Authors’ Note – Part of this story takes place during the Christmas season in Always Darkest. You don’t need to have read the book to enjoy the story, so just in case you are new to the universe, Chris is the former gatekeeper of Pontius Pilate, cursed with immortality, and trying to make the most of his second chance. The rest of the story speaks of events leading to a Christmas past. On a side note, the wonderful work of fiction that inspired this idea happens to have been published 175 years ago today. It was an entirely coincidental confluence of events, but that seems to be a theme in our little universe. Thanks, Charlie.
Chris sat forward in his office chair, taking a sip of tea, running a hand over the worn leather cover of the aged book in front of him. Ben had brought it by a while ago, wrapped in simple brown paper and tied with a string.
Chris wasn’t allowed to consider it a Christmas present, he’d said. It was simply a thank you for inviting him to move in, for giving him an out from staying so close to Hell’s business. And it was, perhaps, a small nod to the holiday of Yule, the winter celebration that still meant quite a great deal to him.
“Wherever did you find this?” Chris had asked in awe, finger tracing the inscription reverently.
Ben had grinned. “It is yours, isn’t it?”
“It is, but I … I certainly never thought I’d see it again.”
“I’m surprised it ever got out of your sight.”
“I had to leave in rather a hurry,” he said absently. “A summons from the Church.”
“Oh. Those assholes,” Ben laughed. “Makes more sense now. Do you like it?”
“I …” He’d needed to stop and clear his throat. “Of course I like it. But I hardly know how to begin to thank you.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “I told you, it’s to thank you. If you really need to offer me some form of recompense for doing such a little thing, do me a favor and eat the food that came along with the book. You were so damned grouchy from starving yourself when you got home from grading papers last night, I thought you might actually take a bite out of me,” he teased.
Chris promised he would. He’d even unwrapped the sandwich with the best of intentions, but the call of one of his best loved possessions, returned to him by a thoughtful friend, was too great. He decided he wasn’t even going to ask how Ben had come by it. It was almost certainly through his demon friend who ran the bar, and he didn’t want anything to do with … him … her … it … whatever. It was almost certainly wise to keep his distance from that part of Ben’s life. He didn’t like thinking about it or its implications anyway.
Instead, he pulled the book toward him, reading the inscription again, smiling faintly as the memories of how it came into being washed over him in the quiet office, transporting him to a night he still thought of with warmth from time to time.
The gaslamp cast dancing shadows over and behind the men. Their almost grave silence would have worried the servants passing through, to say nothing about the lady of the house, were they not tempered by some satisfied smiles or occasional pained, but modest, curses.
“Well, gentleman, that’s the rubber. Shall we play again,” said their affable host, as the cards were tossed onto the table. He had the look of a man well-satisfied, and trying to hide how smug he was feeling, and doing rather a poor job.
“Ho-no, Charlie. I think I’ve had enough. My purse is a bit lighter than I’m comfortable with for only one evening’s play.”
Charlie laughed, but the second man agreed, “I feel the same. I shudder to think what Eleanor would say if she knew how much of my Christmas bonus I just parted with.”
The third man, clearly feeling almost badly about the fleecing he’d just assisted his friend Charlie in inflicting on his neighbors, offered, “We could switch partners, if you like.”
“Now, now, Cristiano, let’s not be so hasty,” Charlie protested with a laugh. “Perhaps if you lads are lucky, Chris will let us all draw lots to be enriched by him next game.”
Chris shook his head. “It really was a bit of luck, but you’re very kind.”
Reggie chuckled, but rose and started pulling on his coat. “Really, gentleman, it was a pleasure. And I do thank you for the master class in whist.” He paused, giving them both the sort of friendly smile that said despite how much of his coin was staying here on the table, he’d passed a highly enjoyable and stimulating evening. “Come along, Harry, we’ll walk together. I’ve saved us a couple of cigars from my jaunt over to Whitechapel last week to be a balm to our spirits tonight.”
Despite the offer of tobacco, Harry’s face remained pulled into a sour, angry pout.
“What’s wrong, Harry?” Charlie asked. “You’re not cross about the game, are you?”
“Well, now that you mention it, yes, I rather am.” He eyed Chris with a narrowed, suspicious gaze. “Your friend.”
“We’ve been playing together all night, sir. I do have a name. Cristiano, or Chris, as you please,” the dark-haired man corrected almost softly, taking the man’s measure and feeling himself beginning to tense.
“Fine,” Harry snapped, speaking to Charlie, but not taking his eyes of the man’s guest. “Chris or Cristiano, or whatever he calls himself, plays awfully well for someone who claims to be new to the game, Harry said darkly.
Charlie’s face creased, and his eyes narrowed. “What exactly are you implying?”
