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Title: Peace on Earth, Good-will to Dogs
Author: Abbott, Eleanor Hallowell, 1872-1958
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Peace on Earth, Good-will to Dogs" ***

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                           Peace on Earth,

                          Good-Will to Dogs



                                  By

                       Eleanor Hallowell Abbott

                         Author of "Old Dad"



                               New York

                        E. P. Dutton & Company

                           681 Fifth Avenue



                           COPYRIGHT, 1920,

                      BY E. P. DUTTON & COMPANY


                 _First printing       October, 1920_

                 _Second printing      October, 1920_

                 _Third printing       October, 1920_

       *       *       *       *       *



CONTENTS


Part I

Part II

       *       *       *       *       *



PEACE ON EARTH GOOD WILL TO DOGS

PART I


If you don't like Christmas stories, don't read this one!

And if you don't like dogs I don't know just what to advise you to do!

For I warn you perfectly frankly that I am distinctly pro-dog and
distinctly pro-Christmas, and would like to bring to this little story
whatever whiff of fir-balsam I can cajole from the make-believe forest
in my typewriter, and every glitter of tinsel, smudge of toy candle,
crackle of wrapping paper, that my particular brand of brain and ink
can conjure up on a single keyboard! And very large-sized dogs shall
romp through every page! And the mercury shiver perpetually in the
vicinity of zero! And every foot of earth be crusty-brown and bare
with no white snow at all till the very last moment when you'd just
about given up hope! And all the heart of the story is very,--oh
_very_ young!

For purposes of propriety and general historical authenticity there
are of course parents in the story. And one or two other oldish
persons. But they all go away just as early in the narrative as I can
manage it.--Are obliged to go away!

Yet lest you find in this general combination of circumstances some
sinister threat of audacity, let me conventionalize the story at once
by opening it at that most conventional of all conventional
Christmas-story hours,--the Twilight of Christmas Eve.

Nuff said?--Christmas Eve, you remember? Twilight? Awfully cold
weather? And somebody very young?

Now for the story itself!

After five blustering, wintry weeks of village speculation and gossip
there was of course considerable satisfaction in being the first to
solve the mysterious holiday tenancy of the Rattle-Pane House.

Breathless with excitement Flame Nourice telephoned the news from the
village post-office. From a pedestal of boxes fairly bulging with
red-wheeled go-carts, one keen young elbow rammed for balance into a
gay glassy shelf of stick-candy, green tissue garlands tickling
across her cheek, she sped the message to her mother.

"O Mother-Funny!" triumphed Flame. "I've found out who's Christmasing
at the Rattle-Pane House!--It's a red-haired setter dog with one black
ear! And he's sitting at the front gate this moment! Superintending
the unpacking of the furniture van! And I've named him Lopsy!"

"Why, Flame; how--absurd!" gasped her mother. In consideration of the
fact that Flame's mother had run all the way from the icy-footed
chicken yard to answer the telephone it shows distinctly what stuff
she was made of that she gasped nothing else.

And that Flame herself re-telephoned within the half hour to
acknowledge her absurdity shows equally distinctly what stuff _she_
was made of! It was from the summit of a crate of holly-wreaths that
she telephoned this time.

"Oh Mother-Funny," apologized Flame, "you were perfectly right. No lone
dog in the world could possibly manage a great spooky place like the
Rattle-Pane House. There are two other dogs with him! A great long, narrow
sofa-shaped dog upholstered in lemon and white,--something terribly
ferocious like 'Russian Wolf Hound' I think he is! But I've named him
Beautiful-Lovely! And there's the neatest looking paper-white coach dog
just perfectly ruined with ink-spots! Blunder-Blot, I think, will make a
good name for him! And--"

"Oh--Fl--ame!" panted her Mother. "Dogs--do--not--take houses!" It
was not from the chicken-yard that she had come running this time but
only from her Husband's Sermon-Writing-Room in the attic.

"Oh don't they though?" gloated Flame. "Well, they've taken this one,
anyway! Taken it by storm, I mean! Scratched all the green paint off
the front door! Torn a hole big as a cavern in the Barberry Hedge!
Pushed the sun-dial through a bulkhead!--If it snows to-night the
cellar'll be a Glacier! And--"

"Dogs--do--not--take--houses," persisted Flame's mother. She was still
persisting it indeed when she returned to her husband's study.

Her husband, it seemed, had not noticed her absence. Still poring over
the tomes and commentaries incidental to the preparation of his next
Sunday's sermon his fine face glowed half frown, half ecstasy, in the
December twilight, while close at his elbow all unnoticed a smoking
kerosine lamp went smudging its acrid path to the ceiling. Dusky lock
for dusky lock, dreamy eye for dreamy eye, smoking lamp for smoking
lamp, it might have been a short-haired replica of Flame herself.

"Oh if Flame had only been 'set' like the maternal side of the house!"
reasoned Flame's Mother. "Or merely dreamy like her Father! Her Father
being only dreamy could sometimes be diverted from his dreams! But to
be 'set' and 'dreamy' both? Absolutely 'set' on being absolutely
'dreamy'? That was Flame!" With renewed tenacity Flame's Mother
reverted to Truth as Truth. "Dogs do _not_ take houses!" she affirmed
with unmistakable emphasis.

"Eh? What?" jumped her husband. "Dogs? Dogs? Who said anything about
dogs?" With a fretted pucker between his brows he bent to his work
again. "You interrupted me," he reproached her. "My sermon is about
Hell-Fire.--I had all but smelled it.--It was very disagreeable." With
a gesture of impatience he snatched up his notes and tore them in two.
"I think I will write about the Garden of Eden instead!" he rallied.
"The Garden of Eden in Iris time! Florentina Alba everywhere!
Whiteness! Sweetness!--Now let me see,--orris root I believe is
deducted from the Florentina Alba--."

"U--m--m--m," sniffed Flame's Mother. With an impulse purely practical
she started for the kitchen. "The season happens to be Christmas
time," she suggested bluntly. "Now if you could see your way to make a
sermon that smelt like doughnuts and plum-pudding--"

"Doughnuts?" queried her Husband and hurried after her. Supplementing
the far, remote Glory-of-God expression in his face, the
glory-of-doughnuts shone suddenly very warmly.

Flame at least did not have to be reminded about the Seasons.

"Oh _mother_!" telephoned Flame almost at once, "It's--so much nearer
Christmas than it was half an hour ago! Are you sure everything will
keep? All those big packages that came yesterday? That humpy one
especially? Don't you think you ought to peep? Or poke? Just the
teeniest, tiniest little peep or poke? It would be a shame if
anything spoiled! A--turkey--or a--or a fur coat--or anything."

"I am--making doughnuts," confided her Mother with the faintest
possible taint of asperity.

"O--h," conceded Flame. "And Father's watching them? Then I'll hurry!
M--Mother?" deprecated the excited young voice. "You are always so
horridly right! Lopsy and Beautiful-Lovely and Blunder-Blot are _not_
Christmasing all alone in the Rattle-Pane House! There is a man with
them! Don't tell Father,--he's so nervous about men!"

"A--man?" stammered her Mother. "Oh I hope not a young man! Where did
he come from?"

"Oh I don't think he came at all," confided Flame. It was Flame who
was perplexed this time. "He looks to me more like a person who had
always been there! Like something I mean that the dogs found in the
attic! Quite crumpled he is! And with a red waistcoat!--A--A butler
perhaps?--A--A sort of a second hand butler? Oh Mother!--I wish we had
a butler!"

"Flame--?" interrupted her Mother quite abruptly. "Where are you doing
all this telephoning from? I only gave you eighteen cents and it was
to buy cereal with."

"Cereal?" considered Flame. "Oh that's all right," she glowed
suddenly. "I've paid cash for the telephoning and charged the cereal."

With a swallow faintly guttural Flame's Mother hung up the receiver.
"Dogs--do--not--have--butlers," she persisted unshakenly.

She was perfectly right. They did not, it seemed.

No one was quicker than Flame to acknowledge a mistake. Before five
o'clock Flame had added a telephone item to the cereal bill.

"Oh--Mother," questioned Flame. "The little red sweater and Tam that I
have on?--Would they be all right, do you think, for me to make a call in?
Not a formal call, of course,--just a--a neighborly greeting at the door?
It being Christmas Eve and everything!--And as long as I have to pass
right by the house anyway?--There is a lady at the Rattle-Pane House!
A--A--what Father would call a Lady Maiden!--Miss--"

"Oh not a real lady, I think," protested her Mother. "Not with all
those dogs. No real lady I think would have so many dogs.--It--It
isn't sanitary."

"Isn't--sanitary?" cried Flame. "Why Mother, they are the most
absolutely--perfectly sanitary dogs you ever saw in your life!" Into
her eager young voice an expression of ineffable dignity shot
suddenly. "Well--really, Mother," she said, "In whatever concerns men
or crocheting--I'm perfectly willing to take Father's advice or yours.
But after all, I'm eighteen," stiffened the young voice. "And when it
comes to dogs--I must use my own judgment!"

"And just what is the lady's name?" questioned her Mother a bit
weakly.

"Her name is 'Miss Flora'!" brightened Flame. "The Butler has just
gone to the Station to meet her! I heard him telephoning quite
frenziedly! I think she must have missed her train or something! It
seemed to make everybody very nervous! Maybe _she's_ nervous! Maybe
she's a nervous invalid! With a lost Lover somewhere! And all sorts of
pressed flowers!--Somebody ought to call anyway! Call right away, I
mean, before she gets any more nervous!--So many people's first
impressions of a place--I've heard--are spoiled for lack of some
perfectly silly little thing like a nutmeg grater or a hot water
bottle! And oh, Mother, it's been so long since any one lived in the
Rattle-Pane House! Not for years and years and years! Not dogs,
anyway! Not a lemon and white wolf hound! Not setters! Not spotty
dogs!--Oh Mother, just one little wee single minute at the door? Just
long enough to say 'The Rev. and Mrs. Flamande Nourice, and Miss
Nourice, present their compliments!'--And are you by any chance short
a marrow-bone? Or would you possibly care to borrow an extra quilt to
rug-up under the kitchen table?... Blunder-Blot doesn't look very
thick. Or--Oh Mother, _p-l-e-a-s-e!_"

When Flame said "Please" like that the word was no more, no less, than
the fabled bundle of rags or haunch of venison hurled back from a
wolf-pursued sleigh to divert the pursuer even temporarily from the
main issue. While Flame's Mother paused to consider the particularly
flavorous sweetness of that entreaty,--to picture the flashing eye,
the pulsing throat, the absurdly crinkled nostril that invariably
accompanied all Flame's entreaties, Flame herself was escaping!

Taken all in all, escaping was one of the best things that Flame
did.... As well as the most becoming! Whipped into scarlet by the
sudden plunge from a stove-heated store into the frosty night her
young cheeks fairly blazed their bright reaction. Frost and speed
quickened her breath. Glint for glint her shining eyes challenged the
moon. Fearful even yet that some tardy admonition might overtake her
she sped like a deer through the darkness.

