ROGER BEAUFOY came slowly down the wide, shallow staircase into the great hall of The Chase, and made his way into the library, where, according to custom, he usually spent the hour before dinner over The Times. After that he dined in solitary state with butler and footman to wait on him as he had done any time the last twenty odd years. A lonely man, a proud man, and the last of his race. So that when he came to be gathered to his fathers The Chase would be sold, with its priceless old furniture and the few historic pictures that remained, and Cumberland would know the name of Beaufoy no more. Enough there to pay off the mortgages and the ever-increasing debts, provided that Roger Beaufoy did not live too long. And he was not old as men go—65 and hale and hearty, though he took no exercise, and rarely ventured beyond the limits of his estate. The last of his race, and glad of it.
But was he really the sole surviving Beaufoy? That was one of the questions he never asked himself, and none dared to put to him. For there had been a younger Roger once, the heir left to him years before by a young wife who died all too soon. Perhaps if Margaret Beaufoy had lived things might have been different, for Beaufoy had loved his wife with the passionate devotion of the reserved type of man, and her last sacrifice in giving birth to a child had always been a mark against the child.
So the child had flourished and grown up without anything in the way of parental care and affection, going his own way until trouble and disgrace had reared their ugly heads and a stern father had bidden his offspring to go and be seen no more, since when the twain had never met. That was 38 years ago, and from certain information received, the erring Roger was believed to be dead. And Roger the elder smiled grimly as he heard it.
But there were times when his conscience troubled him, when he sat alone in solitary state and brooded over what might have been. If he had been easier with the boy—if he had only shown him a little more affection. A fine, handsome lad, headstrong, and wilful but the Beaufoys had ever been that. Well, it didn't matter very much. In any case there would have been precious little for the lad to inherit save debts and difficulties.
It was about Christmas time that these twinges of conscience troubled Beaufoy most, for his wife had died on Christmas Eve.
Beaufoy was haunted by these memories as he turned in the direction of the library. For it was the festive season, and the eve of the birth of the Christ child. Not quite the typical Christmas, with snow lying thick, but cold and crisp, so that the great log fire in the hall lent a cheerfulness that was not quite in tune with the mood of the master of The Chase. Just at that moment Pentecost, the aged butler, with a perplexed look on his ruddy cheeks, emerged from the shadows.
"Begging your pardon, sir," he murmured. "But there is a young lady in the blue drawing-room who asks to see you, sir."
"A young lady," Beaufoy said, with raised eyebrows. "To see me? At this time of night. On Christmas Eve! Who is she, and how did she get here, Pentecost?"
"She came, sir," the butler explained, "in a taxi-cab, with a suit case and dispatch box, and said as how she was to stay until called for. Her very words, sir. Sent the cab away, sir, she did. I hope, sir, that I am not to blame."
"Show her into the library," Beaufoy said curtly.
Into the library there came presently a girl. She was young and fair, and dressed entirely in black, which set off her golden loveliness to perfection. A pair of eyes the color of a summer night sky looked with almost childish confidence into the dark, rather frowning ones of Roger Beaufoy, very much as a dog might regard one that he recognises as a lover of his kind. A lady, Beaufoy thought—he could recognise breed and refinement in every line of her, from the clean-cut features and the carriage of the little head to the slim contour of the ankles. For the first time in his life, perhaps, Beaufoy felt embarrassed.
"If you will kindly explain," he began. "I am feeling at some disadvantage. Your name, for instance——"
The lovely little stranger smiled. A smile so sweet and melting and, withal, so intimate, that Beaufoy fairly started. It was as if some ghost from the grave had risen to confront him. So strange and yet so familiar.
"There is nothing to explain," the girl said in a fluty contralto that struck Beaufoy like a blow over the heart, so oddly familiar it sounded. "I was to come here and stay until I was called for. If that is in anyway unpleasant to you, then I have somewhere else to go. But I couldn't get there to-night."
"No, I suppose not," Beaufoy admitted. "Perhaps, if you will allow me to ring for my housekeeper——"
The lovely stranger held up a commanding hand. A beautifully slim and graceful hand, Beaufoy noticed.
"Wait," she ordered. "Perhaps you had better learn my name first. I am Cynthia Beaufoy. Your grand-child."
The old man believed it. He knew now where he had seen that smile before, where he had heard those low flute notes in the girlish voice, though he had seen or heard neither any time the last eight and thirty years. It was as if his dead wife was speaking to him across the waste which the locusts had eaten.
"Sit down, child," he said in a tone that none who knew him had heard for many a long day. "Sit down and let us thrash this matter out. That you are telling me the truth I know. Your voice and your smile are inherited from your grandmother. But your father? I believed him to be dead long ago."
The beautiful face dimmed like a flower in a frost.
