ON the whole Billy was graciously pleased to be satisfied with the Christmas programme. And Billy had all the pessimism that goes to youth in the hour of misfortune. "Soccer" is a great game, indeed Billy regarded the Michaelmas Term as being specially designed with a view to the exigencies of Association football, but when you lose your House Eleven Cap and break a small bone in your leg within six weeks of the festive season, you are bound to own that it's rough on a chap.
Thus Billy, hopping about the great oaken hall at Castle End on Christmas morning helping the girls with the decorations. Such a lovely Christmas morning, too—none of your damp clinging fogs or blanketty snow, but clear and bright as a star and two inches of polished malachite on the lake down yonder behind the beeches where the deer huts were.
Billy pounded over the polished floor recklessly with his crutch, a usually happy Eton lad of twelve, but not without a touch of cynicism. That Billy was in the way of the three Castle girls and the professor he never dreamed. Not that the professor minded much so long as he could have the dark corner behind the painted Oriel window to Kitty Castle and himself. He didn't know that Billy had other views for Kitty, who was charming and an heiress in her own right. Still, for a Cambridge man who went in for "stinks," and who wrote learned papers anent meteoric phenomena, the professor was not a bad chap. He had carried Billy down to the lake earlier in the day, and under his approving eyes had executed figures of amazing dexterity and grace. Also he looked much better in knicker-bockers than Billy had expected. And Billy had just learned incidentally that John Brodie was an old "footer" Blue.
It was very warm and cosy there with a huge leaping yellow and crocus-blue wood fire leaping in the deep fireplace and casting up green shadows on the holly and pale mistletoe that festooned the hall and draped gracefully round the family portraits. The girls had nearly finished now, and were looking round for some place to hang the last superfluous trailing rope of ivy.
"Put it yonder," said Billy, "where Reggie's portrait used to hang."
The three girls gasped at the audacity of the suggestion. Squire Castle would be furious—everybody called the master of Castle End "The Squire"—even to his nieces and grandchildren. And Reggie had been his only son. There had been no reason why he should not have married the late rector's only daughter save that the black-browed squire had chosen to oppose the match from the first. Reggie could choose between his father and his sweetheart, and he chose the latter. It was a painful story. Whatever Jasper Castle felt nobody knew, save that during the last two years he had grown grimmer and blacker, and those awful graver lines on his forehead had deepened like sabre cuts.
"Shove it up," Billy said truculently. "I'd give my Christmas grub to see Reggie back again."
Kitty Castle bent down and kissed Billy before Professor John Brodie's admiring eyes. There was no other "chap" about to witness the indignity, so Billy accepted it with manly resignation. There was just a catch in his voice when he spoke again.
"The place ain't the same without Reggie," he said. "And Bet was jolly, too. I always looked upon Bet as being as good as a boy."
"That is high praise," Brodie said gravely.
"You didn't know her," Billy went on eagerly. "Personally I can't complain of the squire. He always tips handsomely. But over Reggie he behaved like a beast."
Kitty gasped and her pretty winsome face grew pale. Even the professor was not without the suggestion of embarrassment. For a big man with a dark face and white hair had come into the hall, a huge man in breeches and gaiters by the side of whom Brodie looked small. He stood regarding the unconscious Billy with grim disapproval.
"What are you saying, young man?" the squire asked.
Billy gasped for his crutch with a view to strategic movements. But somebody had dropped a trail of ivy over it. In Billy's own vernacular, there was nothing left but to "cheek it." The little round face was very pale, but the eyes were resolute enough.
"I voted for sticking up some ivy where Reggie's portrait used to be, sir," he sad. "And I said Christmas was not the same without Reggie and Bet."
No smile relaxed the grim face of the squire.
"I fancied that you said more than that," he suggested.
"Well, I did," Billy admitted desperately. "I said that—that you behaved, behaved like a beast over Reggie. And, what's more, everybody else says the same."
The squire smiled ever so slightly. Billy was carrying the war into the enemy's country with a vengeance. And the squire ever loved a good fighter.
"Do they?" he asked. "Do Grace and Maud say so, for instance, and Kitty here? Has Mr. Brodie been good enough to express his opinion on my exercise of parental authority?"
"Not aloud, sir," Brodie said pointedly. "You forget that Reggie is a friend of mine. Master Billy must be responsible for his own criticisms."
"That's a nasty one for the squire," Billy said, unconsciously.
Jasper Castle laughed aloud to everybody's intense amazement, but it cleared the air.
