Christmas: A Carol Betwixt
Courtesy of The Crazymad Writer
by Arthur Machen
Scrooge was undoubtedly getting on in life, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
Ten years had gone by since the spirit of old Jacob Marley had visited him, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come had shown him the error of his mean, niggardly, churlish ways, and had made him the merriest old boy that ever walked on ‘Change with a chuckle, and was called “Old Medlar” by the young dogs who never reverenced anybody or anything.
And, not a doubt of it, the young dogs were in the right. Ebenezer Scrooge was a meddler. He was always ferreting about into other peoples’ business; so that he might find out what good he could do them. Many a hard man of affairs softened as he thought of Scrooge and of the old man creeping round to the countinghouse where the hard man sat in despair, and thought of the certain ruin before him.
“My dear Mr. Hardman,” old Scrooge had said, “not another word. Take this draft for thirty thousand pounds, and use it as none knows better. Why, you’ll double it for me before six months are out.”
He would go out chuckling on that, and Charles the waiter, at the old City tavern where Scrooge dined, always said that Scrooge was a fortune for him and to the house. To say nothing of what Charles got by him; everybody ordered a fresh supply of hot brandy and water when his cheery, rosy old face entered the room.
It was Christmastide. Scrooge was sitting before his roaring fire, sipping at something warm and comfortable, and plotting happiness for all sorts of people.
“I won’t bear Bob’s obstinacy,” he was saying to himself—the firm was Scrooge and Cratchit now—”he does all the work, and it’s not fair for a useless old fellow like me to take more than a quarter share of the profits.”
A dreadful sound echoed through the grave old house. The air grew chill and sour. The something warm and comfortable grew cold and tasteless as Scrooge sipped it nervously. The door flew open, and a vague but fearful form stood in the doorway.
“Follow me,” it said.
Scrooge is not at all sure what happened then. He was in the streets. He recollected that he wanted to buy some sweetmeats for his little nephews and nieces, and he went into a shop.
“Past eight o’clock, sir,” said the civil man. “I can’t serve you.”
He wandered on through the streets that seemed strangely altered. He was going westward, and he began to feel faint. He thought he would be the better for a little brandy and water, and he was just turning into a tavern when all the people came out and the iron gates were shut with a clang in his face.
“What’s the matter?” he asked feebly of the man who was closing the doors.
“Gone ten,” the fellow said shortly, and turned out all the lights.
Scrooge felt sure that the second mince-pie had given him indigestion, and that he was in a dreadful dream. He seemed to fall into a deep gulf of darkness, in which all was blotted out.
When he came to himself again it was Christmas Day, and the people were walking about the streets.
Scrooge, somehow or other, found himself among them. They smiled and greeted one another cheerfully, but it was evident that they were not happy. Marks of care were on their faces, marks that told of past troubles and future anxieties. Scrooge heard a man sigh heavily just after he had wished a neighbor a Merry Christmas. There were tears on a woman s face as she came down the church steps, all in black.
“Poor John!” she was murmuring. “I am sure it was the wearing cark of money troubles that killed him. Still, he is in heaven now. But the clergyman said in his sermon that heaven was only a pretty fairy tale.” She wept anew.
All this disturbed Scrooge dreadfully. Something seemed to be pressing on his heart.
“But,” said he, “I shall forget all this when I sit down to dinner with Nephew Fred and my niece and their young rascals.”
It was late in the afternoon; four o’clock and dark, but in capital time for dinner. Scrooge found his nephew’s house. It was as dark as the sky; not a window was lighted up. Scrooge’s heart grew cold.
He knocked and knocked again, and rang a bell that sounded as faint and far as if it had rung in a grave.
At last a miserable old woman opened the door for a few inches and looked out suspiciously.
“Mr. Fred?” said she. “Why, he and his missus have gone off to the Hotel Splendid, as they call it, and they won’t be home till midnight. They got their table six weeks ago! The children are away at Eastbourne.”
“Dining in a tavern on Christmas day!” Scrooge murmured. “What terrible fate is this? Who is so miserable, so desolate, that he dines at a tavern on Christmas day? And the children at Eastbourne!”
The air grew misty about him. He seemed to hear as though from a great distance the voice of Tiny Tim, saying “God help us, every one!”
Again the Spirit stood before him. Scrooge fell upon his knees.
“Terrible Phantom!” he exclaimed. “Who and what are thou? Speak, I entreat thee.”
“Ebenezer Scrooge,” replied the Spirit in awful tones. “I am the Ghost of the Christmas of 1920. With me I bring the demand note of the Commissioners of Income Tax!”
Scrooge’s hair bristled as he saw the figures. But it fell out when he saw that the Apparition had feet like those of a gigantic cat.
“My name is Pussyfoot. I am also called Ruin and Despair,” said the Phantom, and vanished.
With that Scrooge awoke and drew back the curtains of his bed.
“Thank God!” he uttered from his heart. “It was but a dream!”
