Alice Duer Miller.

The Burglar and the Blizzard A Christmas Story online

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instructions to McVay to keep always in sight. Not a word or a look
could be exchanged without McVay's seeing and rejoicing.

Yet, in spite of his irritation, he could not but admire the sort of
affectionate swagger with which McVay rose to greet her, as if the
brother of so tender a creature must remember his responsibility.

"Well, my dear," he said sitting down beside her on the sofa, "feel
better? Really a terrible experience. Holland has just been telling me
about it - saying how well you behaved," (Geoffrey favoured him with a
scowl behind her back), "a perfect heroine, - so he says."

"Mr. Holland is very kind," said the girl.

"Kind!" cried McVay enthusiastically. "Kind! I should rather think he
was. Why, I could give you instances of his kindness - "

"You need not trouble," said Geoffrey.

McVay smiled at his sister as much as to say: What did I tell you?... so
modest, so unassuming.

To Geoffrey this sort of thing was unspeakably painful. He was willing
enough to meet McVay in a grim interchange over his strange combination
of facility and crime, of doom and triviality. But when it became any
question of playing upon Cecilia's unconsciousness of the situation, he
writhed. Yet, a little discernment would have shown him how natural, how
encouraging from his own point of view her unconsciousness was. To fall
in love thoroughly is sufficiently disconcerting. Which of us needs to
be told that it is an absorbing process, that life looks different, and
that all past experiences must be reviewed in the light of this
unexpected illumination. And if this is true of the more usual forms of
the great passion, what is to be said of a girl who, in a single day,
sees and loves a rescuer, a handsome powerful young creature, who comes
to her with all the attributes of a soldier and a prince, who comes not
only to save and protect, but as host and dispenser of all comfort and
beauty.

It was not to be wondered at that she was dazzled and aware of one fact,
one personality, that far from being able to draw shrewd conclusions
from the little happenings going on before her, she was but dimly aware
of the existence of her brother, of the world, of anything but Geoffrey.

Presently she said, as if trying to call up the picture:

"And this is where you sat all night?" And if the thought was
interesting to her, it was not on account of her brother's share in it.

"Yes," returned McVay, springing lightly to his feet. "Here we sat
discussing plans for your safety." He took a step toward the pair at the
fire, and then remembering, stopped. "Please move a little back,
Holland," he said, "I want to get nearer the fire. I'm cold."

[Illustration: "PLEASE MOVE A LITTLE BACK, HOLLAND," HE SAID, "I WANT TO
GET NEARER THE FIRE"]

"You can go to the fire," said Geoffrey, with a gesture of permission.

"Of course you can," said the girl, "Mr. Holland is not in your way,
Billy."

But Billy continued to eye his host. "Oh, no, you don't," he said
warily. "Not unless you move back. Do move, there's a good fellow." And
Geoffrey laughed and moved, somewhat to the girl's mystification. She
forgot to wonder, however, in pursuing the more wonderful train of
thought which had already been occupying her. Suppose that their plans
for her relief had been decided differently, suppose her brother had
come for her instead of the magnificent stranger, with what different
eyes she might now be looking on life - this ecstasy as Holland had
defined it. Curious to know by what accident she had been so blessed,
she asked:

"Why was it, Billy, that you did not come after me yourself?"

"Just what I said to him," replied McVay eagerly. "If I said once, I
said a dozen times: 'Holland, it is my duty and pleasure, it is my
_right_ to go,' but ..." McVay shrugged his shoulders, "when he once
gets an idea into his head, it takes a gimlet to get it out."

"Upon my word, Billy," the girl said indignantly, "I don't think you
ought to talk like that even in fun. You know perfectly well that Mr.
Holland only insisted on going because he thought he was better able to
bear the physical strain."

"Physical strain!" exclaimed McVay colouring to the roots of his sandy
hair, from pure annoyance; "I don't know what you mean,... Holland is,
of course, a larger man than I, but not stronger.... Oh, well, as far as
mere brute force goes, perhaps, but in the matter of bearing physical
strain, you betray the most absurd ignorance. It is well known
scientifically that medium-sized men like myself, when their muscles are
at all developed (and you know my muscles), are better fitted for
endurance than any of these over-grown giants."

"Then," said she calmly, "if you knew you were better fitted I can't see
why you did not go."

