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- Mr. Bingle - 6/49 -
but he cures. If I should happen to get sick again, Tom, send for him without delay, will you?"
Mr. Bingle said he would, and he meant it. He had jotted down in the back of a little notebook each successive visit of Dr. Fiddler, and, consulting it from time to time, had no difficulty in realising that he came high. Twenty-one visits, at ten dollars a visit, that's what it amounted to, say nothing of the drug bill, the extra-food bill, the night-nurse's wages, and the wear and tear on the nerves of his wife, himself--and Melissa. For, it would appear, Melissa had nerves as well as the rest of them, and Uncle Joe was the very worst thing in the world for Melissa's nerves. She very frequently said so, and sometimes to his face, although she never neglected him for an instant. In truth, she shared with Mrs. Bingle the day nursing, and seldom slept well of nights, knowing that the night-nurse was upsetting everything in the kitchen and pantry in her most professional way.
Of course Uncle Joe did not actually get well. He merely recovered. In other words, he survived the attack of influenza and heart trouble, only to go on ailing as he had ailed before. He was quite cheerful about it, too. They used to catch him chuckling to himself as he sat shivering over the fireplace, and he seemed to take especial delight in demanding three eggs for breakfast when every one knew that eggs were seventy-two cents a dozen. The only compensation they had out of the experience--aside from the realisation that they were living up to a principle--was the untiring effort he made to entertain them with stories of his adventures as a tramp! He gracelessly confessed that he had travelled under many names, and that he was known by various soubriquets that would not sound well on Fifth Avenue but still possessed the splendid virtue of being decorative. There was not the slightest doubt that he had roamed the land over, and there was not even the faintest suspicion that he had profited by travel.
And this brings us up to Christmas Eve. With February not far away, and Uncle Joe lamentably liable to have another attack, the Bingles curtailed quite considerably in their preparations for the festivities in honour of the five little Sykeses. They spent but a third of the customary amount in providing presents, and they were not quite sure that they were wise in spending as much as that. Uncle Joe went to considerable pains to convince them that they were making fools of themselves in throwing away money that might be needed for his funeral, and absolutely refused to become a party to the affair. He moped in his bedroom, over an oil-stove, and made himself generally unpleasant. As for "The Christmas Carol," he had but one opinion about it, and this is no place to express it.
When he came into the sitting-room after the departure of the Sykeses, breaking in upon the tender reflections of Mr. and Mrs. Single, he represented the ghost who might have been at the feast but was, for some reason, obligingly late.
As he stood over the blaze, rubbing his bony old knuckles, he was a depressing figure indeed. His gloomy eyes had no reflected glow in them; his long, stooped frame suggested nothing so much as a weather- worn scare-crow about which a thousand storms had thrashed. There was no joy in his soul.
"Yes," he said, as if they had disputed him without reason, "you ought to be thankful you have no children. What you can see in this tomfoolery about Christmas Eve is beyond me. Better save your money for something worth while, that's what I say. Something worth while."
"Well, WHAT, for instance?" demanded Mr. Bingle, suddenly irritated beyond control.
"Confound you, Tom, do you forget that you owe Dr. Fiddler more than two hundred dollars?" snapped Uncle Joe, turning on him.
"Oh, I will pay him--I will pay him all right, never fear," replied Mr. Bingle, shrinking.
Old Joseph Hooper regarded him keenly for a long time before speaking again. His voice softened and his manner underwent a swift change.
"Tom Bingle, you are the best man living to-day," he said, a strange huskiness in his voice. "If you were not as good as gold you would kick me out and--and--"
"Kick you out, Uncle Joe!" cried Mr. Bingle, coming to his feet and laying his hand on the bent shoulder. "God bless you, sir, I--I--I ought to kick you out for SAYING such a thing!"
And old Joseph suddenly laid his arm on the mantelpiece and buried his face upon it, his gaunt figure shaking with sobs.