"Billy it quite right, and I beg your pardon for my senseless display of temper. Brodie," he said. "Would that everybody was so loyal to their friends. And if you particularly desire to 'stick' some holly up there, Billy, I have no objection."
The squire passed on heavily, the gleam of light dying in his eyes as a snow wrack races over a pallid winter sun. Billy stood trembling there, yet fully conscious of his victory. It would be a fine thing to tell the other "chaps" when they came back from skating.
"I flatter myself that I gave it him pretty straight," he said. "If you had only backed me up we might have done something really handsome for Reggie."
There was no more to be said on this head now, for the younger fry were coming in red and noisy from the lake. A bigger house party than usual had gathered at Castle End this year, although the master of the house appeared to derive but little pleasure from the festive colony. There were quite a score of children, for the Castle family was large, and, for the most part, the men of the clan were warriors, doing their country's work in many climes, so that the children from school usually took possession of the grand old house in holiday time.
There were a good many "grown ups" besides who were to dine more or less solemnly at eight o'clock, the dinner of the juveniles being fixed for three, after which there would be games and a wonderful biograph display engineered by the professor. On Boxing Day the children sat up as long as they liked, but the squire expected them to be in bed on Christmas Day by dinner time.
They came in now, a noisy, ruddy group, clamouring for mince pies and cake, they clung round Kitty and the other girls like the happy hearty young brigands that they were. Kitty stopped her little ears against the din.
"Mercy on us," she exclaimed. "You only breakfasted at nine and such a breakfast, too!"
"You just go back to school and try the toke there again," Billy suggested.
A couple of big footmen came in bearing trays full of dainties and jingling glasses. In the foray that followed Kitty and the professor managed to get a few words to themselves. A long lance of sunshine filtered in through the painted window, and touched the girl's pretty eager face with a tinge of amber glory.
"If you only knew how anxious I felt," she said.
"I am not without my qualms," Brodie smiled; "still I fancy that a good deal of the squire's grimness is only assumed. You could hardly have expected to see him bow the knee to Billy like that."
"I was never more astonished, Jack. You might have knocked me down with the proverbial feather. And I don't feel nearly so frightened as I did. I only hope the risk we are running will be attended with the success it deserves."
"It is a piece of gross impertinence on my part," Brodie said, gravely. "If the squire orders me out of the house I shall only have myself to blame. I am like a general who disobeys orders. If I fail I am ignominiously disgraced; if I succeed, why I am pretty certain of my promotion. And I shall have you."
There was a pause here broken by a suggestion on Kitty's part that the children——. Then Kitty passed red and smiling through the hall on her way to the housekeeper's room. As she flitted by the library, the squire came out and stopped her. He was smoking a cigarette and looking, for him, comparatively amiable.
"I hope the children don't disturb you, grandfather," said Kitty. "If so——"
"They don't disturb me at all," the squire growled. "Fact is, I opened the door on purpose to listen to them. And Kitty, see that Billy comes to no harm on the polished floor with that crutch of his. Plucky lad that. Who put him up to tilt me just now?"
"He—he didn't know that you were there," Kitty stammered.
"But not one of you seemed eager to correct the lad?"
"Perhaps it was because we agreed with him, squire," Kitty said, boldly. "Perhaps it was because our hearts ache for Reggie and Bet at this blessed Christmas tide, perhaps at the bottom of our hearts we feel that Billy was right and that you are wrong."
On the whole it was perhaps the most audacious speech the squire had ever heard. But his face was blank as a wall, and no sign of anger or passion escaped him. He looked out across the fair demesne, the sonless old man who must soon part with it all.
"Where are those people now?" he asked. "I won't be so foolish as to assume that you are not fully posted in all their movements."
"They are in lodgings at Failsworth," said Kitty. "I—I saw Bet yesterday, she came over to see her father's grave. This time last year they were in London. I am afraid that they are having a hard time of it."
"Um, it isn't more than five miles to Failsworth. And——"
Kitty waited anxiously. She saw the grim face soften for a moment before the clouds fell again.
"You were going to say something, squire?" she said.
"Was I?" Castle growled. "Oh, yes. You had better shut the door as you go out. Those youngsters are making more noise that I care for, after all."
Kitty closed the door behind her. Had she not been a lady, she might have been accused of banging it.
THE bright happy day ran speedily along, the big footmen were lighting lamps and drawing curtains and closing shutters. The village children had come and sung their carols and gone away repleted, the squire and some of his male guests were playing pool in the billiard room. The rest of the house was given over entirely to the children.
