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MISS MARLEY’S GHOST.
Miss Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of her burial was signed by the clergywoman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Miss Scrooge signed it: and Miss Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything she chose to put her hand to. Old Miss Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Miss Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Miss Scrooge knew she was dead? Of course she did. How could it be otherwise? Miss Scrooge and she were partners for I don’t know how many years. Miss Scrooge was her sole executor, her sole administrator, her sole assign, her sole residuary legatee, her sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Miss Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that she was an excellent woman of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.
The mention of Miss Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Miss Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlette’s Mother died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in her taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon her own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged lady rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paula’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish her daughter’s weak mind.
Miss Scrooge never painted out Old Miss Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Miss Scrooge and Miss Marley. The firm was known as Miss Scrooge and Miss Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Miss Scrooge Miss Scrooge, and sometimes Miss Marley, but she answered to both names. It was all the same to her.
Oh! But she was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Miss Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within her froze her old features, nipped her pointed nose, shrivelled her cheek, stiffened her gait; made her eyes red, her thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in her grating voice. A frosty rime was on her head, and on her eyebrows, and her wiry chin. She carried her own low temperature always about with her; she iced her office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
External heat and cold had little influence on Miss Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill her. No wind that blew was bitterer than she, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have her. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over her in only one respect. They often “came down” handsomely, and Miss Scrooge never did.
Nobody ever stopped her in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Miss Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored her to bestow a trifle, no children asked her what it was o’clock, no woman or man ever once in all her life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Miss Scrooge. Even the blind women’s dogs appeared to know her; and when they saw her coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark mistress!”
But what did Miss Scrooge care! It was the very thing she liked. To edge her way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call “nuts” to Miss Scrooge.
Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Miss Scrooge sat busy in her counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and she could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already—it had not been light all day—and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.
The door of Miss Scrooge’s counting-house was open that she might keep her eye upon her clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. Miss Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But she couldn’t replenish it, for Miss Scrooge kept the coal-box in her own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the mistress predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on her white comforter, and tried to warm herself at the candle; in which effort, not being a woman of a strong imagination, she failed.
“A merry Christmas, aunt! The Goddess save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Miss Scrooge’s niece, who came upon her so quickly that this was the first intimation she had of her approach.
“Bah!” said Miss Scrooge, “Humbug!”
She had so heated herself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this niece of Miss Scrooge’s, that she was all in a glow; her face was ruddy and handsome; her eyes sparkled, and her breath smoked again.
“Christmas a humbug, aunt!” said Miss Scrooge’s niece. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”
“I do,” said Miss Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
“Come, then,” returned the niece gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
Miss Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”
“Don’t be cross, aunt!” said the niece.
“What else can I be,” returned the aunt, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Miss Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on her lips, should be boiled with her own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through her heart. She should!”
“Aunt!” pleaded the niece.
“Niece!” returned the aunt sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”
“Keep it!” repeated Miss Scrooge’s niece. “But you don’t keep it.”
“Let me leave it alone, then,” said Miss Scrooge. “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the niece. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when women and men seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, aunt, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, Goddess bless it!”
The clerk in the Tank involuntarily applauded. Becoming immediately sensible of the impropriety, she poked the fire, and extinguished the last frail spark for ever.
“Let me hear another sound from you,” said Miss Scrooge, “and you’ll keep your Christmas by losing your situation! You’re quite a powerful speaker, madam,” she added, turning to her niece. “I wonder you don’t go into Parliament.”
“Don’t be angry, aunt. Come! Dine with us to-morrow.”
Miss Scrooge said that she would see her—yes, indeed she did. She went the whole length of the expression, and said that she would see her in that extremity first.
“But why?” cried Miss Scrooge’s niece. “Why?”
“Why did you get married?” said Miss Scrooge.
“Because I fell in love.”
“Because you fell in love!” growled Miss Scrooge, as if that were the only one thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas. “Good afternoon!”
“Nay, aunt, but you never came to see me before that happened. Why give it as a reason for not coming now?”
“Good afternoon,” said Miss Scrooge.
“I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?”
“Good afternoon,” said Miss Scrooge.
“I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I’ll keep my Christmas humour to the last. So A Merry Christmas, aunt!”
“Good afternoon!” said Miss Scrooge.
“And A Happy New Year!”
“Good afternoon!” said Miss Scrooge.
Her niece left the room without an angry word, notwithstanding. She stopped at the outer door to bestow the greetings of the season on the clerk, who, cold as she was, was warmer than Miss Scrooge; for she returned them cordially.
“There’s another personage,” muttered Miss Scrooge; who overheard her: “my clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a husband and family, talking about a merry Christmas. I’ll retire to Bedlam.”
This lunatic, in letting Miss Scrooge’s niece out, had let two other people in. They were portly ladies, pleasant to behold, and now stood, with their hats off, in Miss Scrooge’s office. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to her.
“Miss Scrooge and Miss Marley’s, I believe,” said one of the ladies, referring to her list. “Have I the pleasure of addressing Miss Scrooge, or Miss Marley?”
“Miss Marley has been dead these seven years,” Miss Scrooge replied. “She died seven years ago, this very night.”
“We have no doubt her liberality is well represented by her surviving partner,” said the lady, presenting her credentials.
It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word “liberality,” Miss Scrooge frowned, and shook her head, and handed the credentials back.
“At this festive season of the year, Miss Scrooge,” said the lady, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, miss.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Miss Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the lady, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Miss Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the lady, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Miss Scrooge.
“Both very busy, ma’am.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Miss Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the lady, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Miss Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Miss Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, ladies, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Miss Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the lady.
“It’s not my business,” Miss Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a woman to understand her own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, ladies!”
Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlewomen withdrew. Miss Scrooge resumed her labours with an improved opinion of herself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with her.