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- Mr. Bingle - 1/49 -
BY George Barr McCutcheon
Author of "Graustark," "The Hollow of Her Hand," "The Prince of Graustark," etc.
With Illustrations by JAMES MONTGOMERY FLAGG
I THE FIVE LITTLE SYKESES II RELATING TO AN ODD RELATION III THE DEATH OF UNCLE JOE IV FORTY MINUTES LATE V THE STORY OF JOSEPH VI THE HONORABLE THOMAS SINGLETON BINGLE VII SEARCHERS REWARDED VIII THE AFFAIRS OF AMY AND DICK IX THE MAN CALLED HINMAN X MR. BINGLE THINKS OF BECOMING AN ANGEL XI A TIMELY LESSON IN LOVE XII THE BIRTH OF NAPOLEON XIII TROUBLE, TROUBLE, TROUBLE! XIV THE LAW'S LAST WORD XV DECEMBER XVI ANOTHER CHRISTMAS EVE XVII THE LAST TO ARRIVE
THE FIVE LITTLE SYKESES
A coal fire crackled cheerily in the little open grate that supplied warmth to the steam-heated living-room in the modest apartment of Mr. Thomas S. Bingle, lower New York, somewhere to the west of Fifth Avenue and not far removed from Washington Square--in the wrong direction, however, if one must be precise in the matter of emphasizing the social independence of the Bingle family--and be it here recorded that without the genial aid of that grate of coals the living-room would have been a cheerless place indeed. Mr. Bingle had spent most of the evening in trying to coax heat from the lower regions into the pipes of the seventh heaven wherein he dwelt, and without the slightest sign of success. The frigid coils in the corner of the room remained obdurate. If they indicated the slightest symptom of warmth during the evening, it was due entirely to the expansive generosity of the humble grate and not because they were moved by inward remorse. They were able, however, to supply the odour of far- off steam, as of an abandoned laundry; and sometimes they chortled meanly, revealing signs of an energy that in anything but a steam pipe might have been mistaken for a promise to do better.
Mr. Bingle poked the fire and looked at his watch. Then he crossed to the window, drew the curtains and shade aside and tried to peer through the frosty panes into the street, seven stories below. A holly wreath hung suspended in the window, completely obscured from view on one side by hoar frost, on the other by a lemon-coloured window shade that had to be handled with patience out of respect for a lapsed spring at the top. He scraped a peep-hole in the frosty surface, and, after drying his fingers on his smoking jacket, looked downward with eyes a-squint.
"Do sit down, Tom," said his wife from her chair by the fireplace. "A watched pot never boils. You can't see them from the window, in any event."
"I can see the car when it stops at the corner, my dear," said Mr. Bingle, enlarging the peep-hole with a vigour that appeared to be aggravated by advice. "Melissa said seven o'clock and it is four minutes after now."
"You forget that Melissa didn't start until after she had cleared away the dinner things. She--"
"I know, I know," he interrupted, still peering. "But that was an hour ago, Mary. I think a car is stopping at the corner now. No! It didn't stop, so there must have been some one waiting to get on instead of off."
"Do come and sit down. You are as fidgety as a child."
"Dear me," said Mr. Bingle, turning away from the window with a shiver, "how I pity the poor unfortunates who haven't a warm fire to sit beside tonight. It is going to be the coldest night in twenty years, according to the--there! Did you hear that?" He stepped to the window once more. The double ring of a street-car bell had reached his ears, and he knew that a car had stopped at the corner below. "According to the weather report this afternoon," he concluded, re- crossing the room to sit down beside the fire, very erect and expectant, a smile on his pinched, eager face. He was watching the hall door.
It was Christmas Eve. There were signs of the season in every corner of the plain but cosy little sitting-room. Mistletoe hung from the chandelier; gay bunting and strands of gold and silver tinsel draped the bookcase and the writing desk; holly and myrtle covered the wall brackets, and red tissue paper shaded all of the electric light globes; big candles and little candles flickered on the mantelpiece, and some were red and some were white and yet others were green and blue with the paint that Mr. Bingle had applied with earnest though artless disregard for subsequent odours; packages done up in white and tied with red ribbon, neatly double-bowed, formed a significant centrepiece for the ornate mahogany library table--and one who did not know the Bingles would have looked about in quest of small fry with popping, covetous eyes and sleekly brushed hair. The alluring scent of gaudily painted toys pervaded the Christmas atmosphere, quite offsetting the hint of steam from more fortunate depths, and one could sniff the odour of freshly buttered pop-corn. All these signs spoke of children and the proximity of Kris Kringle, and yet there were no little Bingles, nor had there ever been so much as one!
