The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.
Its mysterious presence filled Frederick with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.
"Am I in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come?"
The Spirit did not answer, but pointed onward with its hand.
"You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us," Frederick pursued. "Is that so, Spirit?"
It gave him no reply. The hand continued pointing straight before them.
"Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!"
The Phantom moved away as it had come towards him. Frederick followed in the shadow of its dress, which bore him up, he thought, and carried him along. They travelled in complete darkness until they arrived in a village with quaint cottages. Frederick knew the area as he did before - the place where he grew up, only many structures and roads had now changed. They stood at the small church. Fresh snow dusted the ground.
"Why are we here?" Frederick asked.
The Ghost pointed a finger and Frederick followed it with his eyes to the cemetery, where he saw his parents' headstones. His heart constricted as memories of them returned to the surface. When his mother died, he visited her grave every Sunday after morning service until he joined the navy. Since then, he had only been able to return a handful of times. He had even missed his father's funeral as he was posted in the West Indies at the time.
Though the headstones were decades old by now, he saw they were neat and free of snow, with none of the moss and weeds growing on and around them like most of the others in the yard. Fresh sprigs of holly festively adorned them. Frederick was thankful to see them tended with care and wondered who had done it, for presently no relatives lived nearby. Then his eyes were drawn to another, newer headstone next to his mother's. It was also neat and clean, with holly and an extra addition in front - a small bouquet of forget-me-nots, a great expense from the hothouse at this unseasonable time of year.
Recalling that his father had purchased all the plots surrounding his mother's, and wondering at the presence of those particular flowers, Frederick approached this newer headstone with a sense of foreboding. Closer and closer he walked until he arrived, looked down, and beheld the writing upon it:
REAR ADMIRAL SIR FREDERICK WENTWORTH
1783 - 1845
DEVOTED HUSBAND, BROTHER AND FRIEND
While some might feel horrified to look upon their own grave, Frederick did not. Not truly. He was looking at the future, after all, and was pleased that not only had he risen to the rank of rear admiral, but he had also been likely knighted, for to be awarded a new baronetcy was almost impossible. Quickly working out the numbers, he had lived to the age of sixty-two. Neither of his parents had lived past fifty, so it seemed as long a life as he could reasonably expect. He nodded in approval but knew the most important question remained - whom had he married? Hope flickered as he stared at the forget-me-nots, the green stems neatly tied together with a blue satin ribbon.
Footsteps sounded behind him, startling him from his reverie. He turned around, his heart pounding in anticipation, but it was not the woman he hoped to see. It was his sister Sophia, approaching with three evergreen boughs. His breathing slowly returned to normal as he looked her over. Time had been kind - her hair had turned grey and she had more lines around her eyes and mouth, but she looked very happy and healthy. She stopped at his headstone.
"I see she has been here already," she remarked, placing one bough in front of each of the three graves.
Frederick wondered to whom Sophia was referring. His headstone said he had been a husband but not a father, so she could not be referring to his daughter. It must be his wife.
It must be Anne.
Sophia continued in a low, gentle tone. "Merry Christmas, Frederick. It has been almost five years since you left us, and I still miss you terribly. I cannot imagine how much harder it is for Anne. Her friendship has been most welcome, especially with my dear Admiral gone as well."
Frederick's heart leapt at the words. He had indeed married Anne! A smile spread across his face. It was a shame they did not have children, as Anne would have been an excellent mother, but all things considered, he was very satisfied with what he saw. This was not the dreadful future that he feared after Captain Marley's visit. Had he already altered his fate by the new feelings in his heart from the other Spirits' visits?
Sophia stayed a few more minutes before leaving, and soon two women whom Frederick did not know walked by.
"Those are Miss Elliot's flowers," one of them said. "Every Christmas, she comes up from Somersetshire to visit and leaves a bouquet of forget-me-nots."
The blood drained from Frederick's face.
Miss Elliot? Anne was unmarried?
Then whom had he married?
"Such a tragic story," the other woman said. "Each of them in love with the other, yet they never reconciled. Then he unwittingly entangled himself with that horrid, mercenary woman."
"A worse wife he could not have had! He tried to treat her well and make the best of the situation, but that only made it easier for her to take advantage of him. How quickly she ran up debts with every merchant and destroyed his reputation! Then she went and got herself killed." The woman shook her head sadly. "They say his spirit still walks amongst us, bound to the earth by the weight of his regrets."
"No! No!" Frederick barely recognised his own anguished voice. It could not be so. He took a step backward in horror and his heel hit an upturned stone, disrupting his balance and sending him to the ground. As his body made contact with the hard, frozen dirt, the scene changed.
He was sitting on the floor inside a parlour. The room was small but neat, and tastefully decorated with a feminine style. At the table, he saw Sophia sitting opposite another woman. Having an idea of who she was, he scrambled to his feet and walked over to see her face.
She was pale and worn with a hardened edge to her, not unlike the air of a young midshipman who had survived multiple bloody actions - a once lively, innocent spirit crushed by the cruel realities of life. Frederick's heart ached at the sight.
"I am glad we have become friends, Anne," Sophia said. "Frederick often spoke of you and I wondered if we would ever meet."
