Chapter 2: The Three Spirits
After Frayne's Ghost left, Lytell turned up the gas heater as high as it would go. He moved to the couch and pulled a blanket around him, his eyes roaming nervously around the room. He wanted desperately to believe it had been a dream, something brought on by overwork or the eerie weather. But in his bones he knew he'd been visited by Frayne's Ghost. And that more were to come.
Eventually, despite his fear, Lytell fell into a fitful sleep, napping on the couch. Just before one o-clock he awoke with a start and listened with dread as the hallway clock chimed out a single stroke.
As Lytell braced himself he noticed that the air in the corner by the door seemed to whirl silently and coalesce into a ghostly form. Then before him stood an old man, white-haired and stooped in posture.
"Are you one of the Spirits Frayne spoke of?" Lytell asked.
"I am. I am the Ghost of Christmas Past."
"Your past," the Spirit said calmly. "Come with me," he continued, holding out a ghostly arm.
Lytell rose and tentatively put his hand on the Spirit's arm. As he did Lytell found that his surroundings changed to a small, drably furnished home. It was a home he had known long ago.
small family was gathered around a listless Christmas tree. There were
only a few presents underneath the tree to go among the three children
and their parents.
Lytell saw the mother bite her lip. The father clinched his fists in frustration then gruffly handed the boy a flat, square package -- anyone could see that it did not contain a toy train. But the boy tore into it anyway. He opened the package and then slowly held up a sensible, brown woolen sweater.
"It's nice," he said, his disappointment plain for all to see.
"Bartie," the mother started to say gently.
"Oh, forget it," the father said harshly to the mother. Then he turned to the boy. "You're a big boy, Bartholomew. It's time you forgot all that humbug about Santa Claus and toys! Times are hard. You get what you need, not what you want! "
"Yes, father," the boy said, tears forming in his eyes.
As Lytell watched this scene he felt tears in his own eyes. "Poor boy," he said. "I wish," he started to say. "But it's too late now."
"What are you thinking?" the Spirit asked.
"It's nothing," Lytell said. "I know a boy who would like a caboose to complete his train set. I should have found a way to get it for him. That's all."
The Ghost smiled at Lytell. Then, waving its hand said, "Let's see another Christmas."
Bart and Alicia
At the Spirit's words the little boy, Bartie, developed into a young man and the scene was transformed into Lytell's store when he had first purchased it. The store was completely bare and young Bart was studying some papers.
In one of the window ledges sat a lovely young woman with sandy blonde hair piled high on her head. A few curls at the sides of her face framed her blue eyes. She looked out the window at the falling snow and under her breath she sang the tune of the old Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts. But the words she sang turned the hymn into a Christmas carol:
She stopped singing and turned to the young man. "Bart, can't we go?" she asked tiredly.
"This work won't do itself, Alicia," Bart replied.
"All work and no play make Bart a dull boy," she retorted.
"Play! Bah! Alicia, I've got to get my business established."
"But it's Christmas Eve!" Alicia objected. "I'd hoped we could go on the sleigh ride with Peter Belden and my sister, Helen. A sleigh ride on Christmas Eve would be so cozy!"
"Sleigh ride," Bart said contemptuously, not even looking up from the column of numbers he was studying.
Alicia seemed to have come to a decision. "Bart, I think we should stop keeping company," she said quietly.
Bart looked up, confused.
Alicia continued in a gentle, but firm voice. "When Helen and I first started visiting the Belden's at Crabapple Farm two years ago you were young and full of life. But now," she shrugged. "I know your store is important. But you seem to have lost sight of life. You have no joy."
"Joy?" Bart was genuinely confused. "Joy? I'm content. I pay my bills. I'm getting ahead."
Alicia shook her head. "That's what I mean," she said sadly. "You don't seem to notice any horizon beyond getting ahead, even at the expense of killing your soul."
"My soul!" Lytell snorted.
"Yes, your soul!" Alicia replied. "You only see the value in things that you can hold onto, count and arrange. You don't see the value in others - only what's wrong in them. You have no joy!" she repeated.
Alicia, I've got more important things on my mind right now."
"You're talking nonsense," Lytell started to say, but Alicia interrupted him.
"No. I see how it is now. The owner of this store is not the same man who once carved this piece for me," in her hands Alicia held out a beautiful locket, a piece of carved faux ivory that had been fastened around her neck by a black velvet ribbon.