Mr. and Mrs. Bingle were childless. The tragedy of life for them lay not in the loss of a first-born, but in the fact that no babe had ever come to fill their hungry hearts with the food they most desired and craved. Nor was there any promise of subsequent concessions in their behalf. For fifteen years they had longed for the boon that was denied them, and to the end of their simple, kindly days they probably would go on longing. Poor as they were, neither would have complained if fate had given them half-a-dozen healthy mouths to feed, as many wriggling bodies to clothe, and all the splendid worries that go with colic, croup, measles, mumps, broken arms and all the other ailments, peculiar, not so much to childhood as they are paramount to parenthood.
Lonely, incomplete lives they led, with no bitterness in their souls, loving each other the more as they tried to fill the void with songs of resignation. Away back in the early days Mr. Bingle had said that Christmas was a bleak thing without children to lift the pall--or something of the sort.
Out of that well-worn conclusion--oft expressed by rich and poor alike--grew the Bingle Foundation, so to speak. No Christmas Eve was allowed to go by without the presence of alien offspring about their fire-lit hearth, and no strange little kiddie ever left for his own bed without treasuring in his soul the belief that he had seen Santa Claus at last--had been kissed by him, too--albeit the plain-faced, wistful little man with the funny bald-spot was in no sense up to the preconceived opinions of what the roly--poly, white-whiskered, red- cheeked annual visitor from Lapland ought to be in order to make dreams come true.
The Bingles were singularly nephewless, nieceless, cousinless. There was no kindly-disposed relative to whom they could look for the loan of a few children on Christmas Eve, nor would their own sensitiveness permit them to approach neighbours or friends in the building with a well-meant request that might have met with a chilly rebuff. One really cannot go about borrowing children from people on the floor below and the floor above, especially on Christmas Eve when children are so much in demand, even in the most fortunate of families. It is quite a different matter at any other time of the year. One can always borrow a whole family of children when the mother happens to feel the call of the matinee or the woman's club, and it is not an uncommon thing to secure them for a whole day in mid-December. But on Christmas Eve, never! And so Mr. and Mrs. Bingle, being without the natural comforts of home, were obliged to go out into the world searching for children who had an even greater grudge against circumstances. They frequently found their guests of honour in places where dishonour had left them, and they gave them a merry Christmas with no questions asked.
The past two Christmas Eves had found them rather providentially supplied with children about whom no questions had ever been asked: the progeny of a Mr. and Mrs. Sykes. Mr. Sykes being dead, the care and support of five lusty youngsters fell upon the devoted but far from rugged shoulders of a mother who worked as a saleswoman in one of the big Sixth Avenue shops, and who toiled far into the night before Christmas in order that forgetful people might be able to remember without fail on the morning thereafter. She was only too glad to lend her family to Mr. and Mrs. Bingle. More than that, she was ineffably glad, on her own account, that it was Christmas Eve; it signified the close of a diabolical season of torture at the hands of a public that believes firmly in "peace on earth" but hasn't the faintest conception of what "good will toward men" means when it comes to shopping at Christmas-time.
Mrs. Sykes' sister Melissa had been maid-of-all-work in the modest establishment of Mr. and Mrs. Bingle for a matter of three years and a half. It was she who suggested the Sykes family as a happy solution to the annual problem, and Mr. Bingle almost hugged her for being so thoroughly competent and considerate!
It isn't every servant, said he, who thinks of the comfort of her employers. Most of 'em, said he, insist on going to a chauffeurs' ball or something of the sort on Christmas Eve, but here was a jewel-like daughter of Martha who actually put the interests of her master and mistress above her own, and complained not! And what made it all the more incomprehensible to him was the fact that Melissa was quite a
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