"Daddy died just six months ago," she said unsteadily. "He died of heart trouble. And not very long before the end he told me all about you and this lovely old house, and how the Beaufoys had been great people for centuries. You see there was only daddy and myself because mummy died when I was quite small. She was always delicate, like so many of the old Virginian families are; and Chicago, where daddy's business was, proved too cold for her. And so she died, you see."
"And my—your father sent you here to me?"
It had been Beaufoy's intention to ask the question in a hard, stern way, but he spoke, despite himself, none too steadily.
"In a way, yes," Cynthia explained. "But not exactly as you expect. Towards the last, when daddy learnt that there was no hope for him, he began to think a lot about his early days. He told me lots of things I had never known before. You were not very fair to daddy, I think. Now, were you?"
This to the autocrat with the forbidding eyebrows, the man before whom most people trembled! But she was looking at him with his dead wife's eyes and speaking with her voice.
"Perhaps not," he murmured, as if he were looking down the dim past with new vision, "perhaps not. Go on, child."
From her vanity bag Cynthia produced a letter. It was heavily sealed and addressed to Beaufoy in his dead son's hand. He broke the seal and read the enclosure that ran:—
My Dear Father,
By the time this reaches you by the hand of my little girl, I shall be no more. When you bade me to go and never see your face again I obeyed. I took you at your word and left the home I had disgraced with little more than the clothes I stood up in.
Perhaps had you been more of a father to me than you were, the trouble would never have happened. But the fact of my being was the price of my mother's life and that you never forgave me. Hence my neglected and lonely boyhood. But enough of that.
For 20 years I struggled on here as best I could. All things by turn and nothing long. Then the chance came and the tide turned and fortune smiled on me. I married a lady who came from an old Virginian stock, a Pendennis, in fact, and the child I am sending you as a Christmas gift is the result. It is a fancy of mine that she should reach you on Christmas Eve, and if you accept her in like spirit she will not come empty-handed. I like to feel that a welcome awaits her in the home where I was born, though I am informed that after your time comes The Chase must be sold and pass into the possession of strangers. It matters little how I have kept in touch with the old place, but I have.>
If the stern point of view still remains, then Cynthia will find a home with an old friend of my wife's who is now settled in Sussex. So it matters very little how you decide, but I should like Cynthia to pass one Christmas in the house that I loved and clung to more than you ever knew. Sentiment, my dear father, but then sentiment is the rock on which the British Empire is founded. And the child is very like her grandmother.
To Beaufoy's intense surprise he was conscious of a smarting at the back of his eyes and the knowledge that a certain chronic heaviness was lifting from the region of his heart. A weight he had carried for countless years. Much as Ebenezer Scrooge felt on that Christmas morning when the last of the spirits had left him. He had not given a thought to The Christmas Carol for close on half a century, but it flashed oddly into his mind now.
"You want to stay here, child?" he asked in a voice so mild and friendly that Cynthia smiled. "To remain here, in fact?"
Cynthia laughed aloud, laughed like a ripple of silver bells so that the great solemn library rang with the music of it. Such a laugh The Chase had not heard for many a day.
"I should love it," she cried. "I have pictured The Chase so often and heard it spoken of by Daddy, especially before he died, that I seem to know it blind-fold. So, if you will do as you suggested just now and ring for the housekeeper——"
"Housekeeper!" Beaufoy cried with a heartiness he felt to his marrow. "You little witch, you are laughing at me. Now listen. What sort of a kit did you bring here?"
"If you please, sir," Cynthia said demurely, "only a dispatch box with some papers and a suit case with an evening dress in case you asked me to dine with you."
"Delighted," Beaufoy averred, and he meant it. "You have a full half-hour to dress. We must call Pentecost into conference. If you will oblige me by ringing that bell."
Pentecost came in response to the summons. His rosy face was working strangely as he gazed respectfully at the lovely stranger.
"Do you know who this young lady is, old friend?" Beaufoy asked with a chuckle. "Remind you of anybody, what?"
"My dear mistress, dead these thirty odd years, sir," the old man breathed huskily. "And Mr. Roger, too, if I may take the liberty of saying so. Don't say I'm wrong, sir."
"Wrong!" Beaufoy cried. "Of course you are not wrong. Go and tell Mrs. Kimmins. Tell everybody that Mr. Roger's child is here for good and all. It can't be for more than a year or two, as you know, Pentecost, but, please God, while it lasts we will do our best to make amends for the past and render my dead son's daughter as happy as possible before some fortunate prince comes along and claims her for his own."
Christmas morning fine and clear after a keen night of frost and stars. Lovely little Cynthia rising fresh as the lark after a sound night's rest in a glorious carved oak four-poster, in which a king had once passed the night. Then outside, taking in the noble lines of The Chase with the stone-paved terrace and the dim vista of the park beyond. And after that, an intimate breakfast in the famous cedar room with an almost doting grandfather, who sat opposite, smiling as if he had never known a frown on his face, or anger in his heart. Service in the little church across the meadows and afterwards neighbors, who in some way had learnt the great news, swarming round with congratulations and telling each other presently that they didn't know what had come to Black Beaufoy, upon their word they didn't, he had changed so for the better since they last saw him. Everybody going to call—which none of them had done time out of mind—and all in love with Cynthia and anxious to give her a welcome to the county. Gilded youth of the male persuasion, immaculate and self-conscious, standing round in silent admiration. And Black Beaufoy standing in their midst with a grin on his face that took ten years off his life.
