IT was a dark and solitary path, a narrow, hardly perceptible, footway in a dense forest, hemmed in by two walls of impenetrable thorns and wild creepers, covering, as with a network, the trunks of the tall, bare, moss-covered trees. The path led through the woods down to a deep valley in which a few country-houses were nestled. Night was fast approaching, and the hurricane, that blew across the country, boded evil to many a traveller, by land and sea. The wind, which had hitherto been only moaning through the trees, in low sad tones reminding one of a funereal dirge, was now beginning to roar with fury, filling the forest as with the howling of a hundred hungry wolves. Very soon a drizzling, ice-cold rain veiled the whole forest in a damp shroud of fog.
One solitary traveller was wearily wending his way along this deserted path. The hour was late, and the darkening shadows were creeping on steadily, making the gloom in the thicket still more depressing. The young man looked worn and tired, as he again and again brushed aside the entangled briars which impeded his progress forward. He was well-dressed, and wore a marine officer’s cap. But his coat was now in rags, torn by the hard, frozen, cruel thorns, and his hands were bleeding in the struggle he had had with the briars for a whole long night and a day since he had lost his way in the huge forest. Panting, he stopped at last; and, as he heaved a deep sigh, he fell down half-insensible at the foot of an old shaggy oak. Then, half-opening his weary eyes, he ‘ murmured in despair, as he placed his hand on his heart: — “I wonder how long this will yet beat. … I feel as if it were gradually stopping”.
He closed his eyes once more, and very soon the feeble palpitations he was watching within himself, turned his half-paralysed thought into a new groove of ideas. Now the hardly audible beatings of his heart seemed to transform themselves into the ticking of an old clock quite near to him. He imagined the old Nüremberg timepiece in his mother’s room. He was dripping wet, chilled to the marrow of his bones, and was fast losing consciousness. But, forgetting for one moment his situation, and where he was, he caught himself soliloquising as was his custom, when alone.
“This clock”, he thought, “has to be wound up … else it will stop. So shall this heart. A man has to eat and drink to renew the fuel which feeds life, the clock too … no ; the clock is different to man. Let it rest for a week, for two, three months, even for a year. . . Still, if wound up again, it will tick on as merrily as ever. But once the supply of the body is stopped — well, what then ? Shall the working power cease for ever, or the ticking of the heart be resumed as that of the clock ? No, [Page 275] no! … You may feed the dead body of man as much as you please ! it shall awaken to life no more. … A queer problem to solve, — What becomes of that something which made the body move ? The food is not the cause, is it ? … No; the food is only the fuel. … There must be some inward fire ever burning, as long as it is supplied. … But when the supply of the fuel ceases ? Ah! . . that is it … where does it go ? , . Does anything really die ? . . What form shall my inner fire take ? . . Shall it return to its primordial light . . . and be no more ? . . Oh, how I suffer! . . No, no; I must not allow this, my fire, to go out. No, not before I see once more my loved ones . . . my mother and Alice. . . .”
Arising with great effort he pursued his way with tottering steps, feeling his way in the darkness. But instantly a wild gust of wind, tearing along the narrow pathway, caused the great trees to sway and rock as if in very agony. Catching in its icy clasp the weakened form of the young man, the hurricane nearly upset him. Being already wet through and through with rain and cold, he shivered and groaned aloud, as he felt a sharp pain penetrating his limbs from the brain downwards. One more short struggle and he heavily fell on the cold hard ground. Clasping his hands over his brow, he could only whisper again: “Mother, I can do no more. . . . Farewell, mother, for ever ! Alice — fare thee well!” . .
His strength was gone. For over thirty hours he had tasted no food. He had travelled night and day in the hope of being with his family on Christmas Eve, that blessed day of joy and peace. Never yet had he spent a Christmas Eve away from home; but that year had been an unusually unfortunate one for him. His vessel had been wrecked and he had lost all. It was only by the greatest of chances that he had been enabled to find his way back to his country, in time to take the train that brought him from a large seaport to the small town some twenty miles’ distance from his home. Once there, he had to travel that distance by coach. But just as he was preparing to start on his last journey, he met a poor sailor, a companion of his shipwreck. With tears in his eyes the man told him that having lost all, he had no more money left to take him to his wife and children, who were yet two days’ journey by rail from where he was; and that thus, he could not be with them to make merry Christmas together. So the good-hearted young officer, thinking he could easily walk the short distance that separated him from home, had emptied his purse into the sailor’s hands and started on his way on foot, hoping to arrive on that same evening.
