“I repeat, I am not of you, I don’t approve of you and the others,” cried Dickens angrily. “I was no player with witches and vampires and midnight things.”
“What ofA Christmas Carol ?”
“Ridiculous! One story. Oh, I wrote a few others about ghosts, perhaps, but what of that? My basic works had none of that nonsense!”
“Mistaken or not, they grouped you with us. They destroyed your books—your worlds too. You must hate them, Mr. Dickens!”
“I admit they are stupid and rude, but that is all. Good day!”
“Let Mr. Marley come, at least!”
The door slammed. As Poe turned away, down the street, skimming over the frosty ground, the coachman playing a lively air on a bugle, came a great coach, out of which, cherry-red, laughing and singing, piled the Pickwickians, banging on the door, shouting Merry Christmas good and loud, when the door was opened by the fat boy.
Mr. Poe hurried along the midnight shore of the dry sea. By fires and smoke he hesitated, to shout orders, to check the bubbling caldrons, the poisons and the chalked pentagrams. “Good!” he said, and ran on. “Fine!” he shouted, and ran again. People joined him and ran with him. Here were Mr. Coppard and Mr. Machen running with him now. And there were hating serpents and angry demons and fiery bronze dragons and spitting vipers and trembling witches like the barbs and nettles and thorns and all the vile flotsam and jetsam of the retreating sea of imagination, left on the melancholy shore, whining and frothing and spitting.
Mr. Machen stopped. He sat like a child on the cold sand. He began to sob. They tried to soothe him, but he would not listen. “I just thought,” he said. “What happens to us on the day when thelast copies of our books are destroyed?”
The air whirled.
“Don’t speak of it!”
“We must,” wailed Mr. Machen. “Now, now, as the rocket comes down, you, Mr. Poe; you, Coppard; you, Bierce—all of you grow faint. Like wood smoke. Blowing away. Your faces melt—”
“Death!Real death for all of us.”
“We exist only through Earth’s sufferance. If a final edict tonight destroyed our last few works we’d be like lights put out.”
Coppard brooded gently. “I wonder who I am. In what Earth mind tonight do I exist? In some African hut? Some hermit, reading my tales? Is he the lonely candle in the wind of time and science? The flickering orb sustaining me here in rebellious exile? Is it him? Or some boy in a discarded attic, finding me, only just in time! Oh, last night I felt ill, ill, ill to the marrows of me, for there is a body of the soul as well as a body of the body, and this soul body ached in all of its glowing parts, and last night I felt myself a candle, guttering. When suddenly I sprang up, given new light! As some child, sneezing with dust, in some yellow garret on Earth once more found a worn, time-specked copy of me! And so I’m given a short respite!”
A door banged wide in a little hut by the shore. A thin short man, with flesh hanging from him in folds, stepped out and, paying no attention to the others, sat down and stared into his clenched fists.
“There’s the one I’m sorry for,” whispered Blackwood. “Look at him, dying away. He was once more real than we, who were men. They took him, a skeleton thought, and clothed him in centuries of pink flesh and snow beard and red velvet suit and black boot; made him reindeers, tinsel, holly. And after centuries of manufacturing him they drowned him in a vat of Lysol, you might say.”
The men were silent.
“What must it be on Earth?” wondered Poe. “Without Christmas? No hot chestnuts, no tree, no ornaments or drums or candles—nothing; nothing but the snow and wind and the lonely, factual people. . . .”
They all looked at the thin little old man with the scraggly beard and faded red velvet suit.
“Have you heard his story?”
“I can imagine it. The glitter-eyed psychiatrist, the clever sociologist, the resentful, froth-mouthed educationalist, the antiseptic parents——”