"How kind and nice they were," Cynthia said, with a catch in her voice. "Oh, how I shall love this place."
"Make the best of it, my dear," Beaufoy said. "It can't last very long. My time, perhaps, but now there is your future to think about. It can't be here, anyway. Inevitably, I am the last of the Beaufoys of The Chase."
Cynthia slipped her hand lovingly under her escort's arm.
"Don't be sure of that," she smiled. "You have not seen all of Daddy's Christmas gift yet. If you had not been so wonderfully good and kind to me last night——"
"You little witch! Who wouldn't? You crept straight into this battered old heart of mine, as I shrewdly suspected you meant to do from the first. Now confess it."
"Well, perhaps," Cynthia admitted. "But when we get back home—my home, Granddaddy, now—there is something more that I have to show you, the second part of Daddy's Christmas gift."
Beaufoy smiled down into the smiling, exquisite face.
"Something more, is there?" he asked. "Something with a happy bearing on your future, I hope. If I could only discern that, then I shall die a happy man. The Chase saved. The long line of the Beaufoys secured. You mistress of the old house with a husband worthy of you, who will take the family name. But a fairy tale, my darling, a fairy tale."
In a fairy setting, Cynthia thought. This wonderful grandfather transformed from a morose old man into a sort of Cheeryble Brother by a touch of the Queen's wand, the grand old house, with its rose-tinted front and quaint, twisted chimneys, all redolent of the past. A veritable haunt of ancient peace, as Tennyson sang, with its immemorial elms, a place to love and cherish, a place which had sunk deep in Cynthia's heart already. And the fairy wand was locked up in the dispatch box in her Queen Anne bedroom.
It was in the library after lunch that Cynthia came down to Beaufoy with the dispatch box in her hand. Beaufoy watched her as she unlocked the box and produced certain papers.
"I have something like a confession to make, Granddaddy," she said. "Do you know that I have not come here to live on you, because I could never have done that."
"So your father hinted in his letter, my child. But do you suppose that would make any difference now?"
"Because—because we are going to be so happy together? Is that what you mean?" Cynthia said none too steadily. "Yes, I can read it on your face. But The Chase and the future, Grandaddy, I want you to look at these figures."
"Securities," Beaufoy said at length. "All American. Over three million dollars represented here. And all, apparently, in your name, Cynthia. Do you mean to say——"
"Oh, yes, yes," Cynthia broke in joyfully. "It is the money that Daddy left behind him for me. The certificates are with the Third International Bank in New York, and I have the receipt here. All that can be transferred to England whenever we want it. Daddy explained everything to me before he died. He taught me quite a lot about business. He made a will, too, and that he gave me to take care of. It's here. Perhaps you would like to read for yourself what he says."
Beaufoy held out an unsteady hand. His glasses were rather misty, but the words were plain enough.
I give and bequeath to my daughter Cynthia everything both real and personal of which I may die possessed. It is my wish that she repair to England as soon as possible after my decease and place herself at the disposal of her grandfather Roger Beaufoy, reaching his house The Chase as soon as possible; reaching there, if convenient, about Christmas Day or the day before. Should she meet with the reception I hope and my father consents to receive her until she is of legal age under his roof, I direct my said father to become her natural guardian and proceed to make her a ward in Chancery until her twenty-fifth year, he in the meantime to allow her one thousand pounds per annum for her personal needs, the balance of the income from my securities during my daughter's minority to go towards the upkeep of The Chase and the redemption of the mortgages thereon. And, if my said father deems it expedient under the conditions of guardianship aforesaid, then it is in the discretion of Roger Beaufoy to raise sufficient funds from my estate to free The Chase from all encumbrances provided always that after my said father's death the whole of this landed property and house pass in succession to my daughter Cynthia.
Failing the above conditions, I hereby appoint as my executors the two senior partner in the firm of Magness and Roscoe, of 650, Lincoln's Inn Fields, to administer my estate on the same terms and conditions as laid down beforehand with regard to my said father Roger Beaufoy."
There was a good deal more to the same effect, but Beaufoy had read all that he needed. Before he had finished the last chip of ice had melted from his heart and he made no effort to conceal his emotion. For the prodigal had made good, the strain on the family honor had been wiped out, and the line would remain unbroken. And, best of all, The Chase stood where it did and the dark clouds had rolled away.
"I don't think we shall have to trouble the family solicitors, my dear," Beaufoy said huskily. "It would have been all the same, as your darling self is concerned had you come to me without a penny. What a happy, happy Christmas you have brought me, and how very, very little I have deserved it."