“It’s perfectly simple,” said the Reverend Henry, adopting his lofty style. “We must cut the whole lot. There is no other course.”
“I don’t consider that your opinion is of any value whatever,” said Eileen. “In fact you ought not to be allowed to take part in this discussion. Every one knows that you have always tried to get out of Christmas presents, and now you are merely using a grave national emergency to further your private ends.”
The Reverend Henry was squashed; but Mrs. Sidney had a perfect right to speak, for she has been without doubt the most persistent and painstaking Christmas provider in the family, and has never been known to miss a single relation even at the longest range.
“I quite agree with Henry,” said she. “This is no time for Christmas presents — except to hospitals and Belgians and men at the Front.”
“You mean that you would scratch the whole lot,” said I, “even the pocket diary for 1915 that I send to Uncle William?”
“Yes, even that. You can send the diary to Sidney” (who is in Flanders). “I have always wanted him to keep a diary.”
“What about the children?” said I.
“The children must realise,” said the Reverend Henry solemnly, “what it means for the nation to be at war.”
“Oh, no,” Laura broke in impetuously. “How can they realise? How can you expect Kathleen to realise?”
“Do you know,” said the Reverend Henry, “that only last Sunday my niece Kathleen was marching all over the house singing at the top of her voice, ‘It’s a long, long way to Tipperary: the Bible tells me so’? Obviously she realises.”
“But what about — ” Eileen was beginning.
“Let’s have a scrap of paper,” said I, “a contract that we can all sign, and then we can put down the exceptions to the rule.”
Henry was already hard at work with a sheet of foolscap.
“… not to exchange, give, receive, or swap in celebration of Christmas, 1914, any gift, donation, subscription, contribution, grant, token, or emblem within the family and its connections: and further not to permit any gift, donation, subscription, contribution, grant, token, or emblem to emanate from any member of the family to such as are outside.”
“Good so far,” said I.
“The following recipients to be excepted,” Henry went on,
“(1) All Hospitals; (2) Belgians; (3) His Majesty’s Forces — ”
“(4) The Poor and Needy,” suggested Eileen.
“(5) The Aged and Infirm,” said I. “I only want to get in Great-aunt Amelia. She mustn’t be allowed to draw a blank.”
“That’s true,” said Henry; “we’ll fix the age limit at ninety-one. That’ll bring her in.”
“(6) Children of such tender age that they are unable to realise the national emergency,” said Mrs. Sidney.
“Quite so,” said Henry. “What would you suggest as the age limit? Three?”
“Four,” said Laura simultaneously.
“I should like to suggest five,” said I, “to bring in Kathleen.”
“Let’s make it seven,” said Mrs. Henry. “I can hardly believe that Peter realises, you know.”
“Stop a bit,” said I. “If you take in Peter you can’t possibly leave out Tom. Make it eight-and-a-half.”
“That seems a little hard on Alice, doesn’t it?” said Eileen.
“Any advance on eight-and-a-half?” called Henry from the writing-desk. And from that moment the discussion assumed the character of an auction, Laura finally running it up to thirteen (which brings in the twins) to the general satisfaction.
When the contract was signed, witnessed and posted on its way to the other signatories there was a general sense of relief that Christmas would not be very different from usual after all. Henry growled a good deal. But we know our Reverend Henry: He will do his duty when the time comes.
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