As a lifelong lover of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I’ve thought for years of writing a little story from the prompt of this first line. This year I finally did it. It’s a lightweight exploration (about 9,000 words) of some of the things that might happen to a man one Christmas after he was haunted by spirits.
to C.D., this form of flattery
Scrooge was alive, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know what peculiar quality it is that demonstrates one man to be alive, while another be less alive though he move and speak as ever. No natural scientist I. But I do know, of my own knowledge, that in the eleven months, one week, and six days since his sole night of intercourse with Spirits, old Scrooge had lived enough to mend a sizable portion of a lifetime of bitterness.
Once upon a time, of all the good days in the year, on St. Nicholas’ Day, Scrooge set out to his counting-house on his usual punctual Monday schedule. It was three weeks before Christmas, his first Christmas since the one that had redeemed him, and every increase in signs of the season brought new delight to his soul.
He was but two streets from the door of Scrooge & Marley when a boy blundered into his side. “Beg pardon, guv’nor!” the ragged lad cried brightly as he ran off.
Scrooge halted in surprise, sensing something not quite right, but it was a passerby who took up the cry. “Stop! Thief!”
The bold lad had deftly picked Scrooge’s pocket and made off with a wallet. Scrooge jogged along with a small throng to the next corner, where a constable, hearing their shouts, had caught the boy by his threadbare collar.
“Don’t hurt him, constable!” the old man exclaimed breathlessly. “He’s done me no harm. That wallet’s only business papers. I’ll take it back, however, if you don’t mind.”
Scrooge retrieved the stolen article from the lad’s flailing hand and reached for the small purse he always carried on a cord about his neck. “Not the whole sum,” he said, lifting a cautionary finger, “but you’re welcome to a half-crown of it.”
“Excuse me, sir!” the constable huffed, clinging mightily to the struggling pickpocket. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but you’ll have to come down to the station, give a statement—”
“I’m playing at nothing, and I’ll do no such thing,” declared Scrooge, with a flash of the hardness that had once made him the bear of the neighbourhood. “I tell you no crime’s been committed, and if this lad is hungry or desperate, then I’m willing to share with him, within reason. Let him go.”
“Let him go!” the good policeman ejaculated. “Why, he’s one of Munger’s crew as sure as he’s born, and if he’s thieved nothing from you, it’s only left room in his pockets for other men’s property.” He shook the boy mercilessly and got a vicious kick in return. “It’s to the gaolhouse with you, whatever this gentleman says!”
Realizing that he had a champion at hand, the lad turned teary. “Don’t let him take me in, sir! Don’t let him lock me up!”
“That’s enough out of you!” the constable ordered with a clout.
“Who is your supervisor?” Scrooge questioned the policeman sharply.
“You’re more than welcome to come along and speak to him, sir.”
“I may as well have tried reasoning with a brick wall,” Scrooge angrily recounted the result to his clerk, Bob Cratchit, an hour later. “He insisted that I file a complaint against the boy, and when I would not, he would tell me only when the lad was likely to be hauled up before the magistrate. The notions that the poor boy had done me no wrong—or that he might have good cause for thievery—might as well have been stated to them in Early Mongolian. What have you there?”
Along with fair copies to sign and the day’s business correspondence, Cratchit was proffering letters: one in tidy copperplate, the other in a childish scrawl. “The hospital says that Tim is making wonderful progress,” he said glowingly. “I thought you might want to read it yourself, sir.”
This returned the sparkle to Scrooge’s eye. “Well enough to come home for Christmas?”
Tim’s father looked slightly dampened. “I’m afraid it’s not clear yet, sir. The city air is hard on his lungs. We must wait and see.” He paused as Scrooge eagerly perused the clinic note and tiny Tim’s own addendum. “Tim says he received a large hamper of sweet biscuits and fruit,” he added, a knowing eye on his employer. “They’ve made him the toast of all the children.”
“How fortunate for him,” Scrooge replied dryly.
“A copy of Robinson Crusoe was enclosed.”
“A volume of which I was most fond when a lad,” said Scrooge calmly. “I’m no physician, but it seems to me that a diet of fruit and the classics is a good treatment for any ailment.”
“As you say, sir,” Cratchit agreed, with the quiet wonderment that had scarcely left him in eleven months, one week, and five days.
Wednesday next found Scrooge in the visitors’ stalls of a well-polished courtroom. Petty crime after petty crime paraded before a yawning magistrate. “James Exley,” the bailiff called at last.
Scrooge’s pickpocket slouched before the bench. “State your name,” an officer of the court ordered him.
The boy shook his head. “Answer the man,” the magistrate commanded wearily.
“I ain’t got no address. I live where I please.”
“Sir,” the officer prompted coldly.
“Sir,” Jemmy Exley repeated venomously. “See ‘ere, you ain’t got nothin’ you can prove on me.”
“Silence!” thundered the officer.
“That old crow tried to give it away, he did,” Jemmy went on, pointing to Scrooge, “and I got nothin’ off him, nor no man else neither.”
“We shall see,” said the officer of the court grimly. “Do you know a man named Lewis Munger?”
“No,” said Jemmy flatly. “Sir.”
“Is he your fence? Do you steal on his orders?”
“No, I tell you.”
The officer flourished a leaf. “This is the record of your prior arrest, nineteen months ago, at which you swore that Munger forced you to behave suspiciously and beat you when you failed to meet his quotas.”
“Good heavens,” Scrooge murmured from the spectator seats.
Jemmy looked fiercely mutinous. “Couldn’t hold me then,” he boasted through clenched teeth. “Can’t hold me now. Ain’t tellin’ you nothin’.”
The magistrate ran short of patience. “Then you will be remanded to a holding cell until you’re ready to talk. Bailiff, take the wretch away.”
As if on cue, a young man to Scrooge’s left rose to his feet and spoke. “A word, your honour?”
The magistrate looked at the man with a tolerant sigh. “The bench recognises Mr. Brownlow.”
