STAVE TWO : THE FIRST OF THE THREE SPIRITS



Murdoch woke suddenly. All was quiet, all was still. It was very dark.

He was warm and comfortable, feather pillows plump under his head, the blankets snuggled cosily under his chin. What had he been dreaming about? What was it? Something about Paul... Oh.

Oh.

He sat up and reached for the matches on the table beside his bed, feeling for them, his hand landing on the box with the ease of familiarity. He struck a light, holding it briefly above his head and looking hard at the wavering shadows, before holding the little flame above the face of his watch, set as ever in its little stand.

Three minutes to one.

The match flickered and went out. He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. It was a dream, nothing more. Just a dream. Such nonsense to think that a respectable rancher would be visited by Spirits of Christmases Past, Present and Future. He frowned as he tried to remember the story precisely, but apart from the names of the three Spirits, he could remember little of it. Still he was sure it would be nonsense.

He waited.

He'd laugh about this all in the morning. Although maybe he'd speak to Sam Jenkins about winter fever and its effect on a man's mind. Sam might be able to suggest a preventive measure that would be helpful...

He struck another match and held it over the watch face, holding his breath.

One minute to one.

It was nonsense. It was a dream. It was some sort of delirium. It was—dammit! He yelped as the match flame licked at his fingertip and he shook it into darkness, cursing, just as the hands of his watch ticked themselves to one in the morning.

The room flooded with light. Murdoch started up, choking off a cry in his throat, and found himself face to face with another unexpected visitor.

It looked like a child. It had a child's small frame and stature, but he couldn't quite be certain since its limbs and head kept flickering; sometimes clear, sometimes blurred, as if it were mimicking the match flame of a moment before. Here and there he saw an arm or a leg come out of the bright mist, part of the head, or a foot or a hand, but never the whole being. But he thought it was a child, dressed in a long white gown trimmed with holly and flowers, giving out a bright light and carrying a huge cone of a hat in one hand.

Then the head came into focus, and he knew it. He recognised it, and his heart quailed with a fear that not even seeing Paul O'Brien had instilled in him. It was a child. A girl-child. One who made him want to dive beneath his covers and pull them over his head.

"I know you! You're Penny Rose! You're the Little Darling of the Sierras, sent to haunt me!" He bit back a moan. His sins were heavy indeed if Paul O'Brien had sent this one.

Penny Rose looked at him solemnly and—dear Lord be thanked!—limited her cute little dance to three or four short steps and a pirouette on her right foot. "Come with me."

"Ah," said Murdoch. He closed his eyes for a moment, and gathered all his courage. He reminded himself that he was a Scot and a proud one, the scion of a race of hardy Highland warriors, and one small girl should hardly be enough to unman him entirely. He would be fine.

So long as she didn't sing.

Or dance.

He managed a quiet, calm tone that barely trembled at all. "You're the Spirit—"

"—of Christmas Past," Penny Rose finished for him, helpfully, with a pirouette to the left this time. "I am to be your Guide. Come with me." The hand that reached for his was thin, and the fingers like ice.

Murdoch shivered. He found himself obeying, although not without protesting and making the child turn away so she wouldn't see him in his nightshirt. He shrugged into the dressing gown laid across the foot of the bed and let Penny Rose lead the way.

He remembered Paul's entrance. "I can't float through doors and walls," he said, alarmed, as they approached the door.

"Touch my robe. No harm can come to you if you're with me."

Murdoch clutched at a handful of fabric. "Where are we going?"

"You'll see," she singsonged, and he shut up quickly just in case she started out in full-voiced carolling. He closed his eyes and followed; he didn't want to see himself walk through doors, after all. When, after a moment or two of keeping his eyelids screwed tight shut, nothing appeared to have happened, he opened first one eye, then both. He choked, gripping Penny Rose's gown more tightly.

They stood together on a street corner, in the cold dusk of a winter's evening. A man loomed up at them out of the darkness, coming from the mouth of an alley to their right, swathed in a thick cloak and muffler. He veered away from them at the last instant and plunged into the throng of people jostling each other as they hurried about their business before the short winter day ended. Another close encounter, this time with a pretty girl wrapped in a shawl over a too-thin dress made in a fashion of half a century ago, her face pale and pinched. But like the man, she moved past Murdoch and Penny Rose without seeming to even see them. Some invisible influence hid them, perhaps. Still, he took a step to one side to avoid a couple walking past, their heads close together as they talked.

