“Scrooge, In the Time of Cholera.”
Stave Six: Marley’s Return.
“Bob, my lad,” Scrooge said, as he stood in his countinghouse before the desk of his new partner, Mr. Robert Cratchit, “we must do something about the mill conditions in this country.” Grim faced, Scrooge shoved wool mittens, socks, and hats, into a large duffle. The sign over their countinghouse door read “Scrooge, Marley, and Cratchit” and had done for the past five years. During that time, Scrooge had moved the Cratchits into his old house and gone to live with his nephew, Fred, taking the top floor. The old fellow was surrounded by those who cared for him.
The day was Christmas Eve in the year of Our Lord, 1854. The threat of cholera still gripped London, as it had for near a decade. This night, many a poor denizen of Spitalfields and Whitechapel awaited Scrooge’s charitable efforts, cholera notwithstanding, for Scrooge’s good works never stinted, especially at Christmas.
“Yes, sir,” Cratchit replied. He put his pen aside and studied Scrooge’s impatient actions, “and we have made changes, Mr. Scrooge, in those mills where we have a say. And do not forget, sir, that Chancellor Gladstone has been most receptive of your correspondences and uses your ideas to place pressure on the Liverpool and Birmingham mills. We are making change, sir, in our small way.”
“Aye, we are. But small change is a mere drop in the ocean of reform that is needed, Bob. Why this night alone, I’ll see a hundred men, living in squalor, who were injured this month in the mills—”
“And, sir,” Bob interrupted,“your efforts help keep them warm—and direct them to the clinics we’ve established.” Cratchit studied his senior partner with care, for he saw in Scrooge’s haste and irritable tone something of the old, irascible, driven Scrooge. The old fellow’s pallor and nervous hands worried Bob. Scrooge only nodded, frowned, and stuffed the duffle with knitted necessities. Ebenezer Scrooge, for all of his changed heart, disliked anyone trying to ‘manage’ him. Scrooge’s good works drove him now, as greed had driven him before. Bob Cratchit looked with concern upon these vestiges of the Old Scrooge as evidence that something was, indeed, amiss with him.
“But you know what I mean, Bob. We must do more. We are called to do more,” Scrooge uttered with his old asperity. There it was again, the desperate look, the clenching jaw and eyes hardened to slits. ‘Enough’ was a concept that Ebenezer Scrooge failed to grasp in the old days. Now, even in the zeal of Scrooge’s new heart that replaced the one of flint, ‘Enough,’ had become ‘never enough,’ Bob feared, when it came to good works. There was never ‘Enough’ in the face of the bottomless need of London’s poor classes. The good he did simply did not add up against the injustices of the world, and to Scrooge, things needed to sum up properly.
At that moment, though, the countinghouse door banged open, and a strong, young voice called from the doorway, “It’s near closing time! Are we ready to go, Nuncle?” Both men smiled at the sound and turned to see the nearly grown Timothy Cratchit enter the room. These days, he was Scrooge’s height, ruddy cheeked, and swelling the seams of the greatcoat that had once been the old man’s.
“Indeed, my young Brobdinagian!” Scrooge cried in hearty tones, for the sight of the boy always worked on Scrooge like a tonic. “Come fetch this duffle for your shattered old uncle! The night is cold, Christmas is practically here, and we’ve work to do!” cried Scrooge. “I’ve this sack and another full of good things to share on this cold night!” Scrooge hoisted a slightly smaller duffle, while Timothy settled the larger duffle straps on his shoulders. Tim was on the verge of following his adopted Uncle Ebenezer out into the frigid night when Bob called him back with a beckoning hand.
“See here, young soldier, I’ve a task for you, this evening,” Bob said in a low voice.
“What is it father?” Tim asked, his eyes aglow.
“Your uncle suffers from something, my lad,” Bob said with a conspiratorial wink. “I know not what, but you, lad, must sound him out with your love and good sense. His nephew, Fred, tells me that he has heard the old fellow cry out in his sleep and potter about the house half the night, looking in on his great nephews and nieces as though frightened for them. Fred, himself, a night ago, found your uncle staring out the windows as though he searched for someone. Before that, Fred twice stopped him from going out into the misty night clad only in his gown and slippers.”
“Oh, my, and with the cholera about, too,” Tim replied in hushed tones. The Cholera Epidemic had claimed fifteen thousand Londoners in the last few years, adding to his Uncle Scrooge’s mission to do more for his fellow man. However, his uncle’s voice from the street urged Tim to hurry. With a nod and an exchange of grips with his father, Tim followed. He joined the old man as folk swept past them on the street, hurrying through the cold winds to home and hearth. Their muffled cries of “Merry Christmas” were answered by both Tim and his uncle in full voice and with equal cheer, though Scrooge said it louder as if to make it so.