“Charles,” Chris said softly, “Please, let me.” He was nothing if not calm and in control of his voice and face. Charlie nodded. His own temper was on the verge of flaring. Better to let his friend handle this if he felt it could be smoothed over. “You, sir, seem to be implying that we cheated you. Am I correct? Or is this simply a messy misunderstanding about to get out of hand by poorly chosen words.”
The gravity of his tone brought Harry up short. Calling a gentleman a cheat had serious implications. While not technically legal, duels still settled matters of personal honor with the regularity of a well-constructed clock. Harry held up his hands. “No, no, no. I apologize if I’ve given some offense.”
Italians had a reputation, whether earned or not, of being quick to anger, dangerous in a fight, and likely to bring their entire family down on you, especially over a question of honor. And he didn’t know Charlie’s friend very well at all.
Chris could practically read all of that in the man’s face and his hasty retraction. “Well, then, perhaps you’d be so kind as to clarify your intentions for me and our host.”
“It’s just … You … You took to the game faster than I’ve ever seen. I rather thought perhaps Charlie undersold your experience to get me back for a bit of misdirection at the billiards table a few weeks ago.”
Chris chuckled like he hadn’t just narrowly avoided having to call Harry out to pistols at dawn to safe face. While he would certainly survive, he couldn’t say if Harry would, and he knew the man had nearly as many children as Charlie. “I see. Is it such a terribly complicated game?” All three of the other men widened their eyes at him. “At home I’ve played something quite similar. Tressette. Are you familiar with it?”
Harry, realizing he’d tread upon a very fine line, saw the opportunity to back off his accusation further and took it. “Ah, I attempted it once, my friend. It is similar, I believe, but if anything, more difficult.”
Chris laughed lightly. “I suppose it is. It is quite challenging, but I learned it young, and have enjoyed as a means of financing my penchant for travel for many years.”
“Well, no wonder we were so soundly rousted this evening, sir. You’ve certainly explained your skill. My apologies to you both,” Harry said with ample sincerity, offering the two men a small bow.
“Please, think nothing of it. I may have overreacted,” Chris smiled, relieved he’d avoided a fight, while still allowing them to play into their own assumptions about Charlie’s Italian friend.
Chris was glad things had been settled amicably. He hoped to spend some time here doing work with the poor, and perhaps learning a bit more about America. He was thinking of traveling there at some point. He and Charlie had met while traveling and Chris knew he’d traveled to America recently, so it was a natural connection to make. His warm smile invited a bit more small talk, after which Reggie and, a very contrite, Harry took their leave.
Charlie and Chris returned to the parlor after seeing them out. “Sherry?” Charlie asked.
“Yes, thank you.”
As he placed their glasses on the table and sat down facing his guest, Charlie observed, “You handled Harry quite well. He’s a bit of a hot head, mouth running off before his head catches up, but he usually means well.”
Chris took a sip of the exceptionally fine fortified wine. “That was my impression as well. I certainly didn’t want to lose face. In any event, I sensed he just needed a way out, so I provided one. I’m glad I read him correctly. I’m alright if faced with someone looking for a bit of fisticuffs, but I’m not fond of firearms. Pistols at dawn was not the conclusion I was looking for either.”
“Quite,” Charlie said, chuckling. “Now, not to press the matter, but would tonight be a good time …”
Chris smiled. “I always enjoy our discussions, Charlie.”
“Join me by the fire?”
Chris nodded, and they moved to sit in the comfortable chairs positioned on either side of the fire.
“This is the part of the evening I was most anticipating. I believe it’s your turn.”
“No, no,” Chris said pleasantly. “If I’m not mistaken, I provided the question when last we met. Although, I confess, it’s been awhile since we’ve had the opportunity to meet like this.”
Charlie chuckled again. “Quite so. And I do have one, if you’re sure …”
“Go on, please.”
“Alright then, tonight’s question …Is man, by his nature truly redeemable, that is to say, can a leopard change its spots?”
This time Chris laughed. “That’s really the question?” Charlie looked like he might be ready to defend his question, but Chris just went on, no longer laughing, really giving the idea his attention. “The possibility of redemption is the cornerstone of my faith. Of yours, too,” Chris reminded his host. “Despite semantics, our religions are not so very different, are they?”
“Well, I suppose all that’s true. But do you really believe in it? Redemption, I mean.”
“Of course I do. I’ve seen people change, wholly and completely.”
“Do they though? Or is it the trappings of change, while in their hearts they remain the same.”
“Ah. I see what you’re really asking now.” Chris paused, thinking. Charlie thought he looked older when he wore that expression, too old. “Speaking from experience, I have to believe people can really change.”
