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- Mr. Bingle - 3/49 -


"He is the limit," said Melissa flatly. "The worst grouch I've ever seen, Mr. Bingle, even if he is your own flesh and blood uncle. He's almost as bad as Old Scrooge."

"He is a sick man," explained Mr. Bingle, lowering his voice; "and he hasn't known very much happiness in his lifetime, so I suppose we ought to overlook--er, ahem! Let me see, where was I?" He favoured young Mary Sykes with a genial grin. "Where was I, Mary?"

Mary saw her chance. Without a trace of shame or compunction, she said page seventy-eight, and then the three grown people coughed in great embarrassment.

"You sha'n't come next Christmas," whispered Melissa very fiercely into Mary's ear, so ominously, in fact, that Mary's lip began to tremble.

"Page one," she amended, in a very small voice. James moved uneasily in his chair, and Mary avoided his gaze.

"I believe I'll step in and ask Uncle Joe if he won't change his mind," said Mr. Bingle. "I--I don't believe he has ever read the Christmas Carol. And he is so lonely, so--er--so at odds with the world that--"

"Don't bother him, Tom," said his wife. "Get on with the reading. The children are impatient." She completed the sentence in a yawn.

Mr. Bingle began. He read very slowly and very impressively at first, but gradually warmed up to the two-hour task. In a very few minutes he was going along rapidly, almost monotonously, with scant regard for effect save at the end of sentences, the ultimate word being pronounced with distinct emphasis. Page after page was turned; the droning sound of his voice went on and on, with its clock-like inflections at the end of sentences; the revived crackle of coals lent spirit to an otherwise dreary solo, and always it was Melissa who poked the grate and at the same time rubbed her leg to renew the circulation that had been checked by the limp weight of Katie Sykes; the deep sighs of Mrs. Bingle and the loud yawns of the older children relieved the monotony of sound from time to time; and the cold wind whistled shrilly round the corners of the building, causing the youngsters to wonder how Santa was enduring the frost during his tedious wait at the top of the chimney pot. Mrs. Bingle shifted the occupants of her lap more and more often as the tale ran on, and with little attempt to do so noiselessly; Mary's feet went to sleep, and James fidgeted so violently that twice Mr. Bingle had to look at him. But eventually he came to the acutely tearful place in the story, and then he was at his best. Indeed, he quite thrilled his hearers, who became all attention and blissfully lachrymose. Mrs. Bingle sobbed, Melissa rubbed her eyes violently, Mr. Bingle choked up and could scarcely read for the tightening in his throat, and the children watched him through solemn, dripping eyes and hung on every word that told of the regeneration of Scrooge and the sad happiness of Tiny Tim. And finally Mr. Bingle, as hoarse as a crow and faint with emotion, closed the book and lowered it gently to his knee.

"There!" he said. "There's a lesson for you. Don't you feel better for it, young ladies and gentlemen?"

"I always cry," said Mary Sykes, with a glance of defiance at her eldest brother, who made a fine show of glowering.

"Everybody cries over Tiny Tim," said Melissa. "As frequent as I've heard Mr. Bingle read that story I can't help crying, knowing all the time it's only a novel. It seems to me I cry a little worse every time it's read. Don't you think I do, ma'am? Didn't you notice that I cried a little more this time than I did last year?"

"It touches the heart-strings," said Mr. Bingle, blowing his nose so fiercely that Georgie whimpered again, coming out of a doze. "I'll bet my head, dear, that Uncle Joe would sniffle as much as any of us. I wish--er--I do wish we'd asked him to come in. It would do him a world of good to shed a few tears."

"He hasn't a tear in the whole hulk of him," said Mrs. Bingle, sorrowfully.

"Poor old man," said Melissa, relenting a bit.

"I bet I know what he's doing," said James brightly.

"Doing? What is he doing, James?" demanded Mr. Bingle, surprised by the youngster's declaration.

"You can't fool me. I bet he's out there dressing up to play Santa Claus."

"Dear me!" exclaimed Mr. Bingle, blinking. The thought of crabbed Uncle Joe taking on the habiliments of the genial saint was too much for his imagination. It left him without the power to set James straight in the matter, and Uncle Joe was immediately accepted as Santy by the expectant Sykeses, all of whom revealed a tremendous interest in the avuncular absentee. They even appeared to be properly apprehensive, and crowded a little closer to the knees of the grown- ups, all the while eyeing the door at the upper end of the room.