Ever since I was a child, I have loved Charles Dickens’ story – A Christmas Carol. The passing of years has done nothing to diminish my love of this story. It was with that story in mind that I wrote this one; a tale that ensues alongside the original. I call it Christmas: A Carol Betwixt. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did, writing it.
Scrooge could never be anything other than cold
of heart, burning his coal one piece at a time
Exiting the counting-house, two gentlemen walked dejectedly away from it. “Mr Fosdyke,” the first gentleman, a plump, grey-haired individual, said, “I am deeply saddened that anyone could be so cold of heart, especially so at this time of the year.”
The second gentleman, sporting thinning, red hair and a ruddy-faced complexion, replied, “Indeed, Mr Hartwell. Imagine, wanting to put the poor and destitute into prisons, to punish them, so, just because of their bad luck. Mr Scrooge must surely be the coldest person in England, this Christmas.”
“His clerk was suffering mightily, so cold that it was in his office,” Mr Hartwell said to his colleague. “Did you see the moribund fire they had set in the grate?”
Nodding, Mr Fosdyke replied, “I did. Mr Scrooge could never be anything other than cold of heart, burning his coal one piece at a time.”
“Come; we have others to call upon before this day has finished with us,” Mr Hartwell said to his colleague.
“Yes,” Mr Fosdyke replied. “I am sure they will – all of them – offer us a better welcome than Mr Scrooge.” As the gentlemen made their way along the narrow, cobbled street, the sound of their footsteps echoed in the cold, shadowy doorways and arches bordering it.
Rounding a bend in the street, Mr Hartwell gasped; shocked to see someone lying face down upon it. “Look,” he said, pointing to the unfortunate person, “someone is in need of our help.”
Approaching the person (it was a male) they tried to ascertain who it might be. “Who is it?” Mr Fosdyke asked his colleague
“I don’t know,” he replied. “He is mightily thin, though.”
“And small,” said Mr Fosdyke.
“Help me to roll him over, so we can take a look at his face,” Mr Hartwell said to his colleague. They rolled him over, onto his back. “My God,” Mr Hartwell gasped, “he is no more than a child!”
“Yes,” Mr Fosdyke concurred. “No more than ten or eleven years of age, I’d hazard a guess.”
“He’s wet to the bone,” Mr Hartwell said, desperately concerned for the child.
“And as cold as the grave,” Mr Fosdyke added. “Come; we must get him indoors, before a warm fire, lest he expires from exposure this very night.”
Later, at the gentlemen’s base in Threadneedle Street, the boy, seated in a chesterfield chair in front of a roaring log fire, offered his hands to the flames, warming them. “Begging your pardon, sirs,” he said, speaking timidly, shyly to his rescuers, “but how did I get here, wherever it is?”
Offering him a mug of piping hot cocoa, Mr Fosdyke said, “You are safe, here; it’s our base. We found you lying unconscious in the street.”
“And on so cold a night,” Mr Hartwell added. “We feared for your life, so we did.”
Accepting the drink, the boy said, “Thank you, sirs, for helping me.”
Sitting on a chair adjacent the boy, “Mr Fosdyke said, “Pray tell us your name, lad.”
“And why you were lying unconscious in the street at so late of the hour?” Mr Hartwell implored. “Your parents must be sick with worry.”
However, staring blankly into his mug, the boy offered no explanation as to why this was so.
“Has the cat got your tongue,” Mr Fosdyke asked, jesting, trying to lighten the child’s mood.
Running a finger around the rim of his mug, the boy whispered, “My name is Tommy, Tommy Tilbert, sirs.”
“And?” Mr Hartwell asked, urging him to say more.
“And…I had been playing.” he told them, uncomfortably recalling the details.
“Playing outside, at past four of the o’clock – in the month of December?” Mr Hartwell enquired, thinking he heard incorrectly.
“Yes, sir,” Tommy replied. “It’s true!”
“It’s alright,” said Mr Fosdyke,” we believe you, don’t we Mr Hartwell?”
“Humph, yes,” he answered. “Of course! You must have had good reason to be there, on so cold an evening.”
“I did, I did!” Tommy insisted. Running his finger ever faster around the rim of his mug, he said, “You see, sirs…I am homeless – and I was set upon.”
“Set upon?” Mr Hartwell gasped, shocked by this news.
“Yes, sir”” he answered.
“Who attacked you?” Mr Fosdyke asked him.
His finger stopping, Tommy looked up from his mug, and said, “Street urchins.”
“Why did they attack you?” asked the gentlemen.
“Because I am homeless,” he replied.
“But they are also homeless,” said Mr Hartwell, scratching his head, perplexed by it.
“They attacked me because I am not one of them, in their gang,” Tommy explained. “I have not always been homeless, sirs.”
“Why are you homeless, then?” Mr Fosdyke curiously asked him.
His finger running around the ring of his mug once again, Tommy’s thoughts deepened, remembering how it had come about.
“Did you get lost?” Mr Hartwell enquired. “Because if you did, we shall do all that we can to reunite you with your parents.”
Bursting into tears, Tommy wailed, “Mum and dad – are dead!”
Stunned by this news, Mr Hartwell and Mr Fosdyke were at a loss as to what they might say in reply.
