John Strange Winter ~ A Christmas Party

It was getting very near Christmas-time, and all the boys at Miss Ware’s school were talking excitedly about going home for the holidays, of the fun they would have, the presents they would receive on Christmas morning, the tips from Grannies, Uncles, and Aunts, of the pantomimes, the parties, the never-ending joys and pleasures which would be theirs.

“I shall go to Madame Tussaud’s and to the Drury Lane pantomime,” said young Fellowes, “and my Mother will give a party, and Aunt Adelaide will give another, and Johnny Sanderson and Mary Greville, and ever so many others. I shall have a splendid time at home. Oh, Jim, I wish it were all holidays, like it is when one’s grown up.”

“My Uncle Bob is going to give me a pair of skates—clippers,” remarked Harry Wadham.

“My Father’s going to give me a bike,” put in George Alderson.

“Will you bring it back to school with you?” asked Harry.

“Oh, yes, I should think so, if Miss Ware doesn’t say no.”

“I say, Shivers,” cried Fellowes, “where are you going to spend your holidays?”

“I’m going to stop here,” answered the boy called Shivers, in a very forlorn tone.

“Here—with old Ware?—oh, my! Why can’t you go home?”

“I can’t go home to India,” answered Shivers. His real name, by the bye, was Egerton—Tom Egerton.

“No—who said you could? But haven’t you any relations anywhere?”

Shivers shook his head. “Only in India,” he said miserably.

“Poor old chap; that’s rough luck for you. Oh, I’ll tell you what it is, you fellows: if I couldn’t go home for the holidays—especially Christmas—I think I’d just sit down and die.”

“Oh, no, you wouldn’t,” said Shivers; “you’d hate it and you’d get ever so homesick and miserable, but you wouldn’t die over it. You’d just get through somehow, and hope something would happen before next year, or that some kind fairy or other would—”

“Bosh! there are no fairies nowadays,” said Fellowes. “See here, Shivers: I’ll write home and ask my Mother if she won’t invite you to come back with me for the holidays.”

“Will you really?”

 

“Yes, I will: and if she says yes, we shall have such a splendid time, because, you know, we live in London, and go to everything, and have heaps of tips and parties and fun.”

“Perhaps she will say no,” suggested poor little Shivers, who had steeled himself to the idea that there would be no Christmas holidays for him, excepting that he would have no lessons for so many weeks.

“My Mother isn’t at all the kind of woman who says no,” Fellowes declared loudly.

In a few days’ time, however, a letter arrived from his Mother which he opened eagerly.

“My own darling boy,” it said, “I am so very sorry to have to tell you that dear little Aggie is down with scarlet fever, and so you cannot come home for your holidays, nor yet bring your young friend with you, as I would have loved you to do if all had been well here. Your Aunt Adelaide would have had you there, but her two girls have both got scarlatina—and I believe Aggie got hers there, though, of course, poor Aunt Adelaide could not help it. I did think about your going to Cousin Rachel’s. She most kindly offered to invite you, but, dear boy, she is an old lady, and so particular, and not used to boys, and she lives so far from anything which is going on that you would be able to go to nothing; so your Father and I came to the conclusion that the very best thing that you could do under the circumstances is for you to stay at Miss Ware’s and for us to send your Christmas to you as well as we can. It won’t be like being at home, darling boy, but you will try and be happy—won’t you, and make me feel that you are helping me in this dreadful time.

“Dear little Aggie is very ill, very ill indeed. We have two nurses. Nora and Connie are shut away in the morning-room and to the back stairs and their own rooms with Miss Ellis, and have not seen us since the dear child was first taken ill. Tell your young friend that I am sending you a hamper from Buzzard’s, with double of everything, and I am writing to Miss Ware to ask her to take you both to anything that may be going on in Cross Hampton. And tell him that it makes me so much happier to think that you won’t be alone.

“Your Own Mother.

“This letter will smell queer, darling: it will be fumigated before posting.”

It must be owned that when Bertie Fellowes received this letter, which was neither more nor less than a shattering of all his Christmas hopes and joys, that he fairly broke down, and, hiding his face upon his arms as they rested on his desk, sobbed aloud.

The forlorn boy from India, who sat next to him, tried every boyish means of consolation that he could think of. He patted his shoulder, whispered many pitying words, and, at last, flung his arm across him and hugged him tightly, as, poor little chap, he himself many times since his arrival in England had wished someone would do to him. At last Bertie Fellowes thrust his Mother’s letter into his friend’s hand.

“Read it,” he sobbed.

So Shivers made himself master of Mrs Fellowes’ letter and understood the cause of the boy’s outburst of grief.

“Old fellow,” he said at last, “don’t fret over it. It might be worse. Why, you might be like me, with your Father and Mother thousands of miles away. When Aggie is better, you’ll be able to go home—and it’ll help your Mother if she thinks you are almost as happy as if you were at home. It must be worse for her—she has cried ever so over this letter—see, it’s all tear-blots.”

The troubles and disappointments of youth are bitter while they last, but they soon pass, and the sun shines again. By the time Miss Ware, who was a kind-hearted, sensible, pleasant woman, came to tell Fellowes how sorry she was for him and his disappointment, the worst had gone by, and the boy was resigned to what could not be helped.

“Well, after all, one man’s meat is another man’s poison,” she said, smiling down on the two boys; “poor Tom has been looking forward to spending his holidays all alone with us, and now he will have a friend with him. Try to look on the bright side, Bertie, and to remember how much worse it would have been if there had been no boy to stay with you.”

