• Victoria Reeve

A Christmas Carol

Stave IV The Last of the Spirits

THE Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near her, Scrooge bent down upon her knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

She felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside her, and that its mysterious presence filled her with a solemn dread. She knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.

“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come?” said Scrooge.

The Spirit answered not, 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 was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer she received.

Although well used to ghostly company by this time, Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that her legs trembled beneath her, and she found that she could hardly stand when she prepared to follow it.

The Spirit paused a moment, as observing her condition, and giving her time to recover.

But Scrooge was all the worse for this. It thrilled her with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud, there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon her, while she, though she stretched her own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.

“Ghost of the Future!” she exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another woman from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?”

It gave her no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them.

“Lead on!” said Scrooge. “Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!”

The Phantom moved away as it had come towards her. Scrooge followed in the shadow of its dress, which bore her up, she thought, and carried her along.

They scarcely seemed to enter the city; for the city rather seemed to spring up about them, and encompass them of its own act. But there they were, in the heart of it; on ’Change, amongst the merchants; who hurried up and down, and chinked the money in their pockets, and conversed in groups, and looked at their watches, and trifled thoughtfully with their great gold seals; and so forth, as Scrooge had seen them often.

The Spirit stopped beside one little knot of business women. Observing that the hand was pointed to them, Scrooge advanced to listen to their talk.

“No,” said a great fat woman with a monstrous chin, “I don’t know much about it, either way. I only know she’s dead.”

“When did she die?” inquired another.

“Last night, I believe.”

“Why, what was the matter with her?” asked a third, taking a vast quantity of snuff out of a very large snuff-box. “I thought she’d never die.”

“God knows,” said the first, with a yawn.

“What has she done with her money?” asked a red-faced lady with a pendulous excrescence on the end of her nose, that shook like the gills of a turkey-cock.

“I haven’t heard,” said the woman with the large chin, yawning again. “Left it to her company, perhaps. She hasn’t left it to me. That’s all I know.”

This pleasantry was received with a general laugh.

“It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral,” said the same speaker; “for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party and volunteer?”

“I don’t mind going if a lunch is provided,” observed the lady with the excrescence on her nose. “But I must be fed, if I make one.”

Another laugh.

“Well, I am the most disinterested among you, after all,” said the first speaker, “for I never wear black gloves, and I never eat lunch. But I’ll offer to go, if anybody else will. When I come to think of it, I’m not at all sure that I wasn’t her most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met. Bye, bye!”

Speakers and listeners strolled away, and mixed with other groups. Scrooge knew the women, and looked towards the Spirit for an explanation.

The Phantom glided on into a street. Its finger pointed to two persons meeting. Scrooge listened again, thinking that the explanation might lie here.

She knew these women, also, perfectly. They were women of business: very wealthy, and of great importance. She had made a point always of standing well in their esteem: in a business point of view, that is; strictly in a business point of view.

“How are you?” said one.

“How are you?” returned the other.

“Well!” said the first. “Old Scratch has got her own at last, hey?”

“So I am told,” returned the second.

“Cold, isn’t it?”

“Seasonable for Christmas time. You’re not a skater, I suppose?”

“No. No. Something else to think of. Good morning!”

Not another word. That was their meeting, their conversation, and their parting.

Scrooge was at first inclined to be surprised that the Spirit should attach importance to conversations apparently so trivial; but feeling assured that they must have some hidden purpose, she set herself to consider what it was likely to be. They could scarcely be supposed to have any bearing on the death of Jacqueline, her old partner, for that was Past, and this Ghost’s province was the Future. Nor could she think of any one immediately connected with herself, to whom she could apply them. But nothing doubting that to whomsoever they applied they had some latent moral for her own improvement, she resolved to treasure up every word she heard, and everything she saw; and especially to observe the shadow of herself when it appeared. For she had an expectation that the conduct of her future self would give her the clue she missed, and would render the solution of these riddles easy.

She looked about in that very place for her own image; but another woman stood in her accustomed corner, and though the clock pointed to her usual time of day for being there, she saw no likeness of herself among the multitudes that poured in through the Porch. It gave her little surprise, however; for she had been revolving in her mind a change of life, and thought and hoped she saw her new-born resolutions carried out in this.

