When Leslie awoke, it was so dark, that looking out of the window, she could scarcely distinguish the transparent window from the opaque walls of the cab. She was endeavouring to pierce the darkness with her ferret eyes, when the chimes of a neighbouring church struck the four quarters. So she listened for the hour.
To her great astonishment the heavy bell went on from six to seven, and from seven to eight, and regularly up to twelve; then stopped. Twelve! It was past two when she fell asleep. The clock was wrong. An icicle must have got into the works. Twelve!
“Why, it isn’t possible,” said Leslie, “that I can have slept through a whole day and far into another night. It isn’t possible that anything has happened to the sun, and this is twelve at noon!”
Leslie sat back again, and thought, and thought, and thought it over and over and over, and could make nothing of it. The more she thought, the more perplexed she was; and the more she endeavoured not to think, the more she thought.
Sr Urania’s Ghost bothered her exceedingly. Every time she resolved within herself, after mature inquiry, that it was all a dream, her mind flew back again, like a strong spring released, to its first position, and presented the same problem to be worked all through, “Was it a dream or not?”
Leslie lay in this state until the chime had gone three quarters more, when she remembered, on a sudden, that the Ghost had warned her of a visitation when the bell tolled one. She resolved to remain until the hour was passed; and, considering that she could no more go to sleep than go to Heaven, this was perhaps the wisest resolution in her power.
The quarter was so long, that she was more than once convinced she must have sunk into a doze unconsciously, and missed the clock. At length it broke upon her listening ear.
“A quarter past,” said Leslie, counting.
“Half-past!” said Leslie.
“A quarter to it,” said Leslie.
“The hour itself,” said Leslie, triumphantly, “and nothing else!”
She spoke before the hour bell sounded, which it now did with a deep, dull, hollow, melancholy One. Light flashed up upon the instant.
Leslie, starting up, found herself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: right beside her in the passenger seat.
It was a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old woman, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave her the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white; and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.
Even this, though, when Leslie looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.
“Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Leslie.
The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.
“Who, and what are you?” Leslie demanded.
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
“Long Past?” inquired Leslie: observant of its dwarfish stature.
“No. Your past.”
Perhaps, Leslie could not have told anybody why, if anybody could have asked her; but she had a special desire to see the Spirit in her cap; and begged her to be covered.
“What!” exclaimed the Ghost, “would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap, and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow!”
Leslie reverently disclaimed all intention to offend or any knowledge of having wilfully “bonneted” the Spirit at any period of her life. She then made bold to inquire what business brought her there.
“Your welfare!” said the Ghost.
Leslie expressed herself much obliged, but could not help thinking that a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end. The Spirit must have heard him thinking, for it said immediately:
“Your reclamation, then. Take heed!”
It put out its strong hand as it spoke, and clasped her gently by the arm.
“Rise! and walk with me!”
It would have been in vain for Leslie to plead that the weather and the hour were not adapted to pedestrian purposes; that van was warm, and the thermometer a long way below freezing; that she was clad but lightly in her trainers, track suit, and anorak; and that she had a cold upon her at that time. The grasp, though gentle as a woman’s hand, was not to be resisted.
“Bear but a touch of my hand there,” said the Spirit, laying it upon her heart, “and you shall be upheld in more than this!”
As the words were spoken, they passed through the window, and stood upon an open country road, with fields on either hand. The city had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground.
“Good Heaven!” said Leslie, clasping her hands together, as she looked about her. “I was bred in this place. I was a child here!”
The Spirit gazed upon her mildly. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old woman’s sense of feeling. She was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten!
“Your lip is trembling,” said the Ghost. “And what is that upon your cheek?”
Leslie muttered, with an unusual catching in her voice, that it was a pimple; and begged the Ghost to lead her where she would.
“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.
“Remember it!” cried Leslie with fervour; “I could walk it blindfold.”
“Strange to have forgotten it for so many years!” observed the Ghost. “Let us go on.”
They walked along the road, Leslie recognising every gate, and post, and tree; until a little market-town appeared in the distance, with its bridge, its church, and winding river. Some shaggy ponies now were seen trotting towards them with children upon their backs, who called to other children in country 4X4s, driven by farmers. All these children were in great spirits, and shouted to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it!