Mr. Brownlow stepped forward. He was a fresh-faced gentleman of less than thirty, simply but tastefully clothed in good fabrics. “In lieu of sentencing,” he said gracefully, “I request that Master Exley be released to the custody of the Brownlow Home for Boys. What the open court does not get with demands,” he added in an undertone, “I believe I might be able to glean, to London’s greater benefit.”
“The Crown is spared your care and feeding after all,” the magistrate told the scowling boy. “Mind you show your gratitude and mend your ways. The court remands James Exley indefinitely to the custody of Oliver Brownlow. Next case.”
The pickpocket sidled warily towards his mysterious savior. “Hello, Jemmy,” the gentleman said, as Scrooge looked on with interest. “I’m Mr. Brownlow. Wouldn’t you like to come with me to the Brownlow Home?”
“What is it?” said Jemmy Exley unbendingly. “Some sort of workhouse?”
“It is a school,” Brownlow answered. “A special school for lads who’ve had difficulties in life. Like yourself.”
“But,” said Jemmy, hanging back, “I can’t go with you. They’ll think I peached. They’ll tear me apart.”
“Not at the Home,” Brownlow told him solemnly. “You will be safe with me. I swear it.”
Jemmy’s eye fell on the eavesdropping Scrooge. “You arrange this?”
Oliver Brownlow looked at Scrooge with lifted eyebrow. “Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, I believe.”
“That is my name,” Scrooge answered curiously.
“Old cove tried to give me half a crown when I’d just lifted his wallet,” Jemmy filled in.
“Then on Exley’s behalf, I thank you,” said Mr. Brownlow. He proffered a card politely.
“You are more than welcome to visit us at any time you like and look in on his progress. Now, if you will excuse me, this lad needs a hot meal and a good warm bath.”
Scrooge couldn’t help smiling at that. Something about the young man’s openhearted manner recalled another of his favourite people. “Don’t let me stand between anyone and cleanliness,” he said, stepping aside.
When they had gone, he looked at the card. The Brownlow Home for Boys, it read. Registered charity. Oliver T.F. Brownlow, director.
Scrooge took advantage of the invitation a week later at noontime. The Brownlow Home stood on a familiar street, a fifteen-minute stroll from his place of business. From the outside, it looked forbidding, bars bolted to the outside of every window.
Inside, however, the atmosphere was all warmth, old wood and fresh paint. A neatly uniformed matron greeted him courteously. “Mr. Brownlow said you might pay us a visit,” she went on. “He will be along directly, but perhaps you’d like a peep at one of our classrooms?”
The classroom was a cozy chamber with a roaring fire. In a half-circle before it sat twenty neatly uniformed boys of all shapes, sizes, and origins, leaning forward as a collared cleric showed illustrations out of a large, beautiful book.
“Religious instruction,” whispered the matron. “We use it to help some of the boys with reading, as well.”
As they watched, the clergyman indicated a page to one of the boys. With some hesitation the lad stepped up and read, slowly but with increasing confidence. “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows…”
“A week ago Exley swore to us he couldn’t read at all,” the matron told Scrooge with amusement. “Luckily Reverend Pike saw through him.”
“That’s Exley?” Scrooge exclaimed, louder than he meant. He would never have seen, in last week’s angry ragamuffin, today’s tidy, willing boy.
“I knew that bath would do him good,” came the cheerful voice of Oliver Brownlow behind them. “Boys, is that the dinner call I hear?”
As he spoke, a bell chimed from elsewhere in the building. The boys leapt up and piled for the door. “Take them along to wash up, if you don’t mind, Matron,” said Mr. Brownlow. “I want a word with Exley.”
Jemmy Exley bounded to them, grinning as he recognized Scrooge. “I’ve got some news for you, Jim,” said Brownlow. “Lewis Munger has been arrested. He is in gaol.”
Exley’s eyes widened. “Because of what I told?”
“In part. You did just the right thing. He won’t hurt you or anyone else again.”
Brownlow laid a light hand on Exley’s shoulder while the lad took this in. “Will he hang?” he faltered at last.
“I don’t know,” said Brownlow honestly. “That is up to the court. Would you be sad?”
“Surely not,” said Scrooge under his breath.
Exley looked at the floor in a brown study. “Sometimes he was kind to me,” he said quietly.
“I understand,” said Brownlow. “I felt just the same when they took my fence.”
Scrooge stepped back in sheer surprise. Brownlow acknowledged his reaction with a glance. “He’d prevented me starving, after all,” he went on. “And he could be great fun.”
“Munger too,” said Exley.
“Whatever you feel, there’s no shame in it. These things are complex.”
Exley nodded, then started up with a new thought. “What about his other boys? Will they come here?”
“I will do all I can to see them well-treated,” said Brownlow. “That’s all I can say for the moment. I will give you the news as soon as I have it.”
The boy turned his gaze to Scrooge. “Are you dining with us?”
“You’re welcome to, if you like,” Brownlow added. “It’s plain fare, but good.”
“If it will not be taking food out of another’s mouth,” said Scrooge.
“There’s Lucas, wanting a hand,” Brownlow said to Exley, steering him towards a taller lad shambling down the corridor. “We’ll see you at table.”
“Now you know the story of the Brownlow Home,” said its master to Scrooge as they walked through the building. “I was once just like our Jim, born in a workhouse, drafted into picking pockets. I was miraculously fortunate: the family who misplaced me at birth found me again. Their oldest friend adopted me and made me what I am today. The home is named for him, by the by, not for me.”
He opened a door into a long, low-ceilinged refectory, where boys were happily dishing up potatoes and onions. “That is to say,” Brownlow added, with a gesture at the room, “my adoptive father made me wealthy and well-educated. Strictly speaking, it was old Fagin who made me what I am today. Hello, Lucas! How’s your appetite now?”
