Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, and sitting bolt upright to get her thoughts together, Leslie had no occasion to be told that the bell was again upon the stroke of One. She felt that she was restored to consciousness in the right nick of time, for the especial purpose of holding a conference with the second messenger despatched to her through Sr Urania’s intervention. But finding that she turned uncomfortably cold when she began to wonder how this new spectre might appear. She wished to challenge the Spirit on the moment of its appearance, and did not wish to be taken by surprise, and made nervous.
I don’t mind calling on you to believe that she was ready for a good broad field of strange appearances, and that nothing between a baby and rhinoceros would have astonished her very much.
Now, being prepared for almost anything, she was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, she was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. All this time at the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clock proclaimed the hour; and which, being only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as she was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at; and was sometimes apprehensive that she might be at that very moment an interesting case of spontaneous combustion, without having the consolation of knowing it. At last, however, she began to think—as you or I would have thought at first; for it is always the person not in the predicament who knows what ought to have been done in it, and would unquestionably have done it too—at last, I say, she began to think that the source and secret of this ghostly light might be in the back of the van, from whence, on further tracing it, it seemed to shine. This idea taking full possession of her mind, she out of the van and softly made her way to the sliding doors .
The moment Leslie’s hand was on the lock, a strange voice called her by her name, and bade her enter. She obeyed.
It was the back of the van. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giantess, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Leslie, as she came peeping round the door.
“Come in!” exclaimed the Ghost. “Come in! and know me better, sister!”
Leslie entered timidly, and hung her head before this Spirit. She was not the dogged Leslie she had been; and though the Spirit’s eyes were clear and kind, she did not like to meet them.
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” said the Spirit. “Look upon me!”
Leslie reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.
“You have never seen the like of me before!” exclaimed the Spirit.
“Never,” Leslie made answer to it.
“Have never walked forth with the younger members of my family; meaning (for I am very young) my elder sisters born in these later years?” pursued the Phantom.
“I don’t think I have,” said Leslie. “I am afraid I have not. Have you had many sisters, Spirit?”
“More than two thousand,” said the Ghost.
“A tremendous family to provide for!” muttered Leslie.
The Ghost of Christmas Present rose.
“Spirit,” said Leslie submissively, “conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”
“Touch my robe!”
Leslie did as she was told, and held it fast.
Holly, mistletoe, red berries, ivy, turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, meat, pigs, sausages, oysters, pies, puddings, fruit, and punch, all vanished instantly. So did the room, the fire, the ruddy glow, the hour of night, and they stood in the city streets on Christmas morning, where (for the weather was severe) the people made a rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music, in scraping the snow from the pavement in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses, whence it was mad delight to the boys to see it come plumping down into the road below, and splitting into artificial little snow-storms.
The house fronts looked black enough, and the windows blacker, contrasting with the smooth white sheet of snow upon the roofs, and with the dirtier snow upon the ground; which last deposit had been ploughed up in deep furrows by the heavy wheels of cars; furrows that crossed and re-crossed each other hundreds of times where the great streets branched off; and made intricate channels, hard to trace in the thick yellow mud and icy water. The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen. There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.
For, the people who were shovelling away on the housetops were jovial and full of glee; calling out to one another from the parapets, and now and then exchanging a facetious snowball—better-natured missile far than many a wordy jest—laughing heartily if it went right and not less heartily if it went wrong.
But soon the steeples called good people all, to church and chapel, and away they came, flocking through the streets in their best clothes, and with their gayest faces.
In time the bells ceased and they went on, invisible, as they had been before, into the suburbs of the town. It was a remarkable quality of the Ghost (which Leslie had observed at the baker’s), that notwithstanding her gigantic size, she could accommodate herself to any place with ease; and that she stood beneath a low roof quite as gracefully and like a supernatural creature, as it was possible she could have done in any lofty hall.
And perhaps it was the pleasure the good Spirit had in showing off this power of hers, or else it was her own kind, generous, hearty nature, and her sympathy with all poor folk, that led her straight to the home of one of the women on the street ; for there she went, and took Leslie with her, holding to her robe; and on the threshold of the door the Spirit smiled, and stopped to bless the dwelling with the sprinkling of his torch. Think of that! A prostituted woman with a pimp and a drug habit; and yet the Ghost of Christmas Present blessed her three bedroomed semi!