He set out early in the morning and bethought himself of a short cut through the vast forests of his native place. But on that afternoon he hurt his foot badly, and being able to move only at a very slow pace, the night had overtaken him in the forest in which he had finally lost his way during that terrible night. He had wandered since the morning during the whole long day, until pain, exhaustion, and [Page 276] the hurricane had overpowered him. And now, he was lying helpless on the bare frozen ground, and would surely die before the dawn.
How long he lay there he never remembered; but, when he came back to himself, he thought he could move, and resolved to make a last supreme effort after the short rest. The wind had suddenly fallen. He felt warmer and calmer now, as he sat leaning against a tree. Old habit brought him back to his previous train of thought.
“Never, mother dear, never”, he addressed her in thought, “never have I spent a Christmas away from your dear selves. . . . Never, since my boyhood, when father died twelve years ago! I made a vow then that, come what would, I should spend each Christmas Eve at home; and now, though life seems slowly ebbing out of my body, I want to keep my promise. They must be waiting for me even now, they, and Alice, my sweet fair cousin, who tells me she never loved but me ! Reginald and Lionel, my brothers, who are earnestly waiting for me; my shy pretty May, and little Fanny. . . . They are all longing to see me, my dear ones, all expecting their old brother Hugo to return and decorate their Christmas-tree. . . . Oh, mother, mother, see you I must! I will be with you on this Christmas Eve, come what may !”
This passionate longing appeal seemed to give him a ten-fold strength. He made a desperate effort to rise from his place, and found he could do so quite easily. Then, overcome with joy, he flew rather than walked through the dense black forest. He must have surely mistaken the distance, as a minute later he found himself in the brushwood, and saw the well-known valley so familiar to him, and even discerned in the bright moonlight the home that contained all his dear ones. He ran still faster, more and more rapidly, and even forgot in his excitement to wonder whence he had found the power of using his lame foot so easily. . . . At last he reached the lawn, and approached the cosy old house, all wrapped in its snowy winter garments, and sparkling in moonlight like a palace of King Frost. From a large bay-window poured out torrents of light, and as he drew still nearer, trying to see through it, he caught a glimpse of the loved faces, which he stopped to look at, before knocking at the door. … .
“Oh, my mother ! I see her there”, he exclaimed. “There she is, seated in her arm-chair, with her knitting by her side, her beautiful silvery hair as soft and glossy as ever under her snow-white cap. I see her kind eyes and placid features still unmarked by the furrows of age. . . . She looks troubled. . . . She listens to the fierce gusts of wind which cause the windows to shake and rattle. How that wind does try to get into the house, and, finding itself no welcome guest, hark, how it rolls away. . . . How strange! . . . I hear, but I do not feel the wind. . . . Oh! . . . Kneeling at my mother’s feet there’s Alice. Her arms are clasped around mother’s knees; her golden curls fall on her back. . . . But — but, why are her large violet eyes filled with tears as she looks [Page 277] with up-turned face into mother’s sad eyes ? . . . Hush ! What is she saying ? . . . I hear it, even through that wall. . . .
‘“Don’t be uneasy, mother, dear, Hugo will come back. You know he told us so in his last letter. He said that after their shipwreck he was kindly, cared for by those who saved the crew. He wrote also that he had borrowed money for the journey, and that he would be with us at the latest on Christmas Eve! . . . Bad roads and the stormy night will have detained him. . . . The coach, you say ? Well, and though the coach has long since passed by, he may have taken a carriage. He will soon be here, mother’.
“Ah, dear Alice, I see — she looks at her finger, with its little ruby ring I placed on it. She puts it to her lips, and I hear her murmuring my name. …
(From Hugo’s diary, where he recorded that night’s experience.)
…. I rushed into the house at that appeal, and, as I now remember, without knocking at the door, as if I had passed through the stone walls. I tried to speak, but no sound appeared to reach their ears. Nor did anyone seem to see or greet me. … I drew Alice by the arm, but she never turned round, only continued to murmur sweet words of consolation into my mother’s ear. Good God, what agony ! Why do they not hear, or even see me. . . . Am I really here? I look round the room. The old home is just as I had left it nine months since. There is my father’s picture hanging over the mantel-piece, looking at me with his kind smile; the old piano open, with my favourite song on it. … The cat sleeping as usual, on the hearthrug, and purring, as she stretches out her lazy paws. Albums on the table, my photograph, with its bright and happy look ! How different to my present self! Here am I, standing in an agony of doubt, before my loved ones, seeing them, feeling them, touching them . . . and yet unseen by them, unnoticed, as one who is not there. . . . Not even my shadow on the wall over their own. But who then, am I ? . . . Why have they grown so blind to my presence ? Why do their hearts and senses remain so dense? I try again and again. I call them piteously by their names, but they heed me not. My heart, my love, all is here, but my physical body seems far away. Yes, it is far, far away, and now I see it, as it lies cold and lifeless in that forest, where I must have left it. It is surely for me, not for that body, that they care ! And is it because I am no longer clothed with flesh that I must be as only a breath, an empty naught, to them ? . . .