The tall, awkward boy they had seen in the corridor pulled up a seat with only a small end of a loaf. He shook his head, though he smiled bravely. Scrooge suppressed his shock: the lad’s teeth were black. “Dip it in the stew, there’s a good lad,” Brownlow coaxed.
Everyone took chairs around the trestle table, and the chaplain said grace, before the assembly plunged into their food as only growing boys can. At his host’s gesture, Scrooge took a trencher and a modest helping.
He watched Lucas swallow one hesitant bite. “What ails the lad?” he breathed to Brownlow.
Brownlow betrayed no outward sign. “He was my first boy. He was foully used before he came to me. It left him with progressing disease.”
Scrooge was powerfully reminded of his conversation with another, more spectral force for good. “Surely something can be done?”
“It is incurable, and he knows it,” Brownlow said. “But he also knows that he will have only safety and friendship to the end of his days. Settle down, there!” he called to the other end of the table, where boisterous shoving had broken out.
A thought occurred to Scrooge. “The bars on the outer windows—“
“They are to keep evil out, not to keep the boys in,” said Brownlow.
“Do they ever run away?”
“We have the odd problem case,” Brownlow replied. “In large part they have nowhere else to go. Sit down, please, Terry, and take care passing the bread!”
“Mayn’t I have some more?” said the boy with the bread tray, holding it beyond his neighbour’s reach.
“Terry, you may most certainly have some more,” said Mr. Brownlow.
After luncheon the lads turned variously to woodworking and literature. “We offer a practical curriculum that will yet enrich their inner lives,” Brownlow explained, walking Scrooge past classrooms and dormitories. “They come to us starved both in body and in mind.”
“Mr. Brownlow,” said Scrooge, “there’s not a man in a thousand who, having escaped that world, would turn back to it.”
“You can’t imagine how richly I am repaid,” said Brownlow. “What is it, Terry?”
“Lost my pencil, sir,” said Terry with false tragedy.
Brownlow drew a pencil from his own pocket and ruffled the boy’s hair affectionately.
“You may have what you need, but not more than your share,” he reminded him. “Take care with this one. Off you go.”
“If I may inquire,” said Scrooge, “how are you funded?”
Brownlow stopped in the door of a tiny chapel and looked squarely at him. “Income from my inheritance, and charitable donations.”
“Who manages your finances?”
“Looking for business, Mr. Scrooge?” Brownlow leavened his remark with a smile.
“Trowbridge and Kent.”
“Ah!” said Scrooge with pleasure. “They are friends of mine.”
“And do you feel you are well set up?”
“For our current operations, yes. But my vision is larger than that.”
Scrooge regarded him shrewdly. “How so?”
Brownlow drew him to the window and pointed to a ramshackle building across the street. “These lads are orphans, or sons of parents so impaired they might as well be. They have no resources, nowhere to turn, and they fall into crime. The only ones worse off than the boys are girls in the same situation. You can imagine.”
“I can,” said Scrooge, shaking his head.
“If money were no object, it would fulfill my fondest dream to purchase that building and renovate it into a home like this, but for young women.”
“Fallen women, you mean.”
Brownlow’s eyes blazed. “If they have fallen, it is because no one stepped forward to help them hold themselves up.”
“And you would be that man.”
“If I could,” said Brownlow. “The building rots on its foundations as it stands. It does no good to anyone, least of all its owners. My sources tell me they are on the point of defaulting to the holder of their mortgage.”
Scrooge nailed him with his gaze. “The holder of their mortgage being myself. But you knew that. That is why you handed me your card and invitation at Exley’s hearing.”
The younger man bowed. “My sources are extremely helpful.”
“Why, Mr. Brownlow,” said Scrooge, with patented irony, “I believe you’re not done picking pockets.”
“This Brownlow is a patient soul indeed, if he didn’t toss you out after a remark like that!” exclaimed Alfred Holliwell over the soup that evening.
“He wants something from me,” Scrooge told his nephew. “I don’t intend to abuse that, but if I twit him here and there, it seems only fair.”
Scrooge had charged back to his counting house and caused Cratchit to pull all the files on the decrepit building opposite the Brownlow Home. Now he squared them up on the Holliwells’ table. “I don’t wish to rush in headlong,” he continued, “but I was highly impressed by Mr. Brownlow and his operation. He seems to do much good with relatively little.”
“It sounds as if a great deal depends upon the strength of his personality,” Mrs. Holliwell commented, having listened with equal interest to Scrooge’s description of his visit.
“Just so. He has a curiously compelling manner. It makes one positively long to join forces with him. I know no one else quite like that—present company excepted.” He nodded fondly at Mr. Holliwell.
“Whatever I have of that quality, I inherited from my mother,” Holliwell said modestly.
“Well do I know it,” Scrooge agreed. “Are you quite all right, my dear?”
Mrs. Holliwell was shifting her rounded bulk uncomfortably. “This child is eager to join us for Christmas,” she said lightly. “He has already learned the waltz. You will come to us on Christmas Day, won’t you, Uncle Scrooge?”
“My lovely wife is determined to play hostess as usual, even if she does it from childbed,” said his nephew.
“With all my heart, my dear,” Scrooge answered, as the maid brought in the next course.
“But we’re evading the question, Fred. My fortune is your inheritance. I don’t wish to give it away, to this or the other matter, without due consideration.”
“I am duly considering,” said Fred, “and nothing would please me more than to support this good man in his work, if you feel he is genuinely a good man.”
“If you had witnessed his tenderness to this sick lad, you would have no more doubt than I.”
“Besides, it need not be all my inheritance!” Holliwell added. “Take up a collection with your building as the seed.”
“An excellent idea, but I’d need friends,” grumped Scrooge. “Kent and Trowbridge are very good, but they are wrapped up in their own affairs.”
“Why, for that, I can speak to my circle.”
“You understand that this is a home for fallen women?”
Nephew Fred grinned. “The younger generation are not as easily shocked as yours, Uncle.”