"They can't see us, can't hear us, can't touch us," said Penny Rose. "They don't know we're here."

Her ability to read what he was thinking was disconcerting. Murdoch had thought her a particularly slow and unobservant child, focused to the point of blind selfishness on her 'performances' (and here he hoped his shudder was taken for a reaction to the cold and the sensation of being a ghostly onlooker).

"No harm can come to you," Penny Rose reminded him.

A song and a dance from her would be harm enough. More than enough. But he thought better of saying so. "While I'm with you in the Christmases of the past, you mean? Because there's nothing in the past to hurt me?"

"I didn't say that," said the Spirit.

It came to him then that while this Spirit might look like Penny Rose, it wasn't her. It was something older and possibly more dangerous even than the Little Darling in full song. So he favoured that wry comment with a terse nod of acknowledgement, since he wouldn't have believed its denials anyway, and kept his attention on the scene before him.

Frost glittered on the stones of the houses and the breath of every passer-by steamed in the cold air. Murdoch couldn't feel it himself. Despite standing there in only a nightshirt and a robe, he wasn't cold. But he remembered the sort of winter chill that seeped into the bones and bit hungrily at the lungs with the promise of snow. He drew his robe a little tighter, more for comfort than warmth.

A lamplighter stood a few yards away, perched on the top of his ladder and trimming the wick of the oil-lamp swinging on its bracket out from the wall above a shop front. His apprentice stood below him, shivering, holding up a bottle of oil. The flickering light played over the open shop front, over the heaped up piles of apples and shiny nuts; hazels, cob and chestnut. A pyramid of carefully-stacked oranges stood in the centre of the display, some just in their skins, some wrapped in coloured foil that winked red and green in the light. A crowd of boys, street ragamuffins mostly, stared covetously, one eye on the oranges and the other on the greengrocer's journeyman. But that worthy stood in careful attendance, arms folded over his chest, eyeing the boys with the air of a man who didn't trust them for an instant.

Murdoch knew this place. He was sure he knew this place.

He turned slowly on his heel, a complete revolution, to be sure. Yes. Yes, he was sure. Princes Street, looking west towards Lothian Road, and the darkness to his left had to be the new Gardens and that was the Castle there, right there up above him, looming over Old Town and New. But this wasn't Now. It couldn't be Now. Not with the clothes the people were wearing, and the oil lamps in the streets. This was Then.

And just to make it certain, there was a sudden bang on a drum and the sound of a penny whistle or two, and a band of ragged men marched to stand beneath the lamp, singing. They weren't very good, really. Their song was as ragged as their clothes but for one man singing an old song, an old, old song, with a deep richness that caught at the heart. Murdoch glanced at Penny Rose in apprehension, but all she did was dance a step or two, watching the singers. She looked pleased.

"The Waits! It's the Christmas Waits!" A shrill boy's voice, and a child dodged out of the crowd to stand in front of Murdoch and Penny Rose, hopping from one foot to the other to keep warm, while he revelled in the singers. "Iain, it's the Waits!"

"Aye." A tall lad, and broad, but not yet a man, walked past Murdoch as if he weren't there. Murdoch's mouth dropped open, his heart giving one enormous thump. "It's Christmas Eve, Murdo. Of course, there's Waits."

"And oranges, and nuts and lots and lots of good things." The smaller boy wrapped his arms about himself, putting his hands into his armpits to warm them. He was well dressed, better dressed than the ragamuffins at the greengrocers, but he had a thin black ribbon around his left sleeve. He added, in a crow of triumph, "Because it's Christmaaaass!"

The older boy laughed. "Aye, it's Christmas. But maybe there'll no be oranges this year, Murdo, not since..." His voice trailed away. He had a black armband, too, and the thick scarf looped around his neck was of black wool. His was a young face, but already there were lines of care around the mouth and eyes and the shoulders, broad as they were, looked as though they were carrying responsibilities too heavy for them. "But at least you know there'll be nuts since Aunt Joan sent that basket to Mama last week, up from the farm. We'll roast some tonight, eh? There's nothing like sweet chestnuts after your supper. And tomorrow, after we've been to the kirk, there'll be roast beef and potatoes hot from the oven."