Alicia looked down at the locket with regret. On the ivory was a delicate scrimshaw carving of exquisite artistry: the black, white and dark red stripes of a bob-white against a background of green shrubbery. Bart had carved it for her one summer day as they sat on a tree stump near Crabapple Farm and listened to the bob-whites calling in the woods. Later he'd mounted it on a gold base and attached it to a ribbon. He'd given it to her last Christmas and Alicia had worn it almost daily since then.
"I want you to take this back," Alicia said, holding out the necklace. "I can't wear it any longer, it's too painful. You wouldn't spend an afternoon now in the pointless pleasure of carving an unnecessary bit of jewelry. You have your business. No distractions."
"Alicia, you just have to understand what a lot of work a business is."
"I do understand but I also understand this: between our getting married and you're having an opportunity to turn a profit a month earlier, which is the more important to you?"
Bart paused and it was a fatal pause. Alicia understood what Bart's pause meant and her face showed the pain it gave her to understand. She lay the necklace on the counter. "Good-by, Bart. I hope you will be happy." Then she headed toward the door.
Watching this scene, Lytell had become more and more anxious. Now shaking, he turned to the Spirit. "Please," he cried. "Please take me away from this. I can't bear to it any more!"
"But this is the Christmas of your past, Bartholomew."
The figure of Alicia was disappearing into the woods, into the foggy past. "Please take me home," Lytell begged the Spirit of Christmas Past. He waved his arm at the scene, gesturing for it to be gone.
In the next moment, Lytell found himself back in his upstairs living quarters. Without even looking back at the Spirit of Christmas Past he stumbled off to his bedroom, collapsed into bed and fell into an exhausted sleep.
Some time later - he didn't know how long - Lytell awoke with a start. The wind, which had kept up a low moaning most of the night had died down. Lytell looked around his bedroom, surprised to realize that he now believed in Spirits and was calmly expecting the next one.
He lay there for several minutes until gradually he became aware of a sharp cracking noise. It had a cheerful, lively sound, as of twigs snapping in a fire and Lytell realized that it was coming from his living room.
Lytell decided not to wait out his fate but to go and meet his next ghostly visitor. As he shuffled down the hall he heard his name called.
"Bartholomew Lytell," the voice was kindly. "Come in."
Lytell's living quarters had been transformed with Christmas wreaths, a giant tree, and cheerful candles at the windows. On his table was a feast: turkey, dressing, potatoes, pecan pies and hot rolls. Next to the table stood an immense Spirit robed in a long white fur coat. He was cracking open pecans - that was the noise Lytell had heard - throwing back his head and tossing a handful in.
"Merry Christmas, Master Bartholomew!" he roared out.
At least the Spirits' manners are improving, Lytell thought to himself. "Merry Christmas to you," he said politely.
"I am the Ghost of Christmas Present," the Spirit said expansively. "Consider all I have to give."
Lytell looked around the cheerful scene. From somewhere came the strains of a carol: "the gift, the gift," he heard. The song seemed to wreathe its way into the air, making the very atmosphere in Lytell's little home seem suffused with a golden light.
"Follow me," the Spirit said and as Lytell followed, he found that they rode the song across the fields and woods to Crabapple Farm. The Beldens were gathered 'round their table and Lytell watched as they laughed and ate and laughed and ate some more. They were not richly dressed and the tablecloth looked less like an heirloom than a plain old hand me down. The presents that lay opened around the tree were not numerous nor did they appear to be expensive. And yet the Beldens laughed and carried on as if no home on earth was more blessed.
"What do you think?" asked the Spirit of Christmas Present.
"I see now that what was in short supply in my childhood home was not toys or gifts, but joy," Lytell replied. "I labored to come by the things I thought I'd been deprived of. But it wasn't things that I really needed."
The Spirit nodded with satisfaction.
After finishing their dinner, all of the Beldens pitched in to help clean-up. There was much hilarity as Trixie and Mart began snapping at each other with their wet dishcloths. Bobby cheered for first one, then the other, until he picked up his own dishcloth and began a tug of war with Reddy. Finally the whole family put on their winter coats and trooped up the hill to the Wheelers'.
Still riding the song, Lytell and the Spirit of Christmas Present followed the Beldens up the hill. Inside the Manor House the Beldens joined the Wheelers, their governess, Miss Trask and their groom, Regan, beside a roaring fire. Maids served eggnog and hot apple cider.