It was a dull-smelling night. Pretty, but very dull-smelling.
Disdainfully her nostrils crinkled their disappointment.

"Christmas Time adventures ought to smell like Christmas!" she
scolded. "Maybe if I'm ever President," she argued, "I won't do so
awfully well with the Tariff or things like that! But Christmas shall
smell of Christmas! Not just of frozen mud! And camphor balls!... I'll
have great vats of Fir Balsam essence at every street corner! And
gigantic atomizers! And every passerby shall be sprayed! And stores!
And churches! And--And everybody who doesn't like Christmas shall be
_dipped_!"

Under her feet the smoothish village road turned suddenly into the
harsh and hobbly ruts of a country lane. With fluctuant blackness
against immutable blackness great sweeping pine trees swished weirdly
into the horizon. Where the hobbly lane curved darkly into a meadow
through a snarl of winter-stricken willows the rattle of a loose
window-pane smote quite distinctly on the ear. It was a horrid,
deserted sound. And with the instinctive habit of years Flame's little
hand clutched at her heart. Then quite abruptly she laughed aloud.

"Oh you can't scare me any more, you gloomy old Rattle-Pane House!"
she laughed. "You're not deserted now! People are Christmasing in you!
Whether you like it or not you're being Christmased!"

Very tentatively she puckered her lips to a whistle. Almost instantly
from the darkness ahead a dog's bark rang out, deep, sonorous, faintly
suspicious. With a little chuckle of joy she crawled through the
Barberry hedge and emerged for a single instant only at her full
height before three furry shapes came hurtling out of the darkness
and toppled her over backwards.

"Stop, Beautiful-Lovely!" she gasped. "Stop, Lopsy! Behave yourself,
Blunder-Blot! _Sillies_! Don't you know I'm the lady that was talking
to you this morning through the picket fence? Don't you know I'm the
lady that fed you the box of cereal?--Oh dear--Oh dear--Oh dear," she
struggled. "I knew, of course, that there were three dogs--but who
ever in the world would have guessed that three could be so many?"

As expeditiously as possible she picked herself up and bolted for the
house with two furry shapes leaping largely on either side of her and
one cold nose sniffing interrogatively at her heels. Her heart was
very light,--her pulses jumping with excitement,--an occasional furry
head doming into the palm of her hand warmed the whole bleak night
with its sense of mute companionship. But the back of her heels felt
certainly very queer. Even the warm yellow lights of the Rattle-Pane
House did not altogether dispel her uneasiness.

"Maybe I'd better not plan to make my call so--so very informal," she
decided suddenly. "Not at a house where there are quite so many dogs!
Not at a house where there is a butler ... anyway!"

Crowding and pushing and yelping and fawning around her, it was the
dogs who announced her ultimate arrival. Like a drift of snow the huge
wolf-hound whirled his white shagginess into the vestibule. Shrill as
a banging blind the impetuous coach-dog lurched his sleek weight
against the door. Sucking at a crack of light the red setter's kindled
nose glowed and snorted with dragonlike ferocity. Without knock or
ring the door-handle creaked and turned, three ecstatic shapes went
hurtling through a yellow glare into the hall beyond, and Flame found
herself staring up into the blinking, astonished eyes of the crumpled
old man with the red waistcoat.

"G--Good evening,--Butler!" she rallied.

"Good evening, Miss!" stammered the Butler.

"I've--I've come to call," confided Flame.

"To--call?" stammered the Butler.

"Yes," conceded Flame. "I--I don't happen to have an engraved card
with me." Before the continued imperturbability of the old Butler all
subterfuge seemed suddenly quite useless. "I _never_ have had an
engraved card," she confided quite abruptly. "But you might tell Miss
Flora if you please--" ... Would nothing crack the Butler's
imperturbability?... Well maybe she could prove just a little bit
imperturbable herself! "Oh! Butlers don't 'tell' people things, do
they?... They always 'announce' things, don't they?... Well, kindly
announce to Miss Flora that the--the Minister's Daughter is--at the
door!... Oh, _no_! It isn't asking for a subscription or anything!"
she hastened quite suddenly to explain. "It's just a Christian
call!... B--Being so nervous and lost on the train and everything ...
we thought Miss Flora might be glad to know that there were
neighbors.... We live so near and everything.... And can run like the
wind! Oh, not Mother, of course!... She's a bit stout! And Father
starts all right but usually gets thinking of something else! But
I...? Kindly announce to Miss Flora," she repeated with palpable
crispness, "that the Minister's Daughter is at the door!"

Fixedly old, fixedly crumpled, fixedly imperturbable, the Butler
stepped back a single jerky pace and bowed her towards the parlor.

"Now," thrilled Flame, "the adventure really begins."

It certainly was a sad and romantic looking parlor, and strangely
furnished, Flame thought, for even "moving times." Through a maze of
bulging packing boxes and barrels she picked her way to a faded
rose-colored chair that flanked the fire-place. That the chair was
already half occupied by a pile of ancient books and four dusty garden
trowels only served to intensify the general air of gloom. Presiding
over all, two dreadful bouquets of long-dead grasses flared wanly on
the mantle-piece. And from the tattered old landscape paper on the
walls Civil War heroes stared regretfully down through pale and
tarnished frames.

"Dear me ... dear me," shivered Flame. "They're not going to Christmas
at all ... evidently! Not a sprig of holly anywhere! Not a ravel of
tinsel! Not a jingle bell!... Oh she must have lost a lot of lovers,"
thrilled Flame. "I can bring her flowers, anyway! My very first Paper
White Narcissus! My--."

With a scrape of the foot the Butler made known his return.

"Miss Flora!" he announced.

With a catch of her breath Flame jumped to her feet and turned to
greet the biggest, ugliest, most brindled, most wizened Bull Dog she
had ever seen in her life.

"_Miss Flora!_" repeated the old Butler succinctly.

"Miss Flora?" gasped Flame. "Why.... Why, I thought Miss Flora was a
Lady! Why--"

"Miss Flora is indeed a very grand lady, Miss!" affirmed the Butler
without a flicker of expression. "Of a pedigree so famous ... so
distinguished ... so ..." Numerically on his fingers he began to count
the distinctions. "Five prizes this year! And three last! Do you mind
the chop?" he gloated. "The breadth! The depth!... Did you never hear
of alauntes?" he demanded. "Them bull-baiting dogs that was invented
by the second Duke of York or thereabouts in the year 1406?"

"Oh my Glory!" thrilled Flame. "Is Miss Flora as old as _that_?"

"Miss Flora," said the old Butler with some dignity, "is young--hardly
two in fact--so young that she seems to me but just weaned."

With her great eyes goggled to a particularly disconcerting sort of
scrutiny Miss Flora sprang suddenly forward to investigate the
visitor.

As though by a preconcerted signal a chair crashed over in the hall
and the wolf hound and the setter and the coach dog came hurtling back
in a furiously cordial onslaught. With wags and growls and yelps of
joy all four dogs met in Flame's lap.

"They seem to like me, don't they?" triumphed Flame. Intermittently
through the melee of flapping ears,--shoving shoulders,--waving paws,
her beaming little face proved the absolute sincerity of that triumph.
"Mother's never let me have any dogs," she confided. "Mother thinks
they're not--Oh, of course, I realize that four dogs is a--a good
many," she hastened diplomatically to concede to a certain sudden
droop around the old Butler's mouth corners.

From his slow, stooping poke of the sulky fire the old Butler glanced
up with a certain plaintive intentness.

"All dogs is too many," he affirmed.

"Come Christmas time I wishes I was dead."

"Wish you were dead ... at Christmas Time?" cried Flame. Acute shock
was in her protest.

"It's the feedin'," sighed the old Butler. "It ain't that I mind
eatin' with them on All Saints' Day or Fourth of July or even Sundays.
But come Christmas Time it seems like I craves to eat with More
Humans.... I got a nephew less'n twenty miles away. He's got cider in
his cellar. And plum puddings. His woman she raises guinea chickens.
And mince pies there is. And tasty gravies.--But me I mixes dog bread
and milk--dog bread and milk--till I can't see nothing--think nothing
but mush. And him with cider in his cellar!... It ain't as though Mr.
Delcote ever came himself to prove anything," he argued. "Not he! Not
Christmas Time! It's travelling he is.... He's had ... misfortunes,"
he confided darkly. "He travels for 'em same as some folks travels for
their healths. Most especially at Christmas Time he travels for his
misfortunes! He ..."

"_Mr. Delcote_?" quickened Flame. "Mr. Delcote?" (Now at last was the
mysterious tenancy about to be divulged?)

"All he says," persisted the old Butler. "All he says is 'Now
Barret,'--that's me, 'Now Barret I trust your honor to see that the
dogs ain't neglected just because it's Christmas. There ain't no
reason, Barret', he says, 'why innocent dogs should suffer Christmas
just because everybody else does. They ain't done nothing.... It won't
do now Barret', he says, 'for you to give 'em their dinner at dawn
when they ain't accustomed to it, and a pail of water, and shut 'em up
while you go off for the day with any barrel of cider. You know what
dogs is, Barret', he says. 'And what they isn't. They've got to be fed
regular', he says, 'and with discipline. Else there's deaths.--Some
natural. Some unnatural. And some just plain spectacular from
furniture falling on their arguments. So if there's any fatalities
come this Christmas Time, Barret', he says, 'or any undue gains in
weight or losses in weight, I shall infer, Barret', he says, 'that you
was absent without leave.' ... It don't look like a very wholesome
Christmas for me," sighed the old Butler. "Not either way. Not what
you'd call wholesome."

"But this Mr. Delcote?" puzzled Flame. "What a perfectly horrid man
he must be to give such heavenly dogs nothing but dog-bread and milk
for their Christmas dinner!... Is he young? Is he old? Is he thin? Is
he fat? However in the world did he happen to come to a queer,
battered old place like the Rattle-Pane House? But once come why
didn't he stay? And--And--And--?"

"Yes'm," sighed the old Butler.

In a ferment of curiosity, Flame edged jerkily forward, and subsided
as jerkily again.

"Oh, if this only was a Parish Call," she deprecated, "I could ask
questions right out loud. 'How? Where? Why? When?' ... But being just
a social call--I suppose--I suppose...?" Appealingly her eager eyes
searched the old Butler's inscrutable face.

"Yes'm," repeated the old Butler dully. Through the quavering fingers
that he swept suddenly across his brow two very genuine tears
glistened.

With characteristic precipitousness Flame jumped to her feet.

"Oh, darn Mr. Delcote!" she cried. "I'll feed your dogs, Christmas
Day! It won't take a minute after my own dinner or before! I'll run
like the wind! No one need ever know!"

So it was that when Flame arrived at her own home fifteen minutes
later, and found her parents madly engaged in packing suit-cases,
searching time-tables, and rushing generally to and fro from attic to
cellar, no very mutual exchange of confidences ensued.

"It's your Uncle Wally!" panted her Mother.

