IT was pretty plain to Ronald Charlton that the right sort of Christmas had come at last. In the whole of his mature experience of thirteen years he had never seen anything like it. There was last Christmas, for instance. All fog. And rain in the afternoon. And passed in a London lodging-house because Ethel had to be in town to see the solicitors. Then there were several Christmases spent in India, which did not count at all. It was ridiculous for a boy and girl who passionately admired Dickens to be expected to enjoy Christmas in a broiling sun, to say nothing of a temperature of 105 deg. in the shade. Why, Dickens himself could never have written the "Christmas Carol" in a heat like that. It was very unfortunate that daddy and mother had to stay in India so long, but, then, there had been a lot of tiresome lit—lit—what was it?—oh, litigation, and for years daddy never quite knew whether he was a poor man or whether that tiresome lit—litigation was going to leave him quite well off. That was why Ronald and Maisie had finally been packed off to England with Ethel to look after them. Commissioner Charlton had come to this decision at length.
"Ethel is quite old enough to look after the kids," he said. "She's barely twenty but that does not matter. We can't go muddling on like this."
Mrs. Charlton acknowledged with a sigh that they could not. It might be possible at a pinch to allow Ethel £200 a year, out of which May and Ronald could be educated till such times as the lawsuit was finished, and Ronald might possibly proceed to Harrow. Ronald listened to some of this with a flashing eye. It was a wrench at parting, but there were consolations—the prospect of a real Dickens Christmas was one of them.
But the litigation was not over quite as soon as Commissioner Charlton had expected, and for the best part of two years Ronald and Maisie were cramped up in London. It was a hard struggle that pretty little Ethel had, but she managed it. Then quite early that December there had come a cheery letter from India enclosing a special donation of £50, and the intimation that the lawsuit really was going to turn out well at last. Ethel was to spend that money on a holiday.
"A real holiday, dearest," Mrs. Charlton wrote. "Take the children into the country and let them have a good time. We hope to be with you in six months for good. It is only a matter of getting things settled now. If you only knew how I am longing to see you all again. Why is it you never mention that nice young Mr. Marten in your letters now? The omission makes me suspicious."
Ethel blushed as she read this postscript lo her father's letter. The latter part of it she kept to herself. Why had she ceased to mention Dick Marten? she wondered.
He had been very good to her. As managing clerk to her father's solicitors, Dick Marten had been most useful. He was poor, too, and that formed a bond of union. No doubt he had had his misfortunes, for he spoke of Eton and Oxford quite familiarly. Ethel imagined that he had lost all his money and had been forced to earn his living in a solicitor's office.
Any way, the children liked him. He was a hero in Ronald's eyes. He was full of sympathy with the prospect that might lead up to a proper Dickens Christmas. He had gone to Paris on business, so that he knew nothing of the wonderful £50 and the project that Ethel had in her mind. She, too, was away on business all the next day and when she returned her eyes were sparkling. Whenever her eyes sparkled like that Ronald always knew that she had been doing something to give Maisie and himself pleasure. These were occasions when he did not object to being kissed.
"Why are the eyes sparkling?" ha asked.
"I have been into the country," Ethel explained. "I did not say anything about it at breakfast, as I wanted to surprise you. You see, we have an extra £50 to spend. And we were told to spend it. I thought that perhaps you would like to pass the Christmas holidays in the country."
"Ripping!" Ronald muttered. "Go on, Ethel; tell me all about it."
"Well, I have been, making enquiries. I went as far as Rotherway, and there I found the most delightful old-fashioned house. Just like one of these pictures by 'Phiz' in your beloved Dickens books. There is a fat, comfortable-looking housekeeper and another maid. The people had to go abroad for a few weeks to look after an invalid relative, and they wanted to let the house. So I took it for the holidays and we are going to take possession on the twentieth for six whole weeks."
Ronald made no reply just for the moment; there was a queer sort of lump in his throat. Then they caught Ethel up between them and smothered her with caresses. For if there was one person in the world who was as keen on the Dickens traditions as Ronald it was Maisie.
"All oak panels and low roof?" she asked breathlessly. "And a garden with a wall round it? And holly and ivy and all the rest of it? And a place to skate? And a lovely old church on the side of the hill? And a grand old Manor House at the entrance to the village?"
