Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Christmas Carol: Part III

[For PART 1 of A Christmas Carol, click here.]
[For PART 2 of A Christmas Carol, click here.]
by Jesse Kornbluth

CHAPTER 4 - THE LAST OF THE SPIRITS
 
The Phantom approached. Slowly. Silently. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form. It seemed to scatter gloom with every step.
 
Scrooge, bent down on one knee, could only see an outstretched hand. He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him. Its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread.
 
"You are the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come?'' said Scrooge.
 
The Phantom 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?'' Scrooge pursued. "Is that so, Spirit?''
 
The upper portion of the garment moved. That was the only answer he received.
 
Although he was becoming used to ghostly company, Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and when he prepared to follow the Spirit, he could hardly stand.
 
"Ghost of the Future!'' he exclaimed, "I fear you more than any I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to go where you lead, and do it with a thankful heart. But please... won't you speak to me?''
 
The Phantom made no reply. It just pointed its hand straight ahead.
 
"Alright, then,'' said Scrooge. "Lead on!''
 
Scrooge followed, and then the Phantom's robe circled around him, lifting him up and carrying him along.
 
Suddenly there were in the heart of the city. Merchants hurried up and down. The Phantom stopped beside a group of businessmen. Observing that the hand was pointed to them, Scrooge leaned in to listen to their talk.
 
"No,'' said a very fat man with a monstrous chin, "I don't know much about it, either way. I only know he's dead.''
 
"When did he die?'' inquired another.
 
"Last night, I believe.''
 
"I thought he'd never die --- what was the matter with him?'' asked a third.
 
"God knows,'' said the first.
 
"What has he done with his money?'' asked a red-faced gentleman.
 
"I haven't heard,'' said the man with the large chin. "Left it to his Company, perhaps. He hasn't left it to me. That's all I know.''
 
"It's likely to be a very cheap funeral,'' another man said. "I mean, I don't know of anybody to go to it. But I don't mind going if a lunch is provided.''
 
They all laughed, and walked on.
 
They went next into an obscure part of the town, where the streets were dirty, the shops and houses needed paint, and the people were badly dressed and ugly. The neighborhood reeked of poverty and misery.
 
They came to a shop where iron, old rags and bottles were bought. The floor was covered with piles of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges, files, scales, weights and scraps of iron. Sitting in the center was a gray-haired rascal, nearly seventy years old.
 
Just then a woman with a heavy bundle slunk into the shop. She was followed by another woman and a man in faded black. They all seemed surprised to be meeting one another there.
 
The first woman threw her bundle on the floor, looking with bold defiance at the other two.
 
"Every person has a right to take care of themselves," she said. "He always did!''
 
"Very true," the other woman said. "Who's the worse for the loss of a few things like these? Not a dead man, I suppose.''
 
"If he wanted to keep 'em after he was dead, why wasn't he nicer when he was alive?" the first woman said. "If he had been, he'd have had somebody to look after him when he was struck by Death, instead of lying gasping out his last hours, alone by himself.''
 
"That's the truest word that ever was spoke,'' the man said. "It's a judgment on him.''
 
"I wish it was a little heavier judgment,'' replied the woman. She turned to the shopkeeper. "Open that bundle, old Joe, and let me know the value of it."
 
The others had the same idea, and soon there was a new pile: a pencil-case, a battered watch, sheets and towels, two old-fashioned silver teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, a few boots --- even a blanket.
 
"His blankets?'' asked Joe.
 
"Whose else's do you think?'' replied the woman. "He isn't likely to take cold for lack of them.''
 
Scrooge listened to this dialogue in horror.
 
"Spirit!'' said Scrooge, shuddering from head to foot. "I see, I see. The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way, now. Merciful Heaven, what is this!''
 
He recoiled in terror, for the scene had changed, and now he saw a bare bed. Under a ragged sheet, there lay something covered up. Then a pale light fell upon the bed; and on it, unwatched and uncared for, was the body of a man.
 
The slightest raising of the cover would have revealed the face. Scrooge thought of it, felt how easy it would be to do, and longed to do it --- but he just could not bring himself to do it.
 
"Spirit!'' he said, "this is a fearful place. In leaving it, I shall not leave its lesson, trust me. Let us go!''
 
The Phantom pointed to the head.
 