The oaken floors were strewn with tinsel and powder and confetti, fantastic caps adorned golden curly heads, the white dresses of the girls showed prettily against the dark green clad walls. A laughing scrambling tea at six had followed dinner, and now the professor was pinning a huge white sheet against one end of the hall. At the other a weird-looking machine was mounted on a stand and guarded from the curious by an equally curious footman. There was one constant ripple of laughter, a choir of fresh young voices, a constant fusillade of crackers. A few chairs had been placed at the back of the hall for the adults, the children could sit on the floor. The professor wore a grave, not to say worried, look.
Billy pattered across the floor towards the entertainer.
"I say," he whispered eagerly. "It's not going to be stiff, eh?"
"I don't quite understand you," said Brodie.
"Well, too dry. Nothing to improve the mind? Nothing about stars or bodies in space or skittles of that kind. Cause it's holiday time, you know."
"I assure you," Brodie said gravely, "that there isn't a star in the whole performance. They are nothing but a series of moving pictures, most of them taken by myself, and all of them having something to do with Christmas. What do you say to a real live harlequinade. Billy—and a scene on the ice and sailors dancing hornpipes?"
"Hooray," Billy cried. "And no speeches. I can see Barkis the curate yonder just bursting to have a shy at a few words to the young people. If Barkis wants to say anything, just punch his head by way of a hint to keep his mouth shut. He's spoony on Kitty. Barkis! Just to think of it! And a spiffin' girl like Kitty, too."
Brodie assured the deputation earnestly that the harmony of the occasion should be marred by no parochial addresses. As Billy reached his corner a muffled cheer followed. Then the elders came in and the show commenced in earnest.
A brilliant disc flashed on the sheet, and immediately a moving picture stood out boldly. There was the deck of a great ship adorned everywhere with greenery. In the centre stood a sailor in clean white ducks smoking a pipe, the vapour of which could be seen issuing from his lips. He pointed to a "Happy Christmas" in holly over his head, winked playfully at the audience, and immediately executed a hornpipe of amazing brilliance and celerity.
A perfect yell of applause followed this lifelike exhibition, a yell redoubled as a dozen or more sailors came on playing leap-frog over each other's backs ere they settled down to a hornpipe lasting quite a long time, after which an officer came on and served out champagne to the performers.
Billy's crutch kept up a constant thunder of applause.
"Spiffin," he muttered, "no heavenly bodies and tommy rot as to the distance of the earth from the moon. Blow me if the squire isn't as interested as anybody."
"Are there going to be any clowns?" one little voice piped anxiously.
Apparently there were, for the next picture was devoted to clowns. A gaily-dressed "Joey" came staggering across the sheet carrying a Titanic policeman on his back, a policeman some four times the size of the clown, who appeared to be sliding, contrary to the Act of Parliament, made and provided as clowns are prone to do. Amidst a roar of laughter the clown came to grief, and the policeman, under the horrified eyes of his captor, immediately began to collapse until he became no larger than an average boy.
The quaint carved rafters rang with mirth as the clown proceeded to blow up the unhappy policeman again and stuff a huge turnip in his mouth to keep the air in. Even the grim old squire relaxed into a hearty chuckle, the like of which had not been heard in Castle End any time the last two years.
"That's a feather in the professor's cap," said Billy as the figures gradually faded under a colossal fall of snow. "We'll see the squire dancing a hornpipe yet."
Other and still more amazing pictures followed, till the big stable clock booming the hour of seven told amazed little ears that they had been in a land of delight for over an hour. Some very small tinsel crowned heads were already nodding happily. The professor, who hitherto had displayed an unexpected turn of jocularity, grew somewhat grave.
"I have nearly come to the end of my entertainment," he said; "in fact, I have only two more pictures to show you. I am afraid my little performance has been lacking in the instructive qualities which—which——"
"Makes kids' shows so beastly slow," said Billy, encouragingly. "Go on."
"Which are prone to pall on the juvenile mind," the professor said gravely. "The next picture will be familiar to most of you. It depicts some pretty and pleasing incidents that happened two years ago this very day."
A long, handsome old drawing-room flashed on the screen. A big wood fire glowed on the grate. There were flowers and ferns and evergreens everywhere. With a yell of delight every child recognised the drawing-room of Castle End. A footman drawing the curtains was received warmly as an old friend.