As Lytell and the Spirit watched, Jim Frayne, old man Frayne's nephew began speaking. "I feel sorry for the old guy," he said. "Remember that summer when Trixie and Honey found the diamond in the gatehouse? He came riding up on old Belle and we were all ready to gallop off to the four winds to avoid seeing him!"
"Bob-whites turn tail!" Mart cried, and everyone laughed as he gave the bob-white call while leaping up out of his chair, bending at the waist and turning his backside to the group.
"Or the time he was so suspicious of Trixie and she was only doing what no one else thought of to do - making sure I had another week to get the money to buy his jalopy from him," Brian said, clapping his arm affectionately around his sister's neck.
"Here's a toast," Mr. Wheeler said, holding aloft his mug. "To confounding that confounded Mr. Lytell!" Everyone laughed and cheered and raised their glass or mug in toast.
Lytell seemed to not quite realize that the gaiety was at his expense, catching only the infectious spirit of fun, nodding and laughing along with the group. He made as if he wanted to stay, but the Spirit of Christmas Present tapped him on the shoulder and said they must go.
"So soon?," Lytell asked in disappointment. But the Spirit was insistent and soon they were flying back across the Wheeler's game preserve headed towards Lytell's store.
As they arrived back at Lytell's from somewhere a church bell sounded the hour. When Lytell turned around the Spirit of Christmas Present was nowhere to be found. Instead, headed toward him was a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded all in black and moving like a mist along the ground. Lytell was seized with a dread as great as any he had felt this night as the seemingly empty robe moved silently closer. He shrank back into the store entrance.
"Are you the Spirit of Christmas Future?" Lytell asked fearfully.
The Spirit said nothing, only pointing toward the window of Lytell's store.
Lytell moved out from the entrance to see where the Spirit was pointing. He gasped when he saw a huge sign in the window that read, "Going Out of Business. Prices Slashed. Everything Must Go."
In the aisles of the store, Lytell saw customers scooping up items for pennies. It looked like a fire sale. He saw an older, more gray-haired version of himself standing behind the counter watching helplessly.
"But why out of business?" Lytell fretted as he watched the scene unfold. "I don't deserve this. I have minded my store. I've taken care of business."
A Beautiful Con
For answer, the Phantom moved away and headed over the trails to the Manor House. Lytell found himself caught up in the tail of its robe and pulled along by the Phantom back to the Manor House. This time it was summer: Mr. Wheeler, Honey Wheeler, Jim Frayne, Miss Trask, and the teen-aged Belden children were gathered on the verandah speaking to a beautiful, blonde young woman.
"Laura, tell us about your father," Miss Trask was saying to the young woman.
The young woman began to speak warmly and at length about her father, whom she swore she loved and who, she said, she was determined to find if she had to go to the ends of the earth.
Mr. Wheeler handed the young woman a check. "Let us know if you need anything else," he urged.
Suddenly, Lytell knew - without knowing how he knew - that this young woman was the reason he was going out of business.
"She took my money," he said to the group, but they neither saw nor heard him. He went from person to person, anxiously repeating, "She's a phony! She took me for all I'm worth!"
Miss Trask began to pour strawberry pop into crystal glasses which she served to the group. "To finding your father," she said.
Everyone said, "Hear, Hear!" as they drank a toast of strawberry pop.
Mr. Lytell could hardly contain himself. "But she's a liar!" he fumed. "Can't they see that?"
Just then Trixie Belden spoke up, "You won't believe this, but Mr. Lytell asked me to look into your background, Laura," she said. "But I told him, I was going to stick to the advice he's always giving me and not meddle in things that are over my head!"
Everyone laughed and took another sip of strawberry pop.
Somehow, in his mind's eye, Lytell was able to see the two scenes at once. On one side, shoppers were stripping his store bare. On the other side the woman who had conned him, Laura, was ensconced as the Wheeler's guest of honor.
He put his head in his hands. "Oh, how could this be," he moaned quietly. "I've lost everything - my business, but even worse, my friends are siding with my enemy."
Lytell turned to the Spirit of Christmas Future. "Tell me," he said eagerly. "Is there any way to avoid this? Knowing what I know now, I plan to amend my life. Will it make a difference?"
The scenes faded and the Phantom dipped the hood covering its head. They were in the woods again, the fog was gathering
"I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year," Lytell swore. "The lessons of the Spirits of all Three Christmases will be uppermost in my mind. Oh tell me, I can change this."
The Spirit made no answer, but faded away as the fog closed in.Next (Chapter 3)
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