"If there is any person in the town who feels emotion caused by this man's death,'' said Scrooge, "show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you!''
 
The Phantom spread its dark robe before him for a moment, like a wing; when he opened it, it seemed to be daylight, and Scrooge was a room with a mother and her children.
 
She was expecting someone, and she seemed quite anxious eagerness, for she walked up and down the room, jerked at every sound, looked out the window, glanced at the clock, and could hardly bear the voices of the children in their play.
 
At length the long-expected knock was heard. She hurried to the door, and met her husband, a man whose face was careworn and depressed, though he was young. There was a remarkable expression in it now; a kind of delight of which he felt ashamed.
 
"Is it good.'' she said, "or bad?''
 
"Bad,'' he answered.
 
"We are quite ruined?''
 
"No. There is hope yet, Caroline.''
 
"If he changes his mind,'' she said, amazed, "Nothing is past hope, if such a miracle has happened.''
 
"He is past changing his mind,'' said her husband. "He is dead.''
 
She was thankful in her soul to hear it, and she said so, with clasped hands. In the next moment, she said she was sorry and asked for forgiveness, but the first was the emotion of her heart.
 
"To whom will our debt be transferred?''
 
"I don't know. But before that time we shall be ready with the money; and even if we aren't, no one would be as hard on us as he was. We may sleep tonight with light hearts, Caroline!''
 
Yes, their hearts were lighter --- it was a happier house for this man's death! Here, the only emotion that the Phantom could show Scrooge was one of pleasure.
 
"Let me see some tenderness connected with a death,'' said Scrooge, "or that dark bedroom, Spirit, which we left just now, will be forever present to me.''
 
The Phantom conducted him through several familiar streets, and as they went along, Scrooge looked here and there to find himself, but nowhere was he to be seen. They entered poor Bob Cratchit's house and found the mother and the children seated round the fire.
 
Quiet. Very quiet. The noisy little Cratchits were as still as statues in one corner, and sat looking up at Peter, who had a book before him. The mother and her daughters were engaged in sewing. How quiet they all were!
 
"And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them."
 
Where had Scrooge heard those words? He had not dreamed them. The boy must have read them out, as he and the Phantom crossed the threshold. Why did he not go on?
 
The mother laid her work upon the table, and put her hand up to her face.
 
"The color hurts my eyes,'' she said.
 
The color? Ah, poor Tiny Tim!
 
"They're better now again,'' said Cratchit's wife. "It makes them weak when I sew by candlelight; and I wouldn't show weak eyes to your father when he comes home, which should be soon.''
 
Peter shut his book. "But I think he has walked a little slower than he used, these few last evenings, mother.''
 
They were very quiet again. At last she said, and in a steady, cheerful voice, that only faltered once: "I have known him walk with -- I have known him walk with Tiny Tim upon his shoulder, very fast indeed.''
 
"And so have I,'' cried Peter. "Often.''
 
"And so have I!'' exclaimed another. They all had.
 
"But he was very light to carry,'' she resumed, intent upon her work, "and his father loved him so, that it was no trouble: no trouble. And there is your father at the door!''
 
She hurried out to meet him, and Bob came in. His tea was ready for him, and they all tried to be the one who helped him to it. Then the two young Cratchits got upon his knees and laid a little cheek against his face, as if to say, "Don't mind it, father. Don't be sad!''
 
Bob was very cheerful with them, and spoke pleasantly to all the family. He looked at the work upon the table, and praised the industry and speed of Mrs. Cratchit and the girls. They would be done long before Sunday, he said.
 
"Sunday! You went today, then, Robert?'' said his wife.
 
"Yes, my dear,'' returned Bob. "I wish you could have gone. It would have done you good to see how green a place it is. But you'll see it often. I promised him that I would walk there on a Sunday."'
 
He broke down all at once. He couldn't help it. "My little, little child!'' cried Bob. "My little child!"
 
He left the room, and went upstairs into the room above, which was lighted cheerfully, and hung with Christmas. Poor Bob sat down, and when he had thought a little and composed himself, he went down again.
 
They drew about the fire, and talked. Bob told them of the extraordinary kindness of Mr. Scrooge's nephew, whom he barely knew once. They had met in the street that day, and Bob had shared his sad news. "I'm so sorry,'' Scrooge's nephew had said. He had given Bob his card. "If I can be of service to you in any way, that's where I live.''
 