As they pushed on, Scrooge said, “While it’s been a dry year, my lad, we must keep on guard against the Thames fog. If this wind drops, that fog’ll roll over us and our charges like a freezing shroud,” Scrooge called to the boy.
“Is it the miasma you fear, Nuncle?” Tim asked, for many feared the river mists as the source of cholera.
“Me? No, indeed. That good doctor, John Snow, has proven of late that the disease is in the water, not the air we breathe,” Scrooge replied. “As long as we boil our water and keep ourselves well-fortified, we’ve no fear of cholera, lad. However, this night is cold and a raw mist will make it colder yet. And my old bones tell me that Christmas and New Year will be bitterer yet,” Scrooge said, striding out ahead of his loaded companion. Tim kept pace with the old fellow with ease and watched the old man with care.
Tim still feared the disease, mostly for his uncle’s sake, since Scrooge was getting older, and cholera preyed upon the elderly and weak. Tim’s worries, however, did not diminish his efforts to help Scrooge take relief to those in need. The old fellow gave out money and clothes with his usual vigor. Yet all the while, Tim noted, his uncle’s eyes searched every street and alleyway, as though searching for someone or something. Tim knew that his father had spoken truly about something being amiss with Ebenezer Scrooge. Young Timothy sought some way to sound him out. The old fellow sent his intent gaze into every shadow, sometimes looking above the heads of those around them, always searching, as though something unseen led Scrooge farther from Cornhill Street. However, Tim, an honest lad, was not much practiced in the art of wheedling, so when they had moved on past their first recipients of Scrooge’s wooly largesse, he decided to broach the matter head on. Tim gave a hard tug to the old fellow’s sleeve and said,
“Father is worried about you, Nuncle. He has asked me to ‘sound you out.’ Master Fred tells him that he, too, is worried about your inability to sleep of late. You tell me all the time that we must rest well in order to carry on our work, isn’t that right, sir?”
Scrooge stopped in his tracks, startled. He turned to the lad and asked, “My Fred and your Dad put you up to this line of questioning, eh?” He lay a comforting hand on Tim’s shoulder, though his eyes still scanned every darkened doorway.
“Yessir, they did, but if I’d known about it, I’d’ve asked you on my own. The way you peer into every corner and look down the length of long lanes make it seem as though you look for someone. It makes me wonder if you are haunted again.”
“Haunted,” Scrooge replied with a heavy sigh. “Yes, lad, I suppose I am.” He had to smile at how he was cared for, despite his burdens of late. They were all correct to worry about him.
“Do you believe in ghosts, lad?” Scrooge asked.
“Believe in them? No sir, not like I do our Lord and his saints, sir, but I reckon they exist, because you saw them yourself, what, ten years ago?” Tim said.
“Eleven years, this very night. Aye, that I did, and I’m glad that you’ve remembered my words and believed them,” Scrooge said and heaved an even bigger sigh, “It seems a fact of a man’s life, this man’s, anyway, that some ghosts must stay with him because of who he has been. I know that in your tender heart you may not understand why, but I will not lie to you. For all of this blessed Advent, I have been haunted by the spectre of my old partner, Jacob Marley.”
No sooner than having confessed this, Scrooge caught sight of a family in rags standing well back from the fire of a baked potato seller, staring in forlorn manner at his wares. Scrooge left the topic of Marley and took upon himself the task of feeding this family. It was potatoes and toppings all around for them. Scrooge pressed coins into the father’s hand, told them where they might shelter for several nights, and made sure that every child and both parents had what he could give them. In addition, Scrooge told the man to come to his office, two days hence, for work, if he had found none by then. They hurried away, full of hope for once, as yet more people pressed kin upon them.
In truth, to Tim, there seemed no end of people huddled in doorways and under bridge arches for warmth that Christmas Eve. Such folk poured into the city seeking work, a place to shelter, away from the cold heaths of the countryside. Tim imagined that he could see the spectre of cholera stalking all of them in the form of Jacob Marley, that cold, restless spirit that yet haunted his beloved uncle. However, they came upon no one who seemed stricken with the deadly pestilence. The cold and hunger that haunted those streets was spectre enough.
Yet Scrooge roved freely amongst all of them, giving them what means of comfort he could, Tim at his side. Many they guided to shelters that Scrooge had set up in abandoned shops and warehouses, where they could find warmth. He’d been quite busy the last decade and more, but where those in power are driven by greed, there is always need. Young Tim prayed for them as well as for his uncle, and, like any young fellow full of courage and imagination, he sought with sharp eyes to catch a glimpse of Marley’s ghost.