"Another shock!" confided her Father.

"Not such a bad one, either," explained her Mother. "But of course
we'll have to go! The very first thing in the morning! Christmas Day,
too! And leave you all alone! It's a perfect shame! But I've planned
it all out for everybody! Father's Lay Reader, of course, will take
the Christmas service! We'll just have to omit the Christmas Tree
surprise for the children!... It's lucky we didn't even unpack the
trimmings! Or tell a soul about it." In a hectic effort to pack both a
thick coat and a thin coat and a thick dress and a thin dress and
thick boots and thin boots in the same suit-case she began very
palpably to pant again. "Yes! Every detail is all planned out!" she
asserted with a breathy sort of pride. "You and your Father are both
so flighty I don't know whatever in the world you'd do if I didn't
plan out everything for you!"

With more manners than efficiency Flame and her Father dropped at once
every helpful thing they were doing and sat down in rocking chairs to
listen to the plan.

"Flame, of course, can't stay here all alone. Flame's Mother turned
and confided _sotto voce_ to her husband. Young men might call. The
Lay Reader is almost sure to call.... He's a dear delightful soul of
course, but I'm afraid he has an amorous eye."

"All Lay Readers have amorous eyes," reflected her husband. "Taken all
in all it is a great asset."

"Don't be flippant!" admonished Flame's Mother. "There are reasons ...
why I prefer that Flame's first offer of marriage should not be from
a Lay Reader."

"Why?" brightened Flame.

"S--sh--," cautioned her Father.

"Very good reasons," repeated her Mother. From the conglomerate
packing under her hand a puff of spilled tooth-powder whiffed
fragrantly into the air.

"Yes?" prodded her husband's blandly impatient voice.

"Flame shall go to her Aunt Minna's" announced the dominant maternal
voice. "By driving with us to the station, she'll have only two hours
to wait for her train, and that will save one bus fare! Aunt Minna is
a vegetarian and doesn't believe in sweets either, so that will be
quite a unique and profitable experience for Flame to add to her
general culinary education! It's a wonderful house!... A bit dark of
course! But if the day should prove at all bright,--not so bright of
course that Aunt Minna wouldn't be willing to have the shades up,
but--Oh and Flame," she admonished still breathlessly, "I think you'd
better be careful to wear one of your rather longish skirts! And oh do
be sure to wipe your feet every time you come in! And don't chatter!
Whatever you do, don't chatter! Your Aunt Minna, you know, is just a
little bit peculiar! But such a worthy woman! So methodical! So...."

To Flame's inner vision appeared quite suddenly the pale, inscrutable
face of the old Butler who asked nothing,--answered nothing,--welcomed
nothing,--evaded nothing.

"... Yes'm," said Flame.

But it was a very frankly disconsolate little girl who stole late that
night to her Father's study, and perched herself high on the arm of
his chair with her cheek snuggled close to his.

"Of Father-Funny," whispered Flame, "I've got such a queer little
pain."

"A pain?" jerked her Father. "Oh dear me! Where is it? Go and find
your Mother at once!"

"Mother?" frowned Flame. "Oh it isn't that kind of a pain.--It's in my
Christmas. I've got such a sad little pain in my Christmas."

"Oh dear me--dear me!" sighed her Father. Like two people most
precipitously smitten with shyness they sat for a moment staring
blankly around the room at every conceivable object except each
other. Then quite suddenly they looked back at each other and smiled.

"Father," said Flame. "You're not of course a very old man.... But
still you are pretty old, aren't you? You've seen a whole lot of
Christmasses, I mean?"

"Yes," conceded her Father.

From the great clumsy rolling collar of her blanket wrapper Flame's
little face loomed suddenly very pink and earnest.

"But Father," urged Flame. "Did you ever in your whole life spend a
Christmas just exactly the way you wanted to? Honest-to-Santa Claus
now,--did you _ever_?"

"Why--Why, no," admitted her Father after a second's hesitation. "Why
no, I don't believe I ever did." Quite frankly between his brows there
puckered a very black frown. "Now take to-morrow, for instance," he
complained. "I had planned to go fishing through the ice.... After the
morning service, of course,--after we'd had our Christmas dinner,--and
gotten tired of our presents,--every intention in the world I had of
going fishing through the ice.... And now your Uncle Wally has to go
and have a shock! I don't believe it was necessary. He should have
taken extra precautions. The least that delicate relatives can do is
to take extra precautions at holiday time.... Oh, of course your Uncle
Wally has books in his library," he brightened, "very interesting old
books that wouldn't be perfectly seemly for a minister of the Gospel
to have in his own library.... But still it's very disappointing," he
wilted again.

"I agree with you ... utterly, Father-Funny!" said Flame. "But ...
Father," she persisted, "Of all the people you know in the
world,--millions would it be?"

"No, call it thousands" corrected her Father.

"Well, thousands," accepted Flame. "Old people, young people, fat
people, skinnys, cross people, jolly people?... Did you ever in your
life know _any one_ who had ever spent Christmas just the way he
wanted to?"

"Why ... no, I don't know that I ever did," considered her Father.
With his elbows on the arms of his chair, his slender fingers forked
to a lovely Gothic arch above the bridge of his nose, he yielded
himself instantly to the reflection. "Why ... no, ... I don't know
that I ever did," he repeated with an increasing air of
conviction.... "When you're young enough to enjoy the day as a
'holler' day there's usually some blighting person who prefers to have
it observed as a holy day.... And by the time you reach an age where
you really rather appreciate its being a holy day the chances are that
you've got a houseful of racketty youngsters who fairly insist on
reverting to the 'holler' day idea again."

"U--m--m," encouraged Flame.

--"When you're little, of course," mused her Father, "you have to
spend the day the way your elders want you to!... You crave a
Christmas Tree but they prefer stockings! You yearn to skate but they
consider the weather better for corn-popping! You ask for a bicycle
but they had already found a very nice bargain in flannels! You beg to
dine the gay-kerchiefed Scissor-Grinder's child, but they invite the
Minister's toothless mother-in-law!... And when you're old enough to
go courting," he sighed, "your lady-love's sentiments are outraged if
you don't spend the day with her and your own family are perfectly
furious if you don't spend the day with them!... And after you're
married?" With a gesture of ultimate despair he sank back into his
cushions. "N--o, no one, I suppose, in the whole world, has ever spent
Christmas just exactly the way he wanted to!"

"Well, I," triumphed Flame, "have got a chance to spend Christmas just
exactly the way I want to!... The one chance perhaps in a life-time,
it would seem!... No heart aches involved, no hurt feelings, no
disappointments for anybody! Nobody left out! Nobody dragged in! Why
Father-Funny," she cried. "It's an experience that might distinguish
me all my life long! Even when I'm very old and crumpled people would
point me out on the street and say '_There's_ some one who once spent
Christmas just exactly the way she wanted to'!" To a limpness almost
unbelievable the eager little figure wilted down within its
blanket-wrapper swathings. "And now ..." deprecated Flame, "Mother has
gone and wished me on Aunt Minna instead!" With a sudden revival of
enthusiasm two small hands crept out of their big cuffs and clutched
her Father by the ears. "Oh Father-Funny!" pleaded Flame. "If you were
too old to want it for a 'holler' day and not quite old enough to
need it for a holy day ... so that all you asked in the world was just
to have it a _holly_ day! Something all bright! Red and green! And
tinsel! and jingle-bells!... How would you like to have Aunt Minna
wished on you?... It isn't you know as though Aunt Minna was a--a
pleasant person," she argued with perfectly indisputable logic. "You
couldn't wish one 'A Merry Aunt Minna' any more than you could wish
'em a 'Merry Good Friday'!" From the clutch on his ears the small
hands crept to a point at the back of his neck where they encompassed
him suddenly in a crunching hug. "Oh Father-Funny!" implored Flame,
"You were a Lay Reader once! You must have had _very_ amorous eyes!
Couldn't you _please_ persuade Mother that..."

With a crisp flutter of skirts Flame's Mother, herself, appeared
abruptly in the door. Her manner was very excited.

"Why wherever in the world have you people been?" she cried. "Are you
stone deaf? Didn't you hear the telephone? Couldn't you even hear me
calling? Your Uncle Wally is worse! That is he's better but he thinks
he's worse! And they want us to come at once! It's something about a
new will! The Lawyer telephoned! He advises us to come at once!
They've sent an automobile for us! It will be here any minute!... But
whatever in the world shall we do about Flame?" she cried
distractedly. "You know how Uncle Wally feels about having young
people in the house! And she can't possibly go to Aunt Minna's till
to-morrow! And...."

"But you see I'm not going to Aunt Minna's!" announced Flame quite
serenely. Slipping down from her Father's lap she stood with a round,
roly-poly flannel sort of dignity confronting both her parents.
"Father says I don't have to!"

"Why, Flame!" protested her Father.

"No, of course, you didn't say it with your mouth," admitted Flame.
"But you said it with your skin and bones!--I could feel it working."

"Not go to your Aunt Minna's?" gasped her Mother. "What do you want to
do?... Stay at home and spend Christmas with the Lay Reader?"

"When you and Father talk like that," murmured Flame with some
hauteur, "I don't know whether you're trying to run him down ... or
run him up."

"Well, how do you feel about him yourself?" veered her Father quite
irrelevantly.

"Oh, I like him--some," conceded Flame. In her bright cheeks suddenly
an even brighter color glowed. "I like him when he leaves out the
Litany," she said. "I've told him I like him when he leaves out the
Litany.--He's leaving it out more and more I notice.--Yes, I like him
very much."

"But this Aunt Minna business," veered back her Father suddenly. "What
_do_ you want to do? That's just the question. What _do_ you want to
do?"

"Yes, what do you want to do?" panted her Mother.

"I want to make a Christmas for myself!" said Flame. "Oh, of course, I
know perfectly well," she agreed, "that I could go to a dozen places
in the Parish and be cry-babied over for my presumable loneliness. And
probably I _should_ cry a little," she wavered, "towards the
dessert--when the plum pudding came in and it wasn't like
Mother's.--But if I made a Christmas of my own--" she rallied
instantly. "Everything about it would be brand-new and unassociated! I
tell you I _want_ to make a Christmas of my own! It's the chance of a
life-time! Even Father sees that it's the chance of a life-time!"

"Do you?" demanded his wife a bit pointedly.

"_Honk-honk!_" screamed the motor at the door.

"Oh, dear me, whatever in the world shall I do?" cried Flame's Mother.
"I'm almost distracted! I'm--"

"When in Doubt do as the Doubters do," suggested Flame's Father quite
genially. "Choose the most doubtful doubt on the docket and--Flame's got
a pretty level head," he interrupted himself very characteristically.

"No young girl has a level heart," asserted Flame's Mother. "I'm so
worried about the Lay Reader."