“I'm sure he's a good soul!'' said Mrs. Cratchit.
 
“You would be surer of it, my dear,'' returned Bob, “if you saw and spoke to him. I shouldn't be at all surprised, mark what I say, if he got Peter a better situation.''
 
“And then,'' cried one of the girls, ”Peter will be keeping company with someone, and setting up for himself.''
 
“Get along with you!'' retorted Peter, grinning.
 
“It's just as likely as not,'' said Bob, “one of these days; though there's plenty of time for that, my dear. But however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim.''
 
“Never, father!'' they all cried.
 
“And I know,'' said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient he was, we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.''
 
“No, never, father!'' they all cried again.
 
“I am very happy,'' said Bob, “I am very happy!''
 
Mrs. Cratchit kissed him, his daughters kissed him, the two young Cratchits kissed him, and Peter shook his hand.
 
“Spirit,'' said Scrooge, `”something informs me that our parting moment is at hand. I know it, but I know not how. Tell me what man that was whom we saw lying dead?''
 
The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come brought Scrooge to a gathering of businessmen.
 
"This is where my business is," said Scrooge, "and this is my house. Let me behold what I shall be in days to come.''
 
The Phantom stopped; the hand was pointed elsewhere.
 
“The house is right there,'' Scrooge exclaimed. `”Why do you point away?''
 
The finger didn't move.
 
Scrooge hastened to the window of his office, and looked in. It was still an office, but not his. The furniture was not the same, and he was not the figure in the chair.
 
The Phantom pointed as before.
 
They reached an iron gate. Scrooge paused to look round before entering.
 
A churchyard. The Phantom stood among the graves, and pointed down to one.
 
Scrooge advanced towards it, trembling.
 
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,'' said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?''
 
But the Phantom just pointed downward to the grave.
 
“The way men live suggests how they will end," said Scrooge. "But if they change, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!''
 
The Phantom was immovable as ever.
 
Scrooge crept towards the grave. And, following the finger, he read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name: Ebenezer Scrooge.
 
“Am I that man who lay upon the bed?'' he cried, upon his knees.
 
The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.
 
“No, Spirit! Oh no, no!''
 
The finger still was there.
 
“Spirit!'' he cried, tight clutching at its robe, ”hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?''
 
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
 
“Good Spirit,'' he pursued, as he fell down upon the ground before the Phantom. “Assure me that I can still change these shadows you have shown me. Tell me I can change my life!''
 
Now the hand trembled.
 
“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year," Scrooge cried. "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!''
 
In his agony, he caught the Phantom's hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong and held on to it.
 
And then the Phantom shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.

PART 5: THE END OF IT

The bed was his own, the room was his own.

Best and happiest of all, the rest of his life was his own --- he had time to make things right!
 
"I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!" Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. "The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh, Jacob Marley! Oh, Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!"
 
Scrooge's face had been wet with tears. Now he was glowing with his good intentions, and his hands were busy with his clothes --- turning them inside out, putting them on upside down, tearing them, mislaying them.
 
"I don't know what to do!" he cried. "I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world! Hello, there! Hello!"
 
He had run into the sitting room, and was now standing there, out of breath.
 
"There's the door, by which the Ghost of Jacob Marley entered!" he all but shouted. "There's the corner where the Ghost of Christmas Present sat! It's all true, it all happened. Ha ha ha!"
 
He laughed and laughed --- and for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it really was a splendid laugh.
 
"I don't know what day of the month it is," said Scrooge. "I don't know how long I've been among the Spirits. I don't know anything. I'm quite a baby. Never mind. I don't care. I'd rather be a baby. Hello!  Hello, there!"
 
Church bells were ringing, the loudest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell! Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!
 
Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; the day was clear, bright, stirring, cold, weather for the blood to dance to. Golden sunlight, heavenly sky, sweet fresh air, merry bells --- oh, glorious! Glorious!
 
"What's today?" cried Scrooge, calling down to a boy in Sunday clothes.
 
"Today?" replied the boy. "Why, Christmas Day."
 
"Christmas Day --- I haven't missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can." He leaned and again and called to the boy: "Do you know the butcher in the next street?"
 
