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- Mr. Bingle - 20/49 -
dozen. How many are eleven and one, Reginald? Speak up. Eleven and one. Good! That's right, my lad. The year after he will bring gifts for fourteen. We shall avoid the unlucky number thirteen. Remember, children, that next Christmas you are to have a little brother. You--"
"I want a sister," shouted Wilberforce.
"Sh!" said four nurses at once.
"As for you, my faithful servitors, it will not be necessary for you to hang up your little stockings. Santy will find a way to--What is it, Diggs?"
"If you please, sir, may I speak with you for a moment?" said Diggs mysteriously, from the doorway. He appeared to be under the strain of a not inconsiderable excitement.
Mr. Bingle hesitated. "If it's your grandmother who is ill, Diggs, I'm afraid--"
"It's a man, sir, who says he must see you at once," said Diggs, lowering his voice and sending a cautious glance over his shoulder.
"If he is seeking food or shelter, do not turn him away. Give freely from my purse and larder. It is Christmas Eve. We--"
"I'll step out and see him, Bingle," volunteered Mr. Force, with some alacrity. "Go ahead with the reading."
"He says he must see you, Mr. Bingle," said Diggs. "He isn't after halms, sir."
"Ask him to come in and hear the story. I've no doubt he would be benefitted--"
"Go and see what he wants, Thomas," said Mrs. Bingle. "It may be important. I am sure Mr. and Mrs. Force will not mind the delay. Will you?"
"Not at all," said Mrs. Force resignedly.
"I shan't mind, if the rest don't," added Mr. Force, turning an ironic eye upon the row of servants.
"Well, I'll just step out and see what it's all about," said Mr. Bingle reluctantly.
"Better see that the chap isn't a bomb-thrower, come to demand money of you, Bingle," said Force. Mr. Bingle waved his hand airily as he threaded his way among the chairs. "Does he look like a black-hander, Diggs?"
"No, sir," replied Diggs. Then he let the truth slip out. "He says he is from a detective agency, but I couldn't catch the name of it."
Mr. Bingle halted. "Detective agency, Diggs?"
"So he said, sir."
Flanders arose. "Perhaps you'd like to have me go with you, Mr. Bingle. I know most of these fellows. If I can be of any assistance--"
"Thank you, no," said Mr. Bingle nervously. I--I think I'd better see him alone. Now, Mary, don't look frightened. I haven't the remotest idea what he wants, but as I haven't been up to anything--ahem! Keep your seat, Frederick!"
"I want to see a detective," pleaded Frederick. "Is he disguised, Diggs? Has he got on false whiskers? Please, daddy--"
"Maybe it's old Santy," cried Wilberforce in a voice that thrilled.
Mr. Bingle left a pleasant atmosphere of excitement behind him when he disappeared between the portieres. At once the company broke into eager, speculative whispers that soon grew to a perfect storm of shrill inquiry. Every one was guessing, and every one was guessing as loudly as possible in order to be heard above the clamour. It might have been observed that at least three or four of the servants shot furtive glances in the direction of the hall, and appeared to be anxious and uncomfortable.
While the excitement was at its height, Flanders deliberately planted himself at Miss Fairweather's elbow. She looked up into his face. Every vestige of colour had left her own. Her eyes were wide with alarm.
"Come with me, Amy," he said in a low tone. "I must have a word with you. Make believe that you are showing me the--the pictures. We can talk safely in that corner over there."
She arose without a word and followed him to a far corner of the room, where they would be quite free from interruption.
"Oh, Dick!" she murmured, in great distress.
"Do you know anything? Who is this detective? Has he come to--"
"Sh! Why, you're actually shivering! Here, sit down in the window seat--behind the curtain, dearest. What have you to be afraid of? You've done no wrong."
She sank down on the window seat. The thick lace curtain shielded her agitated face from the view of all inquiring eyes save those of the tall, eager young man who sat down beside her.