"I am glad, too. Had his death not been in the newspaper, I do not think we would have become acquainted."
"Even though we see each other only once a year, I hope you know that I consider you as a sister."
"We ought to have been true sisters," Anne said candidly. "It was my doing that we never were."
Sophia put her hand over Anne's and shook her head. "You cannot continue to blame yourself. Frederick would not have wanted it."
"I only speak the truth. It was I who broke our engagement and his heart."
"You were nineteen at the time! You did what you thought was best. No one can fault you for erring on the side of caution. And there was no reason why Frederick could not have renewed the engagement. He ought to have."
"Perhaps… if I had written to him…" Anne offered.
"No," Sophia said firmly. "You know - and more importantly, he knew as well - that it was solely in his power to do so."
Anne sighed. "Yet he never did."
Sophia looked at her friend and considered her next words carefully. "He wanted to. A few years after Kitty died, he told me everything. During the war, he wanted to write to you; he even went so far as to write the letters, many times, but he never posted them. He was too stubborn and proud. Then he was married to Kitty, and after she died, he was too ashamed of what had happened. I tried to persuade him to contact you, but he was convinced he had ruined any chance he might have had."
"I would have loved him - I still love him - regardless of everything that happened." Anne's voice began to waver as emotion overtook her.
"I know. Frederick wondered about it too. About ten years ago, Edward discovered that you were still unmarried and had declined several offers, including one from your father's heir. It only made Frederick feel worse. He said you deserved better. He wanted you to find happiness with another."
"There could never be anyone for me but him," Anne said softly. Her confession of abiding love shook Frederick to his core.
"Anne!" he exclaimed wildly. "Anne, I am here." He reached out to touch her but his hand went through her arm.
His breathing quickened as he turned to the Ghost. "Please, Spirit! Tell me, are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?"
The Ghost made no movement.
"I can still change it. Of course I can," Frederick continued, not quite convinced of his words. "If I write to Anne today and avoid all women named Kitty, then what you have shown me cannot come to pass, can it?"
The Ghost was as immovable as ever.
Frederick wondered at the possibility. He knew he had to do something, but when was the right time to act? If he made another offer to Anne now, would Lady Russell somehow persuade her to refuse again? Should he wait until he had ten thousand pounds or twenty thousand pounds? But if he waited, would he somehow entangle himself with a woman, Kitty or otherwise, no matter how hard he tried to prevent it?
"Captain Marley said I could avoid his fate. Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," Frederick reasoned. "But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!"
Still the Ghost remained silent.
"Tell me!" Frederick could hear the desperation as he raised his voice. "Tell me I may yet live a different life!"
The Ghost lifted its hand.
They were now in another house replete with the same delicious, spiced scents of Christmas Day that Frederick remembered from his childhood. The sounds of happy children filled the air. At a table, he saw Anne and a young girl cutting up silk and gold paper. Anne looked about five-and-thirty, with rosy cheeks and a happy sparkle in her eyes as she hummed an unfamiliar tune. Nearby, two younger boys wrestled and laughed. Festive holly and ivy were strung about the room, and a Yule log burned in the fireplace. The youngest boy came up to the table.
"Mamma, I am hungry. When can we eat dinner?"
Anne smiled. "Be patient, my darling. We must wait for papa."
"Will he be home soon?"
"Very soon, I am sure. Your aunt and uncle do not live far from here."
He nodded and smiled mischievously. "May we please have the plum pudding first this year? Before the turkey and roast beef? Please?" His eyes were wide and pleading with the same sweet expression that Frederick used as a child to cajole his mother.
Anne suppressed a laugh. "I know plum pudding is your favourite, but we always eat it last. However, if you are very good, you may have a second helping tonight."
The boy accepted the compromise and shouted in delight.
"And I shall light the pudding this year," the older boy said from across the room. "Papa said I could help him now that I am eight years old."
"Take care not to burn yourself," the girl said. "Remember how cousin Walter burned his eyebrows off a few years ago? Aunt Mary has not yet recovered from the shock."
The older boy made a face. "I do not think she will ever recover." He returned to playing with his brother.
Frederick heard the front door open. The scene seemed to get blurry, but he saw an older version of himself walk into the room, with Sophia and her husband, Admiral Croft, behind him.
"Papa! Papa!" The youngest boy ran to the threshold. The older Frederick laughed and bent down to scoop the boy up in his arms.
The scene grew lighter still.
"Wait!" Frederick said frantically. "Do not go!"
"Mamma! Papa is home!" he heard the boy say before everything vanished.
Frederick was now standing in the dark, his heart beating fast. "Spirit! That is the future I want! If I write to Anne today, will that be my path?"
The Ghost remained silent.
"You would not show me such happiness were it not possible, would you? Please tell me! I promise to take the lessons that you and the other Spirits have shown me. I will change. I will let go of my anger and pride and make amends with Anne."
In his agony, Frederick reached for the Spirit's hand and caught it. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.
Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his question answered, he saw an alteration in the Spirit's dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled until it was gone, and Frederick was back in his cot.
~~END OF CHAPTER~~