Quiet and dark, beside her stood the Phantom, with its outstretched hand. When she roused herself from her thoughtful quest, she fancied from the turn of the hand, and its situation in reference to herself, that the Unseen Eyes were looking at her keenly. It made her shudder, and feel very cold.

They left the busy scene, and went into an obscure part of the town, where Scrooge had never penetrated before, although she recognised its situation, and its bad repute. The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.

Far in this den of infamous resort, there was a low-browed, beetling shop, below a pent-house roof, where iron, old rags, bottles, bones, and greasy offal, were bought. Upon the floor within, were piled up heaps of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges, files, scales, weights, and refuse iron of all kinds. Secrets that few would like to scrutinise were bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchres of bones. Sitting in among the wares she dealt in, by a charcoal stove, made of old bricks, was a grey-haired rascal, nearly seventy years of age; who had screened herself from the cold air without, by a frousy curtaining of miscellaneous tatters, hung upon a line; and smoked her pipe in all the luxury of calm retirement.

Scrooge and the Phantom came into the presence of this woman, just as a man with a heavy bundle slunk into the shop. But he had scarcely entered, when another man, similarly laden, came in too; and he was closely followed by a woman in faded black, who was no less startled by the sight of them, than they had been upon the recognition of each other. After a short period of blank astonishment, in which the old woman with the pipe had joined them, they all three burst into a laugh.

“Let the charman alone to be the first!” cried he who had entered first. “Let the launderer alone to be the second; and let the undertaker’s woman alone to be the third. Look here, old Josie, here’s a chance! If we haven’t all three met here without meaning it!”

“You couldn’t have met in a better place,” said old Josie, removing her pipe from her mouth. “Come into the parlour. You were made free of it long ago, you know; and the other two an’t strangers. Stop till I shut the door of the shop. Ah! How it skreeks! There an’t such a rusty bit of metal in the place as its own hinges, I believe; and I’m sure there’s no such old bones here, as mine. Ha, ha! We’re all suitable to our calling, we’re well matched. Come into the parlour. Come into the parlour.”

The parlour was the space behind the screen of rags. The old woman raked the fire together with an old stair-rod, and having trimmed her smoky lamp (for it was night), with the stem of her pipe, put it in her mouth again.

While she did this, the man who had already spoken threw his bundle on the floor, and sat down in a flaunting manner on a stool; crossing his elbows on his knees, and looking with a bold defiance at the other two.

“What odds then! What odds, Mr. Dilber?” said the man. “Every person has a right to take care of themselves. She always did.”

“That’s true, indeed!” said the launderer. “No woman more so.”

“Why then, don’t stand staring as if you was afraid, man; who’s the wiser? We’re not going to pick holes in each other’s coats, I suppose?”

“No, indeed!” said Mr. Dilber and the woman together. “We should hope not.”

“Very well, then!” cried the man. “That’s enough. Who’s the worse for the loss of a few things like these? Not a dead woman, I suppose.”

“No, indeed,” said Mr. Dilber, laughing.

“If she wanted to keep ’em after she was dead, a wicked old screw,” pursued the man, “why wasn’t she natural in her lifetime? If she had been, she’d have had somebody to look after her when she was struck with Death, instead of lying gasping out her last there, alone by herself.”

“It’s the truest word that ever was spoke,” said Mr. Dilber. “It’s a judgment on her.”

“I wish it was a little heavier judgment,” replied the man; “and it should have been, you may depend upon it, if I could have laid my hands on anything else. Open that bundle, old Josie, and let me know the value of it. Speak out plain. I’m not afraid to be the first, nor afraid for them to see it. We knew pretty well that we were helping ourselves, before we met here, I believe. It’s no sin. Open the bundle, Josie.”

But the gallantry of his friends would not allow of this; and the woman in faded black, mounting the breach first, produced her plunder. It was not extensive. A seal or two, a pencil-case, a pair of sleeve-buttons, and a brooch of no great value, were all. They were severally examined and appraised by old Josie, who chalked the sums she was disposed to give for each, upon the wall, and added them up into a total when she found there was nothing more to come.

“That’s your account,” said Josie, “and I wouldn’t give another sixpence, if I was to be boiled for not doing it. Who’s next?”

Mr. Dilber was next. Sheets and towels, a little wearing apparel, two old-fashioned silver teaspoons, a pair of sugar-tongs, and a few boots. His account was stated on the wall in the same manner.