The child looked up, such trust and happiness in his face, despite the black armband, that Murdoch felt an unaccustomed stinging in his eyes and a lump in his throat. "And pudding! With currants!"

"You're aye the man for a pudding," said the elder boy, grinning. He poked a finger into the spot beneath the little one's ribs. "Keep that up, Murdo Lancer, and you'll be as big a man as me!"

"One day, I'll be bigger," promised the child, wriggling and dancing away.

"I don't doubt it." Iain's grin widened. They listened to the Waits for a little while, until the lines around Iain's eyes smoothed out and he looked his age again. Too short a time, though, before he straightened and picked up his metaphorical burdens once more. "Time for home. Mama'll be looking for us."

"Ha!" said the child. "You can't catch me!"

And a moment of playing tag, of laughter and a short chase ended up with the child being tossed up onto the elder boy's shoulders and they were off into the crowd, swallowed up into the dusk in an instant, with only their laughter and a 'Faster, Iain! Faster!' to mark their passing.

"No!" protested Murdoch, but he couldn't follow. His feet moved only sluggishly, as if caught in mud. "No! That was Iain!"

"It was Christmas. You were happy," said Penny Rose.

Murdoch snorted. "I was what? Five? Of course I was happy, despite everything. The whole world was tinted rose then. No troubles lasted, not even the greatest of them. I don't remember much of my Da, but Iain was there to take his place."

"A responsible lad," said Penny Rose.

Murdoch stopped struggling, staring fruitlessly off into the dark. "He had to be, after our father died that year. It was consumption. He'd been coughing all my life. When he went, Iain stepped up to be the head of the house. He was only sixteen or seventeen. A boy. A boy to care for Mama, and Aileen and me."

"A great responsibility, but he did it willingly."

"He had a great heart, even that young."

"He understood the meaning of family and of love, and most of all of loving sacrifice. He was as good as a father to you, and made you his first concern."

"Yes. Yes, he did." Murdoch sighed. "I miss him. I'd like to see him again." He added, "I named John after him, you know, but I thought that now I was here in America, I should anglicise the name. I wish now I hadn't."

"He was a studious boy. It's a shame he had to give up his own ambitions."

"He'd have been a fine preacher. That's what he wanted, you know, but he had to go to work, to run the bookshop after Da died. Mama couldn't manage it. He was fierce for me to be educated though." Murdoch had to tear his gaze from the point at which the boys had disappeared. "Fierce for it. He made sure I finished school and went to St Andrews."

"Oh, we know you got a good education," said Penny Rose, airily. "You flattened the young minister with it earlier today."

Murdoch shifted a little uncomfortably.

"Still, Iain understood, didn't he, when you said that you didn't want to be a preacher or a teacher, but wanted to find your own way here in the New World. He could have made it so hard for you to leave, but did he once say how disappointed he was with your decision? He told you that every man had to find his own path and he worked hard to buy your outfit for the adventure."

"I worked too," snapped Murdoch.

Penny Rose ignored this and gave a twirl, catching Murdoch's hands. "Not much of a tune caller, your brother. I wonder where you got it from, this sense that you're the one who's right all the time?"

Murdoch spluttered, but she gave another twirl, and the world twirled with her. He was forced to clutch at her hands and close his eyes until he had the sense of solid ground under him again.

Still winter, but a winter's day of pale sunshine glittering on the frost, striking a tiny rainbow from each spicule of ice. In the near distance, a group of young people skated on a pond, a cheerful sight in bright woollen wrappers and scarves, hoods and gloves; they were all shouts and cheers and laughter. A little farther off stood the houses and smoking chimneys of a great city. Boston Common, he thought. The Frog Pond on the Common, frozen over.

"An innocent amusement for the young people to celebrate the season," murmured Penny Rose. "Of course there's a little flirting..."