“These are but shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “They have no consciousness of us.”
The jocund travellers came on; and as they came, Leslie knew and named them every one. Why was she rejoiced beyond all bounds to see them! Why did her cold eye glisten, and her heart leap up as they went past! Why was she filled with gladness when she heard them give each other Merry Christmas, as they parted at cross-roads and bye-ways, for their several homes! What was merry Christmas to Leslie? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to her?
“The school is not quite deserted,” said the Ghost. “A solitary child, neglected by her friends, is left there still.”
Leslie said she knew it. And she sobbed.
They left the high-road, by a well-remembered lane, and soon approached a mansion of dull red brick, with a little weathercock-surmounted cupola, on the roof, and a bell hanging in it. It was a large house, but one of broken fortunes; for the spacious offices were little used, their walls were damp and mossy, their windows broken, and their gates decayed. Fowls clucked and strutted in the stables; and the coach-houses and sheds were over-run with grass. Nor was it more retentive of its ancient state, within; for entering the dreary hall, and glancing through the open doors of many rooms, they found them poorly furnished, cold, and vast. There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much damp and cold, and not too much to eat.
They went, the Ghost and Leslie, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely girl was reading near a feeble fire; and Leslie sat down upon a form, and wept to see her poor forgotten self as she used to be.
Not a latent echo in the house, not a squeak and scuffle from the mice behind the paneling, not a drip from the half-thawed water-spout in the dull yard behind, not a sigh among the leafless boughs of one despondent poplar, not the idle swinging of an empty store-house door, no, not a clicking in the fire, but fell upon the heart of Leslie with a softening influence, and gave a freer passage to her tears.
The Spirit touched her on the arm, and pointed to her younger self, intent upon her reading.
She said, in pity for her former self, “Poor child!” and cried again.
“I wish,” Leslie muttered, putting her hand in her pocket, and looking about her, after drying her eyes with her cuff: “but it’s too late now.”
“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.
“Nothing,” said Leslie. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”
The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand: saying as it did so, “Let us see another Christmas!”
Leslie’s former self grew larger at the words, and the room became a little darker and more dirty. The panels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead; but how all this was brought about, Leslie knew no more than you do. She only knew that it was quite correct; that everything had happened so; that there she was, alone again, when all the other children had gone home for the jolly holidays.
She was not reading now, but walking up and down despairingly. Leslie looked at the Ghost, and with a mournful shaking of her head, glanced anxiously towards the door.
It opened; and a little boy, much younger than the girl, came darting in, and putting his arms about her neck, and often kissing her, addressed her as his “Dear, dear sister.”
“I have come to bring you home, dear sister!” said the child, clapping his tiny hands, and bending down to laugh. “To bring you home, home, home!”
“Home, little Andy?” returned the girl.
“Yes!” said the child, brimful of glee. “Home, for good and all. Home, for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said Yes, you should; and sent me in a car to bring you. And you’re to be a woman!” said the child, opening his eyes, “and are never to come back here; but first, we’re to be together all the Christmas long, and have the merriest time in all the world.”
“You are quite a man, little Andy!” exclaimed the girl.
He clapped his hands and laughed, and tried to touch her head; but being too little, laughed again, and stood on tiptoe to embrace her. Then he began to drag her, in his childish eagerness, towards the door; and she, nothing loth to go, accompanied him.
“Always a tender creature, whom a breath might have withered,” said the Ghost. “But he had a large heart!”
“So he had,” cried Leslie. “You’re right. I will not gainsay it, Spirit. God forbid!”
“He is now a woman,” said the Ghost. “Your sister!”
Leslie seemed uneasy in his mind; and answered briefly, “Yes.”
Although they had but that moment left the school behind them, they were now in the busy thoroughfares of a city, where shadowy passengers passed and repassed; where shadowy cars and omnibuses battled for the way, and all the strife and tumult of a real city were. It was made plain enough, by the dressing of the shops, that here too it was Christmas time again; but it was evening, and the streets were lighted up.
The Ghost stopped at a certain hostel door, and asked Leslie if she knew it.
“Know it!” said Leslie. “I interned here!”
They went in. At sight of an old woman in a red dress, Leslie cried in great excitement:
“Why, it’s old Mrs Lee! Bless her heart; it’s Mrs Lee alive again!”