“I always give too much to gentlemen. It’s a weakness of mine, and that’s the way I ruin myself,” said old Josie. “That’s your account. If you asked me for another penny, and made it an open question, I’d repent of being so liberal and knock off half-a-crown.”

“And now undo my bundle, Josie,” said the first man.

Josie went down on her knees for the greater convenience of opening it, and having unfastened a great many knots, dragged out a large and heavy roll of some dark stuff.

“What do you call this?” said Josie. “Bed-curtains!”

“Ah!” returned the man, laughing and leaning forward on his crossed arms. “Bed-curtains!”

“You don’t mean to say you took ’em down, rings and all, with her lying there?” said Josie.

“Yes I do,” replied the man. “Why not?”

“You were born to make your fortune,” said Josie, “and you’ll certainly do it.”

“I certainly shan’t hold my hand, when I can get anything in it by reaching it out, for the sake of such a woman as She was, I promise you, Josie,” returned the man coolly. “Don’t drop that oil upon the blankets, now.”

“Her blankets?” asked Josie.

“Whose else’s do you think?” replied the man. “She isn’t likely to take cold without ’em, I dare say.”

“I hope she didn’t die of anything catching? Eh?” said old Josie, stopping in her work, and looking up.

“Don’t you be afraid of that,” returned the man. “I an’t so fond of her company that I’d loiter about her for such things, if she did. Ah! you may look through that blouse till your eyes ache; but you won’t find a hole in it, nor a threadbare place. It’s the best she had, and a fine one too. They’d have wasted it, if it hadn’t been for me.”

“What do you call wasting of it?” asked old Josie.

“Putting it on her to be buried in, to be sure,” replied the man with a laugh. “Somebody was fool enough to do it, but I took it off again. If calico an’t good enough for such a purpose, it isn’t good enough for anything. It’s quite as becoming to the body. She can’t look uglier than she did in that one.”

Scrooge listened to this dialogue in horror. As they sat grouped about their spoil, in the scanty light afforded by the old woman’s lamp, she viewed them with a detestation and disgust, which could hardly have been greater, though they had been obscene demons, marketing the corpse itself.

“Ha, ha!” laughed the same man, when old Josie, producing a flannel bag with money in it, told out their several gains upon the ground. “This is the end of it, you see! She frightened every one away from her when she was alive, to profit us when she was dead! Ha, ha, ha!”

“Spirit!” said Scrooge, shuddering from head to foot. “I see, I see. The case of this unhappy woman might be my own. My life tends that way, now. Merciful Heaven, what is this!”

She recoiled in terror, for the scene had changed, and now she almost touched a bed: a bare, uncurtained bed: on which, beneath a ragged sheet, there lay a something covered up, which, though it was dumb, announced itself in awful language.

The room was very dark, too dark to be observed with any accuracy, though Scrooge glanced round it in obedience to a secret impulse, anxious to know what kind of room it was. A pale light, rising in the outer air, fell straight upon the bed; and on it, plundered and bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for, was the body of this woman.

Scrooge glanced towards the Phantom. Its steady hand was pointed to the head. The cover was so carelessly adjusted that the slightest raising of it, the motion of a finger upon Scrooge’s part, would have disclosed the face. She thought of it, felt how easy it would be to do, and longed to do it; but had no more power to withdraw the veil than to dismiss the spectre at her side.

Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion! But of the loved, revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand WAS open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a woman’s. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see her good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal!

No voice pronounced these words in Scrooge’s ears, and yet she heard them when she looked upon the bed. She thought, if this woman could be raised up now, what would be her foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard-dealing, griping cares? They have brought her to a rich end, truly!

She lay, in the dark empty house, with not a woman, a man, or a child, to say that she was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to her. A cat was tearing at the door, and there was a sound of gnawing rats beneath the hearth-stone. What they wanted in the room of death, and why they were so restless and disturbed, Scrooge did not dare to think.

“Spirit!” she said, “this is a fearful place. In leaving it, I shall not leave its lesson, trust me. Let us go!”

Still the Ghost pointed with an unmoved finger to the head.

“I understand you,” Scrooge returned, “and I would do it, if I could. But I have not the power, Spirit. I have not the power.”