Murdoch ignored that little dig. He had more important things to do. He stared at the girls on the ice, looking for her. She'd be in pale blue trimmed with white fur, he knew that. Maybe that was... no. That was Jerusha Cabot, a nice girl but plainer than a puritan even on her best day.

There. Over there, on the path on the edge of the pond, the one that in summer wound between bushes and flowers. She was over there, beside the banks of frost-blackened roses.

She swung her skates with one hand as she walked. She had the other tucked under the arm of the tall young man, the very tall young man, at her side. She was dainty and pretty, delicate as the china shepherdess in the parlour of the house back home in Edinburgh. Her skirts, fuller than the ones worn in the last vision Penny Rose had shown him, were kilted up to calf length to show off a pair of very pretty boots made from pale blue Spanish leather. The snow would ruin them, but Murdoch knew that wouldn't worry her. Her father would just laugh and buy her more.

"Well, no, he isn't pleased," she said. She flashed the young man a look, trying to look demure. "I've been forbidden to see you again."

"Why? I'm no' a bad man, and I'm an educated one. I may not have a lot of money now, but I can work and make a guid life for us..."

"He says you aren't a suitable suitor for me. Are you suitable?"

Younger-Murdoch's neck reddened. "Do you think I am?"

The demure look deepened into a smile and she said, in an atrocious copy of his own brogue, "Oh aye, laddie. Ye'll do!"

Younger-Murdoch laughed and reached up with his free hand to cover her small one, where it lay on his arm. "So, you'll come with me to California?"

She glanced away and seemed to look directly at the older Murdoch standing beside Penny Rose. Hidden from her suitor, her eyes made a quick sweep of the Boston skyline and her mouth quirked into a tiny grimace. But if this was a realisation of all she'd leave behind that was familiar and safe, it was a brief one. She turned back to her young man, smiling, the ringlets framing her face dancing as she nodded.

"Aye," she said. "I will."

The delight on Younger-Murdoch's face was so obvious he was glowing with it. He caught her up and swung her around, laughing, not caring that the skates went flying or that her hood came loose and the ringlets tumbled down over her shoulders. Murdoch's eyes dimmed. He hadn't wept for Catherine for over twenty years now, but the old pain was still there, slumbering now but not quite dead.

"You were happy that Christmas," commented Penny Rose.

"Yes." Of course he was! Catherine Garrett had just agreed to marry him.

"Should you have kissed her like that in a public place?" A moment's silence, while the Ghost of Christmas Past observed the scene with its head on one side, its own ghostly ringlets in perfect array. "She's pretty, but I wouldn't say she was beautiful."

No, Catherine hadn't been beautiful, not in the strictest sense. But she'd had a great deal of charm and her face was bright, with wide eyes full of life and laughter, and her mouth was always smiling above the most decided little chin. A stubborn wee thing, he remembered. Harlan Garrett didn't have a hope of withstanding his daughter once she'd set her heart on something. It was an abiding honour and privilege that she'd set her heart on him. Murdoch smiled, watching her and his younger self walking hand in hand through the snow towards the house on Beacon Hill to brave her father's anger. Neither seemed even to notice the cold.

"She laughed a lot. And she loved life."

"Yes." And once again Penny Rose showed that she could tell what he was thinking. "She knew what she wanted and she fought for it. You're quite right. Stubborn. And she remained so until she died, obstinately clinging to life to give her son his chance to be born, fighting for every failing breath."

It was like a blow to the heart, the sudden pain. The same son who was now at Lancer, for the first time in his life rather than having grown up there, where he belonged. The son he'd welcomed home with a cold word and the curt offer of a drink. Murdoch closed his eyes for a moment against the shame and the little stab of remorse.

Catherine was gone when he opened his eyes. All the skaters were gone, although it was still winter and still Boston Common under a foot or two of snow. It was getting dark now and the light was the same dusky purple as the bloom on an overripe grape. A storm was coming, the first flakes of new snow already whirling around two bands of boys.

"Where's Catherine?" he demanded, sharp with alarm.

An indifferent shrug. "Oh she's been gone for a long time. You know that."

He wanted to protest, to complain, but the Spirit shook its head at him and he was silent. He watched the boys instead, though they were little more than blurs. Perhaps the falling snow made it difficult to focus.

