He stood on the sagging doorstep and looked out on the snowy world. His hands were clasped behind him, and his thin face wore a thoughtful, puzzled look. The door behind him opened jerkingly, and a scowling woman came out with a pan of dishwater in her hand.
"Ain't you gone yet, Bert?" she said sharply. "What in the world are you hanging round for?"
"It's early yet," said Bertie cheerfully. "I thought maybe George Fraser'd be along and I'd get a lift as far as the store."
"Well, I never saw such laziness! No wonder old Sampson won't keep you longer than the holidays if you're no smarter than that. Goodness, if I don't settle that boy!"—as the sound of fretful crying came from the kitchen behind her.
"What is wrong with William John?" asked Bertie.
"Why, he wants to go out coasting with those Robinson boys, but he can't. He hasn't got any mittens and he would catch his death of cold again."
Her voice seemed to imply that William John had died of cold several times already.
Bertie looked soberly down at his old, well-darned mittens. It was very cold, and he would have a great many errands to run. He shivered, and looked up at his aunt's hard face as she stood wiping her dish-pan with a grim frown which boded no good to the discontented William John. Then he suddenly pulled off his mittens and held them out.
"Here—he can have mine. I'll get on without them well enough."
"Nonsense!" said Mrs. Ross, but less unkindly. "The fingers would freeze off you. Don't be a goose."
"It's all right," persisted Bertie. "I don't need them—much. And William John doesn't hardly ever get out."
He thrust them into her hand and ran quickly down the street, as though he feared that the keen air might make him change his mind in spite of himself. He had to stop a great many times that day to breathe on his purple hands. Still, he did not regret having lent his mittens to William John—poor, pale, sickly little William John, who had so few pleasures.
It was sunset when Bertie laid an armful of parcels down on the steps of Doctor Forbes's handsome house. His back was turned towards the big bay window at one side, and he was busy trying to warm his hands, so he did not see the two small faces looking at him through the frosty panes.
"Just look at that poor little boy, Amy," said the taller of the two. "He is almost frozen, I believe. Why doesn't Caroline hurry and open the door?"
"There she goes now," said Amy. "Edie, couldn't we coax her to let him come in and get warm? He looks so cold." And she drew her sister out into the hall, where the housekeeper was taking Bertie's parcels.
"Caroline," whispered Edith timidly, "please tell that poor little fellow to come in and get warm—he looks very cold."
"He's used to the cold, I warrant you," said the housekeeper rather impatiently. "It won't hurt him."
"But it is Christmas week," said Edith gravely, "and you know, Caroline, when Mamma was here she used to say that we ought to be particularly thoughtful of others who were not so happy or well-off as we were at this time."
Perhaps Edith's reference to her mother softened Caroline, for she turned to Bertie and said cordially enough, "Come in, and warm yourself before you go. It's a cold day."
Bertie shyly followed her to the kitchen.
"Sit up to the fire," said Caroline, placing a chair for him, while Edith and Amy came round to the other side of the stove and watched him with friendly interest.
"What's your name?" asked Caroline.
"Robert Ross, ma'am."
"Oh, you're Mrs. Ross's nephew then," said Caroline, breaking eggs into her cake-bowl, and whisking them deftly round. "And you're Sampson's errand boy just now? My goodness," as the boy spread his blue hands over the fire, "where are your mittens, child? You're never out without mittens a day like this!"
"I lent them to William John—he hadn't any," faltered Bertie. He did not know but that the lady might consider it a grave crime to be mittenless.
"No mittens!" exclaimed Amy in dismay. "Why, I have three pairs. And who is William John?"
"He is my cousin," said Bertie. "And he's awful sickly. He wanted to go out to play, and he hadn't any mittens, so I lent him mine. I didn't miss them—much."
"What kind of a Christmas did you have?"
"We didn't have any."
"No Christmas!" said Amy, quite overcome. "Oh, well, I suppose you are going to have a good time on New Year's instead."
Bertie shook his head.
"No'm, I guess not. We never have it different from other times."
Amy was silent from sheer amazement. Edith understood better, and she changed the subject.
"Have you any brothers or sisters, Bertie?"
"No'm," returned Bertie cheerfully. "I guess there's enough of us without that. I must be going now. I'm very much obliged to you."
Edith slipped from the room as he spoke, and met him again at the door. She held out a pair of warm-looking mittens.
