"No, no," he said vaguely. "I never have. I never have. We are rather old-fashioned here."
"Not taking money," I replied, "seems to me more like an uncommonly new fashion than an old one."
"I never have," said the old man, blinking and blowing his nose; "I've always given presents. I'm too old to stop."
"Good heavens!" I said. "What can you mean? Why, you might be Father Christmas."
"I am Father Christmas," he said apologetically, and blew his nose again.
The lamps could not have been lighted yet in the street outside. At any rate, I could see nothing against the darkness but the shining shop-window. There were no sounds of steps or voices in the street; I might have strayed into some new and sunless world. But something had cut the chords of common sense, and I could not feel even surprise except sleepily. Something made me say, "You look ill, Father Christmas."
"I am dying," he said.
I did not speak, and it was he who spoke again.
"All the new people have left my shop. I cannot understand it. They seem to object to me on such curious and inconsistent sort of grounds, these scientific men, and these innovators. They say that I give people superstitions and make them too visionary; they say I give people sausages and make them too coarse. They say my heavenly parts are too heavenly; they say my earthly parts are too earthly; I don't know what they want, I'm sure. How can heavenly things be too heavenly, or earthly things too earthly? How can one be too good, or too jolly? I don't understand. But I understand one thing well enough. These modern people are living and I am dead."
"You may be dead," I replied. "You ought to know. But as for what they are doing, do not call it living."
A silence fell suddenly between us which I somehow expected to be unbroken. But it had not fallen for more than a few seconds when, in the utter stillness, I distinctly heard a very rapid step coming nearer and nearer along the street. The next moment a figure flung itself into the shop and stood framed in the doorway. He wore a large white hat tilted back as if in impatience; he had tight black old-fashioned pantaloons, a gaudy old-fashioned stock and waistcoat, and an old fantastic coat. He had large, wide-open, luminous eyes like those of an arresting actor; he had a pale, nervous face, and a fringe of beard. He took in the shop and the old man in a look that seemed literally a flash and uttered the exclamation of a man utterly staggered.
"Good lord!" he cried out; "it can't be you! It isn't you! I came to ask where your grave was."
"I'm not dead yet, Mr. Dickens," said the old gentleman, with a feeble smile; "but I'm dying," he hastened to add reassuringly.
"But, dash it all, you were dying in my time," said Mr. Charles Dickens with animation; "and you don't look a day older."
"I've felt like this for a long time," said Father Christmas.
Mr. Dickens turned his back and put his head out of the door into the darkness.
"Dick," he roared at the top of his voice; "he's still alive."
Another shadow darkened the doorway, and a much larger and more full-blooded gentleman in an enormous periwig came in, fanning his flushed face with a military hat of the cut of Queen Anne. He carried his head well back like a soldier, and his hot face had even a look of arrogance, which was suddenly contradicted by his eyes, which were literally as humble as a dog's. His sword made a great clatter, as if the shop were too small for it.
"Indeed," said Sir Richard Steele, "'tis a most prodigious matter, for the man was dying when I wrote about Sir Roger de Coverley and his Christmas Day."
My senses were growing dimmer and the room darker. It seemed to be filled with newcomers.
"It hath ever been understood," said a burly man, who carried his head humorously and obstinately a little on one side (I think he was Ben Jonson) "It hath ever been understood, consule Jacobo, under our King James and her late Majesty, that such good and hearty customs were fallen sick, and like to pass from the world. This grey beard most surely was no lustier when I knew him than now."
And I also thought I heard a green-clad man, like Robin Hood, say in some mixed Norman French, "But I saw the man dying."
"I have felt like this a long time," said Father Christmas, in his feeble way again.
Mr. Charles Dickens suddenly leant across to him.
"Since when?" he asked. "Since you were born?"
"Yes," said the old man, and sank shaking into a chair. "I have been always dying."
Mr. Dickens took off his hat with a flourish like a man calling a mob to rise.
"I understand it now," he cried, "you will never die."
G. K Chesterton