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First published in The Weekly Irish Times, December 8, 1917
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2014
Produced by Maurie Mulcahy

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MARSDEN was listening more or less mechanically to the small boy who was trotting along the frosty road by his side. For it wanted only a few days to Christmas, and there was a keen frost in the air, and a thin powder of dry snow along the hedges and on the bare trees in the woods. Marsden noticed all this in the same drab mechanical way as he had noticed it many a time before in happier days when he had come down from London to spend a fortnight or so in the neighbourhood where he was born. He had come again this year without knowing why, probably because he had nothing else to do, and though he had found it difficult to keep away, he was beginning to regret his decision, all the more because every inch of the ground there filled him with bitter associations. And it had bee so different a year ago.

Then everybody had been glad to see him, his own people had welcomed him with open arms, and over there at the Manor House he had been received with every manifestation of delight. And there was another attraction in the shape of Mamie Lang, Squire Formby's niece, who usually came into the neighbourhood at that time of the year.

But all that was over now. It had been a sill quarrel altogether, one of those stupid misunderstandings that neither of them could explain, and neither wanted to explain for the matter.

Why had he come down this time at all, he asked himself. He could have gone over to Paris for Christmas with one or two of those lively Bohemian friends of his, but for some reason for which he could not account he had come down to Longmarsh instead, and already he was bitterly regretting it.

To begin with, he was utterly unexpected. His married sister and her brother-in-law had gone off to keep Christmas with her husband's people, and only one servant had been left in the house. Therefore, it was likely to be a quiet Christmas, though that did not matter much to Marsden, because it would be quite in keeping with his present mood.

He knew very well that if he only said the word a warm invitation would have reached him from the Manor House without delay. But he had kept out of the way on purpose, he had deliberately avoided the small Manor House children and intended to do so until Christmas Day was over, more especially because he had a very shrewd idea that Miss Mamie Lang would be spending the festive season there, as usual.

So he spent his time roaming about the frozen roads in an aimless sort of way, and doing certain work he had brought down with him. This policy of concealment had served him very well till a few minutes ago, as he emerged into the road by a fieldpath, he had run bang into the arms of little Jimmy Formby, who hailed him with delight.

"Where have you been?" he asked.

"Oh, up in London town, as usual, Jimmy," Marsden said. "Seeking my fortune."

"Oh, you don't look as if you had found it," the small boy lisped. "You look as if you had lost something."

"Perhaps I have, Jimmy," Marsden said.

"Well, never mind about that now," the small boy went on. "Are you coming to us for Christmas?"

"I'm afraid not this year, Jimmy. You, see, I am very busy. Christmas is all very well for little boys and girls, but even on Christmas Day certain people have to work, and this year I happen to be one of them."

"Where are you going now?" Jimmy asked.

"Well, I was going for a walk," Marsden explained.

"Then I'll come with you," Jimmy said amiably. "I am going to have lots of presents, Phil. But not so many as Grace, because she is a little girl, and they always have more presents than little boys. Do you have many presents?"

"Not one, Jimmy. You see, there's no one at home this year. It doesn't matter about me, because I'm a man, you know. Are you going to have a big party, this Christmas?"

"Oh, ever so big, Phil. Just the same party we had last year. Aunt Mamie's come."

"Has she? How long is she staying?"

"Well, only over Boxing Day this time. Because before long she's going to Australia."

"Oh, indeed," he said. "I'm sorry to hear that."

Jimmy looked up through his clear eyes.

"I thought you would be," he said. "You were very fond of Mamie, weren't you? Mother thinks so."

"Ah, mother's a wise woman," Marsden laughed. "Well, I hope you'll have a good time, Jimmy. And I'm only sorry I shan't be there myself."

"Well, I don't think we're going to have quite so good a time as we had last year," the small boy said. "The presents are all right, but Mr. Santa Claus isn't coming."

"That's bad," Marsden said gravely.

"What's the matter with him?"

"I don't know," Jimmy said gloomily. "But I think that he has sprained his ankle."

Marsden was beginning to comprehend. On the last happy occasion, just a year ago, Santa Claus himself had materialised at the Manor House in all the glory of scarlet robe and white fur and venerable beard to the great delight of the young people, and to the entertainment of the old ones who knew, of course, that the great personage in question was none other than that popular local bachelor and practical joker, Tom Kelly, a sportsman and landed proprietor, who lived close by. But to the children Santa Claus had been real indeed, and that this misfortune was a serious one was testified, too, by Jimmy's solemn countenance and unsteady underlip.

"I am sorry," Marsden said. "He was such a jolly old Santa Claus last year. Now I wonder if I wrote him a letter——"

Jimmy's eyes gleamed.

Jimmy went on his way presently, his small breast swelling with self-importance, and himself almost bursting to tell Grace, his small sister, that perhaps after all—but no, he wouldn't do that, Phil trusted him, and he was very fond of Phil.