"William! William!" they cried, "with his wig all on one side."
Then there filed into the room a score of familiar figures. Foremost the squire, big and dignified as usual, but with a smile that had been out of suit with his face for many a day. There were Kitty and Grace and Maud with the professor, and a pretty, dainty girl who came behind, followed by a handsome young man who smiled at her. Then the squire stood under a huge forest of mistletoe pendant from a chandelier, and the pretty girl advanced and kissed him.
"He kissed her back that time," Billy yelled. "I saw him. Poor old Bet!"
Before the words were out of the lad's mouth the squire was seen to turn and smilingly repay the salute. And by his side the handsome young man stood beaming.
"Bet, Bet," the children cried shrilly. "And Reggie."
"I'd give ten bob to see him here now," said Billy sotto voce.
None of the elders had anything to say, most of them were furtively watching the squire. He stood a little apart from the rest, his face black and grim. Kitty crept quietly to his side. She could glean nothing except that the squire's lips we're twitching. As yet he made no show of anger—perhaps he had not gathered the full meaning of the trick they were playing upon him. He took a pinch of snuff ostentatiously.
"Wonderfully realistic, Mavern, is it not?" he said.
Lord Mavern muttered something, inwardly wondering what his old friend could be made of. All the time the moving pictures were flashing and clicking as they reeled off a marvellous reproduction of Sir Roger de Coverly. There was a fall at one part of the picture—a footman with a tray of glasses. Save for the tiny ones now nearly asleep, most of the company recollected the incident perfectly.
"It was Billy who tripped him up," a small voice piped admiringly.
"So that has come out at last," the squire growled. "Really a wonderful show, Brodie. Like all good entertainers, I suppose you have kept the best till last."
"Well, I am afraid not," said Brodie in a slightly unsteady voice. "It is by way of being a bit of a contrast. It was taken without the principal actors' knowledge last Christmas, and I call it 'the other side of the medal.' It shows another kind of Christmas altogether. Two at least of the characters in the play are known to most of you."
"Sounds serious," Billy said, sotto voce. "Hope he ain't going to spoil the whole show by any snivellin' business at the finish. By gum, it looks little like old Salby's lodge in Windsor lane where we get the pop from. Here, professor, you are not going to tell us that's poor old Reggie——"
For the moment the boy had utterly forgotten himself. He stood leaning on his crutch, in full sight of them all, a trembling, eager, slightly hysterical figure, defiant perhaps, but thrilling to his finger tips with honest intentions.
"Reggie, Reggie," he cried. "It is Reggie. Oh, what a beast!"
The round brilliant trembling disc showed a sordid, miserable room, a room evidently in the last stage of decay and dinginess. In the centre of the room dinner was laid, or what passed for dinner. One dish made up the banquet. There were smoking potatoes steaming unblushingly in a basin. Three cups of coffee flanked the repast.
Nobody said anything, nobody applauded. There was an electric feeling in the air. The face of the squire was hidden in gloom. He altogether ignored Billy's obvious challenge. And all eyes were watching the shabby haggard-looking figure in the picture. Not much like Christmas this, save for the fact that a dry sprig of mistletoe dangled from a gas bracket painfully in need of repair.
Presently another figure entered, a genuine street arab cowering half defiant until coaxed to the table by the smell of the banquet and the smiles of the haggard man. The little nomad seemed to be fascinated by the coffee. The haggard man gave him a cup which he swallowed with amazing rapidity. Then the haggard man filled up the empty cup with water and placed it hurriedly by his own seat as somebody else entered. Obviously the giver of the feast intended to assume that his coffee stood intact. A little murmur followed as the cups were dexterously changed.
"Just like Reggie," Billy muttered tearfully. "Bet, Bet; here's Bet."
The new comer was a woman, young, bright, and wonderfully pretty despite her shabby dress. Everybody present seemed to understand the picture without any words from the professor. Those poor outcasts were sharing their meal with one poorer still and bringing a bright spot into a life otherwise filled with deepest darkness.
"And that," the professor concluded lamely; "is all."
The lights flared up again on a silent and troubled group. Towering above his guests, the squire came forward. Whatever he felt he showed no emotion whatever on his features. He touched Brodie significantly on the arm.
"I thank you for a unique and entertaining series of pictures," he said, coldly, "if you are quite at liberty I should like to see you in the library. William, will you bring Mr. Brodie's hat and overcoat and gloves into the hall?"
Billy pushed his way forward. His eyes were blazing.
