XXXVII. The Return of Santa Claus
 

Did ye hear the cock crow? By the beard of my father, I'd forgotten you and myself and everything but the story. It's near morning, and I've a weary tongue. Another log and one more pipe. Then, sir, then I'll let you go. I'm near the end.

"Let me see--it's a winter day in New York City, after four years. The streets are crowded. Here are men and women, but I see only the horses,--you know, sir, how I love them. They go by with heavy truck and cab, steaming, straining', slipping in the deep snow. You hear the song of lashes, the whack of whips, and, now and then, the shout of some bedevilled voice. Horses fall, and struggle, and lie helpless, and their drivers--well, if I were to watch them long, I should be in danger of madness and hell-fire. Well, here is a big stable. A tall man has halted by its open door, and addresses the manager.

"'I learn that you have a bay mare with starred face and a white stocking.' It is Trove who speaks.

"'Yes; there she is, coming yonder.'

"The mare is a rack of bones, limping, weary, sore. But see her foot lift! You can't kill the pride of the Barbary. She falters; her driver lashes her over the head. Trove is running toward her. He climbs a front wheel, and down comes the driver. In a minute Trove has her by the bit. He calls her by name--Phyllis! The slim ears begin to move. She nickers. God, sir! she is trying to see him. One eye is bleeding, the other blind. His arms go round her neck, sir, and he hides his face in her mane. That mare you ride--she is the granddaughter of Phyllis. I'd as soon think of selling my wife. Really, sir, Darrel was right. God'll mind the look of your horses."

So spake an old man sitting in the firelight. Since they sat down the short hand of the clock had nearly circled the dial. There was a little pause. He did love a horse--that old man of the hills.

"Trove went home with the mare," he continued. "She recovered the sight of one eye, and had a box-stall and the brook pasture--you know, that one by the beech grove. He got home the day before Christmas. Polly met him at the depot--a charming lady, sir, and a child of three was with her,--a little girl, dark eyes and flaxen, curly hair. You remember Beryl?--eyes like her mother's.

"I was there at the depot that day. Well, it looked as if they were still in their honeymoon.

"'Dear little wife!' said Trove, as he kissed Polly. Then he took the child in his arms, and I went to dinner with them. They lived half a mile or so out of Hillsborough.

"'Hello!' said Trove, as we entered. 'Here's a merry Christmas!'

"Polly had trimmed the house. There against the wall was a tapering fir-tree, hung with tinsel and popcorn. All around the room were green branches of holly and hemlock.

"'I'm glad you found Phyllis,' said she.

"'Poor Phyllis!' he answered. 'They broke her down with hard work, and then sold her. She'll be here to-morrow.'

"'You saw Darrel on the way?'

"'Yes, and he is the same miracle of happiness. I think he will soon be free. Leblanc is there in prison--convicted of a crime in Whitehall. As I expected, there is a red mark on the back of his left hand. Day after to-morrow we go again to Dannemora. Sweetheart! I hurried home to see you.' And then--well, I do like to see it--the fondness of young people.

"Night came, dark and stormy, with snow in the west wind. They were sitting there by the Christmas tree, all bright with candles--Polly, Trove, and the little child. They were talking of old times. They heard a rap at the door. Trove flung it open. He spoke a word of surprise. There was the old Santa Claus of Cedar Hill--upon my word, sir--the very one. He entered, shaking his great coat, his beard full of snow. He let down his sack there by the lighted tree. He beckoned to the little one.

"'Go and see him--it is old Santa Claus,' said Polly, her voice trembling as she led the child.

"Then, quickly, she took the hand of her husband.

"'He is your father,' she whispered.

"A moment they stood with hearts full, looking at Santa Claus and the child. That little one had her arms about a knee, and, dumb with great wonder, gazed up at him. There was a timid appeal in her sweet face.

"The man did not move; he was looking down at the child. In a moment she began to prattle and tug at him. They saw his knees bend a bit. Ah, sir, it seemed as if the baby were pulling him down. He gently pushed the child away. They heard a little cry--a kind of a wailing 'Oh-o-o,'--like that you hear in the chimney. Then, sir, down he went in his tracks--a quivering little heap,--and lay there at the foot of the tree. Polly and Trove were bending over him. Cap and wig had fallen from his head. He was an old man.

"'Father!' Trove whispered, touching the long white hair. 'O my father! speak to me. Let me--let me see your face.'

"Slowly--slowly, the old man rose, Trove helping him, and put on his cap. Then, sir, he took a step back and stood straight as a king. He waved them away with his hand.

"'Nay, boy, remember,' he whispered. 'Ye were to let him pass.' And then he started for the door.

"Trove went before him and stood against it.

"'Hear me, boy, 'tis better that ye let him sleep until the trumpet calls an' ye both stand with all the quick an' the dead.'

"'No, I have waited long, and I love--I love him,' Trove answered.

"Those fair young people knelt beside the old man, clinging to his hands.

"The good saint was crying.

"'I came not here to bring shame,' said he presently.

"'We honour and with all our souls we love you,' Trove answered.

"'Who shall stand before it?' said the old man. 'Behold--behold how Love hath raised the dead!' He flung off his cap and beard.

"'If ye will have it so, know ye that I--Roderick Darrel--am thy father.'"

"Now, sir, you may go. I wish ye merry Christmas!" said that old man of the hills.

But the other tarried, thoughtfully puffing his pipe.

"And the father was not dead?"

"'Twas only the living death," said the old man, now lighting a lantern. "You know that grave in a poem of Sidney Trove:

  'It has neither sod nor stone;
  It has neither dust nor bone.'

He planned to be as one dead to the world."

"And the other man of mystery--who was he?"

"Some child of misfortune. He was befriended by the tinker and did errands for him."

"He took the money to Trove that night the latter slept in the woods?"

"And, for Darrel, returned to Thompson his own with usury. Thompson was the chief creditor."

"With usury?"

"Yes; for years it lay under the bed of Darrel. By and by he put the money in a savings bank--all but a few dollars."

"And why did he wait so long, before returning it?"

"He tried to be rid of the money, but was unable to find Thompson. And Trove, he lived to repay every creditor. Ah, sir, he was a man of a thousand."

"That story of Darrel's in the little shop--I see--it was fact in a setting of fiction."

"That's all it pretended to be," said the old man of the hills.

"One more query," said the other. He was now mounted. "I know Darrel went to prison for the sake of the boy, but did some one set him free?"

"His own character. Leblanc came to love him--like the other prisoners--and, sir, he confessed. I declare!--it's daylight now and here I am with the lantern. Good-by, and Merry Christmas!"

The other rode away, slowly, looking back at the dim glow of the lantern, which now, indeed, was like a symbol of the past.