Scrooge raised his glass. “I take that as a challenge, bright boy!”
Moment by moment, Christmas Eve approached. The thermometer fell, the wreaths and garlands went up on the doors, and the shopkeepers’ windows showed a golden glow.
At the chime of midnight ushering in the 24th of December, Scrooge woke with a snort. For a moment, his breath caught, anticipating the glimmer of ghosts around his bed-curtains. Then he laughed at himself and drew the counterpane up again. But in vain: he was as wide awake as if it had been noon instead. With a sigh, he drew his fur-lined dressing gown about him and shuffled out into his sitting room to poke up the embers. Then he huddled at his hearth, just as he had eleven months, three weeks, and six days ago, when the rattling of chains had heralded the approach of Jacob Marley’s spirit.
Now, he broke the quiet by interrogating the chair opposite him. “I wish to grasp the hope you offered me, Jacob,” he began. “I believe I have grasped it. But have I grasped it fully? Is more demanded of me? How can I know how much is demanded?”
“…for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed,” he seemed to hear Marley’s spectral voice repeat. “Any spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness.”
“I understand, Jacob,” Scrooge said aloud to the empty chair. “At least, I begin to understand. But how can I know how to hold and measure my business against such good?”
“Business!” his memory-Marley cried. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.”
“Yes, yes,” said Scrooge with a touch of impatience. “So I’ve rehearsed to myself many times since that night. But the common welfare, charity, and so on, these lead me in many directions. How can I be certain that I do good? And how can I do it without damaging those who have a claim on me? This Oliver Brownlow seems to have rushed headlong to spend his adoptive father’s money in his cause. Fred is my heir; he is so good-hearted, but I shudder to take advantage of that good heart.”
The silence was fulsome. Marley’s invisible ghost might almost have been pondering.
“He is my heir,” Scrooge said to himself in a new tone. “He is Fan’s heir.” He remembered, vividly as if he had just awoken from the dream of it, seeing his lovely lost sister again as a child, come to reclaim him. “Fan would not hesitate,” he muttered now. “Intelligent as she was, her instinct ruled her always and never led her astray.” He chuckled ruefully. “Ah, Fan, whatever of that righteous instinct came to our family, you got the full dose. Perhaps the best, the very best I can do is to follow those who have a heart like yours.”
He stood up, yawning, and gestured to the opposite chair. “Well met, Jacob.”
Boys caroled beside the brass plaque reading Scrooge & Marley as the early dusk fell and Bob Cratchit and Ebenezer Scrooge began joyfully to fold up their business. “I’m to the Exchange to solicit funds for the poor with Mssrs. Trowbridge and Kent. I daresay in an hour or two I’ll have done with that, fund the rest myself, and then I’ll knock at your door.”
“We will be very happy to have you, sir,” said Cratchit. That this was true never failed to astonish him.
“But no Tim?”
Cratchit shook his head. “By the time they were willing to chance his travel, it was too late to make arrangements.”
“Your first Christmas without all the children present,” Scrooge said in a sad tone. He would never describe to Bob the future-cast scene he had witnessed, in which Tim’s first Christmas from home was the first of forever.
“But he is with friends there,” Cratchit argued with unfailing pluck, “and if it means we have him back well in a few more months, it will be for the best.”
Due to Mr. Scrooge’s relative generosity for the past eleven months, three weeks, and six days, nothing could be more snug and suffused with cheer than the Cratchits’ overcrowded home in Camden Town. Martha, who had been promoted at her seamstress’, came early; she and Belinda had learned well at their mother’s knee how to form piecrusts, while little Catherine was big enough now to chop sausage and press mincemeat to fill them. Peter, now a junior clerk at a large City firm, came along juggling the glory of wrapped packages. He was tall enough to hang coloured paper strands above the doors and windows as fast as young Robert could paste them.
Mr. Cratchit was in his rocking chair by the fire with Cathy on his knee and his good lady bending over to rescue the piping hot pies just before they toasted when Scrooge barrelled up the street and pounded upon the door. When Peter opened it, he bustled in puffing into his gloved hands. “How cold it is!” he exclaimed. “But I see they are warmly wrapped and have a lamp to hold their hands round!”
“They?” asked Mrs. Cratchit, mystified, the steaming tray in her hands.
With his most antic expression, Scrooge waved a hand towards the street. As if by magic, it cued the jingle of bells: a Christmas-decked hansom cab.
In the next breath, the children were flying out singing “Tim! TIM! Oh, Tim!”
Tim it was, buried in the cabbie’s heavy stole for the ride from the train station. His coatless father charged out and lifted him bodily into his arms. Everyone talked all together, Tim telling stories of his adventures traveling home in the company of a young nursing sister.
With a look of utter satisfaction, Scrooge tipped the cabbie heavily and pressed an additional sovereign into the nurse’s palm. “I cannot thank you enough for making this journey,” he told her.
“It was the luckiest chance,” said she. “My family live near Spitalfields—I’ll be there before midnight—and won’t my own mother be surprised!” She gestured to Mrs. Cratchit, who was dabbing away tears with her apron as she and everyone tried to embrace Tim at once.
“Put me down, Papa,” Tim said amidst the furor. “I can walk.”
“But wait—“ Bob reached frantically towards the disappearing cab. “Your crutch—“
“I left it at the clinic,” Tim explained patiently. Slowly, carefully, but steadily, he stepped to the doorsill, up to it, over it, and into the house.
“Well, why are you all standing out in the cold?” Scrooge bellowed in ecstasy. “Go in! Go in! And dish me up some of whatever smells so savory!”
Cratchit gazed upon his child’s improvement as some shepherds once may have gazed upon their Messiah. “I don’t think I believed it till just now,” he breathed to Scrooge.
“Do you still think so little of me as that I’d let your family go incomplete for Christmas?” the employer gently chided. “Now then, don’t stint on that gravy, dear lady!”
