The Boy, the Best-Beloved and the Christmas Present
THE BOY, THE BEST BELOVED AND THE CHRISTMAS PRESENT
IT was Christmas Eve.
The boy crept slowly round the house and peered cautiously through the lighted dining-room window. Under his arm was a small white wriggling object. As he gazed through the window he heaved a sigh expressive of deep emotion. In the dining-room sat the Best-Beloved. His eyes dwelt ecstatically and reverently on her beauty. His nose almost flattened against the window, he gazed and gazed.
It might be presumed, from this description, that the Best-Beloved was dining alone, but this was not so. There was a shadowy male parent and a shadowy young sister, with a long red plait, dining also. The boy usually noticed the existence of the male parent only when he shot forth disconcerting questions on political problems of which the boy—who despised politics—had never heard. He noticed the existence of the young sister only when her stare was more than usually impertinent. Otherwise they did not exist. To all intents and purposes the Best-Beloved was the only person in the world.
She was older than the boy, but that was in the boy's eyes an added attraction. He considered himself to be a man of the strong, silent type, old and experienced in the ways of the world beyond his years. It may be remarked here that this view of the boy's character was unshared by the rest of the world. Occasionally he would venture on a cynical remark that gave him intense secret pleasure and, he felt sure, increased the Best-Beloved's admiration of him. He knew that she admired him, though she did not show it.
An unusually violent struggle from the animal beneath his arm recalled him to earth, and, with another sigh, he crept round to the side-door. Here he took off his shoes, then opened the door furtively and crept down the passage to the drawing-room, lunging ungracefully from side to side in his endeavours to be noiseless, his brow drawn into a stern frown, his tongue protruding several inches in the intensity of his efforts. At last he reached the room. It was lit only by firelight. He pulled the door to without shutting it and looked round.
It was Christmas Eve and the boy was bringing a present for the Best-Beloved. The boy possessed the dramatic instinct. He wanted to give the Best-Beloved a puppy, but he did not want to hand the puppy to the Best-Beloved in cold blood or even send it by a messenger. He wanted the Best-Beloved to come to the drawing-room after dinner and find the puppy posed in front of the fire, wearing a label "A Happy Christmas" and his initials. He himself would go away quietly as soon as he had arranged the puppy. It was a great idea. The only drawback seemed to be the puppy. It was a puppy with a strong objection to being arranged. It was of an adventurous and inquiring turn of mind. During its two days' sojourn at the boy's house it had reduced to their component parts two cushions, a rug, and three pairs of bedroom slippers. It generally chewed up the component parts and swallowed whichever of them appealed to its palate. It possessed the digestive faculties of an ostrich. The boy's mother had waxed almost lyrical on the subject of the puppy.
On being carefully arranged by the boy in an attractive attitude in front of the fire it dashed at the window curtains and began to pull them with soft little threatening growls. The boy captured it again and once more arranged it patiently before the fire. As soon as he withdrew his hands to admire the effect, it scampered into an impregnable position behind the coal scuttle, whence it looked derisively at the boy, its small head cocked. The boy, his brow now screwed into a Napoleonic frown by the desperation of the crisis, crept towards it on all fours.
"Puss! Puss! Puss! Puss!" he whispered hoarsely.
The puppy began to chew bits of the wooden wainscoting.
"I mean—Dog! Dog! Dog! Dog!" said the boy apologetically.
The puppy flashed across the room, pulling off the cover of a small table in its flight, and disappeared beneath a sofa. It was a long, deep sofa. The boy put a red, perspiring face beneath the sofa and stretched out an ineffectual arm.
"Come on, old chap!" he said in hoarse but honeyed accents. "Come on, then, old boy! Come on! Come out, can't you, you fool? Come on! Puss! Puss! Puss! Puss! I mean, Dog! Dog! Dog! Come——"
He was interrupted by something cold at the back of his neck and a small, threatening voice that said: "Hands up, or I fire!"
"With difficulty he brought back his head from beneath the sofa and met the stern gaze of what he dimly discerned in the half light to be the young sister. She had a revolver in her hands.
"I say," he said mildly, "you're holding it by the wrong end."
She dropped it with a little scream.
"You might have told me before!" she said.
"I couldn't see you," he said. "Is it loaded?"
"I don't know. I got it out of Daddy's drawer. Anyway, I'm going to gag you and then ring up the police. It's no use struggling."
A sudden flicker of firelight showed up his flushed, bewildered features.
"Heavens, you're Harry Graham!" she gasped.
Her disappointment was obvious.
There was silence in the room except for the sound of the puppy chewing the wainscoting behind the sofa.