Ethel restrained herself with some difficulty. Her pretty face was flushed, the shining hair was tangled over her forehead. She made a lovely picture as she stood there, and Ronald did not fail to notice it. Neither did a young man standing in the doorway. He was very nice-looking, very strong and manly, and there was a luminous twinkle in his blue eyes. It was a face to trust.
"May I enquire the cause of all this excitement?" he asked.
"It's Dick Marten," Ronald cried. "It's no use for you to frown, Ethel, because he asked me to call him Dick. And, Dick, where have you been?"
"Busy with affairs of state," Marten smiled. All the same he had eyes for nobody but Ethel and she seemed to know it without being told. "I only got back from Paris last night. But what has happened? Has some fairy godmother left you all a fortune?"
"A fortune!" Ronald cried contemptuously. "It's far better than that."
"Really? Miss Charlton, may I not be let into the secret?"
"It seems so funny to hear Ethel called Miss Charlton," Maisie said thoughtfully.
Marten discreetly ignored the suggestion. His eyes asked a question all the same. He could see the delicate rose pink flush into Ethel's cheeks.
"We are all terribly excited," she laughed. "We have had a Christmas present and we are commanded to spend it all. It occurred to me to give these children a surprise. I—I have taken a lovely old place in the country for the holidays. If we can only have snow and frost and ice, the dream of Ronald's life will be gratified. He wants to act the 'Christmas Carol' over again. We may even be able to find a Rob Cratchit and a Tiny Tim. If we do Ronald is sure to ask them to dinner."
"You bet," said Ronald promptly. "Like a shot. I don't know if I wouldn't rather have a Scrooge, though. It would be ripping to get hold of a Scrooge and convert him. Make him kiss Ethel under the mistletoe; and give all the village kids a blow out."
"Ripping indeed," Marten smiled. "Lucky kids! I shall think of you on Christmas Day when I am having a lonely dinner in my lodgings. Well, good luck to you."
"Here, I say," Ronald protested. "None of that. Dick must come down, Ethel. He simply must spend Christmas Day with us."
Ethel hesitated just for the fragment of a second. The idea of Dick alone in lodgings was not to be tolerated. To ask him to stay with them was not quite—well, he would know what she felt. But Rotherway was not so far from London, and there were frequent trains even on Christmas Day. She turned a shy, wistful face to Marten and there was a pleading look it her eyes.
"If you will," she murmured, "we shall be so glad. You could spend quite a long day with us. And I'm sure that the children would be delighted. I—I should be so pleased myself."
"That settles it," Marten cried. "You are very good to me, Miss Charlton. And where may this early Victorian paradise be? Is it very far from London."
"Not more than twenty miles. It is a place called Rotherway. Do you really know it?"
For Marten had started at the name. He looked just a little grave for the moment, then his face cleared, and that oddly humorous look came into his eyes.
"I've been there," he said. "In fact, I used to have friends there at one time. And I fancy I can guess the house you have taken. It is the old Dower House by the church."
"How very odd," Ethel laughed. "And what a small place the world is, after all. You will be able to show us all the beauty spots in the place."
Marten responded more or less absently. Something seemed to be on his mind, for he was curiously quiet and took his leave before his accustomed time. Ethel did not fail to notice, though it was lost upon the others. They had a thousand questions to ask.
"Not another word till supper time," Ethel said firmly. "Get to your home lessons at once. There will be plenty of time for all this sort of thing next week."
"I hope that it is all you say it is," Ronald responded.
But this keen and critical student of Dickens was more than satisfied with the old house at Rotherway. He compared it favorably with certain prints that he had abstracted from time to time from dilapidated earlier editions of the great master's work. The panelled room, the square hall, the large kitchen, with the hams hanging from the hooks, all breathed the proper spirit. It was delightful to know that the Christmas turkey was in the meadow behind the house unconscious of its impending doom; it was still more delightful to wake three days before Christmas to find a white veil over the whole world, and to see the frost pictures on the diamond-paned windows. The whole front of the Manor House stood out grim and grey, the lake in front of it was coated with ice.