Then up rose the harried babysitter, brave in her ribbons and Christmas tree earrings, which made a goodly show and came from the pound shop and helped the eldest daughter Naimh decorate the Christmas tree, while two smaller siblings, a boy and a girl, tore around the house excited at the presents Santa would bring and the dinner they would eat next day. The eldest boy, Liam, had left earlier in a glaze of hair product without being too specific about where he was going or when he intended to return.
“What has ever got your precious Mother then?” said Stella, the babysitter. “I cannot linger after midnight, I am expected” and she reached into her pocket for her mobile phone.
Nothing seemed to move but everything changed, and, still clutching the spirit’s robe tightly Leslie found herself out on the street, right besides one of the women who had spurned her earlier. She thought her name might be Lisa, but then it might not, for who could know what was true and what was not with these poor, prostituted creatures.
“Jingle Bells” sounded merrily from her large shoulder bag and she answered her phone.
“Oh God is it that late? Look I am sorry, one of those old bitches of nuns was hanging around all evening so we couldn’t make any money. I think they do it to spite us, horrid old bats. Treating us like children. If they get their way we won’t be able to make any money at all” she listened for a moment, concern wiping itself across her brow “Look I can give you double…though you might have to wait till next week” she listened again “No, OF COURSE I can’t expect you to let your own brother down and he home from New Zealand…I would NEVER do that…leave it with me…I’ll work something out…she listened again…within the next hour, I promise, just hang on” she added, without conviction “Maybe Liam will come back”
She stood for a moment, with her face in her hands, still holding the little phone. Her posture was one of utter despair.
“She should be home with her children not selling her body” said Leslie.
“Of course she should” agreed the spirit, “but she has no food at home and no money to buy any. She doesn’t even have the money to get home”
“These women have no idea of the value of money, and fritter it away, she needs to be educated made to learn more prudence, better budgeting skills”
The spirit laughed out loud “…and I suppose you are the expert who could teach her? She is not an imprudent woman, she cannot afford to be, and her budgeting skills are excellent, while you would stretch ten euros across a thing she would have it wrapped thrice around but she has too many debts and responsibilities to bear alone since her husband left, even you could not afford them”
The spirit fell silent so they could hear Lisa make another call:
“Hi Luci…this is Lisa” she listened “Oh you know, same as usual” she listened again “This is a terrible liberty, but there is no-one else I could ask, and I know you don’t celebrate Christmas” she listened and laughed out loud “Well apart from the fact you are the kind to celebrate Monday morning following Sunday night if you took a mind” she laughed again, listening more “No, I need someone to go sit with my kids…the sitter has to leave…her brother will be home from New Zealand” she listened incredulous “You won’t say THAT when you have been there ten minutes – you know Padraig has…special needs” she listened “He can be really challenging…but I am desperate” she smiled and tears appeared under her lashes “Thank you, thank you SO VERY MUCH” her whole body relaxed with relief and she switched off the call.
In a blink they were outside Lisa’s house again where a large taxi had just pulled up. The driver got out and courtly as a lord, actually handed a tiny woman in glittering green and rust sari out of the car. She was like a human chistmas tree, but brighter, and much, MUCH prettier. She brought out a bulging carrier bag while the driver fetched a large tray of tupperware containers that seemed to steam in the cold clear air.
The two youngest children opened the door, wide eyed. The little boy asked in amazement, “Are you the Christmas Fairy?”
Luci beamed at him and then, making a mock sad face said, in her gentle, sing song voice “Sorry to disappoint, you, I am not a fairy” two little faces fell and Luci beamed again “But I am Devadasi, and we are ALL Princesses”
The girl Lily touched the glittering sari more amazed and said “A PRINCESS…of course”
Lucy dropped the bags and hefted the girl up to her shoulder “I am a CHRISTMAS Princess, come to wait with you for baby Jesus”.
The driver put down the tray and she paid off the babysitter too and arrange for the driver to drop her home with a big hug and many cries of “Merry Christmas!!”
The tupperware container held a collection of Indian foods the like of which they had never seen before. Niamh gingerly sampled one with her finger.
“Is this take away”
“Not at all” beamed Luci “It is bring with me, we always have plenty for anyone who is hungry, and your mother said you might be hungry.
The little boy Brian, tugged urgently at her sari. “Where are you from?”
“A BIG country FAR away, called India”
“That’s where take aways come from” he assured her solemnly “but if you are a Princess there why did you leave?”
“Because I wanted to meet you, and because in my home people are a little bit afraid of Devadasi and it is not good manners to frighten people” she pulled him onto her lap. “I had many, many little brothers like you to care for in the orphanage”
Niamh caught this and asked “How can a Princess be raised in an orphanage?”
