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Monday noon the postman gave the letter to twelve-year-old Emily, and Emily in turn handed it to her young brother. Between the gate and the door, however, Teddy encountered Rover, and Rover wanted to play. It ended in the letter disappearing around the corner of the house, being fast held in the jaws of a small black-and-tan dog.
Five minutes later the assembled family in the dining-room heard of the loss and demanded an explanation.
"'T wasn't t-ten minutes ago, mother," stammered Emily defensively. "The postman handed it to me and I gave it to Teddy to bring in."
"But whose letter was it?" demanded several voices.
Emily shook her head.
"I don't know," she faltered.
"Don't know! Why, daughter, how could you be so careless?" cried Mrs. Clayton. "It is probably that note from the Bixbys--they were to write if they could not come. But I should like to know what they said."
"But it might have been to me," cut in Ethel. (Ethel was pretty, eighteen, and admired.)
There was a sudden exclamation across the table as James, the first-born, pushed back his chair.
"Confound it, Emily, you've got us in a pretty mess! It so happened I was looking for a letter myself," he snapped, as he jerked himself to his feet. "See here, Teddy, where did that rascally little dog go to? Come, let's go find Rover," he finished, stooping and lifting the small boy to his shoulder. The next moment the dining-room door had banged behind them.
"Dear, dear!" laughed Mrs. Clayton, a little hysterically, turning to her husband. "You don't happen to be expecting a letter, do you, Charles?"
"I do happen to be--and a very important one, too," returned the man; and Mrs. Clayton, after a nervous glance at his frowning face, subsided into her chair with a murmured word of regret. When luncheon was over she slipped from the room and joined in the hunt for Rover.
They scoured the yard, the street, the house, and the woodshed, finding the culprit at last in the barn asleep under the big automobile. Of the letter, however, there was not a trace.
"Dear, dear, if dogs only could talk!" moaned Mrs. Clayton that night as, restless and full of fancies, she lay on her bed. "If only I knew where and what that letter was. But then, of course, it's from the Bixbys; I'm going to think so, anyway," she comforted herself, and resolutely closed her eyes.
"If that should be Dennison's letter," mused Mr. Clayton as he locked up the house; "if that should be--confound it, and I know it is! I 'd swear it! It serves me right, too, I suppose, for telling him to write me at the house instead of at the office. Confound that little beast of a dog!"
In the south chamber Ethel, sending long, even strokes over the brown satin of her hair, eyed her image in the glass with a plaintive pout.
"Now, if that letter should be an invitation from Fred!" she said aloud. "And when I 'd so much rather go on that ride with him! Oh, dear! Where can Rover have put it?"
Across the hall James Clayton paced the room from end to end.
"Great Scott! What if it were May's letter, after all?" he groaned. "What a fool I was to leave it that if I did n't hear by Thursday night I'd understand 'twas 'no'! And now she may have written and be expecting me to-morrow, Wednesday,--to-night, even, and I not know it--tied hand and foot! Oh, hang that dog!"
Tuesday morning the family awoke and met at the breakfast table. The air was electric with unrest, and the food almost untouched. It was Mrs. Clayton who broke the long silence that followed the morning's greetings.
"I--I don't think I 'll do much to get ready for the Bixbys," she began; "I 'm so sure that letter was from them."
"You mean that, Julia?" demanded her husband, brightening. "Are you really positive?"
"Yes, really positive. They said all the time that they did n't think they could come, and that without doubt I should get a letter saying so."
"Then of course 'twas it," asserted Ethel, her face suddenly clearing.
"Of course," echoed her brother with a promptitude that hinted at more than a willingness to be convinced that the letter was the Bixbys' and none other.
It was about ten minutes past five that afternoon when the four Bixbys came.
"There, we did get here!" they chorused gleefully.
"Yes, yes, I see, I see," murmured Mrs. Clayton, and signaled to Ethel to hurry into the kitchen and give the alarm to the cook. "Then you--you did n't write?"
"Write? Why, no, of course not! We were n't to, you know, if we could come."
"Yes--er--I mean no," stammered Mrs. Clayton, trying to calculate just how long it would take the maid to put three rooms in order.
At half-past six the family, with their guests, sat down to a dinner that showed unmistakable signs of having been started as a simple one for six, and finished as a would-be elaborate one for ten. To the faces of Mr. Clayton, Ethel, and James the cloud of the morning had returned. Mrs. Clayton, confident that the missing letter contained nothing worse for her than its absence had already brought her, looked comparatively serene.
After dinner, as by common consent, Mr. Clayton and his elder son and daughter met in a secluded comer of the library.
"Hang it all, dad, now whose letter do you suppose that was?" began James aggressively.