"Our time grows short," said the Spirit. "Very short. I only have a little time to show you the happy Christmases of others."

The boys were in the midst of a mock battle, with snowballs for their cannon balls and wooden swords or sticks with cross-handles tied to them for close-in fighting. One band had built a fort on a small rise, and were securely lodged there. A tall, slight boy waved a convincing-looking sword and led the brave, but doomed, assault; the defenders had a mighty store of snowballs and used them with vigour and skill, while the attackers were honourable and rolled over to play dead if a snowball hit them. The leader's men were whittled away quickly, leaving him to battle the defending captain alone, hand to hand.

All the young soldiers, both the quick and the dead, came to watch, cheering on one or other of the two combatants. The young attacker fought fiercely, but the defending captain was taller and older, at least ten years old, and with a longer reach. A sharp jab of a wooden sword and our young hero was bent double, wheezing and coughing and conceding defeat with as much dignity as he could muster. Murdoch watched as the warriors shook hands and the boys scattered, some eyeing the storm apprehensively, shouting their goodbyes and wishing each other a merry Christmas. The heaviness in his chest eased a little. The Spirit was focused on one boy, the one Murdoch himself was desperate to see.

The defeated captain ran with a couple of others, dodging across Beacon Street and running pell-mell up Walnut Street. It didn't surprise Murdoch that he turned into Mount Vernon and ended at a door that Murdoch himself hadn't darkened for over twenty years.

An evergreen wreath hung from the knocker, apples and oranges spiked into the fir and bristling with whole cloves. Standing just behind Scott, unseen and unheard as the boy made vigorous use of the knocker, Murdoch took in a deep, sniffing breath, hoping to catch even the faintest trace of the spicy scent that had to be filling Scott's nostrils. Nothing. He might as well be dead and a ghost himself, for all the physical connexion he could make with the world. He reached out a hand, but something, some barrier he couldn't breach, stopped him from closing it over his son's shoulder.

Murdoch let his hand drop.

Scott flung himself into the hall the moment the door opened. What was the name of Garrett's butler again? Harris? Harliss? Something like that. Murdoch hadn't really had much to do with him except try to get him to disobey Garrett's ban on allowing Murdoch to cross the threshold, usually with a marked lack of success. This time, at least, Harris or whatever his name was, couldn't stop the Spirit from entering and Murdoch with it. Murdoch didn't think anything or anyone could stop the Spirit from going anywhere it wanted.

"Am I late?" asked Scott, allowing Harliss... Hartliss! That was it. Scott allowed Hartliss to unwind him from the long scarf and take the cap and mittens. His face glowed a healthy pink from his afternoon's exercise.

"Not at all, Master Scott, but the master said to send you into the library as soon as you got home. Mrs Hartliss is making hot chocolate for you. I'll bring it up directly."

"Scotty! Is that you, Scotty?" A door was flung open. Harlan Garrett, his hair just starting to whiten, beckoned to his grandson. "Come and see what I've got for you."

Scott ran to obey, chattering nineteen to the dozen about the afternoon's play, and how he'd almost defeated William Pearse—"Really, I almost did it, Grandfather!"—and claimed the Hill for his own team. "And you know, sir, he's two years older than me and I can't—oh. Oh. Oh, Grandfather!"

Scott stopped and stared. A round table had been placed in the bay window fronting onto the street, and on it stood a cunning little fir tree in a red pot. Its branches were strung with garlands of cranberries and gilded nuts, and lit with slender candles in silver holders clipped to each branch. It was laden with gingerbread men with eyes and mouths of white icing, and marzipan candies (both hard and soft) and yet more nuts spilled from a dozen little cornucopias crafted from gilt paper. These hung next to sugar dusted cookies that looked like they'd been baked by the icy fingers of Jack Frost himself. Toy soldiers, penny whistles and tiny toy drums hung from the branches at just the wrong height for Scott to reach them unaided. He'd have to climb on a chair. Good planning there, on Harlan's part.

Scot hurled himself at Harlan. "Thank you! Thank you! My own tree! I never thought I'd have one of my own!"