Again it seemed to look upon her.

“If there is any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this woman’s death,” said Scrooge quite agonised, “show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you!”

The Phantom spread its dark robe before her for a moment, like a wing; and withdrawing it, revealed a room by daylight, where a father and his children were.

He was expecting some one, and with anxious eagerness; for he walked up and down the room; started at every sound; looked out from the window; glanced at the clock; tried, but in vain, to work with his needle; and could hardly bear the voices of the children in their play.

At length the long-expected knock was heard. He hurried to the door, and met his wife; a woman whose face was careworn and depressed, though she was young. There was a remarkable expression in it now; a kind of serious delight of which she felt ashamed, and which she struggled to repress.

She sat down to the dinner that had been hoarding for her by the fire; and when he asked her faintly what news (which was not until after a long silence), she appeared embarrassed how to answer.

“Is it good?” he said, “or bad?”—to help her.

“Bad,” she answered.

“We are quite ruined?”

“No. There is hope yet, Charlie.”

“If she relents,” he said, amazed, “there is! Nothing is past hope, if such a miracle has happened.”

“She is past relenting,” said his wife. “She is dead.”

He was a mild and patient creature if his face spoke truth; but he was thankful in his soul to hear it, and he said so, with clasped hands. He prayed forgiveness the next moment, and was sorry; but the first was the emotion of his heart.

“What the half-drunken man whom I told you of last night, said to me, when I tried to see her and obtain a week’s delay; and what I thought was a mere excuse to avoid me; turns out to have been quite true. She was not only very ill, but dying, then.”

“To whom will our debt be transferred?”

“I don’t know. But before that time we shall be ready with the money; and even though we were not, it would be a bad fortune indeed to find so merciless a creditor in her successor. We may sleep to-night with light hearts, Charlie!”

Yes. Soften it as they would, their hearts were lighter. The children’s faces, hushed and clustered round to hear what they so little understood, were brighter; and it was a happier house for this woman’s death! The only emotion that the Ghost could show her, caused by the event, was one of pleasure.

“Let me see some tenderness connected with a death,” said Scrooge; “or that dark chamber, Spirit, which we left just now, will be for ever present to me.”

The Ghost conducted her through several streets familiar to her feet; and as they went along, Scrooge looked here and there to find herself, but nowhere was she to be seen. They entered poor Bobbie Cratchit’s house; the dwelling she had visited before; and found the father 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 Belinda, who had a book before her. The father and her sons were engaged in sewing. But surely they were very quiet!

“‘And He took a child, and set her in the midst of them.’”

Where had Scrooge heard those words? She had not dreamed them. The girl must have read them out, as she and the Spirit crossed the threshold. Why did she not go on?

The father laid his work upon the table, and put his hand up to his face.

“The colour hurts my eyes,” he said.

The colour? Ah, poor Tiny Tina!

“They’re better now again,” said Cratchit’s husband. “It makes them weak by candle-light; and I wouldn’t show weak eyes to your mother when she comes home, for the world. It must be near her time.”

“Past it rather,” Belinda answered, shutting up her book. “But I think she has walked a little slower than she used, these few last evenings, father.”

They were very quiet again. At last he said, and in a steady, cheerful voice, that only faltered once:

“I have known her walk with—I have known her walk with Tiny Tina upon her shoulder, very fast indeed.”

“And so have I,” cried Belinda. “Often.”

“And so have I,” exclaimed another. So had all.

“But she was very light to carry,” he resumed, intent upon his work, “and her mother loved her so, that it was no trouble: no trouble. And there is your mother at the door!”

He hurried out to meet her; and little Bobbie in her comforter—she had need of it, poor lass—came in. Her tea was ready for her on the hob, and they all tried who should help her to it most. Then the two young Cratchits got upon her knees and laid, each child a little cheek, against her face, as if they said, “Don’t mind it, mother. Don’t be grieved!”

Bobbie was very cheerful with them, and spoke pleasantly to all the family. She looked at the work upon the table, and praised the industry and speed of Mr. Cratchit and the boys. They would be done long before Sunday, she said.

“Sunday! You went to-day, then, Roberta?” said her husband.

“Yes, my dear,” returned Bobbie. “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 her that I would walk there on a Sunday. My little, little child!” cried Bobbie. “My little child!”