"Lay Reader?" murmured her Father. Already he had crossed the
threshold into the hall and was rummaging through an over-loaded hat
rack for his fur coat. "Why, yes," he called back, "I quite forgot to
ask. Just what kind of a Christmas is it, Flame, that you want to
make?" With unprecedented accuracy he turned at the moment to force
his wife's arms into the sleeves of her own fur coat.

Twice Flame rolled up her cuffs and rolled them down again before she
answered.

"I--I want to make a Surprise for Miss Flora," she confided.

"_Honk-honk!_" urged the automobile.

"For Miss Flora?" gasped her Mother.

"Miss Flora?" echoed her Father.

"Why, at the Rattle-Pane House, you know!" rallied Flame. "Don't you
remember that I called there this afternoon? It--it looked rather
lonely there.--I--think I could fix it."

"Honk-honk-honk!" implored the automobile.

"But who _is_ this Miss Flora?" cried her Mother. "I never heard
anything so ridiculous in my life! How do we know she's respectable?"

"Oh, my dear," deprecated Flame's Father. "Just as though the owners
of the Rattle-Pane House would rent it to any one who wasn't
respectable!"

"Oh, she's _very_ respectable," insisted Flame. "Of a lineage so
distinguished--"

"How old might this paragon be?" queried her Father.

"Old?" puzzled Flame. To her startled mind two answers only presented
themselves.... Should she say "Oh, she's only just weaned," or
"Well,--she was invented about 1406?" Between these two dilemmas a
single compromise suggested itself. "She's _awfully_ wrinkled," said
Flame; "that is--her face is. All wizened up, I mean."

"Oh, then of course she _must_ be respectable," twinkled Flame's
Father.

"And is related in some way," persisted Flame, "to Edward the
2nd--Duke of York."

"Of that guarantee of respectability I am, of course, not quite so
sure," said her Father.

With a temperish stamping of feet, an infuriate yank of the door-bell,
Uncle Wally's chauffeur announced that the limit of his endurance had
been reached.

Blankly Flame's Mother stared at Flame's Father. Blankly Flame's
Father returned the stare.

"Oh, _p-l-e-a-s-e_!" implored Flame. Her face was crinkled like fine
crêpe.

"Smooth out your nose!" ordered her Mother. On the verge of
capitulation the same familiar fear assailed her. "Will you promise
not to see the Lay Reader?" she bargained.

"--Yes'm," said Flame.



PART II


It's a dull person who doesn't wake up Christmas Morning with a
curiously ticklish sense of Tinsel in the pit of his stomach!--A sort
of a Shine! A kind of a Pain!

    "Glisten and Tears,
    Pang of the years."

That's Christmas!

So much was born on Christmas Day! So much has died! So much is yet to
come! Balsam-Scented, with the pulse of bells, how the senses sing!
Memories that wouldn't have batted an eye for all the Gabriel Trumpets in
Eternity leaping to life at the sound of a twopenny horn! Merry Folk who
were with us once and are no more! Dream Folk who have never been with us
yet but will be some time! Ache of old carols! Zest of new-fangled games!
Flavor of puddings! Shine of silver and glass! The pleasant frosty smell of
the Express-man! The Gift Beautiful! The Gift Dutiful! The Gift that Didn't
Come! _Heigho_! Manger and Toy-Shop,--Miracle and Mirth,--

    "Glisten and Tears,
    LAUGH at the years!"

_That's_ Christmas!

Flame Nourice certainly was willing to laugh at the years. Eighteen
usually is!

Waking at Dawn two single thoughts consumed her,--the Lay Reader, and
the humpiest of the express packages downstairs.

The Lay Reader's name was Bertrand. "Bertrand the Lay Reader," Flame
always called him. The rest of the Parish called him Mr. Laurello.

It was the thought of Bertrand the Lay Reader that made Flame laugh
the most.

"As long as I've promised most faithfully not to see him," she
laughed, "how can I possibly go to church? For the first Christmas in
my life," she laughed, "I won't have to go to church!"

With this obligation so cheerfully canceled, the exploration of the
humpiest express package loomed definitely as the next task on the
horizon.

Hoping for a fur coat from her Father, fearing for a set of
encyclopedias from her Mother, she tore back the wrappings with eager
hands only to find,--all-astonished, and half a-scream,--a gay, gauzy
layer of animal masks nosing interrogatively up at her. Less practical
surely than the fur coat,--more amusing, certainly, than
encyclopedias,--the funny "false faces" grinned up at her with a
curiously excitative audacity. Where from?--No identifying card! What
for? No conceivable clew!--Unless perhaps just on general principles a
donation for the Sunday School Christmas Tree?--But there wasn't going
to be any tree! Tentatively she reached into the box and touched the
fiercely striped face of a tiger, the fantastically exaggerated beak
of a red and green parrot. "U-m-m-m," mused Flame. "Whatever in the
world shall I do with them?" Then quite abruptly she sank back on her
heels and began to laugh and laugh and laugh. Even the Lay Reader had
not received such a laughing But even to herself she did not say just
what she was laughing at. It was a time for deeds, it would seem, and
not for words.

Certainly the morning was very full of deeds!

There was, of course, a present from her Mother to be opened,--warm,
woolly stockings and things like that. But no one was ever swerved
from an original purpose by trying on warm, woolly stockings. And from
her Father there was the most absurd little box no bigger than your
nose marked, "For a week in New York," and stuffed to the brim with
the sweetest bright green dollar bills. But, of course, you couldn't
try those on. And half the Parish sent presents. But no Parish ever
sent presents that needed to be tried on. No gay, fluffy scarfs,--no
lacey, frivolous pettiskirts,--no bright delaying hat-ribbons! Just
books,--illustrated poems usually, very wholesome pickles,--and always
a huge motto to recommend, "Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men."--To
"Men"?--Why not to Women?--Why not at least to "_Dogs_?" questioned
Flame quite abruptly.

Taken all in all it was not a Christmas Morning of sentiment but a
Christmas morning of _works_! Kitchen works, mostly! Useful, flavorous
adventures with a turkey! A somewhat nervous sally with an apple pie!
Intermittently, of course, a few experiments with flour paste! A
flaire or two with a paint brush! An errand to the attic! Interminable
giggles!

Surely it was four o'clock before she was even ready to start for the
Rattle-Pane House. And "starting" is by no means the same as arriving.
Dragging a sledful of miscellaneous Christmas goods an eighth of a
mile over bare ground is not an easy task. She had to make three
tugging trips. And each start was delayed by her big gray pussy cat
stealing out to try to follow her. And each arrival complicated by the
yelpings and leapings and general cavortings of four dogs who didn't
see any reason in the world why they shouldn't escape from their
forced imprisonment in the shed-yard and prance home with her. Even
with the third start and the third arrival finally accomplished, the
crafty cat stood waiting for her on the steps of the Rattle-Pane
House,--back arched, fur bristled, spitting like some new kind of
weather-cock at the storm in the shed-yard, and had to be thrust quite
unceremoniously into a much too small covered basket and lashed down
with yards and yards of tinsel that was needed quite definitely for
something else.--It isn't just the way of the Transgressor that's
hard.--Nobody's way is any too easy!

The door-key, though, was exactly where the old Butler had said it
would be,--under the door mat, and the key itself turned astonishingly
cordially in the rusty old lock. Never in her whole little life having
owned a door-key to her own house it seemed quite an adventure in
itself to be walking thus possessively through an unfamiliar hall
into an absolutely unknown kitchen and goodness knew what on either
side and beyond.

Perfectly simply too as the old Butler had promised, the four dog
dishes, heaping to the brim, loomed in prim line upon the kitchen
table waiting for distribution.

"U-m-m," sniffed Flame. "Nothing but mush! _Mush_!--All over the world
to-day I suppose--while their masters are feasting at other people's
houses on puddings and--and cigarettes! How the poor darlings must
suffer! Locked in sheds! Tied in yards! Stuffed down cellar!"

"Me-o-w," twinged a plaintive hint from the hallway just outside.

"Oh, but cats are different," argued Flame. "So soft, so plushy, so
spineless! Cats were _meant_ to be stuffed into things."

Without further parleying she doffed her red tam and sweater, donned a
huge white all-enveloping pinafore, and started to ameliorate as best
she could the Christmas sufferings of the "poor darlings" immediately
at hand.

It was at least a yellow kitchen,--or had been once. In all that gray,
dank, neglected house, the one suggestion of old sunshine.

"We shall have our dinner here," chuckled Flame. "After the carols--we
shall have our dinner here."

Very boisterously in the yard just outside the window the four dogs
scuffled and raced for sheer excitement and joy at this most
unexpected advent of human companionship. Intermittently from time to
time by the aid of old boxes or barrels they clawed their way up to
the cobwebby window-sill to peer at the strange proceedings.
Intermittently from time to time they fell back into the frozen yard
in a chaos of fur and yelps.

By five o'clock certainly the faded yellow kitchen must have looked
very strange, even to a dog!

Straight down its dingy, wobbly-floored center stretched a long table
cheerfully spread with "the Rev. Mrs. Flamande Nourice's" second best
table cloth. Quaint high-backed chairs dragged in from the shadowy
parlor circled the table. A pleasant china plate gleamed like a
hand-painted moon before each chair. At one end of the table loomed a
big brown turkey; at the other, the appropriate vegetables. Pies,
cakes, and doughnuts, interspersed themselves between. Green wreaths
streaming with scarlet ribbons hung nonchalantly across every
chair-top. Tinsel garlands shone on the walls. In the doorway reared a
hastily constructed mimicry of a railroad crossing sign.

[Illustration]

Directly opposite and conspicuously placed above the rusty stove-pipe
stretched the Parish's Gift Motto--duly re-adjusted.

     "_Peace_ on _Earth_, Good Will to _Dogs_."

"Fatuously silly," admitted Flame even to herself. "But yet it does
add something to the Gayety of Rations!"

Stepping aside for a single thrilling moment to study the full effect
of her handiwork, the first psychological puzzle of her life smote
sharply across her senses. Namely, that you never really get the whole
fun out of anything unless you are absolutely alone.--But the very
first instant you find yourself absolutely alone with a
Really-Good-Time you begin to twist and turn and hunt about for
somebody Very Special to share it with you!

The only "Very Special" person that Flame could think of was "Bertrand
the Lay Reader."

All a-blush with the sheer mental surprise of it she fled to the shed
door to summon the dogs.

"Maybe even the dogs won't come!" she reasoned hectically. "Maybe
nothing will come! Maybe that's always the way things happen when you
get your own way about something else!"

Like a blast from the Arctic the Christmas twilight swept in on her.
It crisped her cheeks,--crinkled her hair! Turned her spine to a wisp
of tinsel! All outdoors seemed suddenly creaking with frost! All
indoors, with _unknownness_!

"Come, Beautiful-Lovely!" she implored. "Come, Lopsy! Miss Flora!
Come, Blunder-Blot!'"

But there was really no need of entreaty. A turn of the door-knob would
have brought them! Leaping, loping, four abreast, they came plunging
like so many North Winds to their party! Streak of Snow,--Glow of
Fire,--Frozen Mud--Sun-Spot!--Yelping-mouthed--slapping-tailed! Backs
bristling! Legs stiffening! Wolf Hound, Setter, Bull Dog,
Dalmatian,--each according to his kind, hurtling, crowding!

