The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently, approached. When it came near her, Leslie bent down upon her knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.
It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.
She felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside her, and that its mysterious presence filled her with a solemn dread. She knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.
“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come?” said Leslie.
The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.
“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” Leslie pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”
The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer she received.
Although well used to ghostly company by this time, Leslie feared the silent shape so much that her legs trembled beneath her, and she found that she could hardly stand when she prepared to follow it. The Spirit paused a moment, as observing her condition, and giving her time to recover.
But Leslie was all the worse for this. It thrilled her with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud, there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon her, while she, though she stretched her own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.
“Ghost of the Future!” she exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another woman from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?”
It gave her no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them.
“Lead on!” said Leslie. “Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!”
The Phantom moved away as it had come towards her. Leslie followed in the shadow of its dress, which bore her up, she thought, and carried her along.
They scarcely seemed to enter the city; for the city rather seemed to spring up about them, and encompass them of its own act. But there they were, in the heart of it; a conference, amongst the delegates; who hurried up and down, and talked into mobile phones, and conversed in groups, and looked at their watches, and trifled thoughtfully with their ipads; and so forth, as Leslie had seen them often.
The Spirit stopped beside one little knot of delegates. Observing that the hand was pointed to them, Leslie advanced to listen to their talk.
“No,” said a great fat woman with a monstrous chin, “I don’t know much about it, either way. I only know she’s dead.”
“When did she die?” inquired another.
“Last night, I believe.”
“Why, what was the matter with her?” asked a third. “I thought she’d never die.”
“God knows,” said the first, with a yawn.
“At least she got her beloved Nordic Model through the Dail. Unless someone takes over the Org who will get all that funding?” asked a red-faced gentleman with a pendulous excrescence on the end of his nose, that shook like the gills of a turkey-cock.
“I haven’t heard,” said the woman with the large chin, yawning again. “Someone from the orders will take over, perhaps. I won’t be getting her funding. That’s all I know.”
This pleasantry was received with a general laugh.
“It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral,” said the same speaker; “for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party and volunteer?”
“I don’t mind going if a lunch is provided,” observed the gentleman with the excrescence on his nose. “But I must be fed, if I make one.”
“Well, I am the most disinterested among you, after all,” said the first speaker, “for I never wear black gloves, and I never eat lunch. But I’ll offer to go, if anybody else will. When I come to think of it, I’m not at all sure that I wasn’t her most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met. Bye, bye!”
Speakers and listeners strolled away, and mixed with other groups. Leslie knew them, and looked towards the Spirit for an explanation.
The Phantom glided on into a street. Its finger pointed to two persons meeting. Leslie listened again, thinking that the explanation might lie here.
She knew these women, also, perfectly. They were influential: very wealthy, and of great importance. She had made a point always of standing well in their esteem: in a political point of view, that is; strictly in a political point of view.
“How are you?” said one.
“How are you?” returned the other.
“Well!” said the first. “The old bitch has got her own at last, hey?”
“So I am told,” returned the second. “Cold, isn’t it?”
“Seasonable for Christmas time. You’re not a skater, I suppose?”
“No. No. Something else to think of. Good morning!”
Not another word. That was their meeting, their conversation, and their parting.
Leslie was at first inclined to be surprised that the Spirit should attach importance to conversations apparently so trivial; but feeling assured that they must have some hidden purpose, she set herself to consider what it was likely to be. They could scarcely be supposed to have any bearing on the death of Sr Urania, her old partner, for that was Past, and this Ghost’s province was the Future. Nor could she think of any one immediately connected with herself, to whom she could apply them. But nothing doubting that to whomsoever they applied they had some latent moral for her own improvement, she resolved to treasure up every word she heard, and everything she saw; and especially to observe the shadow of herself when it appeared. For she had an expectation that the conduct of her future self would give her the clue she missed, and would render the solution of these riddles easy.
She looked about in that very conference for her own image; but another woman stood in her accustomed corner, and though the clock pointed to her usual time of day for being there, she saw no likeness of herself among the multitudes that poured in through the Porch. It gave her little surprise, however; for she had been revolving in her mind a change of life, and thought and hoped she saw her new-born resolutions carried out in this.
Quiet and dark, beside her stood the Phantom, with its outstretched hand. When she roused herself from her thoughtful quest, she fancied from the turn of the hand, and its situation in reference to herself, that the Unseen Eyes were looking at her keenly. It made her shudder, and feel very cold.
The coprse lay, in the dark empty house, with not a man, a woman, or a child, to say that she was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to her. A cat was tearing at the door, and there was a sound of gnawing rats beneath the hearth-stone. What they wanted in the room of death, and why they were so restless and disturbed, Leslie did not dare to think.