"Now, this is what I call prime," Ronald conceded, as he regarded the silent landscape. "Two more days of this and there will be skating on the lake before the Manor House. The lord of the manor will keep open house and supply everybody with hot cakes and spiced ale. He must be rather stout and wear top boots and have a real oily laugh."
"He is nothing of the kind," Maisie declared. "I've been helping cook to make the mince pies. She says that Mr. Trevor is an old crabstick, who is no good to anybody. He has quarrelled with all his friends and nobody cares anything for him. He can't keep any servants. For all he is so rich he is quite unhappy. He is a—a——What shall I call him?"
Ronald clapped his hands vigorously. "A Scrooge!" he cried. "Ebenezer Scrooge! Lovely! Maisie, this makes the picture complete. If we can only convert Mr. Trevor we have the real 'Christmas Carol.' Don't quite see how it is going to be managed all the same, though. Still, we've had the luck all along, and I feel it won't forsake us now. I'll come into the kitchen and ask cook more about Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge Trevor."
The picture drawn by the cook was not an inviting one and it seemed to Ronald that he would reluctantly have to abandon that part of the programme. There was a lovely afternoon with the sleigh found in a corner of the potting shed, and next day the decoration of the house for Christmas. It was just after breakfast on Christmas morning that Ronald had news of his "Scrooge" again. Cook was fairly bursting with her budget of information as she came into the dining-room.
"What was only to be expected, miss," she said to Ethel. "It's happened before, but never at Christmas time. He quarrelled with all his servants last night and they left him in a body this morning. And him with rheumatics in both hands. Which it serves him jolly well right, I say."
"Do you mean that Mr. Trevor is all alone in the house?" Ethel asked.
"That's just what I'm telling you, miss," cook went on. "Not a single man or woman in that big place. And not likely to get anybody this being Christmas Day, and the poorest of us like to be amongst our friends if we can so arrange it. Dry bread will be his portion."
Ronald looked wistfully out over the snow. He had mapped out a most alluring programme for Maisie and himself. They were to toboggan till lunch time, and skate all the afternoon. It was all in accordance with the Dickens traditions. But here was Ebenezer Scrooge ready to his hand. An opportunity like this was not to be lightly thrust aside. He looked at Maisie, and her eyes danced.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked.
"Scrooge—Scrooge—Scrooge," Maisie giggled hysterically. "Let's go, Ronald?"
If the laws of the Medes and Persians had admitted it, Ronald would have kissed her on the spot. There was no occasion to say anything to Ethel, who was herself a disciple of the Master. And the programme was delightfully simple. They had merely to go over to the Manor House and convert Mr. Trevor, and bring him back home for the rest of the day. An elderly gentleman, with a big burden on his shoulders and rheumatism in his hands, should be easily converted to the gospel according to Charles Dickens. They would lead him into an atmosphere breathing the spirit of kindness and good nature, and he would see the error of his way on the spot. Afterwards he would speak with a lump in his throat and subsequently join heartily in a game of blind man's buff. Ripping!
The two made their way quite boldly up to the Manor House. It being obvious that nobody could answer the bell, they walked in. My! it was a fine place. Old furniture, old pictures, and armor, and trophies of the chase—but cold. Yes, decidedly cold. They came presently to a fine old drawing-room, where an elderly gentleman crouched over a small fire. He was warming a piece of bread and butter by the aid of a fork, a jug of milk stood in the fender.
"What on earth are you children doing here?" he demanded.
"We beg your pardon," Ronald said politely. "Our name is Charlton. I am Ronald and she is May. We have taken the Dower House for the holidays. We came down here to spend a real Dickens Christmas. Did you ever spend a real Dickens Christmas?"
"Yes," said Mr. Trevor curtly. "I have. Many of them. What then?"
"You're lucky," Ronald said grimly. "This is our first. And we find it jolly. Only you've got to make it jolly for everybody else, don't you know. That's why we came. We heard all about those rotters of servants of yours and all about the rheumatism in your hands. We want you to come and spend the day with us. Have luncheon and dinner, and all the rest. Ethel will be delighted. When Ebenezer Scrooge——"
Ronald pulled up suddenly and coughed. He realised that he was going too far. The dark, hard face opposite him twitched. It might have been a smile or it might have been a sardonic grin.