Charlie frowned at him, but it was a thoughtful sort of frown, not one of irritation. “Unfortunately, my experience has been rather different. But do go on.”
“I meant me,” he said, seeing the surprise in his host’s eyes. He smiled as he went on, but it was a strange smile, Charlie thought. It had gladness and sadness in equal measure. “I am not the man I was, you see.”
“Do you feel you can tell me your own story?”
“I’ve told it many times before,” he said with a nod. “Confessed it, you might say. In my younger days, I cared nothing for the wisdom of my elders, trusting rather what I could read of philosophers and great thinkers, politicians even. And I found my way into military service contrary to my family’s wishes, too. I was quick of temper, self-serving, even violent. I was very much taken with being a soldier at war. I turned my back on my parents, my whole family, my friends, and even … even love … all in the name of my own ambition. All out of a restless need to fill the emptiness inside me that none of them could, I suppose. And I was angry … so angry, that the world did not conform to my view of it.” He looked down at his hands for a moment.
“I must say,” Charlie offered, getting up and refilling their glasses. “I cannot reconcile this tale with the man I met in my travels through Scotland, old boy. In the two years I’ve known you, in all our correspondence, I’ve never seen any hint of the man you describe. And you’re still so young.”
“Despite my youth, trust that it was a long road to my Damascus,” Chris said simply.
“Well, perhaps you are an exception that proves the rule,” Charlie said with a furrowed brow.
Chris sipped his drink, raising an eyebrow at his friend. “How so?”
“Just look at the times. Society, not just here, but everywhere, is course and rude, callous, in its treatment of our most vulnerable. Surely you’ve seen that in your missionary work?” Chris tilted his head but didn’t given any indication of an answer. “Rather than change, the men with the wealth and the wherewithal to do something about it, at best provide simple, insufficient sops to appear good, while their actions only deepen the misery. And at worst, they deepen it willfully, and in the open.”
Chris frowned. “I think you need to reframe your question then. You are talking of society, not of the individual.”
“Aren’t I though? Isn’t society a collection of individuals? Does not society reflect our collective hearts?”
Chris nodded thoughtfully, stroking his chin which bore what would have been considered an impolite amount of stubble, though he would have sworn in front of the throne of the Almighty that he shaved that very morning. “What you are saying, if I’m hearing you correctly, is the current ills of society, the ones we patch over with alms houses and so-called Christian charity, and the persistent lack of real change for the poor and the sick and so on, is directly related to the intractability of human nature. Man’s inhumanity to man, so to speak.”
Charlie nodded, leaning toward his guest. “Yes. That’s it. That’s it, exactly. So, I must ask, given my position, and given the state of our society, is real change possible?”
“Still, I say yes, but I’ll admit it isn’t easy.”
“I’d say nigh on impossible, your story notwithstanding.”
“Fair enough, I suppose. People resist change, resist giving of themselves, out of fear, I think, and sometimes,” he paused. In my case, most certainly, he thought to himself. “It takes an act of apparently divine intervention. But still, it’s not hopeless. It is possible. I’m not the only example I’ve observed of the process, I can assure you.”
Now intrigued, as opposed to feeling a simple academic interest, Charlie asked, “And what does that process look like?”
Chris gazed into the fire for a few minutes, thinking of his past, his journey, and that of others whose lives he had passed through. “I see the process, the journey, having three parts.”
“An auspicious number for a man of faith.”
“I suppose so. But it really does tend to look the same, regardless of faith. One must first reflect, without wallowing in it, mind you, on how they came to be where they are, on how their experiences shaped them.” Charlie was nodding. Any man of learning or of faith could acknowledge the power of self-reflection. “Say we take one of the powerful people you mentioned, who could change things, but who refuse.”
“These men, are greedy and hard, hoarding their wealth and their affection from the world and taking no joy but that which comes from increasing what they already have.”
“I know many such men.”
“They might become so taken with wealth that it becomes the central theme of their lives, at the cost of all else.”
“So like the young man you tell me you were, they sacrifice all else for some selfish end that they cannot even see doesn’t serve them or anyone else.”
“Just so,” Chris agreed. “Reflection might have the power to illuminate why that is for one of them, just as it did for me. Perhaps one grew up poor, just as you’ve told me you did, Charlie. But in his case, growing up wanting, or perhaps with hard parents or none even, perhaps even growing up sent away to work or school with no familial affection, well, perhaps that would make that man fear those feelings of want. For one who has wanted desperately, I can see wealth or some skewed concept of success, supplanting real warmth or affection through a simple mistake of the emotions.”