“I can’t help being disappointed, Miss Ware,” said Bertie, his eyes filling afresh and his lips quivering.

“No, dear boy; you would be anything but a nice boy if you were not. But I want you to try and think of your poor Mother, who is full of trouble and anxiety, and to write to her as brightly as you can, and tell her not to worry about you more than she can help.”

“Yes,” said Bertie; but he turned his head away, and it was evident to the school-mistress that his heart was too full to let him say more.

Still, he was a good boy, Bertie Fellowes, and when he wrote home to his Mother it was quite a bright every-day letter, telling her how sorry he was about Aggie, and detailing a few of the ways in which he and Shivers meant to spend their holidays. His letter ended thus:—

“Shivers got a letter from his Mother yesterday with three pounds in it: if you happen to see Uncle Dick, will you tell him I want a ‘Waterbury’ dreadfully?”

The last day of the term came, and one by one, or two by two, the various boys went away, until at last only Bertie Fellowes and Shivers were left in the great house. It had never appeared so large to either of them before. The schoolroom seemed to have grown to about the size of a church; the dining-room, set now with only one table, instead of three, was not like the same; while the dormitory, which had never before had any room to spare, was like a wilderness. To Bertie Fellowes it was all dreary and wretched—to the boy from India, who knew no other house in England, no other thought came than that it was a blessing that he had one companion left.

“It is miserable,” groaned poor Bertie, as they strolled into the great echoing schoolroom after a lonely tea, set at one corner of the smallest of the three dining-tables; “just think if we had been on our way home now—how different!”

“Just think if I had been left here by myself,” said Shivers, and he gave a shudder which fully justified his name.

“Yes—but—” began Bertie, then shamefacedly and with a blush, added: “you know, when one wants to go home ever so badly, one never thinks that some chaps haven’t got a home to go to.”

The evening went by; discipline was relaxed entirely, and the two boys went to bed in the top empty dormitory, and told stories to each other for a long time before they went to sleep. That night Bertie Fellowes dreamt of Madame Tussaud’s and the great pantomime at Drury Lane, and poor Shivers of a long creeper-covered bungalow far away in the shining East, and they both cried a little under the bed-clothes. Yet each put a brave face on their desolate circumstances to each other, and so another day began.

This was the day before Christmas Eve, that delightful day of preparation for the greatest festival in all the year—the day when in most households there are many little mysteries afoot, when parcels come and go, and are smothered away so as to be ready when Santa Claus comes his rounds; when some are busy decking the rooms with holly and mistletoe; when the cook is busiest of all, and savoury smells rise from the kitchen, telling of good things to be eaten on the morrow.

There were some preparations on foot at Minchin House, though there was not the same bustle and noise as is to be found in a large family. And quite early in the morning came the great hamper which Mrs Fellowes had spoken of in her letter to Bertie. Then just as the early dinner had come to an end, and Miss Ware was telling the two boys that she would take them round the town to look at the shops, there was a tremendous peal at the bell of the front door, and a voice was heard asking for Master Egerton. In a trice Shivers had sprung to his feet, his face quite white, his hands trembling, and the next moment the door was thrown open, and a tall, handsome lady came in, to whom he flew with a sobbing cry of: “Aunt Laura! Aunt Laura!”

Aunt Laura explained in less time than it takes me to write this, that her husband, Colonel Desmond, had had left to him a large fortune, and that they had come as soon as possible to England, having, in fact, only arrived in London the previous day.

“I was so afraid, Tom darling,” she said, in ending, “that we should not get here till Christmas Day was over, and I was so afraid you might be disappointed, that I would not let Mother tell you that we were on our way home. I have brought a letter from Mother to Miss Ware—and you must get your things packed up at once and come back with me by the six-o’clock train to town. Then Uncle Jack and I will take you everywhere, and give you a splendid time, you dear little chap, here all by yourself.”

For a minute or two Shivers’ face was radiant; then he caught sight of Bertie’s down-drooped mouth, and turned to his Aunt.

“Dear Aunt Laura,” he said, holding her hand very fast with his own, “I’m awfully sorry, but I can’t go.”

“Can’t go? and why not?”

“Because I can’t go and leave Fellowes here all alone,” he said stoutly, though he could scarcely keep a suspicious quaver out of his voice. “When I was going to be alone, Fellowes wrote and asked his Mother to let me go home with him, and she couldn’t, because his sister has got scarlet fever, and they daren’t have either of us; and he’s got to stay here—and he’s never been away at Christmas before—and—and—I can’t go away and leave him by himself, Aunt Laura—and—”

For the space of a moment or so, Mrs Desmond stared at the boy as if she could not believe her ears; then she caught hold of him and half smothered him with kisses.

“Bless you, you dear little chap, you shall not leave him; you shall bring him along and we’ll all enjoy ourselves together. What’s his name?—Bertie Fellowes. Bertie, my man, you are not very old yet, so I’m going to teach you a lesson as well as ever I can—it is that kindness is never wasted in this world. I’ll go out now and telegraph to your Mother—I don’t suppose she will refuse to let you come with us.”

A couple of hours later she returned in triumph, waving a telegram to the two excited boys.

“God bless you, yes, with all our hearts,” it ran; “you have taken a load off our minds.”

And so Bertie Fellowes and Shivers found that there was such a thing as a fairy after all.

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