Chapter XVIII
 

It is really a very difficult thing to snub Christmas. You may relegate it to the class of nuisances, and turn your back on Santa Claus, and vote the whole institution a gigantic bore, but before the day is over it usually gets the better of you, as it did of Donald Morley, arriving unannounced and unwelcomed at the side door of the Sequin mansion.

It had gotten the better of him the year before when he had risen in the gray dawn of an Indian day and stoically made his way to the banks of the Ganges. It had proclaimed itself above the Vedic hymns of the twice-born Brahmins, standing knee-deep in the sacred river; it had dogged his footsteps among the ash-smeared fakirs, and jewel-hung cows; it had even haunted the burning-ghat where he had stood and watched human bodies burning on their pyres.

Eighteen months of wandering had made him sick of the casual; of the steamer acquaintances formed at one port and dropped at the next; of the unfamiliar sights and incomprehensible languages and the horde of alien yellow faces. He was weary unto death of the freedom of the high seas, and longed fervently for a strong anchor, and a quiet harbor.

When Cropsie Decker's explosive epistle had arrived telling him of his indictment, of Margery's broken engagement, of Lee Dillingham's treachery, his first thought was not of his wrongs, but of the fact that they would necessitate his going home.

He did not stop to realize that going home meant but one thing to him. He even tried to persuade himself that seeing Miss Lady in the role of a happy, complaisant wife would cure him of his insatiable longing for her. From the time he heard of her marriage he had striven desperately to put her out of his mind, using every means but one to accomplish his purpose. Through all his resentment and bitterness of heart, he had never returned to his old life. Those promises made to her in the full ardor of his boyish passion, he had kept with the hopeless loyalty that one keeps the garments of the dead.

Now that he had been indicted for a crime of which he was wholly innocent, his first desire was to know if she still believed in him. To be sure, there were strong reasons why she should not: his own confession of his shortcomings; the unfortunate complication in the Dillingham affair; his subsequent disappearance. It was but natural that she should have been brought to see the folly of pinning her faith to such an unstable proposition as himself. His first agonized protest against her marriage had given place to a stoical acceptance of the fact. He was paying the price many a man has paid for the follies of his youth, and he was ready to pay without a protest, if only she could be made to understand the truth.

All that was best in him demanded justice from her, the justice he had pleaded for in that long letter sent from San Francisco. Going home for him meant not only a trial by jury and a verdict of guilty or innocent. It meant far more. He would know from her own lips whether she had ever received his letter, and whether or not she believed in him. On her decision rested his faith in human nature and in God.

The sudden decision to return to America had been reached one night in Port Said, where he had just joined an exploring expedition bound for the Valley of the Kings. He cancelled his engagement, took passage on a little Russian steamer that was bound for Alexandria, and too impatient to wait for a liner from that port shipped on a freight boat for Naples. The passage across the Atlantic had been a tempestuous one, and he had landed in New York two days overdue, with no time to notify the family of his arrival.

And now after eighteen months of exile in foreign lands he was actually home again! That is if this resplendent, unfamiliar abode, full of music and lights and strange servants, could be called home. However, it was the nearest approach to one he could claim, and the fact that the fatted calf had not been killed for him, and that the law waited for him around the corner, did not prevent his pulse quickening and his lips smiling as he took the side steps two at a time, and entered the rear hall.

An officious, red-headed man stood in the pantry door with a napkin over his arm, issuing peremptory orders and regulating the outcoming and ingoing waiters. "Are you the butler?" asked Donald.

"Not yet," said the man, dropping one eyelid and assuming a confidential air; "I can see she's after me, though. She got on to my style the minute she seen me handle a tray of glasses. 'Flathers,' she sez, 'you keep things movin' back there in the pantry, and do keep a eye on John.' John's the butler. He's a drinkin' man, God be praised, and I'm layin' fer his job. Are you a chauffeur?"

"No," said Donald good humoredly. "I'm a prodigal brother. Where have I seen you before?"

"Can't say. If a person sees me once they never fergit me. It's me golden glow. Come, boys! Hurry up! Hurry up with them cakes there. Git them extry freezers unpacked. Git a move on yer."

"Take this card in to Mrs. Sequin," said Donald, "and ask her if she can spare a moment to see a caller in the rear entry."

Phineas glanced suspiciously from the card to the stranger, then he decided that he would not question the matter.

A moment later, Mrs. Sequin with her glittering draperies gathered about her, and an expression of great perturbation on her features, made her high-heeled way through the pantry.

"Donald! My dear boy!" she exclaimed effusively, presenting her cheek with the caution of one who hopes the kiss will be light. "What on earth are you doing here? We had no idea you were in America. How thin you are! I've been in a perfect agony about you. Not those champagne glasses, John; the larger ones. That tiresome butler! He has been tipsy all day. Now, what about yourself, Donald? It is dreadfully unwise for you to be here; you know of course of--of the indictment?"

"That's why I'm here. But how is everybody? How are Brother Basil and little old Margery? Where's my saddle mare?"

"I'll tell you everything to-morrow, Don. You must want to go to your room now. Flathers take this gentleman's bags up to the East guest- room,--no, that's occupied. You won't mind going up another flight, just for to-night, dear?"