"You are not quite fair to your brother," said Geoffrey interrupting,
for McVay looked as if he would explode in another moment under the
sense of injustice. "He did propose going himself, but I would not let
him; I - I made it a personal matter."

"Very personal," replied McVay with feeling. "I'll just explain how it
was. Last night, as soon as I realised how bad the storm was, I made up
my mind that I had better attempt to enter the house. I succeeded after
some trouble, came to this room, turned on the light - a spooky thing; an
empty house, picked up a book, had quite forgotten my position, the
world, everything, when a voice at my elbow said: 'Fond of reading?' I
was never more surprised in my life. I felt distinctly caught, - an
interloper. And to make matters worse, I saw that Holland did not at
once recognise me. I made every effort to leave, but he would not hear
of such a thing. He made it perfectly plain in fact that it was his wish
to keep me. I yielded. That, I think, Holland, is a pretty accurate
account of the night's proceeding, isn't it?"

Geoffrey did not answer. His soul rebelled at the farce, and at McVay's
irrepressible enjoyment of his own abilities. As Holland met the
twinkling joy of those small blue eyes, he wondered if he would not be
doing mankind a favour by putting a bullet into McVay before the dawn of
another day. Unconscious of this possibility, McVay continued to his
sister:

"Well, it has all been a painful experience for you, my dear... a long
and dangerous adventure for a woman, but you were at least warmly clad.
A handsome coat, is it not, Holland?"

"Very," said Geoffrey chillingly.

"Now that coat," McVay went on unchilled, "was a real bargain. I may say
I paid nothing for it, - little more than the trouble of taking it home.
Although from another point of view, its price was pretty high...."

"Really, Billy, I don't think Mr. Holland is interested in our
bargains."

"In _some_, he is."

"Yes, indeed," said Geoffrey, eyeing McVay with a warning glance, "I
think I know of just about a dozen people who will want a circumstantial
account of all of them."

"Now there, Holland, there is one of your philistine
words, - circumstantial! It takes all poetry, all imagination out of a
subject. Do you know, the only connotation - (are you familiar with that
word?) - the only suggestion it has for me is a _jury_?"

He scored distinctly. Geoffrey had nothing to say in reply.

It was McVay himself, who, disliking a pause, observed that it was
almost time to begin on the preparation of the Christmas dinner. They
all rose as if glad of a break. As they passed out of the door, Geoffrey
laid his hand on McVay's arm.

"Why do you deliberately try to exasperate me?" he said.

McVay smiled. "Why do little boys lay their tongues to lamp-posts in
freezing weather? Don't I amuse you? Be candid."

"No."

McVay looked regretful. "As I remembered you, Holland, as a boy, you had
more sense of humour," he said gently.




VI


In the kitchen McVay made it evident that his talents were for
organisation rather than for hard labour. He drew a chair near the wall,
and tilting back at his ease, watched Geoffrey and Cecilia at work.
Geoffrey, engaged in lighting the range-fire, looked up at her as she
moved about filling the kettle and washing out pots and pans, and
thought that he and she presented the aspect of a young couple of the
labouring class with no further ambition than to keep a roof over their
heads. He almost had it in his heart to wish that they were.

She proved herself infinitely more capable than the two men had been,
discovering tins of butter and soup and sardines, a package of hominy,
apples and potatoes in the cellar, and an old box of wedding cake,
which, with a burning brandy sauce, she declared would serve very well
for plum-pudding.

Manual labour was such a novelty to Geoffrey that he soon forgot even
his irritation against McVay and the triangular intercourse was more
friendly than before, until marred by an unfortunate incident.

He was standing in the middle of the kitchen with a steaming pot in each
hand, when McVay, without warning, advanced toward him, handkerchief in
hand, exclaiming:

"My dear fellow, such a smut on your forehead, pray allow me - "

[Illustration: "MY DEAR FELLOW - PRAY ALLOW ME"]

"Look out," roared Geoffrey, realising how easily in another second his
revolver might be taken from him. The tone was alarming, and McVay
sprang back ten feet. "I was afraid of burning you with the soup,"
Geoffrey explained politely.

"I own you made me jump," said McVay.

The girl said nothing, and Geoffrey feared the incident had made an
unfortunate impression on her.

