THE children insisted on leading him all through the house to show how nicely they had taken care of things. And in every room Gissing saw the marks of riot and wreckage. There were tooth-scars on all furniture-legs; the fringes of rugs were chewed off; there were prints of mud, ink, paints, and whatnot, on curtains and wallpapers and coverlets. Poor Mrs. Spaniel kept running anxiously from the kitchen to renew apologies.
"I did try to keep 'em in order," she said, "but they seem to bash things when you're not looking."
But Gissing was too happy to stew about such trifles. When the inspection was over, they all sat down by the chimney and he piled on more logs.
"Well, chilluns," he said, "what do you want Santa Claus to bring you for Christmas?"
"An aunbile!" Groups
"An elphunt!" exclaimed Bunks
"A little train Yelpers
"A little train with hammers?" asked Gissing. "What does he mean?"
"Oh," said Groups and Bunks, with condescending pity, "he means a typewriter. He calls it a little train because it moves on a track when you hit it."
A painful apprehension seized him, and he went hastily to his study. He had not noticed the typewriter, which Mrs. Spaniel had — too late — put out of reach. Half the keys were sticking upright, jammed together and tangled in a whirl of ribbon; the carriage was strangely dislocated. And yet even this mischance, which would once have horrified him, left him unperturbed. It's my own fault, he thought: I shouldn't have left it where they could play with it. Perhaps God thinks the same when His creatures make a mess of the dangerous laws of life.
"A Christmas story!" the children were clamouring.
Can it really be Christmas Eve? Gissing thought. Christmas seems to have come very suddenly this year, I haven't really adjusted my mind to it yet.
"All right," he said. "Now sit still and keep quiet. Bunks, give Yelpers a little more room. If there's any bickering Santa Claus might hear it."
He sat in the big chair by the fire, and the three looked upward expectantly from the hearthrug.
"Once upon a time there were three little puppies, who lived in a house in the country in the Canine Estates. And their names were Groups, Bunks, and Yelpers."
The three tails thumped in turn as the names were mentioned, but the children were too excitedly absorbed to interrupt.
"And one year, just before Christmas, they heard a dreadful rumour."
"What's a rumour?" cried Yelpers, alarmed. This was rather difficult to explain, so Gissing did not attempt it. He began again.
"They heard that Santa Claus might not be able to come because he was so behind with his housework. You see, Santa Claus is a great big Newfoundland dog with a white beard, and he lives in a frosty kennel at the North Pole, all shining with icicles round the roof and windows. But it's so far away from everywhere that poor Santa couldn't get a servant. All the maids who went there refused to stay because it was so cold and lonely, and so far from the movies. Santa Claus was busy in his workshop, making toys; he was busy taking care of the reindeer in their snow-stables; and he didn't have time to wash his dishes. So all summer he just let them pile up and pile up in the kitchen. And when Christmas came near, there was his lovely house in a dreadful state of untidiness. He couldn't go away and leave it like that. And so, if he didn't get his dishes washed and the house cleaned up for Christmas, all the puppies all over the world would have to go without toys. When Groups and Bunks and Yelpers heard this, they were very much worried."
"How did they hear it?" asked Bunks, who was the analytical member of the trio.
"A very sensible question," said Gissing, approvingly. "They heard it from the chipmunk who lives in the wood behind the house. The chipmunk heard it underground."
"In his chipmonastery?" cried Groups. It was a family joke to call the chipmunk's burrow by that name, and though the puppies did not understand the pun they relished the long word.
"Yes," continued Gissing. "The reindeer in Santa Claus's stable were so unhappy about the dishes not being washed, and the chance of missing their Christmas frolic, that they broadcasted a radio message. Their horns are very fine for sending radio; and the chipmunk, sitting at his little wireless outfit, with the receivers over his ears, heard it. And Chippy told Groups and Bunks and Yelpers.
"So these puppies decided to help Santa Claus. They didn't know exactly where to find him, but the chipmunk told them the direction, and off they went. They travelled and travelled, and when they came to the ocean they begged a ride from the seagulls, and each one sat on a seagull's back just as though he was on a little airplane. They flew and flew, and at last they came to Santa Claus's house. Through the stable-walls, which were made of clear ice, they could see the reindeer stamping in their stalls. In the big workshop, where Santa Claus was busy making toys, they could hear a lively sound of hammering. The big red sleigh was standing outside the stables, all ready to be hitched up to the reindeer.