The pies, savoury and sweet, went down a treat, and there were potatoes and oranges and nuts and cider and mulled wine for the older ones. Everyone swore that tiny Tim was a foot less tiny than when last they’d met. “Hospital agrees with me,” said he. “It’s a lovely place, and the air is so clear, and I’ve so many friends, and the food is delicious, and oh, I missed you all so much every day! Only your letters and cards and Mr. Scrooge’s hampers kept me from running quite wild from missing you.” The boy caught Scrooge’s eye in concern. “Was I not supposed to let on about the hampers?”
Scrooge laughed again. “Only tell me what you thought of Robinson Crusoe,” he invited.
“Oh, I enjoyed it so much! One of my friends is reading it now, and we can’t agree on what we’d want to take to a desert island, if we had to go to one.” Tim giggled, the colour high in his cheeks. “We’d make a dreadful pair—we’ve almost come to blows. I’m no use on a desert island—I’d want to have all of you there!”
“We’d be the Swiss Family Cratchit!” Belinda exclaimed, to general jollity.
“I’m not home for good,” Tim cautioned. “I’ve brought a letter from the doctor, Mama—I must have certain treatments, and keep out of drafts, and I go back next week, when Nurse Williams comes for me. But they say a few more months—I’ll be home for Easter, perhaps, or summertime.”
“Just to know you’re getting better, my darling,” said Mrs. Cratchit, kissing him again, “and that you’re feeling well, that’s all I need.”
Martha ran upstairs to lay fresh linen on Tim’s narrow couch while the littler ones clustered round to hear their father read the Nativity story. Scrooge sat apart, drawing an oblong object, wrapped in brown paper, from beneath his coat.
Then it was bed for little Robert and Cathy and tiny Tim, while Bob and his wife and their three almost-growns and Scrooge took another drop of the spiced wine.
“Well,” said Scrooge. He set his shoulders and held out the package. “Happy Christmas, Bob.”
“It’s heavy!” Bob chuckled, his cheeks also rosy from the wine. He tore into the paper like an eager child. Then he turned statue, the thing revealed glinting in the firelight and throwing its reflections onto his blank face. “Sir, it’s too much,” he gasped. “I can’t accept this.”
“Nonsense,” said Scrooge briskly. “You’ve qualified for it a thousand times over. Your head for figures is as good as mine if not better, and your sense of human affairs is certainly better.”
“But it will mean—so much change,” Cratchit stuttered.
“Beginning, at last, with those dratted signs that have lingered Scrooge & Marley all these years.”
Mrs. Cratchit sat opposite in a bother of inquisitiveness. “For heaven’s sake, Bob, what is it?”
Slowly Bob unstuck his joints and turned the thing to face her. It was a brass plaque engraved Scrooge & Cratchit.
“Oh good Lord,” Missus squealed before she could stop herself.
“Be my partner, Bob,” said Scrooge. “Help me run it all. Make your sons into gentlemen and give your daughters dowries. And when I am gone—“
“When I am gone—may it be many years from now!—let the business be Cratchit & Sons. My personal wealth, you understand, goes to my nephew. But the company goes to you. I have a new will drawn up. It only awaits my signature—on your agreement.”
Bob Cratchit’s year of astonishment acutely coalesced. The daughters and son sat openmouthed, Mrs. Cratchit an agony of silent urging.
At last Bob held out his hand. “You are too good, Mr. Scrooge.”
“Things you never thought you’d say!” Scrooge exulted, clasping his new partner’s hand with both of his own. “Let us not forget that I am still the senior partner—“
“—but surely you can call me something other than Mr. Scrooge. In my youth, my friends called me Ben.”
Cratchit rolled this around in his mouth. “Honestly, I don’t think I’m capable of it, sir.”
“Then it’s the only thing I’ve seen you incapable of. Well! Save it for the new year,” said Scrooge, smacking his lips at the last of his wine. “That’s agreed, then, and we’ll work out the details beginning Tuesday.”
“We’ve gifts for you as well!” Martha jumped up excitedly to fetch Scrooge a tissue-wrapped parcel.
“Beautiful!” Scrooge exclaimed, unfolding it to show thickly knitted muffler and gloves in the cheeriest bright red and green. “Your work, Mrs. C?”
“The knits are mine,” said the lady proudly. “Martha made the other.”
“I hope it fits,” the young seamstress fretted.
It was a crisp new waistcoat in shining gold cloth shot with red thread. “My womenfolk seem determined to deck you out as a Christmas tree,” Bob jested, still bemused at his good fortune.
Scrooge held up the waistcoat to his shoulders. “Exactly what I need.”
Christmas Day, bright and cold and silver with bells just as on that inexpressible morning twelvemonth last when Scrooge had marveled at finding himself among the living and had begun the project of confounding all who knew him. He rose early, dressed in his gorgeous new waistcoat, and took himself to church, where he sang lustily past the hymnal O Come, All Ye Faithful. The waistcoat then led the merry way to the Holliwells’, where it outshone even their home’s holly and tinsel.
“It’s done,” Scrooge told his niece and nephew. “I wish I could paint a portrait of Bob Cratchit’s face when he uncovered the plaque. I hope you’ve had no second thoughts.”
“Not in the least,” said Fred wholeheartedly. “Bob is ideally suited. May you have years of happy partnership.”
“There they all are!” his wife exclaimed, pushing herself laughing out of her chair.
There they all were: all the near neighbours, Fred’s business associates and their wives and their children, Fred’s bachelor associates and their wives if they now had them, Fred’s wife’s sisters, aunts and cousins and their husbands and children. The maid, sparkling in a pretty new necklet given by Mrs. Fred, rushed red-cheeked here and yon supplying punch and cake and candied fruits and everything that could be desired. Friends fiddler and flautist tuned to the spinet.
In the midst of the throng, Topper sought out Scrooge. “Sentiments of the season to you, good nuncle! And what be your opinion of Christmas this year?”
