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Jesse Kornbluth

Jesse Kornbluth

Posted: December 19, 2010 02:50 PM

Christmas Carol: Part Two

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Read Parts 1 and 2 here.


PART 3: THE SECOND OF THE THREE SPIRITS

Scrooge's snoring woke him. He immediately looked round the bed --- he didn't want to be taken by surprise. And he wondered: What curtain would this new ghost draw back?

But when the bell struck One and no ghost appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling.

Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. Except this: The whole time, a blaze of light streamed upon the bed --- and because it was only light and he couldn't figure out what it meant, it was more frightening than a dozen ghosts.

He got up softly and shuffled in his slippers to the door.

The moment Scrooge's hand was on the lock, a strange voice called him by his name, and ordered him to enter. He obeyed.

It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were green --- it looked like a forest. Bright gleaming berries glistened from every leaf. There was holly, mistletoe and ivy. And a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney.

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, poultry, suckling pigs, long wreaths of sausages, plum puddings, barrels of oysters, hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense cakes and bowls of punch.

And then were was a jolly Giant, holding a glowing torch, which he held high, the better to shed its light on Scrooge.

"Come in!'' exclaimed the Ghost.

Scrooge entered timidly, and hung his head before this Ghost. The Ghost's eyes were clear and kind, but Scrooge did not want to look into them.

"I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,'' said the Ghost. "Look upon me!''

Scrooge did. The Ghost wore a simple green robe, bordered with white fur. Its feet were bare. On its head it wore a holly wreath. Its hair was curly. Its eyes sparkled. It seemed... joyful.

"You have never seen anything like me before!'' exclaimed the Ghost.

"Never,'' Scrooge said. "Spirit, take me where you will. I went forth last night because I was forced to, and I learned a lesson that is working now. Tonight, if you have something to teach me, let me learn from it.''

"Touch my robe!''

Scrooge did as he was told.

Holly, mistletoe, red berries, ivy, turkeys, geese, game, poultry, meat, pigs, sausages, oysters, pies, puddings, fruit and punch --- all vanished instantly. So did the room, the fire, the hour of night.

Now Scrooge and the Ghost stood on a city street on Christmas morning. They could see nothing very cheerful through the gloomy, dingy mist, and yet was there cheerfulness in the air. The people who were shoveling snow from their steps were happy to be doing so. Now and then a snowball would fly, and someone would shout with delight if it hit its target. The customers in the food shops were all so hurried they tumbled against each other at the door, crashing their baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, all in the best spirit. And then it was time for church, and they came, flocking through the streets in their best clothes and with their most pleasant faces.

For the Ghost, this was the signal to led Scrooge to his clerk's house. There he found Mrs. Cratchit, Bob Cratchit's wife, in a faded dress. Belinda Cratchit, second of her daughters, was setting the table, while young Peter Cratchit plunged a forkful of potatoes into his mouth. And now two smaller Cratchits, boy and girl, came tearing in, screaming that outside the baker's they had smelt the goose and just knew it was theirs.

"What has ever got your precious father?'' said Mrs. Cratchit. "And your brother, Tiny Tim? And Martha wasn't as late last Christmas Day."

"Here's Martha, mother!'' cried the two young Cratchits. "Hurrah! There's such a goose, Martha!''

"Why, bless your heart alive, my dear, how late you are!'' said Mrs. Cratchit, kissing her a dozen times.

"We had a lot of work to finish up last night,'' the girl replied, "and had to clear away this morning, mother!''

"Well! Never mind so long as you are here,'' said Mrs. Cratchit. "Sit down before the fire, my dear."

"No, no! Father's coming,'' cried the two young Cratchits. "Hde, Martha, hide!''

So Martha hid herself, and in came Bob, with Tiny Tim on his shoulder. Alas for Tiny Tim, he carried a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame.

"Where's our Martha?'' cried Bob, looking round.

"Not coming,'' said Mrs. Cratchit.

"Not coming!'' said Bob. "Not coming on Christmas Day?''

Martha didn't like to see him disappointed, even if it was only in joke; so she came out from behind the closet door, and ran into his arms, while the two young Cratchits hustled Tiny Tim off to see the pudding as it cooked.

"And how did little Tim behave?'' asked Mrs. Cratchit.

"As good as gold,'' said Bob, "and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day who it was that made lame beggars walk and blind men see.''

Bob's voice trembled when he told them this, and trembled more when he said that Tiny Tim was growing strong and hearty.

The children went out to fetch the goose, while Mrs. Cratchit heated the gravy. Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible speed. Belinda sweetened up the applesauce. Martha put out the plates. And the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves.

At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, then Mrs. Cratchit plunged the carving knife into the goose. A murmur of delight arose all round the table, and even Tiny Tim beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried, "Hurrah!"