Mrs laid down her pen, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of seven. She rubbed her hands; adjusted her capacious cardigan; laughed all over herself, from her shoes to her organ of benevolence; and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice:
“Yo ho, there! Leslie! Sue!”
Leslie’s former self, now grown a young woman, came briskly in, accompanied by her fellow-’intern.
“Sue Wilkins, to be sure!” said Leslie to the Ghost. “Bless me, yes. There she is. She was very much attached to me, was Sue. Poor Sue! Dear, dear!”
“Yo ho, ladies!” said Mrs Lee. “No more work to-night. Christmas Eve, Sue. Christmas, Leslie! Let’s have the shutters up,” cried old Mrs Lee, with a sharp clap of her hands, “before a man can say Jack Robinson!”
You wouldn’t believe how those two lasses went at it! They charged into the street with the shutters—one, two, three—had ’em up in their places—four, five, six—barred ’em and pinned ’em—seven, eight, nine—and came back before you could have got to twelve, panting like race-horses.
“Hilli-ho!” cried old Mrs Lee, skipping down from the high desk, with wonderful agility. “Clear away, my ladies, and let’s have lots of room here! Hilli-ho, Sue! Chirrup, Leslie!”
Clear away! There was nothing they wouldn’t have cleared away, or couldn’t have cleared away, with old Mrs Lee looking on. It was done in a minute. Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the office was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.
In came a DJ with a deck. In came Mr Lee. In came Mrs Lee’s daughter with two young men who’s hearts she regularly broke. In came Mrs Lee’s son. In came all the residents of the hostel. In came the cleaning woman, with her cousin, a baker. In came the cook, with her brother’s particular friend, a milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having money enough from his job to eat properly; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was unfairly dismissed and approaching a tribunal. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, forty dancers at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them! When this result was brought about, old Mrs Lee, clapping her hands to stop the dance, cried out, “Well done!” and the DJ plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose. But scorning rest, upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other DJ had been carried home, exhausted, on a shutter, and he were a bran-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.
There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the DJ (an artful dog, mind! The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up “White Christmas.” Then old Mrs Lee stood out to dance with Mr Lee. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.
But if they had been twice as many—ah, four times—young Miss Lee would have been a match for them, as she twirled and spun at one with the music, and so would Mr Lee if enthusiasm were grace. As to him, he was worthy to be Mrs Lee’s partner in every sense of the term. If that’s not high praise, tell me higher, and I’ll use it..
When the clock struck eleven, this domestic ball broke up. Mr. and Mrs. Lee took their stations, one on either side of the door, and shaking hands and hugging with every person individually as he or she went out, wished him or her a Merry Christmas. When everybody had retired but the two intern, they did the same to them; and thus the cheerful voices died away, and the girls were left to their beds; which were on the top floor.
During the whole of this time, Leslie had acted like a woman out of her wits. Her heart and soul were in the scene, and with her former self. She corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation. It was not until now, when the bright faces of her former self and Sue were turned from them, that she remembered the Ghost, and became conscious that it was looking full upon her, while the light upon its head burnt very clear.
“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”
“Small!” echoed Leslie.
The Spirit signed to her to listen to the two interns, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Mrs Lee: and when she had done so, said,
“Why! Is it not? She has spent but a few hundred pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that she deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Leslie, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like her former, not her latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. She has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that her power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness she gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
She felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.
“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.
“Nothing particular,” said Leslie.
“Something, I think?” the Ghost insisted.
“No,” said Leslie, “No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to the women on the street just now. That’s all.”
Her former self turned off the light as she gave utterance to the wish; and Leslie and the Ghost again stood side by side in the open air.
“My time grows short,” observed the Spirit. “Quick!”
This was not addressed to Leslie, or to any one whom she could see, but it produced an immediate effect. For again Leslie saw herself. She was older now; a woman in the prime of life. Her face had not the harsh and rigid lines of later years; but it had begun to wear the signs of care and avarice. There was an eager, greedy, restless motion in the eye, which showed the passion that had taken root, and where the shadow of the growing tree would fall.
She was not alone, but sat by the side of a handsome man in a dark suit: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.