With mouth pursed ironically, Scrooge showed off his shining waistcoat. “Why, the holiday fits you to a T!” the raucous young man cried. “No recurrence of humbug, then?”
“Only in your baiting of me, sir,” growled Scrooge, but his eyes twinkled, and Topper cackled triumphantly.
Opposite them, a maiden dashed forward to embrace Mrs. Holliwell. “Isn’t she a Christmas rose,” Topper commented approvingly, surveying her blonde curls, fair complexion, and dainty hands. “Wonder who she is?”
Scrooge stood transfixed, punch glass halfway to his lips. Furtively he glanced towards the man at his side, but it was no Christmas Past, only Topper still. “Are you quite all right, Uncle S?” the young man inquired. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Not recently,” the older man gasped.
In the next moment, Fred joined them with jovial words for his mate. “Uncle, a favour,” he then said seriously, “I wonder if you might like to squire a lady your age who’s come without her husband.”
“Without her husband, on Christmas Day?” murmured Scrooge, a shiver running down to his shoes.
“It seems his business has called him from home this whole week,” Fred explained, drawing Scrooge through the company. “Mrs. Alton, my uncle Ebenezer Scrooge.”
Mrs. Alton looked up from her perch near the spinet, and Scrooge gazed down at her. His heart pounded, not in the old way, but in a new and unfamiliar one. He remembered seeing her as she had been eight years in the past. The daughter he’d seen then had grown into the Christmas rose. And she was a rose bloomed into full flower.
At last he vouchsafed, “I’ll dance with her, but only if she gives her solemn promise not to tread upon my toes.”
“Only if he promises to keep the beat!” Mrs. Alton shot back readily.
They both looked at Fred, whose eyes were saucers. “You see, Mrs. Alton,” said Scrooge, “some days ago my nephew assured me that his generation is less easily shocked than ours. This I offer in defense of the contrary.”
Fred caught up at a bound. “Then you’ve met before!”
“Your nephew?” Mrs. Alton exclaimed, standing and peering heartily at Fred. “Why, you are Fan’s son! I should have realised the moment I saw you. My daughter was a schoolmate of Mrs. Holliwell’s,” she added for Scrooge’s benefit.
“You knew my mother?” poor Fred burbled.
“I adored your mother. We were like sisters.”
“And you think I resemble her?”
“Of course you resemble her,” said Scrooge. “Why do you think I tolerate you?” He proffered a mostly steady hand. Mrs. Alton slipped her gloved one into it. “And you were very nearly sisters-in-law.”
“But that—then—“ spluttered Fred.
“Pour your master another glass of punch, will you, my dear?” said Scrooge to the busy maidservant. “Shall we, Mrs. Alton?”
They danced, sedately enough so as not to bar conversation. “How long has it been?”
“Before my eldest was born,” said Mrs. Alton. “I hear of you from time to time.”
“If I may guess,” said Scrooge, “up until a year ago what you heard exactly matched your expectations of me. I recall your note of condolence at Marley’s death.”
“I feared that with him you had lost your last true human contact.”
“And so it was,” said Scrooge.
“Until a year ago?” They paused to applaud the musicians. “What happened a year ago?”
“I’ll gladly tell you,” said he, “but it’s long in the telling. Suffice it to say that I—was contacted again.”
The fiddler took up another merry tune. “You have asked me a personal question. Let me ask one of you. Where is Mr. Alton?”
For the first time, Mrs. Alton averted her eyes, but she answered honestly. “My husband is a wise man, but he has unwise friends. A few months ago he made an investment with them that has gone wrong, I know not precisely how. He has rushed to the north to meet the other principals and try to recoup their losses.”
“He is in monetary difficulties?” Scrooge summarised. “If only you knew a particular financial wizard. I wish he had consulted me.”
“Indeed, I suggested as much to him,” Mrs. Alton regretted, “but he would not.”
They had stopped still in the midst of the dancing. “Can’t imagine what prejudice he holds,” Scrooge muttered. “After all, of the two of us, he was the victor.”
“Don’t harbour bitterness towards us, I beg you,” said Mrs. Alton.
“No more do I,” said Scrooge bravely. “I wish you and your family nothing but happiness, though I wish it from a broken heart. Indeed,” he added thoughtfully, “from a broken heart come my best decisions, I think.”
The lady’s mouth quirked at the corners. “Dear Ben. You are as skilled a dancer as ever.”
“As bad as that, dear Belle?” he replied, but he did not resist her infectious smile. She broke into a giggle, though it was tinged with sadness, and he joined her in like mode. “Can we be friends, then, you and I, after all this time?”
“I hope so, with all my heart,” she said genuinely. “The waltz?”
“I’ll do my best,” said he, drawing her into the three-quarter time.
They danced and talked and toasted their hosts in punch. Mrs. Alton introduced Scrooge to her children as a friend of both their parents. “You are at school?” the old man asked the very young one who also carried his mother’s colouring.
“Through this spring term, sir,” said the good-looking lad.
“If you might care for some guidance, or an introduction to the world of affairs,” said Scrooge, “do come and see me.”
At that instant the music screeched to a halt. Fred Holliwell was clapping his hands for attention. “Dear friends, a happy Christmas to you all!—and now I must beg your pardon if I ask you to leave!—I’m about to be a father!”
Vocal good wishes from all corners. “Wait—someone run for the doctor—“ Fred cried. “No—he’s already here! That’s fortunate! Carry away some of this cake, if you please, my dears—“
In merry disorder the doctor, not too flushed with punch, bounded upstairs to the aid of Mrs. Holliwell, while the maid dashed to supply guests with their wraps. “I’ll send for you as soon as there’s news,” Fred assured his uncle breathlessly.
Wrapping up again in his holiday muffler and gloves, Scrooge handed the two generations of Altons into their carriage. “I am at your service,” he said softly to the mother. “You know where I can be found.”
“Thank you, Ben,” she answered, pressing his hands.