“Because we have a different culture with different customs, and many Princesses are raised in orphanages” she quickly showed them how to eat the food properly, with their, freshly washed hands, and when the settled down to eat she said “Which of you is Padraig your mum said was special in some way but you all seem exceptionally special so I cannot tell”
Niamh looked uncomfortable “Padraig has autism…it make him shy, he is probably just outside the door” Luci got up and opened the door…and started back in fright as a big hairy yellow dog sauntered in, accompanied by a small, silent solemn boy who did not meet anyone’s eyes.
Luci sat asfar away from the dog as possible as Niamh explained “That’s Busby, he is a DIY service dog. Mum doesn’t get on with the Autism people and they wouldn’t give Padraig a service dog. So she decided to train one herself” she fed a piece of food to the eager dog “Busby is the greatest. Since we had him Padraig is so much happier” she fed the dog another titbit.
Without raising his head or looking at her the little autistic boy spoke slowly and precisely “Why are you afraid of Busby? He won’t hurt you”
Luci answered him frankly “In my home we are taught, even as very small children, to be afraid of dogs, because some of them are angry and bring disease you do not have here”
“I heard you say people in your home are afraid of you too, and you are good and gentle. Busby is the same”
Tentatively Luci reached out a hand to pat the big dogs head, then laughed as he nuzzled her fingers looking for more food.
“Merry Christmas Busby dog” she whispered, still half afraid of him..
“Merry Christmas one and all!” said Padraig, firmly, without even looking up.
“Spirit,” said Leslie, with an interest she had never felt before, “tell me if Padraig will be all right.”
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will be far from all right.”
“No, no,” said Leslie. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he can’t fit in and conform hadn’t he best be gone away where no one needs be disturbed by him?”
Leslie hung her head to hear words she had so often spoken quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.
“Sister,” said the Ghost, “if woman you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered who is most disturbed and what they are disturbed by. Will you decide what folk shall live, what folk shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor woman’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”
Leslie bent before the Ghost’s rebuke, and trembling cast her eyes upon the ground. But she raised them speedily, on hearing her own name.
There was nothing of high mark in this. They were not a particularly handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were worn; their clothes were shabby; and they might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit’s torch at parting, Leslie had his eye upon them, and especially on Padraig, until the last.
By this time it was getting dark, and snowing pretty heavily; and as Leslie and the Spirit went along the streets, the brightness of the roaring fires in all sorts of rooms, was wonderful. Here, the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cosy dinner, with hot plates baking through and through before the fire, and deep red curtains, ready to be drawn to shut out cold and darkness. There all the children of the house were running out into the snow to meet their married sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, and be the first to greet them. Here, again, were shadows on the window-blind of guests assembling; and there a group of handsome girls, all hooded and fur-booted, and all chattering at once, tripped lightly off to some near neighbour’s house; where, woe upon the single man who saw them enter—artful witches, well they knew it—in a glow!
But, if you had judged from the numbers of people on their way to friendly gatherings, you might have thought that no one was at home to give them welcome when they got there, instead of every house expecting company, and piling up its fires half-chimney high. Blessings on it, how the Ghost exulted! How it bared its breadth of breast, and opened its capacious palm, and floated on, outpouring, with a generous hand, its bright and harmless mirth on everything within its reach!
It was a great surprise to Leslie, while listening to the moaning of the wind, and thinking what a solemn thing it was to move on through the lonely darkness over an unknown abyss, whose depths were secrets as profound as Death: it was a great surprise to Leslie, while thus engaged, to hear a hearty laugh. It was a much greater surprise to Leslie to recognise it as her own mini skirted sister’s and to find herself in a bright, dry, gleaming room, with the Spirit standing smiling by her side, and looking at that same sister with approving affability!
“Ha, ha!” laughed Leslie’s sister. “Ha, ha, ha!”
If you should happen, by any unlikely chance, to know a woman more blest in a laugh than Leslie’s sister, all I can say is, I should like to know her too. Introduce her to me, and I’ll cultivate her acquaintance.
It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour. When Leslie’s sister laughed in this way: holding her sides, rolling her head, and twisting her face into the most extravagant contortions: Leslie’s sister in law, laughed as heartily as she. And their assembled friends being not a bit behindhand, roared out lustily.
“Ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha, ha!”
“She said that Christmas was a humbug, as I live!” cried Leslie’s sister. “She believed it too!”