“I suppose …”
“And perhaps someone sent away to school, like many of the men of power we are talking about, reinforced their mis-taught views on class and society. They wind up measuring the value of their life and its impact by the size of their pile of gold. Until they see that, until they understand its flaw, real change is not possible.”
“To what end? Just to see … I don’t understand.”
Chris shrugged. “The past informs the present. Examining our pasts allows us to see why we behave as we do in the here and now.”
“What good will that do any one of them, any one of us?”
“Well, it’s just the first step, as I said. The next is to truly understand how our actions impact the world around us. It requires the waking of the empathy all men, as children of God, are heir to, perhaps it has slumbered since infancy in the mind’s deepest vaults, but it is there. In all of us. We can see what we do, how we matter, in the world, and to the people around us. For some that’s enough. Some men can change with only that put into perspective.”
“And the ones who cannot?”
“For them, the road is the most difficult, but the change it results in is perhaps the most profound. They must understand where these things, if they remain unchanged, will take them. In the case of the unfeeling elite we were discussing, it’s likely a life devoid of love or even friendship, a lonely death, and only Perdition to show for it.”
“Was that the long road you traveled, my young friend?”
Chris nodded. “After a fashion. And I had some rather profound assistance. A wise man, and such a kind one, he … well, to carry the metaphor from earlier, he removed the scales from my eyes. He showed me a different path. One I am finally content to tread.”
Charlie sat, deep in thought, for some time. “So real change is possible …”
“With work,” Chris agreed. “As a conscious choice. In addition to the possibility of redemption, free will is foundational to our beliefs.”
Charles was quiet again, then he looked at his friend with a twinkle in his eye. “You’ve given me much to think about, Cristiano, much to think about indeed.”
“Then another of our conversations can be called a success,” Chris said with a grin.
“Charles, darling, it’s getting late,” came a soft voice. Both men turned to see the man’s lovely wife framed in the doorway.
“So it is,” Chris agreed, with a polite nod to them both. He moved to the table to don his coat. “I’ll bid you both good evening then.”
“Next week, perhaps?” Charlie said hopefully. “You’ve given me an idea I’d love to discuss when you’ve the time.”
“I’m afraid I’ll be traveling home by then. I’m not sure when I’ll return to England.”
“Kate and I have discussed another grand adventure. Perhaps I shall visit you in Rome next time. I suppose, for now, we’ll have to be content with our correspondence.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Chris said with a smile.
“Keep an eye on your post. I may have something for you before too long.”
A soft tap on his office door, drew Chris from his memories. He’d been so caught up in them, he was almost surprised to see the electric light with the green glass shade on his desk rather than a candle or gaslamp. “Come in!” he called out.
“Hey, I’m sorry to bother you, Dr. G …”
“Mal, please, what have I said?”
She smiled. “That during office hours and outside of class we should call you Chris.”
“Would be during class,too, if I had any say,” he chuckled. “What can I do for you, Mal? Shouldn’t you be laying rubber in the student parking lot getting out of here for break?”
She laughed. “I buy my own tires, Dr … Chris. I’m going to be working on my senior project over vaca … Wow, this looks old,” she said, reaching out to touch the book in front him, then thinking better of it and pulling her hand back.
“It is,” he said, pushing it toward her. “Have a look, just be gentle.”
“Of course,” she said reverently, picking it up. “Oh, oh wow. I love this one.”
“You like Dickens?” Chris asked. Mal wasn’t much of a novel reader, at least not the classics, he’d noticed. She was more for science texts, or if she was reading just for fun science fiction, or fantasy, or much to Ben’s consternation, horror novels.
“I … I like this one. The beginning is so good. ‘Marley was dead to begin with’. It pulls me right in.”
“I like that, too, although I confess, I’m partial to the theme.”
“This is a first edition, holy shit!” Mal exclaimed, totally forgetting herself. “I … sorry … I just … this is so cool. I don’t think I’ve ever seen, say nothing about held, a first edition of … anything!”
Chris smiled. “No apologies necessary. It was a gift from Ben, actually. And quite unexpected. I may have said something similar when he gave it to me.”
“He’s a thoughtful guy. I hope he likes the coin we talked about. Has it turned up yet?”
“Oh, yes, I did find it … It’s at home … I’ll drop it off to you at the gallery tomorrow if you like”
“That’d be … oh my God, this is … It’s made out to a Chris! ‘To Chris, thank you for the conversation. Your friend, Charlie’. That’s unbelievable! What are the odds of Ben finding a first edition Dickens that you love made out to another Chris?”
“I don’t know, Mal, you’re the math whiz,” he said with a grin.
“Okay, whenever Ben asks me what the odds are, I usually tell him easily calculable.” She laughed. “Seriously though. That’s crazy.”
“Yeah,” Chris chuckled. “Small world.”