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Of the Dawning of Christmas Day
In most lives (as I suppose) there is a time which, looming ahead of us dark and sombre, fills us with a direful expectancy and a thousand boding fears, so that with every dawn we thank God that it is not yet. Still, the respite thus allowed brings us little ease, for the knowledge of its coming haunts us through the day and night, creeping upon us nearer and nearer with every tick of the clock, until the last chime has rung--until the sand is all run down in the glass, and we are left face to face with our destiny to front it as we may.
Christmas Day was dawning. From my window I had watched the first pale light gather little by little beyond the distant trees, until the whole dismal scene had come into view.
It had snowed all night, and now everything showed beneath a white burden that, as I watched, seemed horribly suggestive of shrouds; so I turned from the casement with a shiver, and drawing the curtains, sat down before the fire (which I had mended during the night), dejected in mind, and heavy with lack of sleep. Somewhere further down the corridor I could hear Bentley snoring, and the sound, rising and falling in the quietude with wearisome monotony, irritated my fractious nerves to that degree that I was of half a mind to go and wake him. Since Penelope had left for London, two days before, he and I had been staying with Jack at the Manor. And very silent the great place had seemed without her; Jack had been more fretful than usual, and more than once I had thrown down my cards in a huff, for cards, after all, were a very sorry substitute for our lovely, laughing Pen. Hereupon I must needs fall to thinking of her mother (as indeed I oft do of late)--dead now these twenty years and more. But what are years after all to one who has loved as I? And from the broken threads of my life that was, I began to weave a life of the "might have been"--a fuller, richer life, perfected by love, and a woman's sweet companionship--so very different to the lonely life that was mine. Well, she had decreed otherwise,--and now--now she was dead--and I an old man, and lonely. But Jack had loved her passing well, and he was lonely too--and Bentley likewise--Bentley, who was snoring like a grampus. I rose, and slipping on some clothes, stepped out into the corridor. But with my hand upon the latch of his bedroom door I stopped, and changing my mind, went down the stairs to the library. To my surprise the candles were still burning, and through the open door I saw Jack sprawled across the table, his face buried in his hands, and beside him Penelope's miniature. Now as I stood there hesitating, I saw his shoulders heaving very strangely, wherefore, turning about, I began to creep softly up the stairs again, lest he should find himself discovered. Half-way up, however, I heard the scrape of his chair as he rose, and a moment after the sound of his step, firm and resolute as ever, noting which I turned and came down again, coughing very naturally as I reached the last stair.
"Ah, Dick!" says he, as he turned and saw me, "A Merry Christmas to thee."
Now it had ever been our custom, since he and I and Bentley were lads together at Charterhouse, at this so happy season to greet each other thus, but for once I found the words to stick most woefully, and for no reason in the world my eyes wandered from his face to the miniature upon the table, seeing which he picked it up--yet kept it covered in his hand.
"Dick," says he, staring up at the cornice very hard, "we loved her mother well--passing well--you, and Bentley, and I."
"Aye," says I, "we did."
"This was the first great sorrow of my life--that by my happiness you two were rendered desolate," says he, laying his hand upon my shoulder.
"No, no," says I.
"Yes," says he, "think you I have been so blind, Dick?"
"You were her choice," says I.
"True, I was her choice," he repeated, "and methinks it came nigh breaking both your hearts, yet you were my friends still--the old bonds were too strong for self to break them."
"'T were a poor friendship else," says I.
"And now, Dick," says he, with his eyes on the cornice again, "there is Pen," and I saw his lips quiver slightly.
"Aye," I nodded, "there's Pen--our Pen."
I felt his fingers tighten on my shoulder, but he was silent.
"When I go out to-day," says he at last, and stopped.
"When I go out to-day--" he began once more, and stopped again; then, with a sudden gesture, he thrust the miniature into my hand. "You and Bentley!" says he, and turned to the papers that littered the table. "You understand?" says he, over his shoulder.
"Yes," says I, from the window, gazing across the bleak, grey desolation of the park. "Yes, I understand."
"I've been setting my papers in order, Dick,--a hard business," says he, with a rueful shake of the head, "a hard business, Dick--and now I'm minded to write a few lines to her, and that methinks will be harder yet." And passing his hand wearily over his brow, he took up his pen.
"Oh Jack--Jack," says I, suddenly, "there may be hope yet--"
"None," says he, quietly; "I was ever a fool with the small-sword, as you will remember, Dick. But I do not repine--you and Bentley are left."
So I presently went up-stairs again, and this time I did not pass Bentley's door, but entering, found him already nearly dressed, and as I live!--a-whistling of his eternal "Lillibuleero."
"Bentley," says I, sharply, "you surely forget what day it is?"
"No," says he, reaching out his hand with a smile. "A Merry Christmas, Dick!"
But seeing my look, and how I shrank from his proffered hand, his face grew solemn all in a moment.
"Good God, man!" I cried, "cannot you understand!" and with the words, I held up the miniature before his eyes. "From to-day she is in our care alone--her mother died twenty years ago--and to-day--poor Jack--oh, damn your Merry Christmas!--are you so utterly heartless and without feeling, or only a blind fool?"
And with this I turned my back fairly upon him and hurried from the room.
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