"Oh, tuck me in anywhere, just so there's a bath handy."

"All the bedrooms have baths," said Mrs. Sequin absently, with her eye on the befuddled butler who was trying to uncork a bottle with a screwdriver, "Let Flathers--I mean Benson--do that, John, and you take these bags. So sorry I can't go up with you myself, Don, but the cotillion is just beginning, and I have to see to the favors."

"That's right, don't bother about me, I'll get into some decent togs and be down again in a little while."

Mrs. Sequin paused with her hand on the banister, then she leaned forward solicitously:

"I wouldn't take the trouble to dress and come down again, Don. It's late and you must be dead tired. You go to bed. I'll understand."

Donald, standing a few steps above her, shot a questioning glance at her, then he, too, understood.

"Oh, all right," he said, biting his lip; "I believe I won't come down. You might send Marge up, after the people leave, just to say 'Hello.'"

"Of course, we'll both be up. Nothing could hold her if she knew you were here. But it is better that nobody should know. I was careful not to mention your name before the servants. You can have a nice little visit with us, and get away again without any one being the wiser. It is so lovely you got here in time for Christmas! Good night." She came up two steps and presented her other cheek for a kiss.

The delinquent John, meanwhile, was performing acrobatic feats with the bags, getting them so mixed up with his own legs and the stair steps that Donald snatched them from him, and, eliciting a vague direction concerning the room he was to occupy, went up to find it alone.

He felt something of the hot rebellion and resentment that he had experienced on another Christmas night in the long ago, when the cross-eyed French nurse had put him to bed at five o'clock and left him alone in the big hotel in Paris. Then he had cried himself to sleep because there wasn't any Santa Claus and because he didn't have a sweetheart. But the consolations of six are denied to twenty-five.

On the second floor he followed directions and turned to the right. The dressing-rooms were deserted, the maids having taken their seats on the steps to peep at the dancers below. He, too, paused, and looked down at the gaily whirling throng. There was his old familiar world, the fellows he had been through college with, the girls he had flirted with, the very music he had danced to, times without numbers. And he was as much out of it all as if he had died of the fever in that gray old hospital in Singapore? Ah, if he only had!

He turned abruptly and started up the second flight of stairs, and as he did so something rose precipitately from the steps, and fluttered ahead of him.

He looked up and as he did so chaos broke loose within him. There at the top, in the subdued light from the upper hall, startled, uncertain, off her guard stood Miss Lady, not the pretty, harum-scarum girl of his dreams, but a beautiful, wistful woman with trembling lips and startled eyes, who held out her hands to him in involuntary welcome.

He lost his head completely. All the blood in his body rushed to his throat. Something sang through every fiber of him.

"Miss Lady!" he cried, catching the hands she extended in both of his, then as she drew back from his too ardent look, he remembered. "I beg your pardon of course it's Mrs. Queerington, now."

"Not to you, Don. When did you come? Are you well again? Didn't any one know you were coming? Have the others seen you?"

She poured forth her questions eagerly, as if she feared another pause. She was making a desperate effort to appear easy, but her eagerness betrayed her. She repeated that she had no idea he was in America, and took refuge in a general assurance that everybody would be so glad to have him home again.

Donald, lean and tanned, stood silent, watching her searchingly. His deep-set eyes were clearer and steadier than of old, but they were no longer the eyes of a boy. He was like a mariner whose ship has been wrecked. He had nothing worse to dread and nothing to hope for. He simply desired to see the rock on which his life craft had smashed.

Miss Lady continued to ask questions, but she evidently did not always heed the answers as she asked some of them twice over. It was not until Donald's trouble was touched upon that her mood steadied and she lost her self-consciousness.

"Of course you must stand the trial," she said, and her voice rang with the old assurance; "you must fight the whole matter out once for all, and prove your innocence."

"Oh, the Court will prove that all right, but what does it matter? If people were willing to damn me without hearing, to believe that I had shot a man's eye out, then run away to escape the punishment--Bah! it's sickening."

"But everybody doesn't believe it. The Doctor doesn't, nor Margery, nor Cropsie Decker, nor I. Hundreds of your friends are ready to stand by you. Don't listen to what anybody else says, but stay and fight it out."

He looked up suddenly. "Did you ever get that letter I wrote you before I sailed from 'Frisco?"

He hadn't meant to blurt it out like that, the question that had tortured him so long, but her sympathy and friendliness had unnerved him.

Leaning forward with all his soul in his eyes, he watched the color mount steadily from her throat to her cheeks, then to her brow. He heard her draw a sharp, quivering breath as one who walks on a precipice, then she faced him steadily.

"Yes, Donald," she said, meeting his gaze unflinchingly, "I got it."

He dropped his head on his hand where it rested on the banister, and they stood for a moment in silence save for the strains of music that came up from below. Then he straightened his shoulders.

"That's all. I had to make sure, you know. And you didn't believe in me?"

Across her face quivered the desire for speech, and the necessity for silence.

"I do believe in you, Don," she said earnestly. "I believe in you with all my heart and soul. And we are going to be your friends; you'll let us, the Doctor and me?"

He took the hand she offered, but he said nothing, and after she was gone he went into his room, and flinging himself across the bed, buried his face in the pillows.