"Well," said Harlan, preening and patting Scott on the back. "You talked of little else last Christmas, Scotty, but Frank Peabody's table tree. It seems that trees are all the rage now, and never let it be said that a Peabody could outdo a Garrett."

"Lancer!" snapped Murdoch, heedless of the fact that neither Harlan nor Scott could hear him. "His name is Scott Garrett Lancer."

To his astonishment, and gratification, Scott laughed but said, "I'm really just half a Garrett, grandfather. I'm half a Lancer, too."

"Nonsense. You're all Garrett." Harlan glanced at the portrait hung over the fireplace. Catherine Laura Garrett Lancer stared back, almost nine years dead but captured here in oils, forever pretty and dainty and incorruptible. Scott had her colouring, and the narrow, high-cheekboned Garrett face. Murdoch couldn't see much of himself there, unless it was the set of the jaw and the shape of the eyes and ears.

Scott grinned, not arguing. "I do thank you, sir! It's the best tree in all Boston."

"In all of the Commonwealth!"

Scott cheered and waved his hand around his head in lieu of having a hat in it to wave. "Yaaaay! All of the Commonwealth!"

"That's my boy," said Harlan Garratt, and smiled.

"No, he's not! He's mine! My boy and Catherine's and you stole him and— no, no. Stop it. We can't leave now! We can't—"

But Penny Rose had him by the hands again and they were whirling and twirling, the world spinning around him until he was sick and dizzy and had to close his eyes. They landed with a soft thud, in a place of darkness. Above their heads the sky was so heavy with stars that it seemed to be stooping down to them. Away to the left a small town stood on a low hill, buildings hard black shapes against the stars. Penny Rose started for the town, and much as Murdoch would have liked a few minutes to compose himself—or even more, much as he would have liked to turn his back on the Spirit and march in the opposite direction—he found himself pulled inexorably in her wake.

"Scott was well and happy," observed the Spirit.

"He would have been just as well and happy in California!"

"Except that you gave up, and allowed Harlan Garrett to win. You never contacted him, even."

"The first few years, California was very unsettled... not safe. He was better in Boston then—"

"Explain to him, not me." Penny Rose put her hand on Murdoch's heart. "I already know what's here." And she shook her head, her expression sad.

All Murdoch could do was splutter. How could she know any such thing? It was more than he did himself. He followed her in mute resentment.

The streets of the little town were dark, but there were lights, voices and singing up ahead in the town square. Penny Rose and Murdoch joined the procession winding its way around the edge of the plaza, all the adults following the children. Many carried paper lanterns to light their way. At the front of the procession, the children sang the traditional pedir posada with the man standing in a house doorway, barring the way. A little girl in a blue cloak sat on a donkey, her arms full of pointsettias, while her Joseph sang his part loudly in his high, sweet treble. * En nombre del cielo ,* he sang, * Os pido posada, Pues no puede andar, Mi esposa amada .* The boy sang back and forth with the householder, standing up as straight as he could, his skinny little form rigid with the effort. When he turned to the listening crowd to include them in his entreaties, his deep blue eyes were shining with excitement and something else—pride, maybe, at being the focus of all their attention.

Murdoch swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat. All those years alone he'd been able to imagine Scott's Christmases, the old familiar carols and customs brought to America from the Old Country helping him see the image in his head. He'd remembered his own Christmases with Iain and Aileen, and mentally put Scott in his own old place. It had been a sour sort of comfort, but comfort it was. But Johnny... Johnny had been hidden in the shadow that was the unfamiliar places of Mexico and the border towns, beyond the reach of any remembrance of a Scottish Christmas. Murdoch had never had even the most meagre consolation of imagining him safe and happy.

And now here Johnny was, a little older than Scott had been in the Boston vision. Ten or eleven maybe, but still with a child's frailty, shoulders and chest thin and undeveloped under the white cotton shirt embroidered down its front with red butterflies; but not starving or ill used. This was a Johnny Murdoch had never been sure existed: one who was bright, happy and content.

The pedir posada ended with the householder flinging open his door and inviting everyone in to the feast inside. Many of the adults carried dishes and baskets, Murdoch saw now, bringing food and drink to share.

"He looks well and happy too," observed Penny Rose. She attempted an arabesque, balancing on one leg with the other stretched out behind her. She pointed her toes very nicely, as she was at pains to tell him.