Scrooge stood in the darkness outside his nephew’s door and felt quite as sorry for himself and his lone years as he had ever done. Then, thrusting his hands into his coat pockets, he began to walk miscellaneously. More than once the little purse emerged to leave a coin in a beggar’s cup. Before long he found, unexpectedly, that his steps turned towards the Brownlow Home for Boys.
Dazzling light poured through the barred windows, and jolly voices rang from within. The onetime Jemmy Exley, in what looked like a very stiff new suit, was puzzling over a green shining object he’d just been handed. Awkward Lucas grinned at him and gamely pulled the other end. Doubtful Jim held tight, then jumped and shouted and laughed at himself as the cracker popped and showered him with paper hat and sweets.
At that moment Mr. Brownlow himself glanced out the window. Catching sight of the lurking financier, he bounded to the door. “Why, Mr. Scrooge! A happy Christmas to you! Care to step in?”
Scrooge joined him in the festive parlour. Brownlow made introductions. “Mr. Scrooge, my cousins Harry and Rose Maylie, their daughters, and—everyone else!”
“Cake? Punch?” Mrs. Maylie acted as hostess.
“Thank you kindly,” said Scrooge, “but I couldn’t take another thing. I have just come from my nephew’s generous spread. I’d not intended to walk by here—in fact, I’d not intended to leave there so early—but—well, it seems I shall very soon be a great-uncle.”
Brownlow and Maylies offered their congratulations. “Thank you,” Scrooge said hesitantly. “They say they will call upon me as soon as there’s any news. It puts me in mind of my nephew’s own birth.”
“What a lovely memory,” Rose Maylie ventured.
“For me it is a sad one,” Scrooge said suddenly, only just coming to understand himself. “It was the last time I saw my sister alive, you see. Excuse my confidence,” he added.
“Your confidence is welcome,” said Brownlow, as matter-of-factly as he had accommodated Exley’s complex emotions. “Just a cup of tea, then?”
Scrooge sat for the rest of the evening among these wounded people as they made up to each other what each had missed earlier in life. Jim Exley read out each joke as it emerged from a cracker. Rose and Harry Maylie recounted the harrowing tale of how they came to know their workhouse-born cousin.
“There is the reason I am devoted to the notion of a second home,” Mr. Brownlow put in at the relevant point. “Had that girl not revealed their dastardly plot, I would likely have been murdered by the gang. She saved me at the cost of her own life. I want to do something in her particular honour—although, sad to say, I do not even know her full name.”
“And calling it ‘Nancy House’ leaves something to be desired,” Harry Maylie gibed.
“Hush!” his cousin admonished. “It’s time to go to chapel.”
The throng adjourned to the small chapel, where the good reverend read lessons and everyone joined in caroling the herald angels and the first nowell.
“I will hold your family in my prayers,” Oliver Brownlow told Scrooge as the candles finally dimmed.
“I want to present you with that building,” Scrooge said in a rush. “That is, I would like to. Legally it is not yet mine, though you are likely correct in your prediction that it soon will be. But I would like to—there is so much I would like to do. Forgive me. My heart is so full.”
Oliver Brownlow looked at him kindly. “God grant us both the time to do all we would like to do.”
One year and two days after Scrooge had watched the Cratchits in a ghostly dream, on a cold, bright morning, Bob and Ben watched a nimble workman take down the dusky plaque reading Scrooge & Marley and replace it with the shining Scrooge & Cratchit. “That was the simple part,” Scrooge remarked, gently archiving the old plaque in a soft cloth. “Now to the paperwork.”
A ring at the bell. Scrooge looked up as a gentleman slightly younger and much handsomer than he came in carrying a large portfolio. “Mr. Alton,” he said, swallowing a boiling brew of emotions.
“Mr. Scrooge,” said Mr. Alton cautiously. “I believe you are expecting me.”
“I am,” said Scrooge. “Won’t you step into my office? We’re not to be disturbed, Cr—ah, never mind. You’re no longer the clerk. Do as you see fit.”
Mr. Alton sat down facing Scrooge across his ponderous desk. “I think it fair to tell you,” he opened, “that I am only here because my wife is a woman of strong will.”
Scrooge half-smiled at this. “Then she has changed in character no more than she has changed in beauty, if I may be so bold. It was quite a surprise to encounter her at my nephew’s on Christmas Day. But a pleasant surprise. May I have a look at your records?”
With slight reluctance, Belle’s husband spread his ledgers and receipts before the financier. “Ahem,” Scrooge grunted, surveying the sad timeline of events. “Hum. Well. I do see where you went wrong.” He turned a page. “Aha. Very wrong. But for good motives, I hear.”
Mr. Alton gazed grimly at the dusty portrait of Jacob Marley that glared over Scrooge’s shoulder. Scrooge jotted a few notes, sketched a brief outline, and asked questions that Mr. Alton answered as patiently as possible.
At length, Scrooge closed the final ledger and leaned back in his chair. “The matter is tangled, but it is clear that your debts stretch you too thin. To that there is a simple solution. I will consolidate your debts and charge you at a lower monthly rate with a better distribution of interest—say, something along these lines.” He pushed across the desk his tidy proposal. “That should leave you with the capital to maximize your other projects and eventually lift this one out of arrears.”
Mr. Alton looked like a man who was trying to show gratitude and failing. “I did not suppose that Mrs. Alton sent me here so that I could transfer my debt to you.”
“No more did I,” said Scrooge carefully, “but I can tell you quite without bias that it would be a solid course of action.”
Alton gazed balefully at the proposal. “I did not come here asking for a favour.”
Now Scrooge’s voice took on an edge. “And I am not offering a favour. I am well established and able to give you more advantageous terms than your half-dozen provincial creditors, that’s all.”
“Would you give such advantageous terms to a man off the street who showed you this dog’s dinner?” Alton challenged, pointing despairingly at his books.
“That is my own business,” Scrooge said pointedly. “If you wish to do the right thing by your family, you’ll accept them.”