"It's mine," groaned the father, with a shake of his head. "I know it's mine."
"But it might n't be," demurred Ethel, with a hesitation that showed a fear lest her suggestion meet with prompt acceptance.
"I tell you I know it's mine," retorted Mr. Clayton, and Ethel sighed her relief. "I did hope 't was your mother's," he continued; "but I might have known better. It's mine, and--and it means dollars to me--hundreds of them."
"Why, father!" The two voices were one in shocked surprise.
"Well, it does. Dennison was going to drop me a line here if certain things happened. And if they have happened, and I don't sell my P. & Z. before to-morrow noon, it 'll mean--well, there 'll be something to pay. On the other hand, if those certain things have n't happened, and I do sell--it 'll be worse."
"Well, well," laughed James in a surprisingly buoyant tone, considering the gloom on his father's face. "I guess the letter was yours all right. I should take it so, anyhow, and go ahead and sell."
"Yes, so should I," tossed Ethel over her shoulder as she tripped happily away.
"After all," mused James, slowly crossing the hall, "it could n't have been my letter. May would n't have written so soon; she 'd have waited until nearer Thursday. She would n't let me have the 'yes' quite so quickly. Not she!--the little tease of a sweetheart!"
On Wednesday morning, at half-past eight, the maid brought in the mail and laid it at her master's plate. There were a paper and two letters.
"Hm-m," began Mr. Clayton, "one for you, Julia, my dear, and--by Jove, it's Dennison's letter!" he finished joyfully, thrusting an eager thumb under the flap of the other envelope.
Twenty minutes later, with head erect and shoulders squared, the senior member of the firm of Clayton & Company left his home and hurried down the street. Behind him, on the veranda steps, were a young man and a young girl looking into each other's faces in blank dismay.
"You--you said you were expecting a letter, did n't you?" began Ethel hopefully.
"Well, so were you, were n't you?" The tone showed quick irritation.
"Why, yes, but--"
"Well, don't you think it is yours?"
"Why, I--I don't know. It might be, of course; but--"
"You said you thought it was yours, the very first thing."
"Yes, I know; but--well, perhaps it is."
"Of course it is," asserted James, as he ran down the steps. And Ethel, looking after him, frowned in vague wonder.
Thursday morning's mail brought four letters, and Ethel blushed prettily as she tucked them all in her belt.
"But they aren't all yours," protested her brother James.
"But they are!" she laughed.
"But I was expecting a letter."
"Oh-ho!--so you were, were you?" teased the girl merrily. Ethel could afford to be merry; she had recognized a certain bold handwriting on one of the envelopes. "I really don't see, then, but you 'll have to go to Rover. Perhaps he can tell you where it is."
"Confound that dog!" growled James, turning on his heel.
"I'm going to accept Fred's invitation," soliloquized Ethel happily, as she hurried into her own room. "I shall read his first, so, of course, that will be the first one that I get!"
The noon delivery brought no letters for any one. James Clayton fidgeted about the house all the afternoon instead of going down to the golf club to see the open handicap--the annual club event. He felt that, in the present state of affairs, he could take no chances of seeing a certain young woman who was just then very much in his thoughts. If she had written, and he should meet her as though she had not!--his blood chilled at the thought; and if she had not written, and he should meet her as though she had!--To James Clayton, at the moment, the thought of her precious letter lost forever to his longing eyes was only a shade worse than that there should have been no letter at all.
Five o'clock came, bringing the last mail--and still no letter. In the Clayton residence that night dinner was served at a table which showed a vacant place; James Clayton was reported to be indisposed. Yet, two hours later, after a sharp peal of the doorbell and a hasty knocking at his chamber door by the maid, James Clayton left the house; and one who met him on the steps said that his face was certainly not that of a sick man.
It was after breakfast the next morning, before the family had dispersed, that Ethel rushed headlong into the dining-room.
"Oh, James, James!" she cried breathlessly. "It was your letter that Rover had, and here 't is!"
"But it was n't," retorted the young man airily. "I got mine last night--special delivery."
"But it is yours. Teddy found it in a hole under the barn. See!" crowed Ethel; and she thrust into his hand a tattered, chewed, bedraggled envelope whose seal was yet unbroken.
"Well, by George--'t is for me," muttered the young man, as he descried his own name among the marks left by dirt-stained paws and sharp little teeth. "Humph!" he ejaculated a moment later, eyeing the torn and crumpled sheet of paper which the envelope had contained.
"Well?" prompted several voices.
"It's an advertising letter from the Clover Farm kennels," he announced, with a slight twitching of his lips. "Do you think we--er--need another--dog?"
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