Murdoch nodded, watching as Johnny and the other children milled about in excitement, watching their elders make their novena at the Nacimiento, waiting for the star-shaped piñata to be produced and the fun to begin. Murdoch couldn't speak. This was a greater reassurance than he'd ever expected.

The adults laid down their rosaries and started rounding up their children. Johnny raced to join a stocky Mexican, leaping up when the man held out his arms.

"Papa! Papa! Did you hear me? I sang as loud as I could for you and Mama. Did you hear?"

"I think they heard all the way to Mexico City," said the man, gravely, but he was smiling and the hug he gave Johnny was crushing. He squeezed until Johnny squealed, and set him down, bending to brush his lips against the boy's forehead. "I'm very proud of you, Juanito. You were the best Joseph of the whole Posadas. There's your mother now. Go and make sure that she has a chair so she can see the piñata, and get yourself ready to get that candy! Go now, m'hijo."

Johnny squirmed away, laughing, and sprang to obey, every inch the happy, loved child that Murdoch had longed for.

But.

But.

"Who is that?" Murdoch spat it out. "Who is that? He's not Johnny's father! He's not Johnny's Papa! Who is that?"

Johnny led a woman out of the shadows to take a chair near the fire: Maria, her belly out before her, more beautiful than Murdoch remembered. She was laughing too, stretching out one hand for the man Johnny claimed as father, the other smoothing over the unborn child under her heart before resting on Johnny's dark head.

Murdoch swallowed. "Who is that man?" But now he was tired and sad, and the fire had gone out of him. "That's Maria. My Maria. But she was never really my Maria."

He turned away, unable to bear watching any longer.

"Edgardo Madrid cares for them both," said the Spirit.

"Does he now?" Murdoch felt sick, closing his eyes against the rush of nausea.

"He loves Maria and has been the only father Johnny knows, since the boy was three."

"He hasn't... he hasn't the right. He isn't Johnny's father. He isn't... She should never have taken him, she should never have taken my boy like that, away from me."

Silence. When he opened his eyes again, the Spirit stood regarding him with its head tilted on one side, expression grave. "It doesn't chime with what you wanted to know, is that it? Your Christmases aren't about joy and love and happiness, but sadness and loneliness. So be it. I have a very little time now, but I'll show you what you want."

"No," whispered Murdoch. But it was too late.

Las Posadas whirled away into shadow and in its place was the kitchen at the hacienda. A young woman, her shining black hair up in an elaborate coiffure held in place with a tortoiseshell mantilla comb, offered a young Murdoch a slice of something. Pie, perhaps? The older, sick-at-heart Murdoch couldn't quite see. But he did see the grimace on the face of his younger self.

"That's not right, Maria. Catherine never made it like that. You've got it wrong somehow. It tastes wrong. Look, you know I've taken on a new hand, Tom Dane? He's married, and his wife will show you how. Go and talk to Marcy Dane. She'll tell you how to get it right."

The smile on Maria's face clouded over.

Another whirling change, but Murdoch and the Spirit were still at the hacienda, in the great room this time. A low fire smouldered in the hearth and rain beat against the windows behind the desk. Murdoch himself, still younger than now but older than when he was offering his wife culinary criticism, his hair just starting to grey, strode restlessly around the room. He had a glass of whisky in his hand. His mouth was drawn down.

"And a very merry Christmas to me," he muttered, and hurled the glass into the fireplace. The flames whooshed out to meet it, burning the whisky in a frenzy of blue fire. "A bloody merry Christmas to all."

Another fading away, another change of scene. The library in Harlan's townhouse again. No tree this year, no festivities. Just Scott, and a Scott who was more than ten years older than before, and pitifully and painfully thin. Face haggard, he limped to a chair beside the fire. He sat with a little half-breathed sigh of pain, one hand on his ribs. He had an orange in the other, taken from a bowl of fruit and nuts on the round table in the bay window.

Harlan sat in the chair on the other side of the hearth, watching Scott with all the concern and fear that Murdoch himself felt now. He spoke with care, with the air of a man whose words had been taken badly before or who had spoken into too many silences. "I'm glad you got up today, Scotty, in time for Christmas."

