Chapter VIII. A Kind Offer
 

"Nan!" called Freddie from under a big fur robe, as he sat in the warm straw of Mr. Carford's sled next to his sister.

"Yes, what is it?" asked Nan, bending over him to look at his face in the gathering dusk of the winter afternoon. "Are you warm enough, Freddie?"

"Yes, I'm as warm as the toast Dinah makes for breakfast. But say, I want to ask you--do you think we'll meet Santa Claus before we get home?"

"No, Freddie. The idea! What makes you think that?"

"Well, it's near Christmas, and we're out in a sled, and he goes out in a sled, only with reindeers of course, and--"

Freddie's voice trailed off sleepily. In fact he had aroused himself from almost a nap to ask Nan the question. Flossie, warmly wrapped up, was already slumbering in Bert's arms.

"No, I don't believe we'll meet Santa Claus this trip," said Nan. "He is only supposed to travel at night, you know, Freddie."

"That's so. Well, if we do meet him, and I'm asleep, you wake me up: will you?"

"Yes, Freddie," promised his sister, and she looked across at Bert and smiled. The two younger twins were soon both soundly slumbering, for being out in the cold air and wind does seem to make one sleepy when, later on, one gets warm and comfortable.

Mr. Carford sat up on the seat in front driving the sturdy horses, while the string of bells around them jingled at every step.

"Wasn't that a queer story of Snow Lodge?" asked Nan of Bert, in a low voice.

"It surely was," he replied. "It seems too bad to have the place all shut up, with no one to use it this winter. It would be just great, I think, if we could go up there for the Christmas holidays. We could go up right after Christmas, and not come back until the middle of January, for school doesn't open again until then. Wouldn't it be great!"

"Fine!" agreed Nan. "But I don't s'pose we could. Mr. Carford doesn't want Snow Lodge used, I guess. But he gave us a good time at his house."

"Indeed he did," agreed Bert.

On glided the sled, the bells making merry music. A light snowfall began, and Mr. Carford urged the horses to faster speed, for he wanted to get back home before the storm broke.

"Wake up, Freddie!"

"Wake up, Flossie!"

Nan and Bert gently shook their little brother and sister to arouse them. The sled had stopped in front of the Bobbsey home.

"Is it--is it morning?" asked Flossie, as she rubbed her eyes.

"Did Santa Claus come?" demanded Freddie, trying to wiggle out of Bert's arms.

"Not yet," laughed Mr. Carford. "But I think he soon will be here. Can you manage them, Nan--Bert?" he asked.

"Oh, yes, we often carry them," replied Nan. "They'll soon be wide awake again, and they won't want to go to sleep until late to-night, on account of the nap they've had."

Mrs. Bobbsey was at the door waiting for the children Flossie and Freddie soon roused up enough to walk in.

"Won't you come in?" asked Mrs. Bobbsey of Mr. Carford. "I can give you a cup of tea. Mr. Bobbsey just came home. Perhaps you'd like to say 'how-d'ye-do.'"

"Thanks, I'll come in for just a minute," was the answer. "Then I must be getting back before the storm breaks. And I'll tie my horses, too. I can't risk another runaway," Mr. Carford said with a smile at Bert.

Mr. Bobbsey greeted the caller cordially, and the children were soon telling their parents of the nice visit they had had.

"And Miss Carford can make almost as good cookies as Dinah!" cried Freddie.

"Ha! Ha!" laughed Mr. Carford. "I'll have to tell my sister that. She'll be real proud."

Bert, looking from his father to Mr. Carford, wondered what could have once taken place between the two men. That there was some sort of secret he felt sure, and up to now there had been no explanation of the strange words used by the aged man at the time Bert and the others caught the runaways.

"I haven't seen you in some time, Mr. Bobbsey," said Mr. Carford, after they had talked about the weather.

"No, I've been very busy, and I suppose you have also. Have you been at Snow Lodge lately?"

"No, and I don't expect to set foot in the place again. I guess you know why. And I want to say now, that though I was rather cross with you when you tried to get me to change my mind about that matter, some time ago, I want to say that I'm sorry for it. I realize that you did it for the best."

"Yes," said Mr. Bobbsey, "I did, but I know how you felt about it. I believed then, and I believe now, that you made a mistake about your nephew Henry."

"No, I don't think I did," was the slow reply. "I am afraid Henry is a bad young man. I don't want to see him again, nor Snow Lodge either. But I'm glad you tried to help me. However, I have come about a different matter now. How would you and your family like to spend the winter there? How would a vacation at Snow Lodge suit you?"

No one spoke for a few seconds. All were surprised at the kind offer made by Mr. Carford.

"A vacation at Snow Lodge!" said Mr. Bobbsey slowly.

"Do you mean it, Mr. Carford?" asked Mrs. Bobbsey.

"I certainly do," was the answer. "I have told your youngsters something about Snow Lodge, and they seemed to like the place. I heard them talking among themselves, on the way back here, how they'd like to go there.

"Oh, that's all right--no harm done!" exclaimed Mr. Carford, as he looked at the blushing faces of Nan and Bert. "I'm glad I did overhear what you were saying. It is a shame to keep that place locked up, and I'm just beginning to realize it.

"I don't want to go there myself, but that's no reason why others shouldn't. So, Mr. Bobbsey, if you like, you can take your whole family up there to Snow Lodge, near the lake, and in the woods, and stay as long as you like. Here are the keys!" and Mr. Carford tossed a jingling bunch on the table.