"Oh, dear me, dear me," struggled Flame. "Maybe a carol would calm
them."

To a certain extent a carol surely did. The hair-cloth parlor of the
Rattle-Pane House would have calmed anything. And the mousey smell of
the old piano fairly jerked the dogs to its senile old ivory keyboard.
Cocking their ears to its quavering treble notes,--snorting their
nostrils through its gritty guttural basses, they watched Flame's
facile fingers sweep from sound to sound.

"Oh, what a--glorious lark!" quivered Flame. "What a--a _lonely_
glorious lark!"

Timidly at first but with an increasing abandon, half laughter and
half tears, the clear young soprano voice took up its playful
paraphrase,

    "God rest you merrie--animals!
    Let nothing you dismay!"

caroled Flame.

     "For--"

It was just at this moment that Beautiful-Lovely, the Wolf
Hound,--muzzled lifted, eyes rolling, jabbed his shrill nose into
space and harmony with a carol of his own,--octaves of agony,--Heaven
knows what of ecstasy,--that would have hurried an owl to its nest, a
ghoul to a moving picture show!

"Wow-Wow--_Wow_!" caroled Beautiful-Lovely.
"Ww--ow--Ww--ow--_Ww--Oo--Wwwww_!"

As Flame's hands dropped from the piano the unmistakable creak of red
wheels sounded on the frozen driveway just outside.

No one but "Bertrand the Lay Reader" drove a buggy with red wheels! To
the infinite scandalization of the Parish--no one but "Bertrand the
Lay Reader" drove a buggy with red wheels!--Fleet steps sounded
suddenly on the path! Startled fists beat furiously on the door!

"What is it? What is it?" shouted a familiar voice. "Whatever in the
world is happening? Is it _murder_? Let me in! _Let me in!_"

"Sil--ly!" hissed Flame through a crack in the door. "It's nothing but
a party! Don't you know a--a party when you hear it?"

For an instant only, blank silence greeted her confidence. Then
"Bertrand the Lay Reader" relaxed in an indisputably genuine gasp of
astonishment.

"Why! Why, is that you, Miss Flame?" he gasped. "Why, I thought it was
a murder! Why--Why, whatever in the world are you doing here?"

"I--I'm having a party," hissed Flame through the key-hole.

"A--a--party?" stammered the Lay Reader. "Open the door!"

"No, I--can't," said Flame.

"Why not?" demanded the Lay Reader.

Helplessly in the darkness of the vestibule Flame looked up,--and
down,--and sideways,--but met always in every direction the memory of
her promise.

"I--I just can't," she admitted a bit weakly. "It wouldn't be
convenient.--I--I've got trouble with my eyes."

"Trouble with your eyes?" questioned the Lay Reader.

"I didn't go away with my Father and Mother," confided Flame.

"No,--so I notice," observed the Lay Reader. "_Please_ open the door!"

"Why?" parried Flame.

"I've been looking for you everywhere," urged the Lay Reader. "At the
Senior Warden's! At all the Vestrymen's houses! Even at the Sexton's!
I knew you didn't go away! The Garage Man told me there were only
two!--I thought surely I'd find you at your own house.--But I only
found sled tracks."

"That was me,--I," mumbled Flame.

"And then I heard these awful screams," shuddered the Lay Reader.

"That was a Carol," said Flame.

"A Carol?" scoffed the Lay Reader. "Open the door!"

"Well--just a crack," conceded Flame.

It was astonishing how a man as broad-shouldered as the Lay Reader
could pass so easily through a crack.

Conscience-stricken Flame fled before him with her elbow crooked
across her forehead.

"Oh, my eyes! My eyes!" she cried.

"Well, really," puzzled the Lay Reader. "Though I claim, of course, to
be ordinarily bright--I had never suspected myself of being actually
dazzling."

"Oh, you're not bright at all," protested Flame. "It's just my
promise.--I promised Mother not to see you!"

"Not to see _me_?" questioned the Lay Reader. It was astonishing how
almost instantaneously a man as purely theoretical as the Lay Reader
was supposed to be, thought of a perfectly practical solution to the
difficulty. "Why--why we might tie my big handkerchief across your
eyes," he suggested. "Just till we get this mystery straightened
out.--Surely there is nothing more or less than just plain
righteousness in--that!"

"What a splendid idea!" capitulated Flame. "But, of course, if I'm
absolutely blindfolded," she wavered for a second only, "you'll have
to lead me by the hand."

"I could do that," admitted the Lay Reader.

With the big white handkerchief once tied firmly across her eyes,
Flame's last scruple vanished.

"Well, you see," she began quite precipitously, "I _did_ think it
would be such fun to have a party!--A party all my own, I mean!--A
party just exactly as I wanted it! No Parish in it at all! Or good
works! Or anything! Just _fun_!--And as long as Mother and Father had
to go away anyway--" Even though the blinding bandage the young eyes
seemed to lift in a half wistful sort of appeal. "You see there's some
sort of property involved," she confided quite impulsively. "Uncle
Wally's making a new will. There's a corn-barn and a private chapel
and a collection of Chinese lanterns and a piebald pony principally
under dispute.--Mother, of course thinks we ought to have the
corn-barn. But Father can't decide between the Chinese lanterns and
the private chapel.--Personally," she sighed, "I'm hoping for the
piebald pony."

"Yes, but this--party?" prodded the Lay Reader.

"Oh, yes,--the party--" quickened Flame.

"Why have it in a deserted house?" questioned the Lay Reader with some
incisiveness.

Even with her eyes closely bandaged Flame could see perfectly clearly
that the Lay Reader was really quite troubled.

"Oh, but you see it isn't exactly a deserted house," she explained.

"Who lives here?" demanded the Lay Reader.

"I don't know--exactly," admitted Flame. "But the Butler is a friend
of mine and--"

"The--Butler is a friend of yours?" gasped the Lay Reader. Already, if
Flame could only have seen it, his head was cocked with sudden
intentness towards the parlor door. "There is certainly something very
strange about all this," he whispered a bit hectically. "I could
almost have sworn that I heard a faint scuffle,--the horrid sound of a
person--strangling."

"Strangling?" giggled Flame. "Oh, that is just the sound of Miss
Flora's 'girlish glee'! If she'd only be content to chew the corner of
the piano cover! But when she insists on inhaling it, too!"

"Miss Flora?" gasped the Lay Reader. "Is this a Mad House?"

"Miss Flora is a--a dog," confided Flame a bit coolly. "I
neglected--it seems--to state that this is a dog-party that I'm
having."

"_Dogs_?" winced the Lay Reader. "Will they bite?"

"Only if you don't trust them," confided Flame.

"But it's so hard to trust a dog that will bite you if you don't trust
him," frowned the Lay Reader. "It makes such a sort of a--a vicious
circle, as it were."

"Vicious Circe?" mused Flame, a bit absent-mindedly. "No, I don't
think it's nice at all to call Miss Flora a 'Vicious Circe.'" It was
Flame's turn now to wince back a little. "I--I hate people who hate
dogs!" she cried out quite abruptly.

"Oh, I don't hate them," lied the Lay Reader like a gentleman, "it's
only that--that--. You see a dog bit me once!" he confided with
significant emphasis.

"I--bit a dentist--once," mused Flame without any emphasis at all.

"Oh, but I say, Miss Flame," deprecated the Lay Reader. "That's
different! When a dog bites you, you know, there's always more or less
question whether he was mad or not."

"There doesn't seem to have been any question at all," mused Flame,
"that _you_ were mad! Did you have _your_ head sent off to be
investigated or anything?"

"Oh, I say, Miss Flame," implored the Lay Reader, "I tell you I _like_
dogs,--good dogs! I assure you I'm very--oh, very much interested in
this dog party of yours! Such a quaint idea! So--so--! If I could be
of any possible assistance?" he implored.

"Maybe you could be," relaxed Flame ever so faintly. "But if you're
really coming to my party," she stiffened again, "you've got to behave
like my party!"

"Why, of course I'll behave like your party!" laughed the Lay Reader.

"There _is_ a problem," admitted Flame. "Five problems, to be
perfectly accurate.--Four dogs, and a cat in the wood-shed."

"And a cat in the wood-shed?" echoed the Lay Reader quite idiotically.

"The table is set," affirmed Flame. "The places, all ready!--But I
don't know how to get the dogs into their chairs!--They run around so!
They yelp! They jump!--They haven't had a mouthful to eat, you see,
since last night, this time!--And when they once see the turkey
I'm--I'm afraid they'll stampede it."

"Turkey?" quizzed the Lay Reader who had dined that day on corned
beef.

"Oh, of course, mush was what they were intended to have," admitted
Flame. "Piles and piles of mush! Extra piles and piles of mush I
should judge because it was Christmas Day!... But don't you think mush
does seem a bit dull?" she questioned appealingly. "For Christmas
Day? Oh, I did think a turkey would taste so good!"

"It certainly would," conceded the Lay Reader.

"So if you'd help me--" wheedled Flame, "it would be well-worth
staying blindfolded for.... For, of course, I shall have to stay
blindfolded. But I can see a little of the floor," she admitted,
"though I couldn't of course break my promise to my Mother by seeing
you."

"No, certainly not," admitted the Lay Reader.

"Otherwise--" murmured Flame with a faint gesture towards the door.

"I will help you," said the Lay Reader.

"Where is your hand?" fumbled Flame.

"_Here_!" attested the Lay Reader.

"Lead us to the dogs!" commanded Flame.

Now the Captain of a ship feels genuinely obligated, it would seem, to
go down with his ship if tragic circumstances so insist. But he
never,--so far as I've ever heard, felt the slightest obligation
whatsoever to go down with another captain's ship,--to be martyred in
short for any job not distinctly his own. So Bertrand Lorello,--who
for the cause he served, wouldn't have hesitated an instant probably,
to be torn by Hindoo lions,--devoured by South Sea cannibals,--fallen
upon by a chapel spire,--trampled to death even at a church rummage
sale,--saw no conceivable reason at the moment for being eaten by dogs
at a purely social function.

Even groping through a balsam-scented darkness with one hand clasping
the thrilly fingers of a lovely young girl, this distaste did not
altogether leave him.

"This--this mush that you speak of?" he questioned quite abruptly.
"With the dogs as--as nervous as you say,--so unfortunately liable to
stampede? Don't you think that perhaps a little mush served first,--a
good deal of mush I would say, served first,--might act as a--as a
sort of anesthetic?... Somewhere in the past I am almost sure I have
read that mush in sufficient quantities, you understand, is really
quite a--quite an anesthetic."

Very palpably in the darkness he heard a single throaty swallow.

"Lead us to the--mush," said Flame.

In another instant the door-knob turned in his hand, and the cheerful
kitchen lamp-light,--glitter of tinsel,--flare of red ribbons,--savor
of foods, smote sharply on him.