"They slipped into Santa Claus's house quickly and quietly, so no one would see or hear them. The house was in a terrible state, but they set to work to clean up. Groups found the vacuum cleaner and sucked up all the crumbs from the dining-room rug. Bunks ran upstairs and made Santa Claus's bed for him and swept the floors and put clean towels in the bathroom. And Yelpers hurried into the kitchen and washed the dishes, and scrubbed the pots, and polished the egg-stains off the silver spoons, and emptied the ice-box pan. All working hard, they got through very soon, and made Santa Claus's house as clean as any house could be. They fixed the window-shades so that they would all hang level, not just anyhow, as poor Santa had them. Then, when everything was spick and span, they ran outdoors again and beckoned the seagulls. They climbed on the gulls' backs, and away they flew homeward."
"Was Santa Claus pleased?" asked Bunks. "Indeed he was, when he came back from his workshop, very tired after making toys all day — "
"What kind of toys did he make?" exclaimed Yelpers anxiously. "Did he make a typewriter?"
"He made every kind of toy. And when he saw how his house had been cleaned up, he thought the fairies must have done it. He lit his pipe, and filled a thermos bottle with hot cocoa to keep him warm on his long journey. Then he put on his red coat, and his long boots, and his fur cap, and went out to harness the reindeer. That very night he drove off with his sleigh packed full of toys for all the puppies in the world. In fact, he was so pleased that he loaded his big bag with more toys than he had ever carried before. And that was how a queer thing happened."
They waited in eager suspense.
"You know, Santa Claus always drives into the Canine Estates by the little back road through the woods, where the chipmunk lives. You know the gateway, at the bend in the lane: well, it's rather narrow, and Santa Claus's sleigh is very wide. And this time, because his bag had so many toys in it, the bag bulged over the edge of the sleigh, and one corner of the bag caught on the gatepost as he drove by. Three toys fell out, and what do you suppose they were?"
"Yes, that's quite right. And it happened that the chipmunk was out that night, digging up some nuts for his Christmas dinner, a little sad because he had no presents to give his children; and he found the three toys. He took them home to the little chipmunks, and they were tremendously pleased. That was only fair, because if it hadn't been for the chipmunk and his radio set, no one would have had any toys that Christmas."
"Did Santa Claus have any more typewriters in his bag?" asked Yelpers gravely.
"Oh, yes, he had plenty more of everything. And when he got to the house where Groups and Bunks and Yelpers lived, he slid down the chimney and took a look round. He didn't see any crumbs on the floor, or any toys lying about not put away, so he filled the stockings with all kinds of lovely things, and an aunbile and an elphunt and a typewriter."
"What did the puppies say?" they inquired.
"They were sound asleep upstairs, and didn't know anything about it until Christmas morning. Come on now, it's time for bed."
"We can undress ourselves now," said Groups. "Will you tuck me in?" said Bunks.
"You're sure he had another typewriter in his bag?" said Yelpers.
They scrambled upstairs.
Later, when the house was quiet, Gissing went out to the kitchen to see Mrs. Spaniel. She was diligently rolling pastry, and her nose was white with flour.
"Oh, sir, I'm glad you got home in time for Christmas," she said. "The children were counting on it. Did you have a successful trip, sir?"
"Every trip is successful when you get home again," said Gissing. "I suppose the shops will be open late to-night, won't they? I'm going to run down to the village to get some toys."
Before leaving the house, he went down to the cellar to see if the furnace was all right. He was amazed to see how naturally and cheerfully he had slipped back into the old sense of responsibility. Where was the illusory freedom he had dreamed of? Even the epiphany on the hilltop now seemed a distant miracle. That fearful happiness might never come again. And yet here, among the familiar difficult minutić of home, what a lightness he felt. A great phrase from the prayer-book came to his mind — "Whose service is perfect freedom."
Ah, he said to himself, it is all very well to wear a crown of thorns, and indeed every sensitive\ creature carries one in secret. But there are times when it ought to be worn cocked over one ear.
He opened the furnace door. A bright glow filled the fire-box: he could hear a stir and singing in the boiler, and the rustle of warm pipes that chuckled quietly through winter nights of storm. Over the coals hovered a magic evasive flicker, the very soul of fire. It was a pentecostal flame, perfect and heavenly in tint, the essence of pure colour, a clear immortal blue.