"These are for William John," she said simply, "so that you can have your own. They are a pair of mine which are too big for me. I know Papa will say it is all right. Goodbye, Bertie."
"Goodbye—and thank you," stammered Bertie, as the door closed. Then he hastened home to William John.
That evening Doctor Forbes noticed a peculiarly thoughtful look on Edith's face as she sat gazing into the glowing coal fire after dinner. He laid his hand on her dark curls inquiringly.
"What are you musing over?"
"There was a little boy here today," began Edith.
"Oh, such a dear little boy," broke in Amy eagerly from the corner, where she was playing with her kitten. "His name was Bertie Ross. He brought up the parcels, and we asked him in to get warm. He had no mittens, and his hands were almost frozen. And, oh, Papa, just think!—he said he never had any Christmas or New Year at all."
"Poor little fellow!" said the doctor. "I've heard of him; a pretty hard time he has of it, I think."
"He was so pretty, Papa. And Edie gave him her blue mittens for William John."
"The plot deepens. Who is William John?"
"Oh, a cousin or something, didn't he say Edie? Anyway, he is sick, and he wanted to go coasting, and Bertie gave him his mittens. And I suppose he never had any Christmas either."
"There are plenty who haven't," said the doctor, taking up his paper with a sigh. "Well, girlies, you seem interested in this little fellow so, if you like, you may invite him and his cousin to take dinner with you on New Year's night."
"Oh, Papa!" said Edith, her eyes shining like stars.
The doctor laughed. "Write him a nice little note of invitation—you are the lady of the house, you know—and I'll see that he gets it tomorrow."
And this was how it came to pass that Bertie received the next day his first invitation to dine out. He read the little note through three times in order fully to take in its contents, and then went around the rest of the day in deep abstraction as though he was trying to decide some very important question. It was with the same expression that he opened the door at home in the evening. His aunt was stirring some oatmeal mush on the stove.
"Is that you, Bert?" She spoke sharply. She always spoke sharply, even when not intending it; it had grown to be a habit.
"Yes'm," said Bertie meekly, as he hung up his cap.
"I s'pose you've only got one day more at the store," said Mrs. Ross. "Sampson didn't say anything about keeping you longer, did he?"
"No. He said he couldn't—I asked him."
"Well, I didn't expect he would. You'll have a holiday on New Year's anyhow; whether you'll have anything to eat or not is a different question."
"I've an invitation to dinner," said Bertie timidly, "me and William John. It's from Doctor Forbes's little girls—the ones that gave me the mittens."
He handed her the little note, and Mrs. Ross stooped down and read it by the fitful gleam of light which came from the cracked stove.
"Well, you can please yourself," she said as she handed it back, "but William John couldn't go if he had ten invitations. He caught cold coasting yesterday. I told him he would, but he was bound to go, and now he's laid up for a week. Listen to him barking in the bedroom there."
"Well, then, I won't go either," said Bertie with a sigh, it might be of relief, or it might be of disappointment. "I wouldn't go there all alone."
"You're a goose!" said his aunt. "They wouldn't eat you. But as I said, please yourself. Anyhow, hold your tongue about it to William John, or you'll have him crying and bawling to go too."
The caution came too late. William John had already heard it, and when his mother went in to rub his chest with liniment, she found him with the ragged quilt over his head crying.
"Come, William John, I want to rub you."
"I don't want to be rubbed—g'way," sobbed William John. "I heard you out there—you needn't think I didn't. Bertie's going to Doctor Forbes's to dinner and I can't go."
"Well, you've only yourself to thank for it," returned his mother. "If you hadn't persisted in going out coasting yesterday when I wanted you to stay in, you'd have been able to go to Doctor Forbes's. Little boys who won't do as they're told always get into trouble. Stop crying, now. I dare say if Bertie goes they'll send you some candy, or something."
But William John refused to be comforted. He cried himself to sleep that night, and when Bertie went in to see him next morning, he found him sitting up in bed with his eyes red and swollen and the faded quilt drawn up around his pinched face.
"Well, William John, how are you?"
"I ain't any better," replied William John mournfully. "I s'pose you'll have a great time tomorrow night, Bertie?"
"Oh, I'm not going since you can't," said Bertie cheerily. He thought this would comfort William John, but it had exactly the opposite effect. William John had cried until he could cry no more, but he turned around and sobbed.