“It matters little,” he said, softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”
“What Idol has displaced you?” she rejoined.
“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” she said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty and frustration; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the fulfillment of personal goals!”
“You fear the world too much,” he answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of controlling everything around you rather than take stock of yourself. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passions, gain, and power engross you. Have I not?”
“What then?” she retorted. “Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.”
He shook his head.
“Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and really cared about other people and working to make the world a better place for everyone. You are changed. When we married, you were another woman.”
“I was a girl,” she said impatiently.
“Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are,” he returned. “I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.”
“Have I ever sought release?”
“In words. No. Never.”
“In what, then?”
“In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another Hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us,” said the man, looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon her; “tell me, would you seek me out and want me now? Ah, no!”
She seemed to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of herself. But she said with a struggle, “You think not.”
“I would gladly think otherwise if I could,” he answered, “Heaven knows! When I have learned a Truth like this, I know how strong and irresistible it must be. But if you were free to-day, to-morrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose a man without power or influence, or even any great salary—you who, in your very confidence, weigh everything by power and gain: or, choosing him, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow? I do; and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of the woman you once were.”
She was about to speak; but with his head turned from her, he resumed.
“You may—the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will—have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen!”
He left her, and they parted.
“Spirit!” said Leslie, “show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”
“One shadow more!” exclaimed the Ghost.
“No more!” cried Leslie. “No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!”
But the relentless Ghost pinioned her in both her arms, and forced her to observe what happened next.
They were in another scene and place; a room, not very large or handsome, but full of comfort. Near to the winter fire sat a beautiful young man, so like that last that Leslie believed it was the same, until she saw him, sitting opposite him. The noise in this room was perfectly tumultuous, for there were more children there, than Leslie in her agitated state of mind could count; and, unlike the celebrated herd in the poem, they were not forty children conducting themselves like one, but every child was conducting itself like forty. The consequences were uproarious beyond belief; but no one seemed to care; on the contrary, the father and son laughed heartily, and enjoyed it very much; and the latter, soon beginning to mingle in the sports, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly. What would I not have given to be one of them! Though I never could have been so rude, no, no!
But now a knocking at the door was heard, and such a rush immediately ensued that he with laughing face was borne towards it the centre of a flushed and boisterous group, just in time to greet the mother, who came home laden with Christmas toys and presents. Then the shouting and the struggling, and the onslaught that was made upon them! The shouts of wonder and delight with which the development of every package was received! The terrible announcement that the baby had been taken in the act of putting a doll’s frying-pan into his mouth, and was more than suspected of having swallowed a fictitious turkey, glued on a wooden platter! The immense relief of finding this a false alarm! The joy, and gratitude, and ecstasy! They are all indescribable alike. It is enough that by degrees the children and their emotions got out of the parlour, and by one stair at a time, up to the top of the house; where they went to bed, and so subsided.
And now Leslie looked on more attentively than ever, when the mistress of the house, having her son leaning fondly on her, sat down with him and his father at their own fireside; and when she thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called her mother, and been a spring-time in the haggard winter of her life, her sight grew very dim indeed.
“Brooke,” said the wife, turning to her husband with a smile, “I saw an old friend of yours this afternoon.”
“Who was it?”
“How can I? Tut, don’t I know?” he added in the same breath, laughing as she laughed. “Ms. Leslie.”
“Ms. Leslie it was. I passed her office window; and as it was not shut up, and she had light on inside, I could scarcely help seeing her. Her workmate lies upon the point of death, I hear; and there she sat alone. Quite alone in the world, I do believe.”
“Spirit!” said Leslie in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”
“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”
“Remove me!” Leslie exclaimed, “I cannot bear it!”
She turned upon the Ghost, and seeing that it looked upon her with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown her, wrestled with it.
“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”
In the struggle, if that can be called a struggle in which the Ghost with no visible resistance on its own part was undisturbed by any effort of its adversary, Leslie observed that its light was burning high and bright; and dimly connecting that with its influence over her, she seized the extinguisher-cap, and by a sudden action pressed it down upon its head.
The Spirit dropped beneath it, so that the extinguisher covered its whole form; but though Leslie pressed it down with all her force, she could not hide the light: which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground.
She was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in the van; and had barely time to shift her position, before she sank into a heavy sleep.