“Spirit!” she said, “this is a fearful place. In leaving it, I shall not leave its lesson, trust me. Let us go!”
Still the Ghost pointed with an unmoved finger to the head.
“I understand you,” Leslie returned, “and I would do it, if I could. But I have not the power, Spirit. I have not the power.”
Again it seemed to look upon her.
“If there is any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this woman’s death,” said Leslie quite agonised, “show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you!”
The Phantom spread its dark robe before her for a moment, like a wing; and withdrawing it, revealed a room by daylight, where a mother and her children were.
She was expecting some one, and with anxious eagerness; for she walked up and down the room; started at every sound; looked out from the window; glanced at the clock; tried, but in vain, to work on her computer; and could hardly bear the voices of the children in their play.
At length the long-expected knock was heard. She hurried to the door, and met her friend; a woman whose face was careworn and depressed, though she was young. There was a remarkable expression in it now; a kind of serious delight of which she felt ashamed, and which she struggled to repress.
She sat down to the dinner that had been hoarding for her by the fire; and when she asked her faintly what news (which was not until after a long silence), she appeared embarrassed how to answer.
“Is it good?” she said, “or bad?”—to help her.
“Bad,” she answered.
“We are quite ruined?”
“No. There is hope yet, Caroline.”
“If they relent and face reality,” she said, amazed, “there is! Nothing is past hope, if such a miracle has happened.”
“She is past relenting,” said her friend. “She is dead.”
She was a mild and patient creature if her face spoke truth; but she was thankful in her soul to hear it, and she said so, with clasped hands. She prayed forgiveness the next moment, and was sorry; but the first was the emotion of her heart.
“What the half-drunken woman whom I told you of last night, said to me, when I tried to see her and obtain a hearing; and what I thought was a mere excuse to avoid me; turns out to have been quite true. She was not only very ill, but dying, then.”
“Where does that leave us”
“I don’t know. But at least she will not be using the new law to evict us for her own ends, nor demanding the Guards apply it so that we cannot have a hope of earning a living. We may sleep to-night with light hearts, Caroline!”
Yes. Soften it as they would, their hearts were lighter. The children’s faces, hushed and clustered round to hear what they so little understood, were brighter; and it was a happier house for this woman’s death! The only emotion that the Ghost could show her, caused by the event, was one of pleasure.
“Let me see some tenderness connected with a death,” said Leslie; “or that dark chamber, Spirit, which we left just now, will be for ever present to me.”
The Ghost conducted her through several streets familiar to her feet; and as they went along, Leslie looked here and there to find herself, but nowhere was she to be seen. They entered poor Lisa’s house and found the woman crouched over a meagre fire, face streaked with tears while another woman she had seen out on the streets before brought her a cup of tea.
Quiet. Very quiet. The noisy little family must have been as still as statues in their rooms for there to be such quiet.
“ They took the children, all of them ” her friend handed her tea, blinking back tears “They said that until I accepted that sex work was harm I was unfit to be a mother – but I only SOLD sex for the sake of my family” she sobbed uncontrollably “What is wrong with them?”
“I don’t know” said her friend, tears in her own eyes.
“What do they want from us? That we deny our children, that we ignore their needs to subscribe to their great, sacred wannabe lesbian cult of sanctimonious nonsense?” Her friend shook her head “If I didn’t sell sex, the kids would have nothing…NOTHING…it’s not as if I enjoyed it…but they even used THAT as an excuse to stop us being able to earn the money we needed. We don’t enjoy it so we mustn’t be allowed to make a living…there IS no other way or I wouldn’t fecking well do it”
“I know” said her friend, placing a hand on her arm.
“But they say I am only IMAGINING there is no other way…as if I have got the brains to check for myself…I have a degree, I have a Dip Ed, but there is no f*cking work for someone who has been out of teaching for years. What was I supposed to do with Padraig? I will never forgive myself for letting him down and not being able to save him”
Leslie sucked in her breath sharply, realising this must mean that the grave, compelling little boy had gone.
The room before her melted, and she found herself in another room, with a high barred window where little Padraig sat, unmoving, until a sudden fury and he smashed his head into the walls like to dash his own brains out…then stopped just as suddenly staring into space again. It was surely an anteroom of hell, but why, for such an innocent…
The room melted again…and she was back with Lisa and the other woman. Lisa was still crying.