It appeared to be completely forgotten, however, when they presently sat
down to their Christmas dinner, of which they all expressed themselves
as inordinately proud. There was canned soup, and sardines and toasted
biscuits, canned corned beef, potatoes and fried hominy, bacon and a
potato salad, a bottle of champagne, and finally the wedding cake.

Now to say that by the time dessert was put on table McVay was drunk
would be to do him a gross injustice. All the more genial side of this
nature, however, was distinctly emphasised. The better part of a quart
of champagne had not produced any signs of intoxication; his eye was
clear, his speech perfect, and he was more than usually aware of his own
powers, confident of appreciation.

As he finished his share of cake, he rose to his feet, and leaning the
tips of his fingers on the table, addressed Geoffrey.

"My dear Holland," he said, "I will not wish you a Merry Christmas, for
it has already been as merry as it has lain within my poor capacity to
make it. Let me, however, express my own gratitude to you for this
delightful occasion. You have referred to the fare as meagre, to our
position as constrained, but believe me, I am not exaggerating when I
say that I so little agree with you that I am confident that, during
many of the remaining years of my life I shall look back to this
Christmas as one of unusual luxury and freedom. It is, perhaps, the warm
glow of friendship that gilds all small discomforts, for in situations
like ours characters are tested, and yours, Holland," he paused
impressively, "has stood the test."

Geoffrey bowed gratefully, and McVay continued:

"I have here a slight token in honour of the day. It is of little
pecuniary value, but between us, Holland, pecuniary value is no longer
mentioned. I feel that it will be recommended to you more than mere
worth could recommend it by the fact that it is peculiarly my own, - my
own as few human possessions can be said to be. I offer it," he said,
drawing from his pocket a square flat little package, "with best wishes
for a happy New Year."

[Illustration: "I HAVE HERE A SLIGHT TOKEN, IN HONOR OF THE DAY"]

The idea that McVay was going to give him a present had never crossed
Geoffrey's mind, and now it struck him as so characteristic, so
perfectly in keeping with McVay's consuming desire to triumph in minor
matters, that he was able to smile pleasantly and receive it
appropriately. He exchanged a glance of real appreciation with the
donor, and received a grave bow in return.

Cecilia smiled, too, "I don't know exactly why you should think Mr.
Holland wants your picture, Billy," she said.

"It may be of the greatest service to him," said McVay.

The girl turned to Geoffrey. "I can't make a speech like Billy's," she
said, "but I have a small present for you which I hope you won't despise
because it is not new. I mean I have worn it myself for some time, and I
hope _you_ will now, in remembrance of the time when you sheltered the
houseless." She held out on her pink palm a flat gold pencil with a
single topaz set in the top.

The thing was of some value and Geoffrey, looking up, caught McVay's eye
in which danced such a delicious merriment that Geoffrey's half-formed
question was answered. McVay was undergoing such paroxysms of delight at
the idea that Geoffrey was about to become a receiver of stolen goods
that he could not well conceal it. And instinctively Geoffrey drew back
his hand. The next moment he realised that he must at once accept the
gift with decent gratitude, whatever he might choose to do with it
afterward, but unfortunately the girl had noticed his hesitation.

She said nothing whatsoever, but she closed her hand on the pencil, rose
from the table, and left them to dispose of the remains of the feast as
best they could.

McVay, as if he had observed nothing, threw himself at once into the
part of a waiter, tucked a napkin round his waist, flung another over
his arm and began to clear the table.

"Wait a moment," said Geoffrey, who had not followed his example; "I
have something to say to you. I see you are in possession of my
sentiments in regard to your sister.... I think her a wonder, - that's
all it is necessary for you to know."

"Quite naturally, Holland. She is, she is."

"I won't discuss that with you. The point is that you seem to be under
the impression that this will do you some good. Well, it won't. You
stand just where you did before. You go to jail when the snow melts.
Then I settle my affairs."

McVay's face fell. "Really, Holland," he said, "I don't see how, if you
are fond of a woman you can want ..."

"... to spare her such a brother as you. Think it over."

"There are worse brothers than I," replied McVay, "how many men would
have sacrificed what I have sacrificed in order to keep her
comfortably."

"Not many, I hope."

"She is extraordinarily fond of me."

"Perhaps. You see she has not any one else to be fond of."