"They don't know that I was on the stage, Dick. They wouldn't have me here if they knew that I've been an actress. I--Oh, I hope--"
"Brace up, darling! This detective isn't interested in you. What motive could he have in looking you up? Bingle is in the dark, so it's evident he hasn't hired any one to investigate your past. Forget it! That isn't what I want to talk to you about. I've been half-crazy, dear, for the past eight months. Why did you run away without giving me a chance to square myself after that miserable night? Don't get up! I've found you and I'm determined to have it out with you, Amy. You've just got to hear what I have to say." His hand was upon her arm, a firm restraining grasp that checked her attempt to escape. Undismayed by the look of scorn that leaped into her eyes, he leaned closer and spoke in quick agitated whispers.
Fully half an hour elapsed before Mr. Bingle returned to the room. His face was noticeably grey and pinched, and all of the ebullience of spirit had disappeared. His wife eyed him anxiously, apprehensively. Slowly, almost with an effort, he made his way to the reading-table, purposely avoiding the gaze of the inquiring assemblage. His hand shook perceptibly as he took up the book and cleared his throat--this time feebly and without the usual authority, it might have been observed.
"Anything wrong, Bingle?" inquired Force, regarding him curiously.
"Nothing, nothing at all," said Mr. Bingle, vainly affecting a smile that was meant to put every one at ease. "No crime has been committed, so don't be nervous, any of you. Just a little private matter of--of" --His gaze went swiftly to the eager, uplifted face of little Kathleen, and he never completed the sentence. As he turned his face away, ostensibly to find his place in the book, his lower lip trembled, and a mist came over his eyes.
The dramatic enthusiasm with which he was wont to read the Dickens story was sadly lacking. He read lifelessly, uncertainly, and at times almost inaudibly. There was a queer huskiness in his voice that made it necessary for him to clear his throat frequently.
[Illustration with caption: Amy Fairweather and Flanders]
Under ordinary conditions, he would have observed the singular aloofness of Miss Fairweather and the reporter who was there by virtue of an assignment. They retained their somewhat sequestered position in the window seat, effectually screened by the curtains, and whispered softly to each other, utterly oblivious to the monotonous drone of the reader, quite in a little world of their own.
Flanders was pleading earnestly with the rigid-faced girl. Her cautious, infrequent responses were not of an encouraging nature, that was plain to be seen, but he too was obdurate. He held one of her slim hands in a grip that could not be broken, as she had discovered to her dismay. Mr. Bingle read on, ignorant of the little drama that went on under his very nose, so to speak, and those of his auditors who were not nodding their heads in frank drowsiness, were so completely wrapped up in extraneous thoughts concerning the visit of the detective that they had eyes for no one except the person who could explain the mystery.
Mr. Bingle's voice began to quaver much earlier in the story than usual. He was always moved to tears, but as a rule he was able to suppress them until along toward the end of the story. But now he was in distress from the beginning. He choked up completely, in a most uncalled-for manner and at singularly unexpected places. He managed to struggle through the first twenty or thirty pages, and then, seeing for himself that he was nearing the first of the weepy places and realising that he was sure to burst into tears if he continued, he deliberately closed the book, keeping his forefinger between the leaves, and announced in a strained voice that he would skip over to the final chapter if the audience did not object. He gave no excuse. It is doubtful, however, if he was gratified by the profound sigh of relief that went up from the group of listeners.
At last, he came to the end of the story. He had no voice at all for the concluding paragraphs: a hoarse, grotesque whisper, that was all. When the servants had departed and the children were scampering off to bed, thrilled by promises of the morrow, Mr. Single's arm stole about his wife's shoulders and she was drawn suddenly, even violently close to his side. He avoided her puzzled, worried gaze and resolutely addressed himself to Mr. and Mrs. Force and Mr. Flanders. Miss Fairweather had disappeared.
"That man was a detective," said he, without preamble. "His agency was employed nearly a year ago to discover the whereabouts of a certain child, whose father, repenting a wrong perpetrated years ago, desires to do the right thing by his luckless offspring. After all these months, this detective has located the little girl. She is in this house. She is my favourite--and yours, Mary, God help us."
"Kathleen?" whispered Mrs. Bingle dully.
"Kathleen?" repeated Sydney Force, staring blankly at the little man.
"Yes," said Mr. Bingle, and sat down suddenly in a big arm chair, burying his face in his hands.
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