“More shame for her, Heather!” said Leslie’s sister in law, indignantly. Bless those women; they never do anything by halves. They are always in earnest.
She was very pretty: exceedingly pretty. With a dimpled, surprised-looking, capital face; a ripe little mouth, that seemed made to be kissed—as no doubt it was; all kinds of good little dots about her chin, that melted into one another when she laughed; and the sunniest pair of eyes you ever saw in any little creature’s head. Altogether she was what you would have called provoking, you know; but satisfactory, too. Oh, perfectly satisfactory.
“She’s a comical old wan,” said Heather, “that’s the truth: and not so pleasant as she might be. However, her offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against her.”
“I’m sure she is very rich, Heather,” hinted Leslie’s sister in law. “At least you always tell me so.”
“What of that, my dear!” said Leslie’s brother. “Her wealth and power is of no use to her. She don’t do any good with it. She don’t make herself comfortable with it. She hasn’t the satisfaction of thinking—ha, ha, ha!—that she is ever going to benefit US with it.”
“I have no patience with her,” observed Leslie’s sister in law. Her sisters, and all the other ladies, expressed the same opinion.
“Oh, I have!” said Heather. “I am sorry for her; I couldn’t be angry with her if I tried. Who suffers by her ill whims! Herself, always. Here, she takes it into her head to dislike us, and she won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence? She don’t lose much of a dinner.”
“Indeed, I think she loses a very good dinner,” interrupted her wife. Everybody else said the same, and they must be allowed to have been competent judges, because they had just had dinner; and, with the dessert upon the table, were clustered round the fire, by lamplight.
“Well! I’m very glad to hear it,” said Heather, “because I haven’t great faith in these young housekeepers. What do you say, Topper?”
Topper had clearly got his eye upon one of Heather’s wife’s sisters, for he answered that a bachelor was a wretched outcast, who had no right to express an opinion on the subject. Whereat Heather’s wife’s sister—the plump one with the lace tucker: not the one with the roses—blushed.
“Do go on, Heather,” said her wife, clapping her hands. “She never finishes what she begins to say! She is such a ridiculous person!”
Heather revelled in another laugh, and as it was impossible to keep the infection off; though the plump sister tried hard to do it with aromatic vinegar; her example was unanimously followed.
“I was only going to say,” said Heather, “that the consequence of her taking a dislike to us, and not making merry with us, is, as I think, that she loses some pleasant moments, which could do her no harm. I am sure she loses pleasanter companions than she can find in her own thoughts, either in her shiney new office, or her big house in Dun Laoghaire. I mean to give her the same chance every year, whether she likes it or not, for I pity her. She may rail at Christmas till she dies, but she can’t help thinking better of it—I defy her—if she finds me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying Leslie, sister, how are you? If it only puts her in the vein to leave those poor streetworkers in peace for the night, that’s something; and I think I shook her yesterday.”
It was their turn to laugh now at the notion of her shaking Leslie. But being thoroughly good-natured, and not much caring what they laughed at, so that they laughed at any rate, she encouraged them in their merriment, and passed the bottle joyously.
After tea, they had some music. For they were a musical family, and knew what they were about, when they sang songs from Glee or well know shows, I can assure you: especially Topper, who could growl away in the bass like a good one, and never swell the large veins in his forehead, or get red in the face over it. Leslie’s sister in law played well upon the guitar; and played among other tunes a simple little air (a mere nothing: you might learn to whistle it in two minutes), which had been familiar to the child who fetched Leslie from the boarding-school, as she had been reminded by the Ghost of Christmas Past. When this strain of music sounded, all the things that Ghost had shown her, came upon her mind; she softened more and more; and thought that if she could have listened to it often, years ago, she might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for her own happiness with her own hands.
But they didn’t devote the whole evening to music. After a while they played at forfeits; for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself. Stop! There was first a game at blind-man’s buff. Of course there was. And I no more believe Topper was really blind than I believe he had eyes in his boots. My opinion is, that it was a done thing between him and the plump sister; and that the Ghost of Christmas Present knew it. The way he went after that plump sister in the lace tucker, was an outrage on the credulity of human nature. Knocking down the fire-irons, tumbling over the chairs, bumping against the piano, smothering himself among the curtains, wherever she went, there went he! He always knew where the plump sister was. He wouldn’t catch anybody else. If you had fallen up against him (as some of them did), on purpose, he would have made a feint of endeavouring to seize you, which would have been an affront to your understanding, and would instantly have sidled off in the direction of the plump sister. She often cried out that it wasn’t fair; and it really was not. But when at last, he caught her; when, in spite of all her silken rustlings, and her rapid flutterings past him, he got her into a corner whence there was no escape; then his conduct was the most execrable. For his pretending not to know her; his pretending that it was necessary to touch her head-dress, and further to assure himself of her identity by pressing a certain ring upon her finger, and a certain chain about her neck; was vile, monstrous! No doubt she told him her opinion of it, when, another blind-man being in office, they were so very confidential together, behind the curtains.
