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- Across the Years - 2/34 -
Ned, Mrs. Ned, and little Mabel, together with Frank and his wife and son; but Ella's train was late--so late that it came in a scant five minutes ahead of the other one, and thus brought about a joyous greeting between the reunited families on the station platform itself.
"Why, it's not so bad we were late, after all," cried Ella. "This is fine--now we can all go together!"
"Jove! but we're a cheery sight!" exclaimed Ned, as he counted off on his fingers the blooming faces of those about him. "There are ten of us!"
"Only fancy what they'll say at the house when they catch their first glimpse of us!" chuckled Frank. "The dear old souls! How Father's eyes will shine and Mother's cap-strings bob! By the way, of course they know we're coming to-day?"
There was a moment's silence; then Ella flushed. "Why! didn't--didn't you tell them?" she stammered.
"I? Why, of course not!" cried Frank. "I supposed you were going to. But maybe Ned-" He paused and turned questioning eyes on his brother.
Ned shook his head. "Not I," he said.
"Why, then--then they don't know," cried Ella, aghast. "They don't know a thing!"
"Never mind, come on," laughed Ned. "What difference does it make?"
"'What difference does it make'!" retorted Ella indignantly. "Ned Bertram, do you suppose I'd take the risk of ten of us pouncing down on those two poor dears like this by surprise? Certainly not!"
"But, Ella, they're expecting six of us tomorrow," remonstrated Frank.
"Very true. But that's not ten of us today."
"I know; but so far as the work is concerned, you girls always do the most of that," cut in Ned.
"Work! It isn't the work," almost groaned Ella. "Don't you see, boys? It's the excitement--'twouldn't do for them at all. We must fix it some way. Come, let's go into the waiting-room and talk it up."
It was not until after considerable discussion that their plans were finally made and their line of march decided upon. To advance in the open and take the house by storm was clearly out of the question, though Ned remarked that in all probability the dear old creatures would be dozing before the fire, and would not discover their approach. Still, it would be wiser to be on the safe side; and it was unanimously voted that Frank should go ahead alone and reconnoiter, preparing the way for the rest, who could wait, meanwhile, at the little hotel not far from the house.
The short winter day had drawn almost to a close when Frank turned in at the familiar gate of the Bertram homestead. His hand had not reached the white knob of the bell, however, when the eager expectancy of his face gave way to incredulous amazement; from within, clear and distinct, had come the sound of a violin.
"Why, what--" he cried under his breath, and softly pushed open the door.
The hall was almost dark, but the room beyond was a blaze of light, with the curtains drawn, and apparently every lamp the house contained trimmed and burning. He himself stood in the shadow, and his entrance had been unnoticed, though almost the entire expanse of the room before him was visible through the half-open doorway.
In the farther corner of the room a large evergreen tree, sparkling with candles and tinsel stars, was hung with bags of pink and white tarletan and festoons of puffy popcorn. Near it sat an old man playing the violin; and his whole wiry self seemed to quiver with joy to the tune of his merry "Money Musk." In the center of the room two gray-haired men were dancing an old-time jig, bobbing, bowing, and twisting about in a gleeful attempt to outdo each other. Watching them were three old women and another old man, eating ice cream and contentedly munching peppermints. And here, there, and everywhere was the mistress of the house, Lydia Ann herself, cheeks flushed and cap-strings flying, but plainly in her element and joyously content.
For a time the man by the hall door watched in silent amazement; then with a low ejaculation he softly let himself out of the house, and hurried back to the hotel.
"Well?" greeted half a dozen voices; and one added: "What did they say?"
Frank shook his head and dropped into the nearest chair. "I--I didn't tell them," he stammered faintly.
"Didn't tell them!" exclaimed Ella. "Why, Frank, what was the trouble? Were they sick? Surely, they were not upset by just seeing you!" Frank's eyes twinkled "Well, hardly!" he retorted. "They--they're having a party."
