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- Mr. Bingle - 49/49 -

to-night, d'you hear? Put them under your pillow and sleep on 'em-- with one eye open if possible."

"Good gracious," she said, with her broadest grin, I shan't sleep for a week. They look terribly important."

"I'll tell you what they contain," said Mr. Force, after a moment. "You ought to know what you are guarding, my girl. This one contains Kathleen's present. Do you remember that pretty little cottage and farm just above my place in the country? The cottage with the ivy and the maples and the old stone wall? Well, this is a deed to that property. It is my daughter's present to her 'daddy,' the gentleman who made her the lady she is and who has just made a new man of Sydney Force. This--"

"Gee!" exclaimed Melissa, pop-eyed and trembling with joy. "What next? Now, I've got to sleep on a house and lot, besides--" She caught herself up in time.

"This envelope contains my present to him. It is an appointment as manager and superintendent of my estates in Westchester County and in Connecticut--for life, Melissa. You won't fail to give them to him for breakfast, will you?"

"God bless my soul!" gasped Melissa, unconsciously falling into a life-long habit of the man who loved everybody.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The agents came at eight o'clock, a gloomy man in uniform and two kind-looking, sweet-faced women in brown.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Mr. Bingle's voice broke occasionally as he read "The Christmas Carol" to a silent, attentive audience made up of Kathleen and Sydney Force, Melissa, Diggs and the two Watsons. Fortunately, he knew the story so well that he was not called upon to perform the impossible. It was seldom that he could see the print on account of the mist that lay in his tired, forlorn grey eyes.

Far below in the street outside, a half-frozen clarinetist was sending up a mournful carol from the mouth of his reed. Somewhere in the distance a high-voiced child was singing. And the wind played a dirge as it marched past the windows of the candle-lighted flat.

At last he came to the end. He laid the book upon the table, fumbled for his spectacle case, and contrived to smile as he held out a hand to Kathleen.

"You will come every Christmas Eve, won't you, Deary?" he said.

"Yes, Daddy," murmured Kathleen, between the sobs that Tiny Tim had drawn from her soft little heart. "Every Christmas Eve, Daddy?"

"Then it won't be so bad as it seems now," he said gently. Not a word said he of the nine children who had gone away.

Mr. Force had glanced surreptitiously at his watch at least a dozen times during the reading of the story. An anxious frown settled on his brow and an observer might have remarked the strange, listening attitude that he affected at times, such as the alert cocking of his head and an intense squinting of the eyes.

"Now, if my dear Mary could only pop in on us and--" but Mr. Bingle choked up suddenly and turned his attention to the stirring of the coals in the stove.

The door-bell pealed again, this time with surprising authority and decision. Mr. Bingle started as if shot. As he faced the little hall, his eyes were wide with an incredulous stare of wonder.

"Good God in heaven," he murmured, "can it be possible that--but no! It cannot be Mary. That would be too wonderful. Watson--Melissa, will you please see who's--who's there?"

As rigid as a post he stood over the stove, holding the poker in his hand, his eyes fastened upon the door as Watson sprang to open it. The cheerful voice of old Dr. Fiddler--the GREAT Dr. Fiddler--came roaring into the room ahead of its owner.

"By the Lord Harry, it's a cold night--Hello! What's this? Liveried servants again? Well, upon my soul, I--Ah, there you are, Bingle! How are you, Force?"

The next instant he was wringing Mr. Bingle's hand and booming Christmas greetings to every one in hearing--and out of it, for that matter, such a voice he had!

"Mary? What--how is she, Doctor?" cried Mr. Bingle, peering beyond the bulky form of the doctor as if expecting to see his wife in the little hallway.

"Fine as a fiddle," said Dr. Fiddler, using a pet and somewhat personal phrase.

"No--no bad news?" stammered Mr. Bingle. "You're not trying to break anything gently to me, are you?"

"Gently?" roared the doctor. "Does a rhinoceros break things gently?" He threw off his great ulster and began jerking at his gloves. "Just thought I'd run down to see you, Bingle. Christmas Eve comes but once a year. Hope I'm not too late for the Carol. I missed hearing it last year, and--"

"If you'll swear to me that Mary is all right, I'll--I'll read it over again," cried Mr. Bingle.

"I swear it on my word as a gentleman," said Fiddler, "but for heaven's sake don't read it over again. I'll take it for granted. Besides I always cry when we get to the Tiny Tim part, so--I say Force, don't you cry?"

"I did to-night," said Sydney Force, his face beaming.

"And you, Diggs?"

"Like a blooming baby, sir," said Diggs, and Watson blew his nose violently.

"Doctor, I thought for a moment that it was Mary at the door," said Mr. Bingle slowly. He was still trembling.

"Oh, she won't be here for a couple of weeks, Bingle--perhaps three. But she's coming, old man--coming with banners flying and bells on her toes. 'Gad, you won't know her when you see her to-morrow." He sent a quick, frowning glance around the room. "They're gone, eh? All of 'em? Good! I must tell you in advance, Bingle, that Mrs. Bingle will have to bring a nurse with her--for a while, at least. So, you see, we'll need all the room--"

"A nurse? Oh, my Lord!" gasped Mr. Bingle, dropping into a chair as his knees gave way beneath him. "Is--is it as bad as that?"

"Cheer up!" cried the doctor, laying a hand upon his shoulder, and suddenly giving him a violent shake. "Nothing to be alarmed over, I give you my word. She's as fine as a fiddle, I tell you. And now, give me a full glass of that amazing egg-nogg you make, Bingle. I'm frozen to the bone."

"Egg-nogg?" murmured Mr. Bingle, helplessly. "Why, God bless my soul, I--I never thought of it. Melissa, have we any whiskey in the house? No, of course not--and we have no cream, I fear, so--"

"Beg pardon, sir," interrupted Diggs, "we 'ave all of the hingredients. Watson 'appened to think of the cold trip 'ome, sir."

"Sit down, then," cried Mr. Bingle. "I'll mix the grog for you, Doctor, in two shakes of a lamb's tail."

He flew into the kitchen. Instantly Mr. Force had Dr. Fiddler by the arm. The others crowded close about the pair.

"How is it, Doctor? All right?"

"Wonderful!" whispered Dr. Fiddler. "She WOULD have her own way about it, and, by gad, I think she was inspired, now that it's turned out so beautifully. Half-past six this morning. She's a strong, perfect woman. I've got my car waiting downstairs and as soon as I've broken the news to him by degrees--don't want him to knock under completely, you know--I'm going to take him up to the hospital."

Melissa leaned forward, her eyes gleaming.

"Boy or girl, Doctor?" she whispered.

"A boy, God bless him," said Dr. Fiddler.


Mr. Bingle - 49/49

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