Bob Cratchit had told Tim of old Marley, his calculating nature and eyes quick to see ways to turn a situation to his advantage. The old hard-hearted Scrooge, always adept at keeping accounts and swift to maximize his profit, idolized Marley’s business acumen and adopted many of Marley’s sharp dealings. Tim often wondered if Marley had not been the cause of Scrooge’s heart hardening to his fellow man. The reformed Scrooge, however, would have no truck with such talk. He accepted his own shortcomings and praised Marley’s memory for the good that the old ghost had done after his death.
Soon, they made their way closer to Thames side. The winds had died down. Their duffle bags hung empty on their shoulders, while their breath made its own fog. Though they had helped many folk, Tim saw that his uncle’s sharp eyes still searched the night. He worried that Scrooge’s search for Marley’s ghost would lead to his harm. Scrooge was, after all, an aged fellow on a night that can age a man faster. For, Tim saw that Scrooge’s eyes were fixed, now, on something ahead of him. Tim could see nothing but the stars that burned above them in the clearing skies, while the Thames fog crept up from its banks, making the still air sting with cold. Tim tugged at the old fellow’s sleeve, and said,
“We are near the river, Nuncle. Remember the danger of the cold fog, sir.”
“Yes, yes, lad. I know,” Scrooge murmured, “yet I must go one. He…leads me.”
“Please, sir, you mustn’t follow a ghost into dangers unknown,” Tim said. He’d heard tales of those who followed spirits only to have them lead their victims to some dangerous spot, turn upon them, and reveal themselves as some hellish apparition that would frighten them to death. As a child of London, too, Tim knew stories aplenty of desperate people seeking an end to their sufferings in the cold waters of the Thames. Christmas, the season of cheer, he knew, could also be the season of deep despair. He worried that Marley’s ghost might lead Scrooge to some watery danger. “Please, Nuncle. Let’s go home.”
“Ah, Tim, lad, I do see him,” Scrooge confessed, “yet I mustn’t avoid him. Do I not owe to him the hope that fills my heart? It was at his bidding that the Spirits of Christmas, Past, Present, and Yet-To-Come taught me the meaning of Christmas and changed my life. I mustn’t abandon him, if there is the chance that he will lead me to some further good,” Scrooge murmured in a quiet voice. “And yet I see him still. Can you not? There he is, a shape that takes it’s form as though from the fog itself, walking upon the road that leads to Black Friar’s Bridge. Oh, how he is entrammeled by the chains, account books, purses, keys, ledgers, and cash boxes of his—our–old life!”
“Does he say anything, Nuncle, as he did before?”
“No, lad, but he beckons me to follow. Look with the eyes of your heart, Tim. Do you not see or hear him?”
Tim scanned the road, listened with all the eagerness of his love for the old man. The night deepened around them. The rush of the Thames’ dark waters filled their ears, a lonely, mournful sound in the dark, with bitter cold stars looking down as the clouds passed away. Tim looked harder, worried about his dear Uncle Scrooge, and lo, there in the rising fog, he saw a shape, a dreadful apparition, tall, pare, and clad in tattered clothes. The ghost struggled up the bridge, dragging his iron and steel burden.
“I see him,” Tim whispered. “He labors like he is sick or injured and does look like the very spectre of disease! Nuncle, do let us run from here,” Tim cried, shivering at Scrooge’s side.
“He pulls a mighty load, Tim, does old Jacob Marely. What ails him was of his own making. There but for the grace of God goes Ebenezer Scrooge, lad,” Scrooge said. “How those cash boxes scrape, how his chains ring in my ears! Jacob was never a strong man, but now he must drag a great burden that I helped him forge.”
“I see it, Nuncle, and it terrifies me. O, let us hurry away, Uncle Scrooge,” Tim pleaded. “He frightens me so.”
“As well he should, my boy. However, his wrongs were my wrongs, don’t you see? I was given a chance to repent, but poor Jacob was never given a chance for forgiveness.”
Tim’s keen sight helped him see even more that Scrooge could not. “Look, Uncle Ebenezer!” Tim cried, grasping the elder man’s arm and pointing to the middle of the bridge. “There is someone at the top of the span, a lone figure leaning on its parapet.”
Scrooge peered into the night and saw someone standing close to the bridge’s low stone wall, a huddled shape. Old Marley stopped short of reaching that figure and pointed to it, looking at Scrooge with a countenance of sorrow more than anger. Scrooge turned his eyes to the figure on the bridge and said in stronger voice, as one who has found sudden hope of release.
“Here, it is here, at last, the place to which Jacob has led me! Surely, this is my task, our task! Come, boy, we must prevent this tragedy if we can,” Scrooge cried in a strong voice. He sped ahead, causing Tim to break into a run at his side. Poor Tim’s gaze was torn between the forlorn figure and the ghost, whose very form was made from the cold fog itself. Scrooge, however, would not take his eyes off come to end her grief in a watery death.