Mr. Alton’s mouth worked. “I don’t think you’re in a position, sir, to lecture me about family.”
Scrooge’s mouth, in turn, narrowed down to a line. “True. I was always too consumed by my work. A quality that in this case should run to your advantage—had you sense enough to see it.”
Mr. Alton stood up and began to gather his papers back into their portfolio. “I thank you for your time, Mr. Scrooge,” he said sharply. “I believe our business is concluded.”
“Whereas I believe we haven’t engaged in any business,” Scrooge answered glacially, “due, so far as I can tell, solely to your injured pride.” He thrust the page of his proposal at Alton. “Good morning!”
Bob Cratchit, his arms full of files, watched Mr. Alton stamp past him out of the counting-house. Then he glanced apprehensively at Scrooge.
The old man stopped a few feet from the door and pressed his hands to his temples. “I am,” he huffed, “really quite put out with him just now. And, truth be told, with myself.”
“Well, you’re only human,” Bob said tentatively. “Both of you.”
Scrooge sighed ruefully. “You’re a wise man, Bob.”
“Six children will teach you a few things, sir,” said Cratchit. “Oh, no—there’s one of them now.”
It was Tim, hardly a cause for the oh, no, except that he was under the wing of Nurse Williams once more. “On our way back, I’m afraid,” said the nurse cheerily. “But the sooner there, sooner well and home.”
This time it was Scrooge who lifted Tim up warmly in his arms. “I’d never go without seeing you, papa,” said Tim to his father, “but I want to talk to Mr. Scrooge for a bit, if you don’t mind. In private.”
“Go right in by the fire,” Cratchit urged, breathing on his little one’s hands. “I’ve plenty to do in the second office.”
Scrooge bundled Tim in by the hearth and threw his own greatcoat over him for good measure. “I heard my mum and dad talking,” the boy began solemnly. “You thought I’d be dead now if not for the clinic.”
Scrooge was freshly disarmed. “I may have been mistaken,” he murmured, “but I did imagine that, yes.”
“So I should say thank you for my life,” said Tim simply.
The old man’s eyes welled with tears. “But,” he said throatily, “if I had been fairer to your father all these years, perhaps you wouldn’t have been ill to begin with.”
Tim considered this. “You changed.”
“Because of you, in large part.”
“And if I had not been ill, perhaps you wouldn’t have changed. And this way it helps many people.”
This took Scrooge’s breath away. “Myself included,” he faltered.
“So I am alive a little bit because of you, and you are alive a little bit because of me,” the child concluded with satisfaction. “And all things work together for good.”
Many embraces later, Tim Cratchit departed again under the watchful care of the nursing sister.
At his usual time, Scrooge wrapped up in his outer garments again and walked briskly to the Exchange. He was scarcely inside when Mr. Alton hurried up to him. “Mr. Scrooge, I must sincerely beg your pardon,” he began humbly.
“We must beg one another’s pardon,” Scrooge responded at once, “so let us forget this morning and start afresh.”
“It was almost comical,” Alton told him. “I was standing over the road, feeling a fool, when Miss Williams arrived with little Tim. I watched you carry him in, and I asked the young lady who he was to you. When she explained all you’d done for his family—“
“Pray don’t mention it—“ Scrooge tried to interrupt.
“—suffice it that I realized my good fortune in having you to turn to. And my wife’s. I would be honoured to discuss your proposal further, if it’s still on the table.”
“It is,” said Scrooge. He held out his hand, and Alton met it with his own. “I have only one request—“
“Belle has no need to know about this morning,” said Alton fervently, “for all our sakes.”
“Let’s not tell her,” Scrooge heartily agreed.
Scrooge was not destined to gain much ground at the Exchange that day. The instant Mr. Alton released his hand, Fred Holliwell was grasping it. “It’s a girl!” he panted, red-cheeked as if he’d run all the way from his home. “It’s a girl, and all is well, and we’re longing for you to meet her. Can you come right now?”
He could. Twenty minutes later found them beaming down at Mrs. Holliwell, tucked up well in bedclothes, a tiny pink face barely visible among the blankets in the crook of her arm. “This is Frances Noelle Holliwell,” said father Fred, bursting with pride.
“She just missed being born on Christmas Day,” Mrs. Holliwell told him, “but how could we give her any other name?”
Scrooge looked from one to the other of them, eyes shining. “She is beautiful,” he praised them softly. “Your mother would be so proud. I am so proud.” Then with one trembling fingertip, he gently stroked the newborn’s silky cheek. “Hello, little Fan,” he said.
“Well, Jacob,” Scrooge announced to the empty armchair, “I don’t know if you tend to hear these things wherever you are, but Fred is now a father, and I have a great-niece. Named for my sister, naturally. As if I would not have doted upon her regardless.”
He poked at his small fire meditatively. “Tim Cratchit is a weird, prophetic child. I am madly grateful to know him. We defy augury, it seems, and plan to continue doing so indefinitely. And I have some chance of making friends with Belle Alton—you remember Belle? And her husband, more’s the wonder. I must take on an account you’d never have stood for—but instinct says we’ll both come out solvent in the end.”
Scrooge tied a tea-towel around his hand and lifted a hot drink from the hob. “Mr. Robert Cratchit Esq. now sits at your desk and is busy interviewing candidates to fill his own vacancy,” he continued. “That promises some weeks of amusement. And then there is Oliver Brownlow. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if it was you who nudged him into my path.” He raised his cup. “So I suppose, in bits and pieces, we made a merry Christmas, Jacob—my second or so, depending on how you count. Here’s to you, and to many more.”
for this Christmas
Note: Oliver Twist was published between 1837 and 1839, and A Christmas Carol only in 1843. If you take publication dates as a guide to when the plots are supposed to occur, the timeline for this story doesn’t work at all. Plus it seems that Christmas crackers were only invented in about 1861. But who cares.