you, I am sorry to say — I don’t know why.” Livingstone thought he knew.
“Of course, you would not want me to compel her to go with you?”
Of course not,” said