"Oh, I say, how _jolly_!" cried the Lay Reader.

"Don't let me bump into anything!" begged the blindfolded Flame, still
holding tight to his hand.

"Oh, I say, Miss Flame," kindled the entranced Lay Reader, "it's _you_
that look the jolliest! All in white that way! I've never seen you
wear _that_ to church, have I?"

"This is a pinafore," confided Flame coolly. "A bungalow apron, the
fashion papers call it.... No, you've never seen me wear--this to
church."

"O--h," said the Lay Reader.

"Get the mush," said Flame.

"The what?" asked the Lay Reader.

"It's there on the table by the window," gestured Flame. "Please set
all four dishes on the floor,--each dish, of course, in a separate
corner," ordered Flame. "There is a reason.... And then open the
parlor door."

"Open the parlor door?" questioned the Lay Reader. It was no mere
grammatical form of speech but a real query in the Lay Reader's mind.

"Well, maybe I'd better," conceded Flame. "Lead me to it."

Roused into frenzy by the sound of a stranger's step, a stranger's
voice, the four dogs fumed and seethed on the other side of the panel.

"Sniff--Sniff--_Snort_!" the Red Setter sucked at the crack in the
door.

"Woof! Woof! _Woof_!" roared the big Wolf Hound.

"Slam! Bang! Slash!" slapped the Dalmatian's crisp weight.

"Yi! Yi! Yi!" sang the Bull Dog.

"Hush! _Hush_, Dogs!" implored Flame. "This is Father's Lay Reader!"

"Your--Lay Reader!" contradicted the young man gallantly. It _was_
pretty gallant of him, wasn't it? Considering everything?

In another instant four _shapes_ with teeth in them came hurtling
through!

If Flame had never in her life admired the Lay Reader she certainly
would have admired him now for the sheer cold-blooded foresight which
had presaged the inevitable reaction of the dogs upon the mush and the
mush upon the dogs. With a single sniff at his heels, a prod of paws
in his stomach, the onslaught swerved--and passed. Guzzlingly from
four separate corners of the room issued sounds of joy and
fulfillment.

With an impulse quite surprising even to herself Flame thrust both
hands into the Lay Reader's clasp.

"You _are_ nice, aren't you?" she quickened. In an instant of weakness
one hand crept up to the blinding bandage, and recovered its honor as
instantly. "Oh, I do wish I _could_ see you," sighed Flame. "You're so
good-looking! Even Mother thinks you're _so_ good-looking!... Though
she does get awfully worked up, of course, about your 'amorous eyes'!"

"Does your Mother think I've got ... 'amorous eyes'?" asked the Lay
Reader a bit tersely. Behind his spectacles as he spoke the orbs in
question softened and glowed like some rare exotic bloom under glass.
"Does your Mother ... think I've got amorous eyes?"

"Oh, yes!" said Flame.

"And your Father?" drawled the Lay Reader.

"Why, Father says _of course_ you've got 'amorous eyes'!" confided
Flame with the faintest possible tinge of surprise at even being asked
such a question. "That's the funny thing about Mother and Father,"
chuckled Flame. "They're always saying the same thing and meaning
something entirely different by it. Why, when Mother says with her
mouth all pursed up, 'I have every reason to believe that Mr. Lorello
is engaged to the daughter of the Rector in his former Parish,' Father
just puts back his head and howls, and says, 'Why, _of course_, Mr.
Lorello is engaged to the daughter of the Rector in his former Parish!
All Lay Readers...."

In the sudden hush that ensued a faint sense of uneasiness flickered
through Flame's shoulders.

"Is it you that have hushed? Or the dogs?" she asked.

"The dogs," said the Lay Reader.

Very cautiously, absolutely honorably, Flame turned her back to the
Lay Reader, and lifted the bandage just far enough to prove the Lay
Reader's assertion.

Bulging with mush the four dogs lay at rest on rounding sides with
limp legs straggling, or crouched like lions' heads on paws, with
limpid eyes blinking above yawny mouths.

"O--h," crooned Flame. "How sweet! Only, of course, with what's to
follow," she regretted thriftily, "it's an awful waste of mush....
Excelsior warmed in the oven would have served just as well."

At the threat of a shadow across her eyeball she jerked the bandage
back into place.

"Now, Mr. Lorello," she suggested blithely, "if you'll get the
Bibles...."

"Bibles?" stiffened the Lay Reader. "Bibles? Why, really, Miss Flame,
I couldn't countenance any sort of mock service! Even just for--for
quaintness,--even for Christmas quaintness!"

"Mock service?" puzzled Flame. "Bibles?... Oh, I don't want you to
preach out of 'em," she hastened perfectly amiably to explain. "All I
want them for is to plump-up the chairs.... The seats you see are too
low for the dogs.... Oh, I suppose dictionaries would do," she
compromised reluctantly. "Only dictionaries are always so scarce."

Obediently the Lay Reader raked the parlor book-cases for
"plump-upable" books. With real dexterity he built Chemistries on
Sermons and Ancient Poems on Cook Books till the desired heights were
reached.

For a single minute more Flame took another peep at the table.

"Set a chair for yourself directly opposite me!" she ordered. For
sheer hilarious satisfaction her feet began to dance and her hands to
clap. "And whenever I really feel obliged to look," she sparkled,
"you'll just have to leave the table, that's all!... And now...?"
Appraisingly her muffled eye swept the shining vista. "Perfect!" she
triumphed. "Perfect!" Then quite abruptly the eager mouth wilted.
"Why ... Why I've forgotten the carving knife and fork!" she cried out
in real distress. "Oh, how stupid of me!" Arduously, but without
avail, she searched through all the drawers and cupboards of the
Rattle-Pane kitchen. A single alternative occurred to her. "You'll
have to go over to my house and get them,--Mr. Lorello!" she said.
"Were you ever in my kitchen? Or my pantry?"

"No," admitted the Lay Reader.

"Well, you'll have to climb in through the window--someway," worried
Flame. "I've mislaid my key somewhere here among all these dishes and
boxes. And the pantry," she explained very explicitly, "is the third
door on the right as you enter.... You'll see a chest of drawers.
Open the second of 'em.... Or maybe you'd better look through all of
them.... Only please ... please hurry!" Imploringly the little head
lifted.

"If I hurry enough," said the Lay Reader quite impulsively, "may I
have a kiss when I get back?"

"A kiss?" hooted Flame. In the curve of her cheek a dimple opened
suddenly. "Well ... maybe," said Flame.

As though the word were wings the Lay Reader snatched his hat and sped
out into the night.

It was astonishing how all the warm housey air seemed to rush out with
him, and all the shivery frost rush back.

A little bit listlessly Flame dragged down the bandage from her eyes.

"It must be the creaks on the stairs that make it so awfully lonely
all of a sudden," argued Flame. "It must be because the dogs snore
so.... No mere man could make it so empty." With a precipitous nudge
of the memory she dashed to the door and helloed to the fast
retreating figure. "Oh, Bertrand! Bertrand!" she called, "I got sort
of mixed up. It's the second door on the left! And if you don't find
'em there you'd better go up in Mother's room and turn out the silver
chest! _Hurry_!"

Rallying back to the bright Christmas kitchen for the real business at
hand, an accusing blush rose to the young spot where the dimple had
been.

"Oh, Shucks!" parried Flame. "I kissed a Bishop before I was
five!--What's a Lay Reader?" As one humanely willing to condone the
future as well as the past she rolled up her white sleeves without
further introspection, and dragged out from the protecting shadow of
the sink the "humpiest box" which had so excited her emotions at home
in an earlier hour of the day. Cracklingly under her eager fingers the
clumsy cover slid off, exposing once more to her enraptured gaze the
gay-colored muslin layer of animal masks leering fatuously up at her.

Only with her hand across her mouth did she keep from crying out. Very
swiftly her glance traveled from the grinning muslin faces before her
to the solemn fur faces on the other side of the room. The hand across
her mouth tightened.

"Why, it's something like Creation," she giggled. "This having to
decide which face to give to which animal!"

As expeditiously as possible she made her selection.

"Poor Miss Flora must be so tired of being so plain," she thought.
"I'll give her the first choice of everything! Something really
lovely! It can't help resting her!"

With this kind idea in mind she selected for Miss Flora a canary's
face.--Softly yellow! Bland as treacle! Its swelling, tender muslin
throat fairly reeking with the suggestion of innocent song! No one
gazing once upon such ornithological purity would ever speak a harsh
word again, even to a sparrow!

Nudging Miss Flora cautiously from her sonorous nap, Flame beguiled
her with half a doughnut to her appointed chair, boosted her still
cautiously to her pinnacle of books, and with various swift
adjustments of fasteners, knotting of tie-strings,--an extra breathing
hole jabbed through the beak, slipped the canary's beautiful blond
countenance over Miss Flora's frankly grizzled mug.

For a single terrifying instant Miss Flora's crinkled sides
tightened,--a snarl like ripped silk slipped through her straining
lungs. Then once convinced that the mask was not a gas-box she
accepted the liberty with reasonable _sang-froid_ and sat blinking
beadily out through the canary's yellow-rimmed eye-sockets with frank
curiosity towards such proceedings as were about to follow. It was
easy to see she was accustomed to sitting in chairs.

For the Wolf Hound Flame chose a Giraffe's head. Certain anatomical
similarities seemed to make the choice wise. With a long vividly
striped stockinet neck wrinkling like a mousquetaire glove, the neat
small head that so closely fitted his own neat small head, the
tweaked, interrogative ears,--Beautiful-Lovely, the Wolf Hound, reared
up majestically in his own chair. He also, once convinced that the
mask was not a gas-box, resigned himself to the inevitable, and
corporeally independent of such vain props as Chemistries or Sermons,
lolled his fine height against the mahogany chair-back.

To Blunder-Blot, the trim Dalmatian, Flame assigned the Parrot's head,
arrogantly beaked, gorgeously variegated, altogether querulous.

For Lopsy, the crafty Setter, she selected a White Rabbit's artless,
pink-eared visage.

Yet out of the whole box of masks it had been the Bengal Tiger's
fiercely bewhiskered visage that had fascinated Flame the most.
Regretfully from its more or less nondescript companions, she picked
up the Bengal Tiger now and pulled at its real, bristle-whiskers. In
one of the chairs a dog stirred quite irrelevantly. Cocking her own
head towards the wood-shed Flame could not be perfectly sure whether
she heard a twinge of cat or a twinge of conscience. The unflinching
glare of the Bengal Tiger only served to increase her self-reproach.