"We can scarcely say that _now_," returned McVay encouragingly.

"I won't discuss it with you."

"You can't mean to tell me that you are in love with my sister and mean
to send me to state's prison?"

"I mean exactly that."

"Why, she'd never forgive you."

Geoffrey thought this so probable that he had no answer to give and
presently McVay, who had been grumbling over the matter to himself,
asked: "Are you serious, Holland?"

"What do you suppose I am?" Geoffrey roared, and McVay, shaking his head
went on with the work of clearing the table. He was very silent and
abstracted and for the first time seemed to realise his position. When
they had put away the last plate, Geoffrey said:

"Now come to the library. I am going to give you a pipe, confound you."

"A pipe! Why?"

"Because I want to give your sister something, and I think she would be
more apt to take it."

"I'm afraid she is rather offended by the way you treated her little
gift. As a matter of fact I was the person to be offended, for I had
given her the pencil. A pretty little thing, singularly like one which
you may have seen Mrs. - "

"Don't tell me where you took it from. I don't want to know. Come and
get your pipe and mind you are grateful."

"A pipe," observed McVay thoughtfully. "I think I'll take that large
meerschaum on the mantelpiece."

Geoffrey laughed. "I think you won't," he answered. "The best pipe I
own! No, indeed, you'll take a horrid little one that won't draw. It
will be just the thing for you."

"No," said McVay, "no. You must give me the big one. Otherwise I shall
make it appear that you promised the other to me, and turned mean at the
last moment. And I can do it, Holland." His little eyes gleamed at the
thought. "I shall say, 'My dear fellow, I'm glad you changed your mind
about the meerschaum; it was as you say, too handsome for a man in my
position.' That will make her mad if anything will. You know she is not
quite satisfied with the way you treat me, as it is."

This was quite true, and Geoffrey, remembering that the object of the
gift was to please the girl, reluctantly agreed to part with his
favourite pipe. The affair went off well. McVay affected to hesitate
over accepting so handsome an offering, and Geoffrey pressed it upon him
with a good grace.

As far as his present to the girl was concerned, he found himself less
and less willing to make it in McVay's presence, and more and more
unable to think of any way of getting rid of him except murder or the
cedar-closet. His anxiety was rendered more acute by the fact that once
or twice he could not help suspecting that Cecilia, in spite of her
anger, would have been glad of a few words alone with him, also.

Before very long she suggested that McVay should take her hat and coat
upstairs for her.

"Certainly I will," cried Billy, springing up with alacrity, and was at
the door before Holland's warning shout "_McVay_" stopped him.

"Let me take it up for your sister," he said warningly.

"Oh, not at all. Let _me_," replied McVay courteously.

"Couldn't hear of it," returned Geoffrey.

By this time they were both outside of the door, and Geoffrey closed it
with a snap.

"You would, would you?" he said angrily.

"Now, Holland," said McVay as one who intends to introduce reason into
an irrational confusion, "this is exactly a case in point. I am by
nature a gallant man. I forgot all about your instructions."

"I wonder?" said Geoffrey.

"It was instinctive to do my sister the little favour she asked. Yes,
and I doubt if I should have acted differently if your pistol had been
at my head. She asked me. That was enough."

"I've warned you once."

"Holland, I think, - you'll excuse my telling you, - that you have a very
unfortunate manner at times."

They went upstairs together and were descending when Geoffrey stopped,
with his eyes on the grand piano which stood in the hall below them.

"Can you play?" he said.

McVay brightened at once. He had been looking a little glum since his
last speech. "Yes," he answered, "I can. Well, I'm not a professional,
you understand, but for an amateur I am supposed to have as much
technique and a good deal more sentiment than most."

"I don't care _how_ you play," said Holland. "There is a piano. Sit down
and play, and _don't stop_."

"No, Holland, no," said the other with unusual firmness; "that I will
not do. No artist would. Ask any one. It is impossible to play in public
without practice. I have not touched the instrument for over a year."

"You can do all the practising you like here and now. You can play
finger exercises for all I care. All I insist is that you should make a
noise so that I'll know you are there."

"Well," said McVay yielding, "you must remember to make allowances. Not
the best musician could sit down after a year ... however, I dare say it
will come back to me quicker than to most people. You must make
allowances for my lack of practice."