Scott stared at the orange in his hand. It was a long time before he spoke. The minutes ticked away by the marble clock on the mantel, each loud tick-tock the only sound in the room. "Christmas? Is it Christmas?"

No exasperation on Harlan's face, nothing but solicitude and tenderness. "Yes, my boy. It's Christmas. The first Christmas of the peace."

More silence.

"Oh," said Scott. He gave Harlan a faint, wavering smile before propping his chin on his free hand and staring into the fire.

Unseen by Scott, Harlan winced and drew a hand over his eyes. His mouth trembled. When he spoke, though, his tone was bright and the trembling mouth was forced into a smile. "Would you like me to peel the orange, Scotty?"

Scott looked up for a moment before turning his attention to the fruit. "Oranges come from California, don't they?"

Harlan nodded. "I believe these did, yes."

"Well, that's more than fathers ever did," said Scott, and the wavering smile died away. "I suppose it's better than nothing."

Murdoch started forward, but again the scene spun away into darkness, and instead of his hand closing on his son's thin shoulder, he stumbled into a room; a mean school room, it looked like, badly fitted out with dog-eared books and a broken blackboard for the teacher. A child was speaking to a tall nun with a spotless wimple and a mouth that turned down so severely at the corners that it had dragged down the flesh of the cheeks on either side into deep lines. The other children watched eagerly, hopefully, as their little spokesman made his plea on their behalf.

"Certainly not," said the nun. "Foundlings have no place at Las Posadas, not where there are good, well brought up children. You do not mix with your betters."

"It's just one day, Sister Aurelia," pleaded Johnny. "Just one day. We would be at the back and make no noise. We will be good, we promise—"

"I said no and I meant it. Sit down, or I'll teach you your manners in a way that means you won't sit for a month. Nobody wants you dirty boys anywhere near good, God-fearing families! Now sit down."

"Are there no orphanages," murmured the Spirit, beside Murdoch. "Are there not people to care for the orphans, to give them all they need?"

Murdoch's face burned. "I didn't mean... I didn't..."

"Sit down, Juan Lancer!"

Johnny's young face went hard. "It's not Lancer! It's not! My Papa was Edgardo Madrid, and I'm John Madrid. John Madrid!" He danced out of her reach.

"You're a filthy little mestizo that no good man wants in his house! Not your gringo father, not your tio. You're a worthless little—" The nun caught herself up. Her mouth tightened into steel, trapping the words behind it. "You are a sin. You were conceived in sin and born in it, and you will learn to repent and to be grateful for whatever good, honest people choose to give you. And if I choose to call you Juan Lancer, then that is your name."

The other children cowered away, but Johnny stood his ground, shoulders set and fists balled. He faded away out of Murdoch's sight, but Murdoch could hear him clearly. "I'm Johnny Madrid. And one day, every one will know my name. I promise. One day, you'll know."

Just as he had with Scott back from the war, sick and worn, Murdoch stood with his hand outstretched, reaching for a son who was heedless of his existence.  But Johnny was gone again into the shadows.

"They were all sad enough little scenes. That's how you like your Christmas, isn't it? Every one as miserable and dour as you are yourself."

Murdoch shook his head. The resentment he'd been feeling for some time was growing, and bringing a hard anger with it. This wasn't right. It wasn't fair.

"I don't think I can teach you anything more," said the Spirit, sadly. "I'll sing you a song instead, shall I? I can dance, too—"

"No!" roared Murdoch and forgetting entirely that he was a big man of six foot six and she a little girl or Spirit or Ghostly Guide or whatever of four foot nothing, he leapt to prevent the song and dance.

* *... in the struggle that followed, he realised that Its light was burning high and bright. He seized the high, pointed hat that It had been carrying all the while, and pressed it down upon Its head. T he Spirit dropped beneath it, so that the extinguisher covered Its whole form... He was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in his own bedroom. He gave the cap a parting squeeze, in which his hand relaxed; and had barely time to reel to bed, before he sank into a heavy sleep.**

.
.
.

 

 

 

Back to Stave One: O'Brien's Ghost

To Stave Three : The Second of the Three Spirits