Full of despair, I turned away, and passing through the folding doors, arrived in the adjoining room, where my young brothers and sisters were busily occupied decorating the Christmas tree. There it stands, the old friend of my youth. I see it, and even discern its resinous perfume. . . . Towering up towards the ceiling, its lower branches are bending to the ground, laden with golden fruits, with toys and wax [Page 278] tapers. My brothers and sisters are gathered around it. But Reginald looks grave. I see him turning to May, and hear him saying:
“Are you not anxious about Hugo ? I wonder what can have become of him !”
“I did not like to tell mother”, May replies with a little shiver, “but I had a dreadful dream last night. I saw Hugo white and cold. He looked sorrowfully at me, but when he tried to speak he could not. His look haunts me still!” she softly sobbed, with tears rolling down her cheeks.
But now little Fanny gives a scream of delight. The child has discovered among the Christmas presents a real pipe, a pipe with silver bells.
“Oh, this shall be for Hugo, and then he will have music whenever he smokes !” exclaims the little one, merrily laughing, and holding out the toy in the direction where I am standing.
For a moment I hope she sees me. I try to take the pipe, but my hand cannot clasp it, and the toy seems to slip away from me as if it were a shadow. … I try to speak again, but it is of no use …. they see me not, neither do they hear me! …
Grieved beyond words, I left them, and returning into the next room, went up straight to Alice, who was still at mother’s side, murmuring to her loving words. I spoke again, I entreated, I besought them to look at me, and my suffering was so great that I felt that death would be preferable to this!
Then came a last and supreme effort. Concentrating all my will, I bent over Alice, and gasped out with my whole soul:
“If ever you loved me, Alice, know and hear me now !” I exclaimed, as I pressed my lips to hers.
She gave a shudder, a start, and then, opening her eyes wider and wider, she shrieked in terror:
“Hugo ! Hugo ! Mother, do you see ? Hugo is here !”
She tried to clasp me in her arms, but her hands met together, and only joined as if in prayer.
“Hugo, Hugo, stay, why can I not touch you ? Mother, look ! look ! Here is Hugo !”
She was growing wilder and more excited with every moment.
My mother looked faint and frightened, as she said:
“Alice, what is the matter, child ? What do you see ? Hugo is not here!”
The children, hearing Alice’s cry, flew into the room, all eager with expectation.
“Where is Hugo ? Where is he ? ” they prattled.
I felt that I was invisible to all but Alice. She was the only one to see me, Therefore, realizing that the body had to be saved from its danger in the woods without loss of time, I drew her after myself with [Page 279] all my will. I slowly moved towards the door, never taking my look off her eyes. She followed me, as one in a state of somnambulism.
My mother looked stunned and bewildered.
Rising with difficulty from her place, she would have made for the door also, but sank back into her arm-chair powerless and covered her face with her hands.
“Boys, follow Alice”, said May. “Wait . . . the carriage is there ready to go after the doctor’s children. Take it. Call the gardener and John to go with you. I will stay with mother”. And whispering to Reginald, she added, “Tell John to take rugs and blankets . . . but I am afraid poor Hugo is dead ! ”
She then turned to mother, who had fainted. I would see no more, but willing Alice to follow me, I left the house.
She came slowly after me, her face all white, her large eyes full of a look of terror, but also of resolution in them. On she would have gone on foot, in the drizzling rain, her golden hair all flying about her head, had she been allowed to do so by my brothers and servants. The strange cortege was ushered into the open carriage, the coachman being ordered to follow her directions. On it went, as speedily as the horse could go. I found myself floating now before them, and, to my own amazement, sliding backwards, with my face turned towards Alice, strongly willing that she should not lose sight of me. Two hours afterwards, the carriage entered the brushwood, and they were obliged to alight.