THE DEATH OF UNCLE JOE
When Thomas Bingle made his inspired visit to Geoffrey Hooper in the interest of peace, he took it upon himself to advise his wealthy cousin to read "The Christmas Carol" before it was too late, and formed a permanent and irradicable opinion of the pauper's son when that individual curtly informed him that he was not in the habit of reading "trash." Mr. Bingle was patient enough to inquire if he knew anything about "The Christmas Carol" and Geoffrey in turn asked "who wrote the words for it," although it really didn't matter, he added by way of cutting off the reply of his astonished visitor, who naturally could not have expected to know that his cousin was a consistent church-goer and knew a great deal about Christmas carols. If it had been in his power to hate any one, Mr. Bingle would have hated his solitary male cousin for that stupendous insult to literature. As it was, he could only pity him for his ignorance, and at the same time blame Uncle Joseph for bringing up his son in such a slip-shod manner.
It all went to show the trend of the world, however, in this callous age of ours; it went to show that the right sort of missionary work was not being performed. Mr. Bingle never forgave Geoffrey for calling "The Christmas Carol" trash. In the light of what took place afterwards, he felt that he was completely justified in an opinion formed almost on the instant the abominable word was uttered.
Christmas fell on a Wednesday. Three days out of each year Mr. Bingle slept late of a morning: Christmas, Easter Sunday and Labour Day. On this particular Christmas morning he slept much later than usual; the little clock in the parlour was striking eight when he awoke and scrambled out of bed.
Mrs. Bingle always had her coffee in bed. She adhered strictly to that pleasant custom for the somewhat pathetic reason that it afforded a distinct exemplification of the superiority of mistress over maid. By no manner of means could Melissa have arrived at this expression of luxury.
"Merry Christmas," said Mr. Bingle, crimping his toes on the cold carpet and bending over to kiss his companion's cheek. She responded with unwonted vigour, proving that she had been wide awake for some time.
"I shall get up, Thomas," she declared, much to his surprise.
"It's pretty cold," said he. "Better stay where you are."
"I thought I heard Uncle Joe moving about in the sitting-room quite a while ago," she said. "Do you suppose he needed a hot-water bottle?"
Mr. Bingle sighed. "If he did, you may be quite sure he would have got the whole house up with his roars, Mary."
"You will take cold, Thomas, standing around without your--"
"I'll just run in and see if Uncle Joe needs anything," he interrupted, a note of anxiety in his voice. Pausing at the bedroom door, with his hand on the knob, he turned toward her with a merry grin on his deeply-seamed face. His sparse hair was as tousled and his eyes as full of mischief as any child's. "Maybe it was old Santa you heard out there, Mary--filling the stockings."
She was too matter-of-fact for anything like that. "If you knew what was good for you, Tom Bingle, you'd fill that pair of stockings lying at the foot of the bed instead of running around in your bare feet," she said, pulling the covers up about her chin. "I think I'll have my breakfast in bed, after all."
"That's right," said he, and hurried nimbly out of the room so that she would not hear the chattering of his teeth. Mrs. Single was enjoying the paroxysm of a luxurious, comfortable yawn when she heard a shout of alarm from the sitting-room. She sat straight up in bed.
"Mary! Oh, my goodness! I say, Melissa!"
Then came the pattering of Mr. Bingle's feet across the floor, followed by the intrusion of an excited face through the half-open door.
"Wha--what IS the matter?" she quavered.
"Dead?" she shrieked.
"No! Gone, I said--left the house. Out in the cold. Freezing. Wandering about in the streets--"
"In--in his night clothes?" gasped his wife. "Don't tell me he has gone into the street without--"
"Get up!" cried Mr. Bingle, making a dash for his own garments. "We must do something. Let me think--give me time. Now what is the first thing to do? Notify the police or--"
"IS HE DRESSED?" she demanded.
"Of course," he replied. "At least he took his clothes with him. They're not in his bedroom."
"Well, ask the elevator boy. He'll know when he went out. Hurry up, Thomas. Don't stop to put on a collar. Do hurry--"
"I'm not putting on a collar," came in smothered tones. "I'm putting on a shirt."
He didn't quite have it on when Melissa appeared in the doorway, wide- eyed and excited.
"Uncle Joe has disappeared, ma'am," she chattered. "I can't find hide
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