At last she spoke. "I thought you were a burglar," she said in a small, flat voice, going over to the fireplace, where she sank, a little disconsolate heap, on the hearthrug. "I think it's simply beastly of you!" she went on, with a hint of tears in her voice.
He came across to her and knelt on the hearthrug opposite her uncertainly, staring at her in open-mouthed bewilderment.
"What? Why?" he stammered.
"I've—I've always longed to catch a burglar all by myself. It's been my dream, and—and Madge asked me to fetch her cigarettes, and I heard a noise in here, and I saw a man, and I went to get Daddy's revolver, and I was going to—oh, it's simply beastly of you!"
He gazed at her silently. She was pretty. She was most awfully pretty, blue eyes, rosy cheeks, auburn hair—auburn, not red, most decidedly not red! Funny he'd never really noticed her before. After all, should a man, even a strong, silent man, marry a woman older than himself? He wasn't at all sure.
"I don't know what you came for," she said with sudden anger, "messing about and pretending to be a burglar!"
She looked at him defiantly, her blue eyes starry with tears. His already red cheeks deepened in hue. He drew a deep breath.
"I came," he said, "to bring you a puppy for a Christmas present."
"Me!" she said in amazement.
"Yes, you!" he said shamelessly.
"I thought it was Madge who——" She blushed.
With an expansive gesture he waved his adoration of Madge into the limbo of the past.
"Once, perhaps," he said, "but now——"
He finished his speech by a cough to hide his embarrassment.
At this moment the situation was relieved by the appearance of the puppy from beneath the sofa with the remains of its chewed-up label still adhering to its whiskers.
"This is him!" said the boy ungrammatically.
"What a lamb!" said the girl inaccurately.
She fondled the lamb in silence for a few minutes, while the boy beamed upon her. Then she said: "Are you going to the Cooks' dance next week?"
"I am, too," she said with bright eyes. "I'm not really out, but I'm going to put up my hair for it. I tried it up last night. It looks topping."
"You bet it does," said the boy fervently. "I say, give me some dances."
"All the bally lot."
"I've never learnt the Blues."
"It's as easy as easy. I'll teach you now. I left my shoes in the porch, but I can manage all right. It's like this. See? Now you try. By Jove, topping! Now together … Not at all … My fault … No, it didn't hurt a bit … I thought I'd better leave them out there because of the noise … By Jove, splendid!" He began to hum untunefully. "I wanted it to be a surprise for you—the dog, I mean … I say, you're picking it up fine. You're frightfully clever, you know. … Mind the table … My fault … Oo-oo! … No, it wasn't you. The dog got hold of my toe … All right now … it's let go. … Fine, by Jove!"
About five minutes later the elder sister came in. She switched on the light and surveyed the occupants calmly.
"I thought you'd gone for my cigarettes, Joan. Rather an unexpected call, Harry? Is that your dog that's chewing up the hearthrug?"
The boy looked at her coldly. However had he thought her the one and only woman? Good Heavens! She was old—old—twenty-five if she was a day. … Horrible! … When he was forty-four she'd be fifty—fifty—at least, he thought so. He counted again on his fingers in his pocket to make sure. Yes, fifty! Good Heavens! No man, however experienced and strong and silent, should marry a woman older than himself—a woman who'd be fifty when he was only a bit over forty. A really strong, silent man should marry someone younger than himself, someone with blue eyes and auburn hair.
"I just dropped in," he said distantly, "to bring a small present for Joan—the dog, I mean."
"All right," said the ex-Best-Beloved pleasantly. "Don't let the fire out."
She took a case of cigarettes from the mantelpiece and went out, closing the door.
"Harry Graham's there," she said to the male parent in the dining-room. "He seems to have taken to Joan. It's a great relief."
"Don't see that it makes any difference," said the male parent gloomily. "He'll still be hanging round the place, I suppose, with his infernal squeaky chatter."
Thus the male parent referred to the strong, silent man.
"It makes a difference to me," said the elder sister softly.
Christmas Eve wore on.
The shadowy male parent sat at the head of the dinner-table, conscious only of a warm fire, an excellent glass of port, an excellent cigar.
He was perfectly happy.
The shadowy elder sister sat at the foot of the table, dreamily blowing rings of tobacco smoke. She was thinking of a man who does not come into this story, but who would have a chance now that she was not eternally besieged by the boy.
She was perfectly happy.
The boy and the Best-Beloved sat on the drawing-room hearthrug, their eyes fixed ecstatically upon each other, discussing such dear intimate things as motors and the latest football results.
They were perfectly happy.
The puppy, unnoticed and unchecked, rioted in the best armchair. He had got through the tapestry cover and was beginning on the stuffing.
He was perfectly happy.