Continuing, Tommy sobbed, Mum and dad died last year, just before Christmas. They died of consumption, both of them – the same day.”
“I am so sorry to hear that,” Mr Hartwell said, in all honesty.
“Please accept my sincerest sympathies,” Mr Fosdyke said sympathetically to him.
“Thank you, sirs,” Tommy replied. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he said, “The landlord came to our house the day after my parents’ funeral. He told me to get out, that he had to fumigate it, after them dying from consumption, there. That’s what he said. He told me that I could return a week later, after the fumes had dispersed. But when I returned, there was a new family in our house, and they ran me, threatening me with the police if I came back, so they did.”
“Have you any brothers or sisters?” Mr Hartwell enquired.
“No, sir, not any,” Tommy answered despairingly.
“Have you any relatives?” asked Mr Fosdyke.
“Apart from an uncle and aunt, living somewhere in Pimlico, that I was unable to find, I have none at all,” Tommy glumly replied. “That’s why I was on the street.”
“And why the street urchins picked on you,” said Mr Hartwell.
“Yes,” Tommy answered. Taking off one of his shoes, he reached into it. The gentlemen supposed it was to fish out a stray stone. Withdrawing his hand, Tommy said, “But they didn’t get this.” He showed them a shiny bright sixpence. Seeing it, the gentleman laughed, so amused that they were by his antics. Perturbed by their reaction, Tommy said, “Why are you laughing at me? This is my life savings!”
“We are laughing with you,” Mr Fosdyke kindly explained, “not at you.”
“Mind your money well,” Mr Hartwell told Tommy. Seeing the funny side of it Tommy chuckled quietly to himself.
Later, after the gentlemen had shown Tommy upstairs, where the housekeeper, Mrs Mablethorpe had put him to bed, Mr Hartwell and Mr Fosdyke relaxed. Seated in front of a roaring log fire, drinking port, they discussed their find. “The child fell asleep the instant his head hit the pillow,” Mr Hartwell said to his colleague.
“Indeed,” Mr Fosdyke concurred, “he was so tired from roaming the streets for almost a year, he was unable to keep his eyes open long enough to bid her goodnight.”
“We must search for the child’s uncle and aunt, this very evening,” Mr Hartwell insisted.
“Indubitably,” Mr Fosdyke replied. “And we shall not rest until we have found them. Mrs Mablethorpe, the housekeeper, will take care of Tommy while we are gone.”
Lighting a taper from the fire, Mr Hartwell offered it to his pipe. Sucking, breathing in the sweet smoke, he relaxed, enjoying the moment. “You know something, Mr Fosdyke,” he said, blowing out smoke. “I have been thinking.”
“Thinking?” Mr Fosdyke replied. “About what?”
Chewing thoughtfully on his pipe, Mr Hartwell said, “About Christmas.”
“Yes, Christmas,” he answered. “I have been thinking about it for a while, now. Tommy has focused my thoughts. Let me explain…”
By the time Mr Hartwell had finished explaining, telling Mr Fosdyke his thoughts about Christmas, his colleague was somewhat confused. “Let me get this straight,” he said, “you want to make Christmas better by making it easier?”
“Yes, in a nutshell, that’s it,” Mr Hartwell replied.
“But how is that possible?” Mr Fosdyke asked. “There are so many poor and destitute in England, let alone the rest of the world, it would take a miracle to achieve such a noble ambition.”
Placing his glass of port onto the mantelpiece, Mr Hartwell looked him straight in the eye, and said, “A miracle is exactly what I am hoping for.”
Thinking his colleague had drank one port too many, Mr Fosdyke reached up to the mantelpiece and pushed his glass gently away from him. Laughing good naturedly, Mr Hartwell said, “That was my first glass of port, and well you know it.” Reclaiming his glass, he sipped the delicious liquid. “I can see that you are confused, old chap,” he said, “so I will put it another way.” Returning his glass to the mantelpiece, he continued, “Can you recall what Mr Scrooge said about Christmas?”
“He said many things about Christmas,” Mr Fosdyke answered, “and all of them unfavourable.”
“He most certainly did,” Mr Hartwell admitted. Gazing into the fire, he watched some sparks escaping the logs. When they had disappeared from sight up the chimney, he said, “He also told us that his partner, Mr Marley, died seven years ago, this very night.”
“He did,” Mr Fosdyke answered. “I thought it most peculiar that such a terrible thing happening – and so close to Christmas – had not softened his temperament, not even a bit.”
Inspecting his pipe, Mr Hartwell noticed that it had gone out. Tapping it against the fireplace, he emptied it of spent tobacco. Refilling his pipe, he said, “If I was Mr Marley, alive and well, not dead as a doornail in a cold and damp grave, I would use my money to make this Christmas, indeed every Christmas, better than the one before it.”
“I am sorry, old chap,” said Mr Fosdyke, “but I cannot see how talking about Mr Marley can make Christmas any better or easier.”
“After we have visited his grave, you will,” Mr Hartwell whispered in reply. “After we have visited his grave…”