"There is only one thing I won't make allowances for, and that is your
moving from that music stool."

He opened the piano, and McVay sat down waving his fingers to loosen the
joints. He sat with his head on one side, as if waiting to discover
which of the great composers was about to inspire him. Then he dropped
lightly upon the notes, lifting his chin, as if surprised to find that
an air of Schubert's was growing under his fingers. Geoffrey was
astonished to find that he really was, as he said, something of an
artist. He waited until he was fairly started and then returned to the
library.

"Is that Billy?" said the girl. "It must be a great pleasure to him to
have a piano again. He is so fond of music."

"He was not as eager to play as I to have him," said Geoffrey.

He came back quietly, and stood looking down at her for a moment. Then
he said, stretching out his hand:

"I want my Christmas present."

"I have none to give you."

"You had."

"I've changed my mind."

"Why?"

For the first time she looked at him. "Mr. Holland," she said, "you must
think me singularly unobservant. Do you suppose I don't see that you
dislike my brother. You refused the pencil - you did refuse it plainly
enough - because Billy had given it to me. I will not offer it to you
again. I know that Billy sometimes does rub people up the wrong way, but
I should think any one of any discernment could see that his faults are
only faults of manner."

She said this almost appealingly, and Geoffrey unable to agree, turned
with something like a groan, and resting his elbows on the mantelpiece,
covered his face with his hands.

"Do you suppose that he does not see how you feel toward him? Are you by
any chance assuming that he bears with your manner on account of his own
comfort? You might at least be generous or acute enough to see that it
is only for my sake that he exercises so much self-control. He does not
want to make my position here more unendurable by quarrelling with you.
It makes me furious to see what you force him to put up with, the way
you speak to him, and look at him, as if he were your slave, or a
disobedient dog. His self-control is wonderful. I admire him more than I
can say."

"And is my self-control nothing?" he asked, without moving his hands
from his face.

"Yours? I don't see any exercise of yours. Circumstances have put us at
your mercy, you are rich and fortunate, and as insolent as you choose to
be. Self-control? I don't see any evidence of it."

"No?" he said, and turning, looked at her with a violence that might
have set her on the right track. Under his eyes she looked down and
probably in the instant forgot all that she had been saying and feeling,
for when he added: "I love you," her hands moved toward his, and she
made no resistance when he took her in his arms.




VII


McVay was left so long at the piano that he finally resorted to a series
of discords in order to recall himself to Holland's mind. His existence,
if he had only realised the fact, was so completely forgotten that he
might have made his escape with a good half hour to spare before either
of the others appreciated that the music had ceased. Not knowing this,
however, he did not dare stop his playing for an instant, until sheer
physical fatigue interfered. It was at this point that the discords
began, and brought Geoffrey into the hall.

The disposal of McVay for the night was a question to which Geoffrey had
given a great deal of thought. The cedar closet presented itself as a
safe prison, but in the face of McVay's repeated assertions that the air
had barely sufficed to support him during his former occupancy, it
looked like murder to insist. Geoffrey finally, when bed-time came,
locked him in a dressing-room off his own room. The window - the room was
on the third floor - gave on empty space, and against the only door he
placed his own bed, so that escape seemed tolerably difficult.

And to all other precautions, Geoffrey added his own wakefulness,
although toward morning weariness triumphed over excitement and he fell
asleep.

He was waked by an insistent knocking at his door, and he heard his name
called by Cecilia. He sprang up and found her standing in the hall. She
was wrapped in her sable coat, but shivering from cold or fear.

"There is some one getting into the house. I heard a window open and
steps on the piazza, below my room. What can it be?"

Geoffrey flung himself past her. The instinct of the hunter joined to
the obstinacy of his nature maddened him at the notion of McVay's
escape. On the opposite side of the house there was a piazza and on the
roof of this a neighbouring window opened. He threw it back and climbed
out.

The snow had stopped, and the moon was shining, paling a little before
the approaching dawn. Geoffrey could see a figure stealing quickly
across the snow. There was no question of its identity. His revolver,
which he had snatched from under his pillow and brought with him, he at
once levelled on the vanishing form; his finger was on the trigger, when
he felt a hand on his arm.

Leaning out of the window behind him the girl caught his arm. "Don't
fire," she said. "Don't you see it is Billy?"


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