“He was fine as long as he had Busby. That dog was his crutch to walk the world with, until he got ill, and because of that sick f*cking law I couldn’t make enough to pay the bills and feed them, let alone pay vet bills – I stood it out Maggie…I would have done ANYTHING…anal sex without a condom, whip me if you like, only let me make the money to save Busby for Padraig. But the men were too scared…whatever I offered, I could never get enough” she groped for a handkerchief and blew her nose ”We had to watch Busby dying…he was in so much pain…I had to take him to the pound to be put out of his misery but they wouldn’t even let me stay with him…the way he looked at me as I was leaving…I owed that daft old dog SO MUCH” she took a sip from the mug “Padraig couldn’t be made to understand…in his mind I had killed his friend to save money. He went crazy…attacking me every chance he got…and he was worse at school, attacking everyone…I didn’t mind, I could bear it, but they took him…then three weeks later they came back and took the rest…”
Her friend tried to say something and seemed unable to find words.
“They want to have Lily and Brian adopted…they don’t need my permission…just like that” she snapped her fingers “They aren’t my kids any more, and all because of the f*cking bitch and her stupid law…I hope she died screaming…I only wish she had died soon enough to save my family” with that she broke down into uncontrollable sobs against her friend’s shoulder…muttering over and over “I hope the bitch died screaming”.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come conveyed her, as before—though at a different time, she thought: indeed, there seemed no order in these latter visions, save that they were in the Future—into the resorts of politics, but showed her not herself. But rather a place with grey walls and few windows, stinking of sewers and rotten things, a prison of sorts, and in one of the room sat a girl, hunched and broken…when Leslie looked closer she saw the girl bore a remarkable resemblance to the proud, gentle and lovely Luci, but so much changed. Her long hair had been hacked off as if with shears or a knife…and her dark skin was the powdery colour of charcoal and ashes.
A man, dark like Luci came through the door, he wore some kind of uniform and grabbed Luci roughly by the shoulders.
“Come on filthywhore the supervisor will see you now” they followed them down grimy corridors and into a bright office where a smiling women sat…she gestured Luci to sit.
“Child, I am sure you are overwhelmed just now, but that is quite normal” she rose from her seat and looked out of the big picture window “Just be glad you were rescued from filthydirtywhoring and exploitation and sent home where we can educate and care for you” she seemed to expect an answer, but Luci, already a qualified nurse in Germany, had none to give so she continued “We will teach you simple skills and find you decent work in a factory. You are pretty child, despite whatever foolish thing you have done with your hair” Luci tried to explain that it had been done to her in holding cells but the woman ignored her “Never mind, it will grow…we should be able to find you a husband…won’t that be wonderful? To be a respectable married woman instead of prostituted? Of course he will not be young or handsome but you cannot pick and choose”
Luci found her voice at this “But I am already married to a God”
The woman smiled indulgently “Such superstitious nonsense you have been brainwashed with…we will soon educate your ignorance. You will be much happier when you have a husband to care for and give him children” with this she indicated that the interview was at and end and the guard seized her shoulder once again and began to march her back through the corridors.
Left alone locked in her cell, without hesitation or anger she slammed her fist into the small window, which shattered showing the iron bars outside. She held her face to the faint trace of breeze, drinking it in, then, very calmly picked out a long shard of glass and plunged it into her heart.
Caught unawares Leslie winced and turned away “What has brought this great evil to these good people?”
The spirit did not answer. Indeed, the Spirit did not stay for anything, but went straight on, as to the end just now desired, until besought by Leslie to tarry for a moment.
“This street,” said Leslie, “through which we hurry now, is where my place of occupation is, and has been for a length of time. I see the house. Let me behold what I shall be, in days to come!”
The Spirit stopped; the hand was pointed elsewhere.
“The house is yonder,” Leslie exclaimed. “Why do you point away?”
The inexorable finger underwent no change.
Leslie hastened to the window of her office, and looked in. It was an office still, but not hers. The furniture was not the same, and the figure in the chair was not herself. The Phantom pointed as before.
She joined it once again, and wondering why and whither she had gone, accompanied it until they reached an iron gate. She paused to look round before entering.
A churchyard. Here, then; the wretched woman whose name she had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation’s death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite. A worthy place!
The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. She advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but she dreaded that she saw new meaning in its solemn shape.
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Leslie, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Leslie. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”
The Spirit was immovable as ever.
Leslie crept towards it, trembling as she went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave her own name, Leslie Brooke .
“Am I that woman who wrought such ill?” she cried, upon her knees.
The finger pointed from the grave to her, and back again.
“No, Spirit! Oh no, no!”
The finger still was there.
“Spirit!” she cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the woman I was. I will not be the woman I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!”
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
“Good Spirit,” she pursued, as down upon the ground she fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”
The kind hand trembled.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
In her agony, she caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but she was strong in her entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed her.
Holding up her hands in a last prayer to have her fate reversed, she saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a gearstick.