Heather’s wife was not one of the blind-man’s buff party, but was made comfortable with a large chair and a footstool, in a snug corner, where the Ghost and Leslie were close behind her. But she joined in the forfeits, and loved her love to admiration with all the letters of the alphabet. Likewise at the game of How, When, and Where, she was very great, and to the secret joy of Heather, beat her sisters hollow: though they were sharp girls too, as Topper could have told you. There might have been twenty people there, young and old, but they all played, and so did Leslie; for wholly forgetting in the interest she had in what was going on, that her voice made no sound in their ears, she sometimes came out with her guess quite loud, and very often guessed quite right, too; for the sharpest needle, warranted not to cut in the eye, was not sharper than Leslie; blunt as she took it in her head to be.
The Ghost was greatly pleased to find her in this mood, and looked upon her with such favour, that she begged like a child to be allowed to stay until the guests departed. But this the Spirit said could not be done.
“Here is a new game,” said Leslie. “One half hour, Spirit, only one!”
It was a Game called Yes and No, where Heather had to think of something, and the rest must find out what; she only answering to their questions yes or no, as the case was. The brisk fire of questioning to which she was exposed, elicited from her that she was thinking of an animal, a live animal, rather a disagreeable animal, a savage animal, an animal that growled and grunted sometimes, and talked sometimes, and walked about the streets, and wasn’t made a show of, and wasn’t led by anybody, and didn’t live in a menagerie, and was never killed in a market, and was not a horse, or an ass, or a cow, or a bull, or a tiger, or a dog, or a pig, or a cat, or a bear. At every fresh question that was put to her, Heather burst into a fresh roar of laughter; and was so inexpressibly tickled, that she was obliged to get up off the sofa and stamp. At last the plump sister, falling into a similar state, cried out:
“I have found it out! I know what it is, Heather! I know what it is!”
“What is it?” cried Heather.
“It’s your Sister Les-lie!”
Which it certainly was. Admiration was the universal sentiment, though some objected that the reply to “Is it a bear?” ought to have been “Yes;” inasmuch as an answer in the negative was sufficient to have diverted their thoughts from Leslie, supposing they had ever had any tendency that way.
“She has given us plenty of merriment, I am sure,” said Heather, “and it would be ungrateful not to drink her health. Here is a glass of mulled wine ready to our hand at the moment; and I say, ‘ Leslie sister!’ ”
“Well! Leslie, sister!” they cried.
“A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to the old bat, whatever she is!” said Heather. “She wouldn’t take it from me, but may she have it, nevertheless. Sister Leslie!”
Leslie had imperceptibly become so gay and light of heart, that she would have pledged the unconscious company in return, and thanked them in an inaudible speech, if the Ghost had given her time. But the whole scene passed off in the breath of the last word spoken by her sister; and she and the Spirit were again upon their travels.
Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery’s every refuge, where vain man in his little brief authority had not made fast the door, and barred the Spirit out, she left her blessing, and taught Leslie her precepts.
It was a long night, if it were only a night; but Leslie had his doubts of this, because the Christmas Holidays appeared to be condensed into the space of time they passed together. It was strange, too, that while Leslie remained unaltered in her outward form, the Ghost grew older, clearly older. Leslie had observed this change, but never spoke of it, until they left a children’s Twelfth Night party, when, looking at the Spirit as they stood together in an open place, he noticed that its hair was grey.
“Are spirits’ lives so short?” asked Leslie.
“My life upon this globe, is very brief,” replied the Ghost. “It ends to-night.”
“To-night!” cried Leslie.
“To-night at midnight. Hark! The time is drawing near.”
The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Leslie, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?”
“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
“Oh, sister! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Ignorance and Desperation
Leslie started back, appalled. Having them shown to her in this way, she tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Leslie could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Desperation. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Leslie.
“Are there no programs?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Is there no secure accommodation?”
The bell struck twelve.
Leslie looked about her for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, she remembered the prediction of Sr Urania, and lifting up her eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards her.