"After all," reasoned Flame, "it would be easy enough to set another
place! And pile a few extra books!... I'm almost sure I saw a black
plush bag in the parlor.... If the cat could be put in something like
a black plush bag,--something perfectly enveloping like that? So that
not a single line of its--its figure could be observed?... And it had
a new head given it? A perfectly sufficient head--like a Bengal
Tiger?--I see no reason why--"

In five minutes the deed was accomplished. Its lovely sinuous "figure"
reduced to the stolid contour of a black plush work-bag, its small
uneasy head thrust into the roomy muslin cranium of the Bengal Tiger,
the astonished Cat found herself slumping soggily on a great teetering
pile of books, staring down as best she might through the Bengal
Tiger's ear at the weirdest assemblage of animals which any domestic
cat of her acquaintance had ever been forced to contemplate.

Coincidental with the appearance of the Cat a faint thrill passed
through the rest of the company.... Nothing very much! No more, no
less indeed, than passes through any company at the introduction of
purely extraneous matter. From the empty plate which she had
commandeered as a temporary pillow the Yellow Canary lifted an
interrogative beak.... That was all! At Flame's left, the White-Haired
Rabbit emitted an incongruous bark.... Scarcely worth reporting!
Across the table the Giraffe thumped a white, plumy tail. Thoughtfully
the Parrot's hooked nose slanted slightly to one side.

"Oh, I wish Bertrand would come!" fretted Flame. "Maybe this time
he'll notice my 'Christmas Crossing' sign!" she chuckled with sudden
triumph. "Talk about surprises!" Very diplomatically as she spoke she
broke another doughnut in two and drew all the dogs' attention to
herself. Almost hysterical with amusement she surveyed the scene
before her. "Well, at least we can have 'grace' before the Preacher
comes!" she laughed. A step on the gravel walk startled her suddenly.
In a flash she had jerked down the blind-folding handkerchief across
her eyes again, and folding her hands and the doughnut before her
burst softly into paraphrase.

    'Now we--sit us down to eat
    Thrice our share of Flesh and Sweet.
    If we should burst before we're through,
    Oh what in--Dogdom shall we do?'

Thus it was that the Master of the House, returning unexpectedly to
his unfamiliar domicile, stumbled upon a scene that might have shaken
the reason of a less sober young man.

Startled first by the unwonted illumination from his kitchen windows,
and second by the unprecedented aroma of Fir Balsam that greeted him
even through the key-hole of his new front door, his feelings may well
be imagined when groping through the dingy hall he first beheld the
gallows-like structure reared in the kitchen doorway.

"My God!" he ejaculated, "Barrett is getting ready to hang himself!
Gone mad probably--or something!"

Curdled with horror he forced himself to the object, only to note with
convulsive relief but increasing bewilderment the cheerful phrasing
and ultimate intent of the structure itself. "'Christmas Crossing'?"
he repeated blankly. "'Look out for Surprises'?--'Shop, Cook, and
Glisten'?" With his hand across his eyes he reeled back slightly
against the wall. "It is I that have gone mad!" he gasped.

A little uncertain whether he was afraid of What-He-Was-About-to-See,
or whether What-He-Was-About-to-See ought to be afraid of him, he
craned his neck as best he could round the corner of the huge buffet
that blocked the kitchen vista. A fresh bewilderment met his eyes.
Where he had once seen cobwebs flapping grayly across the
chimney-breast loomed now the gay worsted recommendation that _dogs
specially_, should be considered in the Christmas Season. Throwing all
caution aside he passed the buffet and plunged into the kitchen.

"Oh, _do_ hurry!" cried an eager young voice. "I thought my hair
would be white before you came!"

Like a man paralyzed he stopped short in his tracks to stare at the
scene before him! The long, bright table! The absolutely formal food!
A blindfolded girl! A perfectly strange blindfolded girl ... with her
dark hair forty years this side of white--_begging him to hurry_!... A
Black Velvet Bag surmounted by a Tiger's head stirring strangely in a
chair piled high with books!... Seated next to the Black Velvet Bag a
Canary as big as a Turkey Gobbler!... A Giraffe stepping suddenly
forward with--with dog-paws thrust into his soup plate!... A White
Rabbit heavily wreathed in holly rousing cautiously from his
cushions!... A Parrot with a twitching black and white short-haired
tail!... An empty chair facing the Girl! _An empty chair facing the
Girl._

"If this is _madness_," thought Delcote quite precipitously, "I am at
least the Master of the Asylum!"

In another instant, with a prodigious stride he had slipped into the
vacant seat.

"... So sorry to have kept you waiting," he murmured.

At the first sound of that unfamiliar voice, Flame yanked the
handkerchief from her eyes, took one blank glance at the Stranger, and
burst forth into a muffled, but altogether blood-curdling scream.

"Oh ... Oh ... Owwwwwwww!" said the scream.

As though waiting only for that one signal to break the spell of their
enchantment, the Canary leaped upward and grabbed the Bengal Tiger by
his muslin nose,--the White Rabbit sprang to "point" on the cooling
turkey, and the Red and Green Parrot fell to the floor in a desperate
effort to settle once and for all with the black spot that itched so
impulsively on his left shoulder!

For a moment only, in comparative quiet, the Concerned struggled with
the Concerned. Then true to all Dog Psychology,--absolutely
indisputable, absolutely unalterable, the Non-Concerned leaped in upon
the Non-Concerned! Half on his guard, but wholely on his itch, the
jostled Parrot shot like a catapult across the floor! Lost to all
sense of honor or table-manners the benign-faced Giraffe with his
benign face still towering blandly in the air, burst through his own
neck with a most curious anatomical effect,--locked his teeth in the
Parrot's gay throat and rolled with him under the table in mortal
combat!

Round and round the room spun the Yellow Canary and the Black Plush
Bag!

Retreating as best she could from her muslin nose,--the Bengal Tiger
or rather that which was within the Bengal Tiger, waged her war for
Freedom! Ripping like a chicken through its shell she succeeded at
last in hatching one front paw and one hind paw into action.
Wallowing,--stumbling,--rolling,--yowling,--she humped from
mantle-piece to chair-top, and from box to table.

Loyally the rabbit-eared Setter took up the chase. Mauled in the
scuffle he ran with his meek face upside down! Lost to all reason,
defiant of all morale, he proceeded to flush the game!

Dish-pans clattered, stools tipped over, pictures banged on the walls!

From her terrorized perch on the back of her chair Flame watched the
fracas with dilated eyes.

Hunched in the hug of his own arms the Stranger sat rocking himself to
and fro in uncontrollable, choking mirth,--"ribald mirth" was what
Flame called it.

"Stop!" she begged. "Stop it! Somebody _stop_ it!"

It was not until the Black Plush Bag at bay had ripped a red streak
down Miss Flora's avid nose that the Stranger rose to interfere.

Very definitely then, with quick deeds, incisive words, he separated
the immediate combatants, and ordered the other dogs into submission.

"Here you, Demon Direful!" he addressed the white Wolf Hound. "Drop
that, Orion!" he shouted to the Irish Setter. "Cut it out, John!" he
thundered at the Coach Dog.

"Their names are 'Beautiful-Lovely'!" cried Flame. "And 'Lopsy!' and
'Blunder-Blot!'"

With his hand on the Wolf Hound's collar, the Stranger stopped and
stared up with frank astonishment, not to say resentment, at the
girl's interference.

"Their names are _what_?" he said.

Something in the special intonation of the question infuriated
Flame.... Maybe she thought his mouth scornful,--his narrowing
eyes...? Goodness knows what she thought of his suddenly narrowing
eyes!

In an instant she had jumped from her retreat to the floor.

"Who are you, anyway?" she demanded. "How dare you come here like
this? Butting into my party!... And--and spoiling my discipline with
the dogs! Who are you, I say?"

With Demon Direful, alias Beautiful-Lovely tugging wildly at his
restraint, the Stranger's scornful mouth turned precipitously up,
instead of down.

"Who am I?" he said. "Why, no one special at all except just--the
Master of the House!"

"_What_?" gasped Flame.

"Earle Delcote," bowed the Stranger.

With a little hand that trembled perfectly palpably Flame reached back
to the arm of the big carved chair for support.

"Why--why, but Mr. Delcote is an old man," she gasped. "I'm almost
sure he's an old man."

The smile on Delcote's mouth spread suddenly to his eyes.

"Not yet,--Thank God!" he bowed.

With a panic-stricken glance at doors, windows, cracks, the chimney
pipe itself, Flame sank limply down in her seat again and gestured
towards the empty place opposite her.

"Have a--have a chair," she stammered. Great tears welled suddenly to
her eyes. "Oh, I--I know I oughtn't to be here," she struggled. "It's
perfectly ... awful! I haven't the slightest right! Not the slightest!
It's the--the cheekiest thing that any girl in the world ever did!...
But your Butler said...! And he did so want to go away and--And I did
so love your dogs! And I did so want to make _one_ Christmas in the
world just--exactly the way I wanted it! And--and--Mother and Father
will be crazy!... And--and--"

Without a single glance at anything except herself, the Master of the
House slipped back into his chair.

"Have a heart!" he said.

Flame did _not_ accept this suggestion. With a very severe frown and
downcast eyes she sat staring at the table. It seemed a very cheerless
table suddenly, with all the dogs in various stages of disheveled
finery grouped blatantly around their Master's chair.

"I can at least have my cat," she thought, "my--faithful cat!" In
another instant she had slipped from the table, extracted poor Puss
from a clutter of pans in the back of a cupboard, stripped the last
shred of masquerade from her outraged form, and brought her back
growling and bristling to perch on one arm of the high-backed chair.
"Th--ere!" said Flame.

Glancing up from this innocent triumph, she encountered the eyes of
the Master of the House fixed speculatively on the big turkey.

"I'm afraid everything is very cold," she confided with distinctly
formal regret.

"Not for anything," laughed Delcote quite suddenly, "would I have kept
you waiting--if I had only known."

Two spots of color glowed hotly in the girl's cheeks.

"It was not for you I was waiting," she said coldly.

"N--o?" teased Delcote. "You astonish me. For whom, then? Some
incredible wight who, worse than late--isn't going to show up at
all?... Heaven sent, I consider myself.... How else could so little a
girl have managed so big a turkey?"

"There ... isn't any ... carving knife," whispered Flame.

The tears were glistening on her cheeks now instead of just in her
eyes. A less observing man than Delcote might have thought the tears
were really for the carving knife.

"What? No carving knife?" he roared imperiously. "And the house
guaranteed 'furnished'?" Very furiously he began to hunt all around
the kitchen in the most impossible places.

"Oh, it's furnished all right," quivered Flame. "It's just chock-full
of dead things! Pressed flowers! And old plush bags! And pressed
flowers! And--and pressed flowers!"

"Great Heavens!" groaned Delcote. "And I came here to forget 'dead
things'!"

"Your--your Butler said you'd had misfortunes," murmured Flame.

"Misfortunes?" rallied Delcote. "I should think I had! In a single
year I've lost health,--money,--most everything I own in the world
except my man and my dogs!"

"They're ... good dogs," testified Flame.

"And the Doctor's sent me here for six months," persisted Delcote,
"before he'll even hear of my plunging into things again!"

"Six months is a--a good long time," said Flame. "If you'd turn the
hems we could make yellow curtains for the parlor in no time at all!"