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Served with applesauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family

And then, as Belinda changed the plates, Mrs. Cratchit left the room alone to bring in the pudding. But what if it should not be done enough! What if it broke as it was being served? What if somebody got over the wall of the backyard and stole it while they were merry with the goose? All sorts of horrors were supposed.

Mrs. Cratchit entered, flushed, but smiling proudly. The pudding was like a cannonball, so hard and firm. "Oh, a wonderful pudding!" Bob Cratchit said, proclaiming it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was a small pudding for a large family.

At last the dinner was all done, the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept, and the fire made up. Apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel full of chestnuts on the fire. Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, and Bob proposed: "A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us!''

Which all the family echoed.

"God bless us every one!'' said Tiny Tim, the last of all.

He sat very close to his father's side upon his little stool. Bob held his withered little hand in his, as if he wished to keep him by his side and dreaded that he might be taken from him.

"Spirit,'' said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, "tell me if Tiny Tim will live.''

"I see a vacant seat in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved," replied the Ghost. "If these shadows remain unchanged in the future, the child will die.''

"No, no,'' said Scrooge. "Oh, no, kind Spirit! Say he will be spared.''

"If these shadows remain unchanged in the future, no one will find him here," the Ghost repeated. "What then? Didn't someone say: 'If he's likely to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.'''

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Ghost, and was overcome with penitence and grief. And then he heard his own name, and looked up.

"Mr. Scrooge!'' said Bob. "A toast to Mr. Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast!''

"The Founder of the Feast indeed!'' cried Mrs. Cratchit, reddening. "I wish I had him here. I'd give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he'd have a good appetite for it.''

"My dear,'' said Bob, "think of the children, think of Christmas Day.''

"It would be Christmas Day, I am sure,'' said she, "on which one drinks the health of such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr. Scrooge. You know he is, Robert! Nobody knows it better than you do, poor fellow!''

"My dear,'' was Bob's mild answer. "Christmas Day.''

"I'll drink his health for your sake and the Day's --- not for his,'' said Mrs. Cratchit. "Long life to him. A merry Christmas and a happy new year! He'll be very merry and very happy, I have no doubt!''

The children drank the toast after her. It was the first of their festivities that had no joy. Scrooge was the Ogre of the family. The mention of his name cast a dark shadow on the party, which was not dispelled for a full five minutes.

After it had passed away, they were ten times merrier than before, from the mere relief of Scrooge being done with. Bob Cratchit told them how he had a possible employer in his eye for Peter, and if that worked out, Peter would have quite a nice salary. The two young Cratchits laughed tremendously at the idea of Peter's being a man of business; and Peter himself looked into the fire and thought about the investments he'd make someday. Martha told them what kind of work she had to do, and how many hours she worked at a stretch, and how she meant to lie in bed tomorrow morning for a good long rest. All this time the chestnuts and the jug went round and round; and bye and bye they had a song, about a lost child traveling in the snow, from Tiny Tim.

There was nothing fancy in any of this. They were not a handsome family, they were not well dressed, their shoes were far from being waterproof. But they were happy, and grateful, and pleased with one another.

Scrooge had his eye upon them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.

By this time it was getting dark, and snowing pretty heavily; and as Scrooge and the Ghost went along the streets, the brightness of the roaring fires in the houses was wonderful. Here, the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cozy dinner. There all the children of the house were running out into the snow to meet their married sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, and be the first to greet them. Here, again, were shadows on the window blind of guests assembling; and there was a group of handsome girls, all chattering at once, as they tripped lightly off to some neighbor's house.

If you had judged from the numbers of people on their way to friendly gatherings, you might have thought that no one was at home to give them welcome when they got there, instead of every house expecting company, and piling up its fires half-chimney high. Blessings on it, how the Ghost enjoyed what it saw!

But now, without a word of warning from the Ghost, they stood in a bleak and desert field, where masses of stone were cast about as though this was the burial ground of giants. The setting sun had left a streak of fiery red and then was lost in the thick gloom of darkest night.

The Ghost did not linger here, but motioned to Scrooge to follow out to the shore. There stood a solitary lighthouse. Great heaps of seaweed clung to its base, and birds rose and fell about it, like the waves they skimmed.

The two men who watched the light had made a fire. Joining their hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas.

Again the Ghost sped on, until he and Scrooge landed on a ship. They stood beside the sailor at the wheel, the lookout in the bow, the officers who had the watch --- and every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke softly to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered the people he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.

It was a great surprise to Scrooge, while he saw all of this, to hear a hearty laugh. It was a much greater surprise to Scrooge to recognize it as his own nephew's, and to find himself in a bright, dry, gleaming room, with the Ghost standing smiling by his side, and looking at that same nephew with approving affability!

"Ha, ha!'' laughed Scrooge's nephew. "Ha, ha, ha!''

If you should happen, by any unlikely chance, to know a man more blessed in a laugh than Scrooge's nephew, all I can say is, I should like to know him too.

When Scrooge's nephew laughed in this way --- holding his sides, rolling his head, and twisting his face into the most extravagant contortions --- his wife laughed as heartily as he. And their assembled friends roared out with them.