"I see," the squire said, "I'm Ebenezer Scrooge. Well, I've been called worse names. Now you just sit down and let me talk it over. Only I should like some coal first. Sure to be some in the kitchen. Go and see if you can find it, my boy. You're not afraid of me?"
"No," Ronald said steadily. "I'm not a bit afraid of you, and I'll get the coal with pleasure."
Maisie looked just a little uneasy; but when Ronald returned she was chatting freely with the squire. He sat half-listening, half-ruminating, with his hard old face shaded. He was a shrewd old man in his way and it did not take him long to get the gist of the story. In spite of his hard cynicism, he was curious to see the girl who had had the bringing up of these children. They were nice children, too, and they had the right distinction about them. So they belonged to Commissioner Horatio Charlton, did they? Well, he would tell them a secret—he was at Harrow with their father. Obviously, Scrooge was melting; and obviously he could not stay here in this cold place all alone. He did not look like the kind of old gentleman who thrived on a diet of bread and butter and milk. Ronald repeated his invitation again.
"I'll come," the squire said suddenly. "Hanged if I don't. Take this half-crown and go down to the lake. Get the first loafer you see to come up here. I'm going to bring some wine and fruit with me. I daresay we shall find the key of the orchard houses somewhere. Ebenezer Scrooge is going to enjoy himself. If I had had a boy like you I might have been a—but no matter."
When the procession arrived at the Dower House it wanted an hour to luncheon time. Ethel was standing by the fender, looking into the fire. Her face was red and her eyes were dim with tears; but they were happy tears, and her head was half resting on Dick Marten's shoulder. His arm was round her waist; he was talking to her slowly and tenderly. The world was very far away just then.
"I ought not to have spoken, darling," Dick said, "but when you looked at me as you did, and you put out your two hands, I couldn't help it, dearest. Because I have loved you all the time, and in that moment I saw that you loved me. I am a poor man, but for your sake I am prepared to——"
All this the dark squire saw and heard, though it conveyed nothing as yet to the children. They were too excited over their capture. Ronald burst out explosively.
"We've got him, Ethel," he cried. "We've got Ebenezer Scrooge. We went up to the Manor House and found him all by himself. Eating bread and butter. And milk. And we asked him to come and spend the day here. And he's come. And he's got wonderful old port in dusty bottles and grapes and peaches. Out of the orchard houses. And we are to go there whenever we like. And——"
Ethel turned a crimson face on her strange guest. But there was a welcome in her lovely, dewy eyes, and she held out her hand.
The squire's face relaxed.
"I am so glad," she said simply. "We heard all about your trouble. What must you think of my children?"
"I'll try and show you that later on," Mr. Trevor said. "So the ideal Christmas is complete. The atmosphere is perfect—everything is perfect, even the atmosphere of Ebenezer—meaning himself. And Dick here, too."
"Do you know him?" Ethel gasped.
"Do I know this rascal? Why, he's my nephew. The man who was going to have all my property. Oh, I don't care a hang about the children being here. They've catered for an ideal Dickens Christmas, and they deserve every ounce of it. I quarrelled with Dick because he wouldn't marry the girl I picked out for him. Preferred to pick out one for himself, and, by Jove, he's the luckiest man on earth. Shake hands, Dick, my boy, and let bygones be bygones. I heard you say just now that you were a poor man. It isn't true. You are going to be a very rich man, and you are going to give up the law that you always hated. You took up a profession so as to feel that you could get your living if necessary, but you never cared for it. You shall marry this pretty bird of yours, and I'll buy this house for you. Now, my dear, if you could kiss me——"
Ethel laughed and blushed; but she was equal to the occasion. She caught Ronald up and kissed him, too. It was not exactly playing the game but it was Christmas Day, and Charles Dickens would have approved.
"You're a wonderful boy, Ronald," Dick said unsteadily.
"Nothing to do with me," Ronald said sedately. "I was bound to play the game properly. When I see Mr. Trevor after dinner playing blind man's buff I shall be——"
"You shall, my boy," the squire said fervently. "You shall, my boy, if I die for it. Hurrah for Charles Dickens!"<</p>