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THE father went out by the door that opened into the passage, and the next moment Livingstone could hear him in deep conference in the adjoining room; at first with his wife, and then with the little girl herself.
The door did not fit very closely and the partition was thin, so that Livingstone could not help hearing what was said, and even when he could shut out the words he could not help knowing from the tones what was going on.
The mother was readily won over, but when the little girl was consulted she flatly refused. Her father undertook to coax her.
To Livingstone’s surprise the argument he used was not that Livingstone was rich, but that he was so poor and lonely; not well off and happy like him, with a house full of little children to love him and make him happy and give him a merry Christmas.
The point of view was new to Livingstone at least, it was recent; but he recognized its force and listened hopefully. The child’s reply dashed his hopes.
“But, papa, I hate him so — I just hate him!” she declared, earnestly. “I’m glad he hasn’t any little children to love him. When he wouldn’t let you come home to us this evening, I just prayed so hard to God not to let him have any home and not to let him have any Christmas — not ever!”
The eager little voice had risen in the child’s earnestness and it pierced through the door and struck Livingstone like an arrow. There came back to him that sentence, “Whoso offendeth one of these little ones, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck —.”
Livingstone fairly shivered, but he had able defenders.
“Oh, Kitty!” exclaimed both her father and mother, aghast at the child’s bitterness. They next tried the argument that Livingstone had been so kind to the father. He had “given him last year fifty dollars besides his salary.”
Livingstone was not surprised that this argument did not prove as availing with the child as the parents appeared to expect. Fifty dollars! He hated himself for it. He felt that he would give fifty thousand to drop that millstone from his neck.
They next tried the argument that Livingstone wanted to have a Christmas-tree for poor children and needed her help. He wanted her to go with him to a toy-shop. He did not know what to get and wished her to tell him. He had his sleigh to take her. This seemed to strike one of the other members of the family, for suddenly a boy’s eager voice burst in:
“I’ll go with him. I’ll go with him in a sleigh. I’ll go to the toy-shop. Maybe, he’ll give me a sled. Papa, mamma, please let me go.”
This offer, however, did not appear to meet all the requisites of the occasion and Master Tom was speedily suppressed by his parents. Perhaps, however, his offer had some effect on Kitty, for she finally assented and said she would go, and Livingstone could hear the parents getting her ready. He felt like a reprieved prisoner.
After a few moments Mr. Clark brought the little girl in, cloaked and hooded and ready to go.
When Livingstone faced the two blue eyes that were fastened on him in calm, and, by no means, wholly approving inspection, he felt like a deep-dyed culprit. Had he known of this ordeal in advance he could not have faced it, but as it was he must now carry it through.
What he did was, perhaps, the best that any one could have done. After the cool, little handshake she vouchsafed him, Livingstone, finding that he could not stand the scrutiny of those quiet, unblenching eyes, threw himself on the child’s mercy.
“Kitty,” he said earnestly, “I did you this evening a great wrong, and your father a great wrong, and I have come here to ask you to forgive me. — I have been working so hard that I did not know it was Christmas, and I interfered with your father’s Christmas — and with your Christmas; for I had no little girls to tell me how near Christmas was. And now I want to get up a Christmas for some poor children, and I don’t know how to do it, so I have come to ask you to help me. I want you to play Santa Claus for me, and we will find the toys, and then we will find the children. I have a great big sleigh, and we will go off to a toy-shop, and presently I will bring you back home again.”
He had made his speech much longer than he had intended, because he saw that the child’s mind was working; the cumulative weight of the sleigh-ride, the opportunity to play a part and to act as Santa Claus for other children, was telling on her.
When he ended, Kitty reflected a moment and then said quietly, “All right.”
Her tone was not very enthusiastic, but it was assent and Livingstone felt as though he had just been redeemed.
The next moment the child turned to the door.
Livingstone rose and followed her. He was amused at his feeling of helplessness and dependence. She was suddenly the leader and without her he felt lost.
She stepped into the sleigh and he followed her.
“Where shall we go first?” she asked.
This was a poser for Livingstone. All the shops of which he knew anything were closed long ago.
“Why, I think I will let you select the place,” he began, simply seeking for time.
“What do you want to get?” she asked calmly, gazing up at him.
Livingstone had never thought for a second that there would be any difficulty about this. He was hopelessly in the dark. Stocks, “common” or “preferred,” bonds and debentures, floated through his mind. Even horses or pictures he would have had a clear opinion on, but in this field he was lost. He had never known, or cared to know, what children liked.
Suddenly a whole new realm seemed to open before him, but it was shrouded in darkness. And that little figure at his side with large, sober, searching eyes fixed calmly on him was quietly demanding his knowledge and waiting for his answer. He had passed hundreds of windows crowded with Christmas presents that very evening and had never looked at one. He had passed as between blank walls. What would he not have given now for but the least memory of one glance!
But the eyes were waiting and he must answer.
“Why — ah — you know, — ah — toys!”
It was an inspiration and Livingstone shook himself with self-approval.
“Yes — ah — TOYS! you know?” he repeated. He glowed with satisfaction over his escape. The announcement, however, did not appear to astonish his companion as much as he felt it should have done. She did not even take her eyes from his face.
“How many children are there?”
“Why — twenty.” Livingstone caught at a number, as a sinking man catches at a twig. As she accepted this, Livingstone was conscious of elation. He felt as though he were playing a game and had escaped the ignominy of a wrong answer: he had caught a bough and it held him.
“How old are they?”
Livingstone gasped. The little ogress! Was she just trifling with him? Could it be possible that she saw through him? As he looked down at her the eyes fastened on him were as calm as a dove’s eyes.
“Why — ah — . How many brothers and sisters have you?” he asked.
He wished to create a diversion and gain time. She answered promptly.
“Seven: four sisters and three brothers. John, he’s my oldest brother; Tom, he’s next — he’s eight. Billy is the baby.”
This contribution of family history was a relief, and Livingstone was just trying to think of something else to say, when she demanded again,
“What are the ages of your children?”
“I have no children,” said Livingstone, thinking how clever he was to be so ready with an answer.
“I know. — But I mean the children you want the toys for?”
Livingstone felt for his handkerchief. The perspiration was beginning to come on his brow.
“Why, — ah — the same ages as your brothers and sisters — about,” he said desperately, feeling that he was at the end of his resources and would be discovered by the next question.
“We will go to Brown’s,” said the child quietly, and, dropping her eyes, she settled herself back in the furs as though the problem were definitely solved.Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.