The night was now very dark and stormy, and notwithstanding the lanterns, the group made way with great difficulty into the thicket. The wind had begun to blow and howl with the same fury as when I had left the wood, and seemed to have caught them all in its chilly embrace. The boys and servants panted and shivered, but Alice heeded nothing. What cared she for that! The only thought of my beloved was I, Hugo. . . . On, on we went, her tender feet wounded with the brambles, and the wet sprays of branches brushing against her white face. On, on she ran, till, with a sudden and loud cry of joy and terror mixed, she fell down.
At the same instant I collapsed, and fell also on the ground, as it seemed to me; and then all became a blank. . . . As I learned later, at that moment the boys drew near, and lowering their lanterns found Alice with her arms clasped around a form, and when the lanterns were placed close to it they saw before them the body of their brother Hugo, a corpse !
“Sure enough he is dead, the poor young master! ” cried John, our old servant, who was close behind. “No, no !” Alice answered. “No, he is not dead. . . . His body is cold, but his heart still beats. Let us carry him home. . . . Quick, quick!” [Page 280]
Lifting up the body gently and placing it in the carriage they covered it with rugs and shawls, and drove at a furious speed back to our home. It was near midnight when the carriage stopped at the gate.
“Reginald, run on quickly and give the good news to mother ! ” cried Alice. “Tell May to have hot bottles and blankets ready, on the sofa in the drawing-room. It is warm there near the fire. . . . Tell them all that Hugo lives, for I know he does”, she went on repeating.
More lights were brought out, and the servants carried carefully their burden into the house, where they placed it on the sofa, hot flannels and restoratives being immediately applied. Noiselessly and breathlessly went on the work of love around the apparently dead body, and was at last rewarded. A sigh was heard, a deeper breath was drawn, and then the eyes slowly opened and I looked round in vague surprise at all those loved and anxious faces crowding eagerly around me.
“Don’t speak yet, Hugo”, whispered Alice anxiously. “Don’t, till you feel stronger”.
But I could not control my impatience.
“How am I here ? ” I asked. “ Ah, I remember. I lost my way in the old forest. . . . Ah, yes; I recollect now all. . . . The cold biting wind, my lame foot, after I stumbled and fell, knocking my head against a stone, and all became a blank to me !”
“Hush, Hugo, hush my boy”, said my mother wiping tears of joy from her still pale and suffering face. “You will tell us all that presently. . . . Now rest”.
But I could not refrain from speaking, as thoughts crowded into my head, and recollections came vividly back. “No, no, I am better”, I went on. “I am strong again, and I must let you know all that I dreamed. I was here, and I saw you all. . . . Oh, the torture I suffered when you knew me not! . . . Mother, darling, did you not see me, your son ? But she, my Alice, saw and followed me, and it is she who saved me from death ! Ah, yes ! I remember now, you found my body, and then all was darkness again. Kiss me, mother ! Kiss me all, let me feel that I am really with you in body, and am no longer an invisible shadow. . . . Mother I kept my promise; I am here on Christmas Eve ! Light the tree, my little Fan, and give me the pipe with the bells I saw you holding, and heard you say it was for old brother Hugo.”
The child ran into the other room and returned with the pipe I had seen her playing with a few hours before. This was the greatest and final proof for me, as for my family. The event was no vision then, no hallucination, but true to its merest details! As my mother often said afterwards, referring to that wonderful night, it was a weird and strange experience, but one which had happened to others before, and will go on happening from time to time. Of late years, when I had been happily married to my Alice (who will not let me travel far away [Page 281] without her, any longer) I have dived a good deal into such psychic mysteries, and I think I can explain my experience. I think that by privation, cold, and mental agony, I had been thrown into such abnormal conditions, that my astral body, as it is now generally called, my “conscious self”, was able to escape from the physical tenement and take itself to the home I so passionately desired to reach. All my thoughts, and longings being intensely directed towards it, I found myself there where I wished to be, in spirit. Then the agony of mind from the consciousness that I was invisible to all, added to the fear of death unless I could impress them with my presence, became finally productive of the supreme effort of will, the success of which alone could save me. This joined to Alice’s sensitiveness and her love for me, enabled her to sense my presence, and even to see my form, whereas others saw nothing. Man is a wonderful and marvellous enigma; but it is one which has to, and will, be completely unriddled some day, the scepticism of the age notwithstanding.
Such is the simple story told to the writer by an old naval officer, about the most “memorable Christmas Eve ” that came within his own experience.