"There now!" he said in tearless despair. "That's just what I expected. I did s'pose if I couldn't go you would, and tell me about it. You're mean as mean can be."
"Come now, William John, don't be so cross. I thought you'd rather have me home, but I'll go, if you want me to."
"Yes, honest. I'll go anywhere to please you. I must be off to the store now. Goodbye."
Thus committed, Bertie took his courage in both hands and went. The next evening at dusk found him standing at Doctor Forbes's door with a very violently beating heart. He was carefully dressed in his well-worn best suit and a neat white collar. The frosty air had crimsoned his cheeks and his hair was curling round his face.
Caroline opened the door and showed him into the parlour, where Edith and Amy were eagerly awaiting him.
"Happy New Year, Bertie," cried Amy. "And—but, why, where is William John?"
"He couldn't come," answered Bertie anxiously—he was afraid he might not be welcome without William John. "He's real sick. He caught cold and has to stay in bed; but he wanted to come awful bad."
"Oh, dear me! Poor William John!" said Amy in a disappointed tone. But all further remarks were cut short by the entrance of Doctor Forbes.
"How do you do?" he said, giving Bertie's hand a hearty shake. "But where is the other little fellow my girls were expecting?"
Bertie patiently reaccounted for William John's non-appearance.
"It's a bad time for colds," said the doctor, sitting down and attacking the fire. "I dare say, though, you have to run so fast these days that a cold couldn't catch you. I suppose you'll soon be leaving Sampson's. He told me he didn't need you after the holiday season was over. What are you going at next? Have you anything in view?"
Bertie shook his head sorrowfully.
"No, sir; but," he added more cheerfully, "I guess I'll find something if I hunt around lively. I almost always do."
He forgot his shyness; his face flushed hopefully, and he looked straight at the doctor with his bright, earnest eyes. The doctor poked the fire energetically and looked very wise. But just then the girls came up and carried Bertie off to display their holiday gifts. And there was a fur cap and a pair of mittens for him! He wondered whether he was dreaming.
"And here's a picture-book for William John," said Amy, "and there is a sled out in the kitchen for him. Oh, there's the dinner-bell. I'm awfully hungry. Papa says that is my 'normal condition,' but I don't know what that means."
As for that dinner—Bertie might sometimes have seen such a repast in delightful dreams, but certainly never out of them. It was a feast to be dated from.
When the plum pudding came on, the doctor, who had been notably silent, leaned back in his chair, placed his finger-tips together, and looked critically at Bertie.
"So Mr. Sampson can't keep you?"
Bertie's face sobered at once. He had almost forgotten his responsibilities.
"No, sir. He says I'm too small for the heavy work."
"Well, you are rather small—but no doubt you will grow. Boys have a queer habit of doing that. I think you know how to make yourself useful. I need a boy here to run errands and look after my horse. If you like, I'll try you. You can live here, and go to school. I sometimes hear of places for boys in my rounds, and the first good one that will suit you, I'll bespeak for you. How will that do?"
"Oh, sir, you are too good," said Bertie with a choke in his voice.
"Well, that is settled," said the doctor genially. "Come on Monday then. And perhaps we can do something for that other little chap, William, or John, or whatever his name is. Will you have some more pudding, Bertie?"
"No, thank you," said Bertie. Pudding, indeed! He could not have eaten another mouthful after such wonderful and unexpected good fortune.
After dinner they played games, and cracked nuts, and roasted apples, until the clock struck nine; then Bertie got up to go.
"Off, are you?" said the doctor, looking up from his paper. "Well, I'll expect you on Monday, remember."
"Yes, sir," said Bertie happily. He was not likely to forget.
As he went out Amy came through the hall with a red sled.
"Here is William John's present. I've tied all the other things on so that they can't fall off."
Edith was at the door-with a parcel. "Here are some nuts and candies for William John," she said. "And tell him we all wish him a 'Happy New Year.'"
"Thank you," said Bertie. "I've had a splendid time. I'll tell William John. Goodnight."
He stepped out. It was frostier than ever. The snow crackled and snapped, the stars were keen and bright, but to Bertie, running down the street with William John's sled thumping merrily behind him, the world was aglow with rosy hope and promise. He was quite sure he could never forget this wonderful New Year.
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