Melissa's involuntary snort was not enlightening to the children, but it served as a spur to Mr. Bingle, who abruptly gave over being sentimental and set about the pleasant task of distributing the packages on the table. Hilarity took the place of a necessary reserve, and before one could say Jack Robinson the little sitting-room was as boisterous a place as you'd find in a month's journey and no one would have suspected that Mr. and Mrs. Bingle were eating their hearts out because the noisy crew belonged to the heaven-blest Mrs. Sykes and not to them.

Ten o'clock came. Mr. and Mrs. Bingle sat side by side in front of the fireplace, her hand in his. The floor was littered with white tissue paper, red ribbons, peanut hulls and other by-products of festivity; the rugs were scuffled up and hopelessly awry; chairs were out of their accustomed places--two or three of them no longer stood upon their legs as upright chairs should do--and the hearth was strewn with coals from an overturned scuttle. Candle grease solidified on the mantelpiece and dripped unseen upon the mahogany bookcase--all unnoticed by the dreamy, desolate Bingles. They were alone with the annual wreck. Melissa and the five Sykeses were out in the bitter night, on their frolicksome way to the distant home of the woman who had so many children she didn't know what to do for them, not with them. They had gone away with their hands and pockets full, and their stomachs, too, and they had all been kissed and hugged and invited to come again without fail a year from that very night.

Mr. Bingle sighed. Neither had spoken for many minutes after the elevator door slammed behind the excited, shrill-voiced children. Mr. Bingle always sighed exactly at this moment in his reflections, and Mrs. Bingle always squeezed his hand fiercely and turned a pair of darkly regretful eyes upon him.

"I am sorry, dear heart," she murmured, and then he kissed her hand and said that it was God's will.

"It doesn't seem right, when we want them, need them so much," she said, huskily.

And then he repeated the thing he always said on Christmas Eve: "One of these days I am going to adopt a--er--a couple, Mary, sure as I'm sitting here. We just can't grow old without having some of them about us. Some day we'll find the right sort of--"

The bedroom door opened with a squeak, slowly and with considerable caution. The gaunt, bearded face of a tall, stooping old man appeared in the aperture; sharp, piercing eyes under thick grey eyebrows searched the room in a swift, almost unfriendly glance.

"The infernal brats gone, Tom?" demanded Uncle Joe harshly.

Mr. and Mrs. Bingle stiffened in their chairs. The tall old man came down to the fireplace, disgustedly kicking a stray, crumpled sheet of tissue paper out of his path.

"Oh, they are perfect dears, Uncle Joe," protested Mrs. Bingle, trying her best not to bristle.

"I wish you had come in for a look at 'em--" began Mr. Bingle, but the old man cut him off with a snort of anger.

"Cussed little nuisances," he said, holding his thin hands to the blaze.

"I don't see how you can say such things about children you don't know and can't--" began Mrs. Bingle.

He glared at her. "You can't tell me anything about children, Mary. I'm the father of three and I know what I'm talking about. Children are the damnedest curse on earth. You ought to thank God you haven't got any."

CHAPTER II

RELATING TO AN ODD RELATION

Now, Mr. Joseph Hooper had excellent cause for being a sour old man, and in a measure was to be pitied because of his attitude toward the young of his species. He had not been well-used by his own children, although it is no more than right to explain that they were hardly what any one save a parent would call children when they turned against him. At that particular period in the history of the Hooper family, the youngest of Joseph's three children was seventeen, the oldest twenty-two--and it so happens that the crisis came just fifteen years prior to the opening scene in this tale. It did not actually come on Christmas Eve, but, as a matter of record, on the 2lst of December at about half-past three in the afternoon. At that precise instant a judge sitting on the bench in one of the courtrooms in New York City signed the decree divorcing Mrs. Joseph Hooper from her husband, and four minutes later the lady walked out of the building with her son and two daughters, all of them having deliberately turned their backs upon the miserable defendant in the case. As all of the children were of an age to legally choose the parent with whom they preferred to live, and as they elected to cast off the paternal for the maternal, it readily may be seen that Mr. Hooper was not entirely without proof that this is a cruel, heartless, ungrateful world and filled with gall.

As a matter of fact, he had not been wholly to blame for the family crash, notwithstanding a rather loose respect on his part for the


Mr. Bingle - 3/49

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