Here to return to
LIVINGSTONE, at this moment, was not feeling as wealthy as the row of figures in clean-cut lines that were now beginning to be almost constantly before his eyes might have seemed to warrant. He was sitting sunk deep in his cushioned arm-chair. The tweaks in his forehead that had annoyed him earlier in the evening had changed to twinges, and the twinges had now given place to a dull, steady ache. And every thought of his wealth brought that picture of seven staring figures before his eyes, whilst, in place of the glow which they had brought at first, he now at every recollection of them had a cold thrill of apprehension lest they might appear. James’s inquiry, “Shall you be dining at home to-morrow?” had recurred to him and now disturbed him. It was a simple question; nothing remarkable in it. It now came to him that to-morrow was Christmas Day, and he had forgotten it. This was remarkable. He had never forgotten it before, but this year he had been working so hard and had been so engrossed he had not thought of it. Even this reflection brought the spectral figures back sharply outlined before his eyes. They stayed longer now. He must think of something else.
He thought of Christmas. This was the first Christmas he had ever been at home by himself. A Christmas dinner alone! Who had ever heard of such a thing! He must go out to dinner, of course. He glanced over at his table where James always put his mail. Everything was in perfect order: the book he had read the night before; the evening paper and the last financial quotation were all there; but not a letter. James must have forgot them.
He turned to rise and ring the bell and glanced across the room towards it. What a dark room it was! What miserable gas!
He turned up the light at his hand. It did not help perceptibly. He sank back. What selfish dogs people were, he reflected. Of all the hosts of people he knew, — people who had entertained him and whom he had entertained, — not one had thought to invite him to the Christmas dinner. A dozen families at whose houses; he had often been entertained flashed across his mind. Why, years ago he used to have a half-dozen invitations to Christmas dinner, and now he had not one! Even Mrs. Wright, to whom he had just sent a contribution for — Hello! that lantern-slide again! It would not do to think of figures. — Even she had not thought of him.
There must be some reason? he pondered. Yes, Christmas dinners were always family reunions — that was the reason he was left out and forgotten; — yes, forgotten. A list of the people who he knew would have such reunions came to him; — almost every one of his acquaintances had a family; — even Clark had a family and would have a Christmas dinner.
At the thought, a pang almost of envy of Clark smote him.
Suddenly his own house seemed to grow vast and empty and lonely; he felt perfectly desolate, — abandoned — alone — ill! He glanced around at his pictures. They were cold, staring, stony, dead! The reflection of the cross lights made them look ghastly.
As he gazed at them the figures they had cost shot before his eyes. My God! he could not stand this! He sprang to his feet. Even the pain of getting up was a relief. He stared around him. Dead silence and stony faces were all about him. The capacious room seemed a vast, empty cavern, and as he stood he saw stretching before him his whole future life spent in this house, as lonely, silent, and desolate as this. It was unbearable.
He walked through to his drawing-room. The furniture was sheeted, the room colder and lonelier a thousand-fold than the other; — on into the dining-room; — the bare table in the dim light looked like ice; the sideboard with its silver and glass, bore sheets of ice. “Pshaw!” He turned up the lights. He would take a drink of brandy and go to bed.
He took a decanter, poured out a drink and drained it off. His hand trembled, but the stimulant helped him a little. It enabled him to collect his ideas and think. But his thoughts still ran on Christmas and his loneliness.
Why should not he give a Christmas dinner and invite his friends? Yes, that was what he would do. Whom should he ask? His mind began to run over the list. Every one he knew had his own house; and as to friends — why, he didn’t have any friends! He had only acquaintances. He stopped suddenly, appalled by the fact. He had not a friend in the world! Why was it? In answer to the thought the seven figures flashed into sight. He put his hand to his eyes to shut them out. He knew now why. He had been too busy to make friends. He had given his youth and his middle manhood to accumulate — those seven figures again! — And he had given up his friendships. He was now almost aged.
He walked into his drawing-room and turned up the light — all the lights to look at himself in a big mirror. He did look at himself and he was confounded. He was not only no longer young — he was prepared for this — but he was old. He would not have dreamed he could be so old. He was gray and wrinkled.
As he faced himself his blood seemed suddenly to chill. He was conscious of a sensible ebb as if the tide about his heart had suddenly sunk lower. Perhaps, it was the cooling of the atmosphere as the fire in his library died out, — or was it his blood?
He went back into his library not ten minutes, but ten years older than when he left it. He sank into his chair and insensibly began to scan his life. He had just seen himself as he was; he now saw himself as he had been long ago, and saw how he had become what he was. The whole past lay before him like a slanting pathway.
He followed it back to where it began — in an old home far off in the country.
He was a very little boy. All about was the bustle and stir of preparation for Christmas. Cheer was in every face, for it was in every heart. Boxes were coming from the city by every conveyance. The store-room and closets were centres of unspeakable interest, shrouded in delightful mystery. The kitchen was lighted by the roaring fire and steaming from the numberless good things preparing for the next day’s feast. Friends were arriving from the distant railway and were greeted with universal delight. The very rigor of the weather was deemed a part of the Christmas joy, for it was known that Santa Claus with his jingling sleigh came the better through the deeper snow. Everything gave the little boy joy, particularly going with his father and mother to bear good things to poor people who lived in smaller houses. They were always giving; but Christmas was the season for a more general and generous distribution. He recalled across forty years his father and mother putting the presents into his hands to bestow, and his father’s words, “My boy, learn the pleasure of giving.”
The rest was all blaze and light and glow, and his father and mother moving about like shining spirits amid it all.
Then he was a schoolboy, measuring the lagging time by the coming Christmas; counting the weeks, the days, the hours in an ecstasy of impatience until he should be free from the drudgery of books and the slavery of classes, and should be able to start for home with the friends who had leave to go with him. How slowly the time crept by, and how he told the other boys of the joys that would await them! And when it had really gone, and they were free! how delicious it used to be!
As the scene appeared before him Livingstone could almost feel again the thrill that set him quivering with delight; the boundless joy that filled his veins as with an elixir.
The arrival at the station drifted before him and the pride of his introduction of the servants whose faces shone with pleasure; the drive home through the snow, which used somehow to be warming, not chilling, in those days; and then, through the growing dusk, the first sight of the home-light, set, he knew, by the mother in her window as a beacon shining from the home and mother’s heart. Then the last, toilsome climb up the home-hill and the outpouring of welcome amid cheers and shouts and laughter.
Oh, the joy of that time! And through all the festivity was felt, like a sort of pervading warmth, the fact that that day Christ came into the world and brought peace and good will and cheer to every one.
The boy Livingstone saw was now installed regularly as the bearer of Christmas presents and good things to the poor, and the pleasure he took then in his office flashed across Livingstone’s mind like a sudden light. It lit up the faces of many whom Livingstone had not thought of for years. They were all beaming on him now with a kindliness to which he had long been a stranger; that kindliness which belongs only to our memory of our youth.
Was it possible that he could ever have had so many friends! The man in the chair put his hand to his eyes to try and hold the beautiful vision, but it faded away, shut out from view by another.Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.