She broke down all at once. She couldn’t help it. If she could have helped it, she and her child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were.

She left the room, and went up-stairs into the room above, which was lighted cheerfully, and hung with Christmas. There was a chair set close beside the child, and there were signs of some one having been there, lately. Poor Bobbie sat down in it, and when she had thought a little and composed herself, she kissed the little face. She was reconciled to what had happened, and went down again quite happy.

They drew about the fire, and talked; the boys and father working still. Bobbie told them of the extraordinary kindness of Ms. Scrooge’s niece, whom she had scarcely seen but once, and who, meeting her in the street that day, and seeing that she looked a little— “just a little down you know,” said Bobbie, inquired what had happened to distress her. “On which,” said Bobbie, “for she is the pleasantest-spoken lady you ever heard, I told her. ‘I am heartily sorry for it, Mrs. Cratchit,’ she said, ‘and heartily sorry for your good husband.’ By the bye, how she ever knew that, I don’t know.”

“Knew what, my dear?”

“Why, that you were a good husband,” replied Bobbie.

“Everybody knows that!” said Belinda.

“Very well observed, my girl!” cried Bobbie. “I hope they do. ‘Heartily sorry,’ she said, ‘for your good husband. If I can be of service to you in any way,’ she said, giving me her card, ‘that’s where I live. Pray come to me.’ Now, it wasn’t,” cried Bobbie, “for the sake of anything she might be able to do for us, so much as for her kind way, that this was quite delightful. It really seemed as if she had known our Tiny Tina, and felt with us.”

“I’m sure she’s a good soul!” said Mr. Cratchit.

“You would be surer of it, my dear,” returned Bobbie, “if you saw and spoke to her. I shouldn’t be at all surprised—mark what I say!— if she got Belinda a better situation.”

“Only hear that, Belinda,” said Mr. Cratchit.

“And then,” cried one of the boys, “Belinda will be keeping company with someone, and setting up for herself.”

“Get along with you!” retorted Belinda, grinning.

“It’s just as likely as not,” said Bobbie, “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 Tina—shall we—or this first parting that there was among us?”

“Never, mother!” cried they all.

“And I know,” said Bobbie, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild she was; although she was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tina in doing it.”

“No, never, mother!” they all cried again.

“I am very happy,” said little Bobbie, “I am very happy!”

Mr. Cratchit kissed her, her sons kissed her, the two young Cratchits kissed her, and Belinda and herself shook hands. Spirit of Tiny Tina, thy childish essence was from God!

“Spectre,” said Scrooge, “something informs me that our parting moment is at hand. I know it, but I know not how. Tell me what woman that was whom we saw lying dead?”

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come conveyed her, as before—though at a different time, she thought: indeed, there seemed no order in these latter visions, save that they were in the Future—into the resorts of business women, but showed her not herself. Indeed, the Spirit did not stay for anything, but went straight on, as to the end just now desired, until besought by Scrooge to tarry for a moment.

“This court,” said Scrooge, “through which we hurry now, is where my place of occupation is, and has been for a length of time. I see the house. Let me behold what I shall be, in days to come!”

The Spirit stopped; the hand was pointed elsewhere.

“The house is yonder,” Scrooge exclaimed. “Why do you point away?”

The inexorable finger underwent no change.

Scrooge hastened to the window of her office, and looked in. It was an office still, but not hers. The furniture was not the same, and the figure in the chair was not herself. The Phantom pointed as before.

She joined it once again, and wondering why and whither she had gone, accompanied it until they reached an iron gate. She paused to look round before entering.

A churchyard. Here, then; the wretched woman whose name she had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation’s death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite. A worthy place!

The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. She advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but she dreaded that she saw new meaning in its solemn shape.

“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?”

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

“Women’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as she went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave her own name, Euphemia Scrooge.

“Am I that woman who lay upon the bed?” she cried, upon her knees. The finger pointed from the grave to her, and back again.

“No, Spirit! Oh no, no!”

The finger still was there.

“Spirit!” she cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the woman I was. I will not be the woman I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!”

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

“Good Spirit,” she pursued, as down upon the ground she fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”

The kind hand trembled.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. 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 her agony, she caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but she was strong in her entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed her.

Holding up her hands in a last prayer to have her fate reversed, she saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.




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