"Don't do it, squire," he cried. "Don't be a bigger beast than—then——"
He paused, unable to proceed. It would never do for the other "chaps" to see him break down. And after he had called the squire a beast and all!
"The others will go to bed," the squire said, in the same hard level voice. "Billy will stay up. I shall have something to say to him presently. This way, Brodie."
Kitty watched the two disappearing with anxious eyes. Her lips were quivering. Already a long white flash of child-life was disappearing slowly upstairs. Billy crept up to Kitty for comfort and sympathy.
"Perhaps he isn't in such an awful wax after all," he said, hopefully. "He didn't say Mr. Brodie as he would have done when he's precious polite and going to be uncommon nasty. Perhaps you noticed that, Kitty. But I expect I'll get beans presently."
Meanwhile the door had closed behind Jasper Castle and his guest. The former had not moved a muscle of his face.
"Of course, I will not pretend to misunderstand your parable," he said. "You are a very bold man to beard me like that, Brodie. I should like to know what my—what Reginald had to do with it."
"Why insult your son, sir?" Brodie asked quietly. "He is a gentleman, and his great fault is yours—a wicked, stiff-necked pride. The idea was partly mine and partly Kitty's."
"Whose? Oh, Kitty's. So that's the way the wind lies. Well, Kitty is her own mistress, and you are a pretty good parti as things go——"
"And got those photos last year and the year before," Brodie struck in eagerly. "Of course, Reggie knew nothing about it or his wife either. We hoped that there would have been no occasion to have—you understand?"
The squire nodded grimly.
"I understand perfectly," he said. "Will you kindly put on your coat and hat. It is five minutes past seven, and before eight o'clock——"
"I can catch the train to Oxford," Brodie said stiffly. "I ask your pardon for my unwarrantable interference in the matter. But I can assure you that I was dictated all the time by the best of intentions."
"A common fault with good-hearted people," said the squire. "As a matter of fact your journey has nothing whatever to do with Oxford, and you are not going alone. You are going to have me for a companion."
"Yes," Brodie gasped. "I am an——"
"Ass," said the squire with a catch in his throat, "but that is not as bad as being a beast, Brodie. I want you to take me in to Failsworth."
ALL the children were in bed with the exception of the proud, yet anxious, Billy, and most of the grown ups were dressing for the formal eight o'clock dinner. There was no news beyond the fact that the squire and Brodie had gone off together in the direction of the stables, where a dogcart was waiting for them. The whole manoeuvre had been executed so skilfully that no single sign had passed between the professor and Kitty. The big clock in the hall was staggering majestically towards a quarter to eight. Grace and Maud had already been carried off vi et armis by their maids.
"Oh, dear, I must go," Kitty sighed. "I dare not stay here any longer. I wish being late for dinner was not an unpardonable sin. What do you think of it, Billy?"
"Dunno," Billy said uneasily, but with dignity. "I only hope I put it strong enough. I was a bit rough upon him, wasn't I? And yet what is the good of a chap who isn't ready to do anything for a pal? No fun for me to-morrow, you bet. I say, Kitty; couldn't you manage to sneak me a lot of grub upstairs?"
Kitty stooped and kissed the boy affectionately.
"You shall make yourself positively ill on goodies," she said. "Now I must go, Billy. And I had looked forward to to-day with such pleasure. For Jack's sake——"
"Oh, so Jack's the man. Well, seeing he's a 'blue,' and one of the swell's of the London Skating Club, I don't raise any objections. At one time I began to fancy it was that Barkis chap. All the same I shan't mind calling the professor Jack."
"Shall I kiss you again or box your ears?" Kitty laughed.
"It don't make so much difference," said the stolid young Etonian. "You cut upstairs and rig yourself out in your warpaint; that jolly dress with the fluffy stuff round the neck—whilst I lie low for signs of the foe. If anything happens I'll come and let you know."
The next thing that happened was the forcibly dragging off of Billy by a stern old nurse who saw him into a white waistcoat and tie to match, averring that these were the squire's orders, and that she didn't know any more than Chloe what it was all about. Thus gorgeously attired, Billy hopped down to the hall.
"If there was a pantomime anywhere handy," he said. "I should know what it meant. Perhaps there's a man short, and they want me to take a girl into dinner."
Billy dropped into one of the big beehive chairs by the glowing yule logs and chuckled over the dry humour of the suggestion. It was five minutes to eight by the time, and most of the guests were in the drawing-room. As yet there was no sign of the squire or the mysteriously vanishing professor.