"A party!" shrieked half a dozen voices.
"Yes; and a tree, and a dance, and ice cream, and pink peppermints," Frank enumerated in one breath.
There was a chorus of expostulation; then Ella's voice rose dominant. "Frank Bertram, what on earth do you mean?" she demanded. "Who is having all this?"
"Father and Mother," returned Frank, his lips twitching a little. "And they've got old Uncle Tim and half a dozen others for guests."
"But, Frank, how can they be having all this?" faltered Ella. "Why, Father's not so very far from eighty years old, and--Mabel, Mabel, my dear!" she broke off in sudden reproof to her young niece, who had come under her glance at that moment. "Those are presents for Grandpa and Grandma. I wouldn't play with them."
Mabel hesitated, plainly rebellious. In each hand was a gray worsted bed-slipper; atop of her yellow curls was a brown neckerchief, cap fashion.
There were exclamations from two men, and Ned came forward hurriedly. "Oh, I say, Ella," he remonstrated, "you didn't get those for presents, did you?"
"But I did. Why not?" questioned Ella.
"Why, I got slippers, you see. I never can think of anything else. Besides, they're always good, anyhow. But I should think you, a woman, could think of something--"
"Never mind," interrupted Ella airily. "Mother's a dear, and she won't care if she does get two pairs."
"But she won't want three pairs," groaned Frank; "and I got slippers too!"
There was a moment of dismayed silence, then everybody laughed.
Ella was the first to speak. "It's too bad, of course, but never mind. Mother'll see the joke of it just as we do. You know she never seems to care what we give her. Old people don't have many wants, I fancy."
Frank stirred suddenly and walked the length of the room. Then he wheeled about.
"Do you know," he said, a little unsteadily, "I believe that's a mistake?"
"A mistake? What's a mistake?"
"The notion that old people don't have any--wants. See here. They're having a party down there--a party, and they must have got it up themselves. Such being the case, of course they had what they wanted for entertainment--and they aren't drinking tea or knitting socks. They're dancing jigs and eating pink peppermints and ice cream! Their eyes are like stars, and Mother's cheeks are like a girl's; and if you think I'm going to offer those spry young things a brown neckerchief and a pair of bed-slippers you're much mistaken--because I'm not!"
"But what--can--we do?" stammered Ella.
"We can buy something else here--to-night--in the village," declared Frank; "and to-morrow morning we can go and give it to them."
"I haven't the least idea," retorted Frank, with an airy wave of his hands. "Maybe 'twill be a diamond tiara and a polo pony. Anyway, I know what 'twon't be--'twon't be slippers or a neckerchief!"
* * * * *
It was later than usual that Christmas morning when Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Bertram arose. If the old stomachs had rebelled a little at the pink peppermints and ice cream, and if the old feet had charged toll for their unaccustomed activity of the night before, neither Samuel nor Lydia Ann would acknowledge it.
"Well, we had it--that tree!" chuckled Samuel, as he somewhat stiffly thrust himself into his clothes.
"We did, Samuel,--we did," quavered Lydia Ann joyfully, "an' wa'n't it nice? Mis' Hopkins said she never had such a good time in all her life before."
"An' Uncle Tim an' Grandpa Gowin'--they was as spry as crickets, an' they made old Pete tune up that 'Money Musk' three times 'fore they'd quit"
"Yes; an'--my grief an' conscience, Samuel! 'tis late, ain't it?" broke off Lydia Ann, anxiously peering at the clock. "Come, come, dear, you'll have ter hurry 'bout gettin' that tree out of the front room 'fore the children get here. I wouldn't have 'em know for the world how silly we've been--not for the world!"
Samuel bridled, but his movements showed a perceptible increase of speed.
"Well, I do' know," he chuckled.
"'T wa'n't anythin' so awful, after all. But, say," he called triumphantly a moment later, as he stooped and picked up a small object
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