"W--we?" stammered Delcote.

"M--Mother," said Flame. "... It's a long time since any dogs lived in
the Rattle-Pane House."

"Rattle-_Brain_ house?" bridled Delcote.

"Rattle-_Pane_ House," corrected Flame.

A little bit worriedly Delcote returned to his seat.

"I shall have to rend the turkey, instead of carve it," he said.

"Rend it," acquiesced Flame.

In the midst of the rending a dark frown appeared between Delcote's
eyes.

"These--these guests that you were expecting--?" he questioned.

"Oh, _stop_!" cried Flame. "Dreadful as I am I never--never would have
dreamed of inviting 'guests'!"

"This 'guest' then," frowned Delcote. "Was he...?"

"Oh, you mean ... Bertrand?" flushed Flame. "Oh, truly, I didn't
invite him! He just butted in ... same as you!"

"Same as ... I?" stammered Delcote.

"Well..." floundered Flame. "Well ... you know what I mean and ..."

With peculiar intentness the Master of the House fixed his eyes on the
knotted white handkerchief which Flame had thrown across the corner of
her chair.

"And is this 'Bertrand' person so ... so dazzling," he questioned,
"that human eye may not look safely upon his countenance?"

"Bertrand ... dazzling?" protested Flame. "Oh, no! He's really quite
dull.... It was only," she explained with sudden friendliness, "It was
only that I had promised Mother not to 'see' him.... So, of course,
when he butted in I...."

"O--h," relaxed the Master of the House. With a precipitous flippancy
of manners which did not conform at all to the somewhat tragic
austerity of his face he snatched up his knife and fork and thumped
joyously on the table with the handles of them. "And some people talk
about a country village being dull in the Winter Time!" he chuckled.
"With a Dog's Masquerade and a Robbery at the Rectory all happening
the same evening!" Grabbing her cat in her arms, Flame jerked her
chair back from the table.

"A--a robbery at the Rectory?" she gasped. "Why--why, I'm the Rectory!
I must go home at once!"

"Oh, Shucks!" shrugged the Master of the House. "It's all over now.
But the people at the railroad station were certainly buzzing about it
as I came through."

"B--buzzing about it?" articulated Flame with some difficulty.

Expeditiously the Master of the House resumed his rending of the
turkey.

"Are you really from the Rectory?" he questioned. "How amusing....
Well, there's nothing really you could do about it now.... The
constable and his prisoner are already on their way to the County
Seat--wherever that may be. And a freshly 'burgled' house is rather a
creepy place for a young girl to return to all alone.... Your parents
are away, I believe?"

"Con--stable ... constable," babbled Flame quite idiotically.

"Yes, the regular constable was off Christmasing somewhere it seems,
so he put a substitute on his job, a stranger from somewhere. Some
substitute that! No mulling over hot toddies on Christmas night for
him! He _saw_ the marauder crawling in through the Rectory window! He
_saw_ him fumbling now to the left, now to the right, all through the
front hall! He followed him up the stairs to a closet where the silver
was evidently kept! He caught the man red-handed as it were! Or
rather--white-handed," flushed the Master of the House for some quite
unaccountable reason. "To be perfectly accurate," he explained
conscientiously, "he was caught with a pair of--of--" Delicately he
spelt out the word. "With a pair of--c-o-r-s-e-t-s rolled up in his
hand. But inside the roll it seemed there was a solid silver--very
elaborate carving set which the Parish had recently presented. The
wretch was just unrolling it,--them, when he was caught."

"That was Bertrand!" said Flame. "My Father's Lay Reader."

It was the man's turn now to jump to his feet.

"_What_?" he cried.

"I sent him for the carving knife," said Flame.

"_What_?" repeated the man. Consternation versus Hilarity went racing
suddenly like a cat-and-dog combat across his eyes.

"Yes," said Flame.

From the outside door the sound of furious knocking occurred suddenly.

"That sounds to me like--like parents' knocking," shivered Flame.

"It sounds to me like an escaped Lay Reader," said her Host.

With a single impulse they both started for the door.

"Don't worry, Little Girl," whispered the young Stranger in the dark
hall.

"I'll try not to," quivered Flame.

They were both right, it seemed.

It was Parents _and_ the Lay Reader.

All three breathless, all three excited, all three reproachful,--they
swept into the warm, balsam-scented Rattle-Pane House with a gust of
frost, a threat of disaster.

"F--lame," sighed her Father.

"Flame!" scolded her Mother.

"Flame?" implored the Lay Reader.

"What a pretty name," beamed the Master of the House. "Pray be seated,
everybody," he gestured graciously to left and right,--shoving one
dog expeditiously under the table with his foot, while he yanked
another out of a chair with his least gesticulating hand. "This is
certainly a very great pleasure, I assure you," he affirmed distinctly
to Miss Flamande Nourice. "Returning quite unexpectedly to my new
house this lonely Christmas evening," he explained very definitely to
the Rev. Flamande Nourice, "I can't express to you what it means to me
to find this pleasant gathering of neighbors waiting here to welcome
me! And when I think of the effort _you_ must have made to get here,
Mr. Bertrand," he beamed. "A young man of all your obligations
and--complications--"

"Pleasant ... gathering of neighbors?" questioned Mrs. Nourice with
some emotion.

"Oh, I forgot," deprecated the Master of the House with real concern.
"Your Christmas season is not, of course, as inherently 'pleasant' as
one might wish.... I was told at the railroad station how you and Mr.
Nourice had been called away by the illness of a relative."

"We were called away," confided Mrs. Nourice with increasing asperity,
"called away at considerable inconvenience--by a very sick
relative--to receive the present of a Piebald pony."

"Oh, goody!" quickened Flame and collapsed again under the weight of
her Mother's glance.

"And then came this terrible telephone message," shuddered her Mother.
"The implied dishonor of one of your Father's most trusted--most
trusted associates!"

"I was right in the midst of such an interesting book," deplored her
Father. "And Uncle Wally wouldn't lend it."

"So we borrowed Uncle Wally's new automobile and started right for
home!" explained her Mother. "It was at the Junction that we made
connections with the Constable and his prisoner."

"His--victim," intercepted the Lay Reader coldly.

At this interception everybody turned suddenly and looked at the Lay
Reader. His mouth was twisted very slightly to one side. It gave him a
rather unpleasant snarling expression. If this expression had been
vocal instead of muscular it would have shocked his hearers.

"Your Father had to go on board the train and identify him," persisted
Flame's Mother. "It was very distressing.... The Constable was most
unwilling to release him. Your Father had to use every kind of an
argument."

"Every ... kind," mused her Father. "He doesn't even deny being in the
house," continued her Mother, "being in my closet, ... being caught
with a--a--"

"With a silver carving knife and fork in his hand," intercepted the
Lay Reader hastily.

"Yet all the time he persists," frowned Flame's Mother, "that there is
some one in the world who can give a perfectly good explanation if
only,--he won't even say 'he or she' but 'it', if only 'it' would."

Something in the stricken expression of her daughter's face brought a
sudden flicker of suspicion to the Mother's eyes.

"_You_ don't know anything about this, do you, Flame?" she demanded.
"Is it remotely possible that after your promise to me,--your sacred
promise to me--?" The whole structure of the home,--of mutual
confidence,--of all the Future itself, crackled and toppled in her
voice.

To the Lay Reader's face, and right _through_ the Lay Reader's face,
to the face of the Master of the House, Flame's glance went homing
with an unaccountable impulse.

With one elbow leaning casually on the mantle-piece, his narrowed eyes
faintly inscrutable, faintly smiling, it seemed suddenly to the young
Master of the House that he had been waiting all his discouraged years
for just that glance. His heart gave the queerest jump.

Flame's face turned suddenly very pink.

Like a person in a dream, she turned back to her Mother. There was a
smile on her face, but even the smile was the smile of a dreaming
person.

"No--Mother," she said, "I haven't seen Bertrand ... to-day."

"Why, you're looking right at him now!" protested her exasperated
Mother.

With a gentle murmur of dissent, Flame's Father stepped forward and
laid his arm across the young girl's shoulder. "She--she may be
looking at him," he said. "But I'm almost perfectly sure that she
doesn't ... see him."

"Why, whatever in the world do you mean?" demanded his wife. "Whatever
in the world does anybody mean? If there was only another woman here!
A mature ... sane woman! A----" With a flare of accusation she turned
from Flame to the Master of the House. "This Miss Flora that my
daughter spoke of,--where is she? I insist on seeing her! Please
summon her instantly!"

Crossing genially to the table the Master of the House reached down
and dragged out the Bull Dog by the brindled scuff of her neck. The
scratch on her nose was still bleeding slightly. And one eye was
closed.

"This is--Miss Flora!" he said.

Indignantly Flame's Mother glanced at the dog, and then from her
daughter's face to the face of the young man again.

"And you call _that_--a lady?" she demanded.

"N--not technically," admitted the young man.

For an instant a perfectly tense silence reigned. Then from under a
shadowy basket the Cat crept out, shining, sinuous, with extended
paw, and began to pat a sprig of holly cautiously along the floor.

Yielding to the reaction Flame bent down suddenly and hugging the Wolf
Hound's head to her breast buried her face in the soft, sweet
shagginess.

"Not sanitary, Mother?" she protested. "Why, they're as sanitary
as--as violets!"

As though dreaming he were late to church and had forgotten his
vestments, Flame's Father reached out nervously and draped a great
string of ground-pine stole-like about his neck.

"We all," broke in the Master of the House quite irrelevantly, "seem
to have experienced a slight twinge of irritability--the past few
minutes. Hunger, I've no doubt!... So suppose we all sit down
together to this sumptuous--if somewhat chilled repast? After the soup
certainly, even after very cold soup, all explanations I'm sure will
be--cheerfully and satisfactorily exchanged. Miss--Flame I know has a
most amusing story to tell and--"

"Oh, yes!" rallied Flame. "And it's almost all about being blindfolded
and sending poor Mr. Lorello--"

"So if by any chance, Mr.--Mr. Bertrand," interrupted the Master of
the House a bit abruptly, "you happen to have the carving knife and
fork still on your person ... I thought I saw a white string
hanging--"

"I have!" said the Lay Reader with his first real grin.

With great formality the Master of the House drew back a chair and
bowed Flame's Mother to it.

Then suddenly the Red Setter lifted his sensitive nose in the air, and
the spotted Dalmatian bristled faintly across the ridge of his back.
Through the whole room, it seemed, swept a curious cottony sense of
Something-About-to-Happen! Was it that a sound hushed? Or that a hush
decided suddenly to be a sound?

With a little sharp catch of her breath Flame dashed to the window,
and swung the sash upward! Where once had breathed the drab, dusty
smell of frozen grass and mud quickened suddenly a curious metallic
dampness like the smell of new pennies.

"Mr. ... Delcote!" she called.

In an instant his slender form silhouetted darkly with hers in the
open window against the eternal mystery and majesty of a Christmas
night.

"And _then_ the snow came!"


END





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