“Madam, I implore you,” Scrooge called to her. “Step away from this deadly thought, and live. For, there are many, I do not doubt, who love you and would grieve at you throwing away your life. Please, madam, for the sake of Christmas, let this old man help you!”
The woman heaved a great sigh. Without turning towards him, she shook her head and said, “You mistake me, sir. I do not come to destroy myself. I came to this lonely spot because I am alone. I am here to grieve, sir, for the loss of those who love me.”
Something in the woman’s voice reached Ebenezer Scrooge’s heart. He grew still as the stone on which he stood. Her words, the timbre of her voice, stirred something in him he had thought long dead. She half turned in his direction and added,
“I look away toward the estuary where my late husband’s ship took him. He was drowned, and I was widowed. Now, my children have all left home, and the fear of cholera keeps them away from London. I come here to remember them this night, though I do hope to see them again.” Then, she turned a pair of clear eyes to Ebenezer Scrooge. Her face, though aged, was still fair. Her hair, gone gray, still took on the sheen of the starlight. Scrooge could only offer one word:
“Belle?” His voice was as quiet and as clear as the first thankful prayers that sprang to his lips after the departure of the spirits.
Belle it was, and she, upon seeing his face, stepped away from the parapet, though it was a halting step as one who discovers something thought irretrievably lost. She squinted and let a slow smile spread across her face.
“Ebenezer? Can it be you? Ebenezer Scrooge?” she asked, as she extended a gloved hand to her old beau.
“It is me, Belle, though not the broken man from whom you parted. It is me…as I should have been all along. Can you forgive me, Belle, for not responding to the love you offered me?”
He took her hand in his, finding it hard to control the shaking in his limbs. He drew her closer, though he restrained his need to embrace her. Despite the cold of the night, her warmth flowed to Ebenezer Scrooge like a breath of May. She clasped both of his hands in hers and asked,
“Forgive you? Why, I have longed to do nothing else for many a year. Oh, how I have missed you. But it is I who need to beg your forgiveness.”
“You, Belle? What can you have done to need my forgiveness?” he whispered.
“You can forgive me for listening to your business partner and breaking off my engagement with you,” she said, holding his gaze in her unwavering eyes.
Then, understanding dawned upon Scrooge. Here, finally, was ‘Enough,’ and more to spare. There was something for which he needed to forgive Jacob Marley. He spared a glance at the old ghost, who merely nodded and bowed his head. Scrooge had known, of course, that Marley was against his marriage, since it would have taken him away from the empire that they planned to build together, an empire that would have been dust, now, had not Scrooge reformed and brought Cratchit into the partnership. And in his heart of hearts, Scrooge found cause to rejoice.
“Nuncle, look! He weeps!” cried Timothy Cratchit, who had stood staring at Marley’s ghost. Bright tears ran down Marley’s pale cheeks. His hands clasped, as though grateful prayer. When Scrooge and Belle stood together in the midst of that fog-bound bridge, Tim saw the chains on Marley’s body loosen and begin to fade back into the fog.
Scrooge, with Belle on his arm, looked at Jacob Marley’s ghost for the last time in his colorful life. He turned to look back at Belle, who clasped his arm to her side as she’d always done when they were courting. There was no doubt in their minds that they would be together until the end of their days.
“Then let us exchange our acts of forgiveness and set an old ghost free by forgiving him and each other,” Scrooge said. Belle nodded and smiled at Scrooge’s odd request. Scrooge turned to the spectre and said in joyful tones, “Be free of me, Jacob Marley, as you helped free me from the harm I have done.”
And then, Marley’s face began to glow. His spectral body swelled with inner light. Belle offered an astonished gasp, for her act of forgiveness opened her own eyes to the marvelous sight. The bright spirit of Jacob Marley began to rise into the air. His remaining chains, purses, keys, cash boxes, and ledgers fell away from him and melted into the night. Jacob rose high above the astonished trio, up and up, away from the fog, as though he would become a star to guide them. He called out a blessing to them before he disappeared.
And so it was, at last, that Scrooge and Belle returned to each other’s arms and let their lives be entangled afresh once more. In forgiving each other they forgave the ghost and broke the chains of regret. They wed on New Year’s Day and marched into their remaining years in the grace that Christmas brings to us all.
Young Timothy Cratchit was afire with the desire to report this Christmas Miracle to his family. Thereafter. they all let the past be the past and dwelt for the remainder of their days in the knowledge that the grace and mercy of Christmas had given them new hope as it does to those who keep it in their hearts. Scrooge, Belle, and Timothy remembered to the end of their days the joyful blessing of Jacob Marley as his chains fell away:
“May the Light of Christmas Shine for all! Live and Love in the Light!”