A cold breath of air, the dancing and whirling of a million red and purple sparks up the chimney, and Billy awoke from his doze. There stood the squire in evening dress, his big fur-lined overcoat pushed back, and such a queer, broken, wavering jolly smile on his face that Billy had never seen before. A man who could smile like that when nobody was looking might forgive many things on due deliberation. Billy thought—such things as being called a beast, for instance. Behind him came the professor with the same unsteady smile as if he'd been crying over something and was ashamed of it. The old butler Marshall stood there crying in the most simple unaffected manner; Marshal, so please you, who might have passed for a bishop anywhere.
But Billy had no eyes for any of these after the first moment. He was gazing minutely at two figures behind, also in evening dress. There was a lump in his throat, and his legs were staggering under him. It was the haggard man and his pretty wife—the haggard man who never more would play the fiddle in a music-hall orchestra, the pretty winsome girl whose drudgery at evening parties was a thing of the past.
"Glad to see you again, Marshall," Reggie said cheerfully. "Shake hands, Marshall. Why, Billy old boy, how you've grown to be sure. Hasn't he, Bet?"
Billy advanced with dignity. He had some idea of making a speech. Then what should the hero of the evening do but break down and cry as if his heart would burst until sweet winsome Bet took him in her arms and kissed and petted him as she had done when Billy had been down with scarlet fever. It was a most dreadful thing for a "chap" who had got his house colours to do, and Billy had a sad impression that he should never be able to hold up his head again. Still there were tears in the squire's face, and Bet was crying softly, while Marshall snivelled audibly in the corner. There was balm, too, in the way in which the squire shook hands with Billy.
"I'm sorry, too, sir," the boy faltered. "And really I did think that you were a beast. Still, if you'll let me off all imposts for tomorrow——"
"Sir," said the squire, gravely, "between gentlemen no more need be said. You will do me the honour of dining with me to-night."
"Me," Billy exclaimed, delightedly, "Fen larks!"
The squire crossed to the drawing-room and flung it wide open. At the same time Kitty came down the stairs. There was no time to say much. Billy was the first of the group in the hall to recover himself.
"I've managed it, Kitty," he said. "And I'm dining with you to-night. And, what's more, I'm going to take you in to dinner."
"So you shall," said Brodie; "come and see their faces."
"Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Castle," said Marshall, with a commendably grave face and a voice that he strove in vain to render steady. "And dinner is served, Miss Grace."
They filed into the dining-room, silent, astonished, filled with curiosity, and yet all of them too well-bred to display the fact. There was a certain air of reserve during the early part of the meal save on the part of the squire, who seemed to have shed half a dozen years from his shoulders. It was not till the dessert was on the table and Marshall had withdrawn his subordinates with grave dignity that the squire rose to make some sort of explanation.
"I ask you to drink the health of my son and his wife," he said. "Also to the cause of science which brought home to me to-day a lesson I shall, I hope, never forget. If I could have seen my boy and his dear wife at any time the last two years I might——But I did see them to-day. My friend Brodie was fearful that he had offended me. From the bottom of my heart I thank him. Also Kitty, who was the authoress of the little scheme. I suppose I should feel a certain sense of shame and humiliation, but I am too happy for that. Then there is also Billy, whose outspoken and subtle analysis of my character——"
"No, no," Billy said modestly. "I'll never use the word 'beast' again as long as I live. I should be an awful beast myself if I——"
A loud burst of laughter cut short the speech and served to clear the atmosphere wonderfully, during which the squire discreetly sat down. Amidst the happy babel of sound and the rip of crackers Bet Castle crept round to Billy.
"I have been hearing about you, dear old boy," she said. "It was awfully good of you all to stick up for Reg and myself. And perhaps if Reg had not been quite so proud there would have been no occasion to speak of beasts and other zoological specimens. You are a big man to-night, Billy."
"That's all right," Billy said modestly. "There's one thing, Bet; don't you tell anybody I blubbered when you—you know what I mean. I couldn't help it then, and I feel precious near to it now, I can tell you. But what a stunning Christmas it has been!"
"Ay," said Bet softly. "Peace and goodwill."
She turned and met the squire's glance, and the smile that passed between them spoke of a sweet accord to last all along this side of the grave.
"Rippin'," said Billy as he tumbled sleepily into bed. "And I can only hope every other chap has had a Christmas Day like mine."
And so say all of us.<