"I should hope I do," replied the lad.
 
"An intelligent boy!" said Scrooge. "A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they've sold the prize turkey that was hanging up there? Not the little prize turkey --- the big one?"
 
"What, the one as big as me?"
 
"What a delightful boy!" said Scrooge. "It's a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, that one!"
 
"It's hanging there now," replied the boy.
 
"Is it?" said Scrooge. "Go and buy it. And tell them to bring it here, so I can tell them where to take it. Come back with the man, and I'll give you a tip. Come back with him in less than five minutes and I'll double it."
 
The boy was off like a shot.
 
"I'll send it to Bob Cratchit." whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands. "But he won't know who sends it."
 
The hand in which he wrote the address was not a steady one, but write it he did, somehow, and went downstairs to open the door --- he was that eager to be ready for the coming of the butcher's man.
 
As he stood there, waiting his arrival, the knocker caught his eye.
 
"I shall love it, as long as I live!" cried Scrooge, patting it with his hand. "I scarcely ever looked at it before. What an honest expression it has in its face. It's a wonderful knocker.  Oh, here's the turkey. Hello!  How are you? Merry Christmas!"
 
It was quite a turkey! He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. They would have snapped off in a minute. So he added more money, and sent it on in a cab.
 
Scrooge dressed in his best suit and went out into the streets. The people were pouring forth, as he had seen them with the Ghost of Christmas Present, and walking with his hands behind him, Scrooge regarded every one with a delighted smile. He looked so pleasant that three or four men said, "Good morning, sir! A merry Christmas to you!" And Scrooge said often afterwards, that of all the sounds he had ever heard, those were the sweetest in his ears.
 
He had not gone far when he saw the man who had walked into his office just the day before and said, "Scrooge and Marley's, I believe." It sent a pang across his heart to think how this old gentleman would look upon him when they met; but he knew what path lay straight before him, and he took it.
 
"My dear sir," said Scrooge, quickening his pace and taking the old gentleman by both his hands. "How do you do? I hope you succeeded yesterday. It was very kind of you to visit me. A merry Christmas to you, sir!"
 
"Mr. Scrooge?"
 
"Yes," said Scrooge. "That is my name, and I fear it may not be pleasant to you. Allow me to ask your pardon. And will you have the goodness" -- here Scrooge whispered in his ear.
 
"Lord bless me!" cried the gentleman, as if his breath were taken away. "My dear Mr. Scrooge, are you serious?"
 
"If you please," said Scrooge. "Not a penny less. A great many back payments are included in it, I assure you."
 
"My dear sir," said the man, shaking hands with him. "I don't know what to say to such generosity..."
 
"Don't say anything, please," replied Scrooge. "Come and see me. Will you come and see me?"
 
"I will!" cried the old gentleman. And it was clear he meant to do it.
 
He went to church, and walked about the streets, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk -- that anything -- could give him so much happiness.

In the afternoon he turned his steps towards his nephew's house. He passed the door a dozen times before he had the courage to go up and knock.
 
"Who's there?" called a voice from within.
 
"It's Uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in?"
 
Let him in! So they did, and he was at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier. Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful happiness!
 
But he was early at the office next morning. Oh, he was early there. He had to be there first --- and catch Bob Cratchit coming late! That was the thing he had set his heart upon.
 
And he did it; yes, he did! The clock struck nine. No Bob. A quarter past. No Bob. He was full eighteen minutes and a half late. Scrooge sat with his door wide open, that he might see him come in.
 
Bob's hat was off before he opened the door. He was on his stool in a jiffy, scribbling away with his pen, as if working fast and hard would turn back the clock. 
  
"Hello!" growled Scrooge, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. "What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?"
 
"I am very sorry, sir," said Bob.
 
"Yes, you are!" Scrooge said. "Step this way, sir, if you please."
 
"It's only once a year, sir," pleaded Bob. "It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir."
 
"I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore," Scrooge continued, leaping from his stool, "I am about to raise your salary!"
 
Bob trembled.
 
"A merry Christmas, Bob!" said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. "A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I'll raise your salary, and help your struggling family."
 
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became a good friend. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened for good at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset.
 
He had no more visits from Ghosts, and it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
 
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
 
THE END
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