"He said that Christmas was a humbug!'' cried Scrooge's nephew. "He believed it too!''

"More shame for him, Fred!'' said his wife.

"He's a comical old fellow,'' said Scrooge's nephew, "that's the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. But his crimes carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.''

"I'm sure he is very rich, Fred,'' his wife said.

"What of that, my dear!'' said Scrooge's nephew. "His wealth is of no use to him. He doesn't do any good with it. He doesn't make himself comfortable with it. He hasn't the satisfaction of thinking -- ha, ha, ha! -- that he is ever going to benefit us with his fortune.''

"I have no patience with him,'' she said, and her sisters and all the other ladies expressed the same opinion.

"Oh, I have!'' said Scrooge's nephew. "I am sorry for him; I couldn't be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his foul mood? He does, always. Here, he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won't come and dine with us. What's the consequence? He loses a very good dinner.''

Then Scrooge's nephew turned serious: "I mean to invite him to join us every year, whether he likes it or not, for I pity him. He may mock Christmas till he dies, but he can't help thinking better of it if I go there, in good humor, year after year, saying 'Uncle Scrooge, how are you?' If it only puts him in the vein to leave his poor clerk a little money, that's something.''

After tea, they had some music. And all the things that Ghost had shown him filled Scrooge's mind. He softened more and more, and thought that if he could have listened to music more often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness.

After a while, Scrooge's nephew and his children played games, and Scrooge saw how it is good to be young sometimes, and never better than at Christmas. There might have been twenty people there, young and old, but they all played, and so did Scrooge, who forgot that his voice made no sound in their ears and sometimes came out, and quite loudly at that, with his guess to their quizzes.

The Ghost was pleased to find Scrooge in this mood, and was delighted when Scrooge begged like a boy to be allowed to stay until the guests departed. But the Ghost said this could not be done.

"They're starting a new game,'' said Scrooge. "One half hour, Spirit, only one!''

It was a Game called Yes and No, where Scrooge's nephew had to think of something, and the rest must find out what. He only answering to their questions yes or no, as the case was. The brisk fire of questioning to which he was exposed, produced these responses: He was thinking of an animal, a live animal, rather a disagreeable animal, a savage animal, an animal that growled and grunted sometimes, and talked sometimes, and lived in London, and walked about the streets, be it didn't live in a menagerie, and was never killed in a market, and was not a horse, or an ass, or a cow, or a bull, or a tiger, or a dog, or a pig, or a cat, or a bear. At every fresh question that was put to him, this nephew burst into a fresh roar of laughter.

At last his sister cried out: "I have it! I know what it is, Fred! I know what it is!''

"What is it?'' cried Fred.

"It's your Uncle Scro-o-o-o-oge!''

Which it certainly was.

"He has given us plenty of merriment, I am sure,'' said Fred, "and it would be ungrateful not to drink his health." He reached for a glass of mulled wine. "To Uncle Scrooge!''

"Well! Uncle Scrooge!'' they cried.

"A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to the old man, whatever he is!'' said Scrooge's nephew. "He wouldn't take it from me, but may he have it, nevertheless. Uncle Scrooge!''

Uncle Scrooge had imperceptibly become so gay and light of heart, that he would have toasted his nephew's family in return, if the Ghost had given him time. But the whole scene passed with the last word spoken by his nephew, and Scrooge and the Ghost were again upon their travels.

Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Ghost stood by sick beds, and they were cheerful. He showed Scrooge foreign lands, and they seemed close at home. He visited struggling men, and they seemed patient in their greater hope. He went to the poor, and they were rich. In hospitals and jails, in misery's every refuge, the Ghost left his blessing and taught Scrooge new lessons.

It was a long night, and a strange one, for while Scrooge remained unchanged in his outward form, the Ghost grew older, clearly older. Scrooge had observed this change, but never spoke of it, until they left a children's Twelfth Night party, when, looking at the Ghost as they stood together in an open place, he noticed that its hair was grey.

"Are spirits' lives so short?'' asked Scrooge.

"My life upon this globe is very brief,'' replied the Ghost. "It ends tonight.''

"Tonight!'' cried Scrooge.

"Tonight at midnight. Hark! The time is drawing near.''

The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.

"Forgive me," said Scrooge, looking intently at the Ghost's robe, `"but I see something strange, protruding from your robe.

From his robe, two children appeared. They were wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

"Look, look, down here!'' exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, ragged, scowling, wolfish --- but also humble.

Scrooge was appalled. He tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves.

"Spirit! Are they yours?'' was all Scrooge could say.

"They are Man's,'' said the Ghost, looking down upon them. "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Need. Beware them both.''

"Have they no home or help?'' cried Scrooge.

"Are there no prisons?'' said the Ghost, turning on Scrooge for the last time with his own words. Are there no workhouses?''

The bell struck twelve.

Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.