Meanwhile Marsden, with a certain project at the back of his mind, went back to the lonely house, and got out a small runabout car. Twenty-minutes' brisk run took him to a long grey stone house lying back in a wood, which was the bachelor abode of the popular Tom Kelly.

"Well, old chap," he said. "This is a nice business, isn't it. Here am I laid by the leg in Christmas week with nothing on earth the matter with me, and a dozen invitations downstairs waiting to be answered. I was out with the gun a day or two ago and put my foot into a confounded rabbit hole with this result. Yet I'm as fit as a fiddle. I've got a couple of pals coming to dine with me on Christmas Day, and I am going to try and hobble downstairs——"

"Where had you intended going?" Marsden asked.

"Oh, to the Manor House, as usual. I always prefer to spend Christmas with the kids. I was going to be Santa Claus, but all that's been knocked on the head now. Formby has told the children that Santa Claus is laid up, and that he is quite as disappointed as they are. And that's a fact, old man. Unless perhaps—by Jove, I've got it."

"Yes, I know what you're going to say," Marsden replied. "You think I might take your place. Well, that's just what I've come to suggest. I suppose you've got the dress and all the rest of it?"

"Oh, lor, yes. It's very good of you, Phil. You may not like it at first, but you will enjoy it in the end. Now, ring the bell, and my man will get you what you want. I wish to goodness I could go myself, but that's impossible."

Christmas morning came, and the early Christmas dinner which they held at the Manor House for the sake of the children was a thing of the past. Evening came at length, and with it a note for Mr. Formby, which he read before the assembled mob of excited children with due gravity.

"A most remarkable thing," he said, solemnly. "Here's a letter from Santa Claus. He apologises for the delay, but in consequence of his lamentable accident his business has been neglected. But he says that he has managed to get hold of a brother of his who will undertake——"

"Then he's coming," Jimmy shouted excitedly. "I knew he would. I've known it for some time!"

"Who told you, Jimmy!" Mamie Lang asked.

She was standing, a pretty picture of youth and grace and beauty by Jimmy's side, and she smiled down at him now as he spoke. He looked up at her with an air of importance that caused her eyes to dance.

"Never mind," he said. "I knew."

"I hope everybody has had something," Santa Claus said. "I hope no one has been forgotten. You see, I had to come here in a great hurry at the last moment, and perhaps my list isn't complete. Now, if I have left anybody out——"

Jimmy looked up eagerly.

"Yes," he cried. "There is Aunt Mamie."

"One of your little friends?" Santa Claus asked.

"No," Jimmy screamed. "She's grown up. That's her, Santa Claus, the pretty girl with the blue eyes standing by the door. And if you haven't got anything for her, I must give her one of my toys."

"Oh, never mind about me," Mamie said smilingly. "I don't suppose Santa Claus knew that I was in the house."

"I ask your pardon, Madam," Santa Claus said, gravely. "But on occasions like this I always carry an extra present or two in case of emergency. Jimmy, will you be good enough to give this to the lady by the door. And ask her not to look at it till she's alone. She might be disappointed with it, and I know she wouldn't like to hurt my feelings. And now, let's go into the hall and I'll show you a new game."

It was Jimmy who solved the mystery. They were giving Santa Claus a rest a little later on, and a cigar which he seemed to strangely appreciate, when Jimmy, with a solemn face, crept up to him and whispered something in his ear.

"Eh, what's that?" Santa Claus asked.

"Yes, in the library," Jimmy whispered with portentious gravity. "She's there all by herself, almost in the darkness, and she's been crying. She said she hadn't, but I know better. I know that sniffy noise people make when they've been crying. I think she's disappointed in that present of yours. Else why should she have it in her lap and sniff over it?"

"Jimmy," Santa Claus said excitedly, "you just stay here and say nothing to anybody, and I'll go and speak to her myself."

"Will you!" Jimmy said, hopefully. "Perhaps you can give her another present, and take the old one back."

"Well, I might give her another present, but I'm hoping she'll keep the old one. And if I'm right you shall have the best present you ever had in your life."

Very quietly Santa Claus crept out of the room and made his way to the library. He stood in the doorway with his wig no longer on his head and his beard discarded. He was watching Mamie sitting there in an attitude of dejection, he could just see that she was holding something in her hand that glittered.

"I couldn't help it, Mamie," he said. "I was bound to let you have the chance of getting your ring back. I didn't intend to do so at first, but when I arranged this thing with Tom Kelly, so that the children should not be disappointed, I thought I would take the chance of giving you the ring with my message. It was Jimmy who gave me the opportunity I wanted. It's no use, Mamie, I couldn't stay away, I can't forget you. And when I came here to-night and remembered how happy we were this time last year—won't you forgive me?"

Mamie rose to her feet and came towards him, with eyes shining, and an unsteady smile on her lips.

"There's nothing to forgive," she said. "We have both been proud and foolish, and there is no more to be said."