Charles Dickens.

The mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories online

. (page 71 of 103)
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mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance,
ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant
shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves ;
there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy,
setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons,
and, in the great compactness of their juicy
persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to
be carried home in paper bags, and eaten after
dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth
among these choice fruits in a bowl, though
members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race,
appeared to know that there was something
going on ; and, to a fish, went gasping round
and round their little world in slow and passion-
less excitement.

The Grocers' ! oh, the Grocers' ! nearly closed,
with perhaps two shutters down, or one \ but
through those gaps such glimpses ! It was not
alone that the scales descending on the counter
made a merry sound, or that the twine and
roller parted company so briskly, or that the
canisters were rattled up and down like juggling
tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea
and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even
that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the
almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinna-
mon so long and straight, the other spices so
delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted
with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-
on feel faint, and subsequently bilious. Nor
was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that
the French plums .blushed in modest tartness
from their highly-decorated boxes, or that every-
thing was good to eat and in its Christmas dress;
but the customers were all so hurried and so
eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that
they tumbled up against each other at the door,
crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left



their purchases upon the counter, and came

running back to fetch them, and committed
hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour
possible \ while the Grocer and his people were
so frank and fresh, that the polished hearts
with which they fastened their aprons behind
might have been their own, worn outside for
general inspection, and for Christmas daws to
peck at if they chose.

But soon the steeples called good people all
to church and chapel, and away they came,
flocking through the streets in their best clothes,
and with their gayest faces. And at the same
time there emerged, from scores of by-streets,
lanes, and nameless turnings, innumer?.ole peo-
ple, carrying their dinners to the bakers' shops.
The sight of these poor revellers appeared to
interest the Spirit very much, for he stood with
Scrooge beside him in a baker's doorway, and,
taking off the covers as their bearers passed,
sprinkled incense on their dinners from his
torch. And it was a very uncommon kind of
torch, for once or twice, when there were angry
words between some dinner-carriers who had
jostled each other, he shed a few drops of water
on them from it, and their good-humour was
restored directly. For they said, it was a shame
to quarrel upon Christmas-day. And so it was !
God love it, so it was !

In time the bells ceased, and the bakers were
shut up ; and yet there was a genial shadowing
forth of all these dinners, and the progress of
their cooking, in the thawed blotch of wet above
each baker's oven ; where the pavement smoked
as if its stones were cooking too.

" Is there a peculiar flavour in what you
sprinkle from your torch ? " asked Scrooge.

" There is. My own."

" Would it apply to any kind of dinner on
this day ? " asked Scrooge.

" To any kindly given. To a poor one most."

"Why to a poor one most?" asked Scrooge.

" Because it needs it most."

"Spirit!" said Scrooge after a moment's
thought. " I wonder you, of all the beings in
the many worlds about us, should desire to cramp
these people's opportunities of innocent enjoy-
ment."

" I !" cried the Spirit.

" You would deprive them of their means of
dining every seventh day, often the only day on
which they can be said to dine at all," said
Scrooge ; " wouldn't you ?"

" I ! " cried the Spirit.

" You seek to close these places on the
Seventh Day," said Scrooge. " And it comes to
the same thing."



A CHRISTMAS CAROL.



" /seek !" exclaimed the Spirit.

" Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been
done in your name, or at least in that of your
family," said Scrooge.

" There are some upon this earth of yours,"
returned the Spirit, " who lay claim to know us,
and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-
will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our
name, who are as strange to us, and all our kith
and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember
that, and charge their doings on themselves,
not us."

Scrooge promised that he would ; and they
went on^ invisible, as they had been before, into
the subuibs of the town. It was a remarkable
quality of the Ghost (which Scrooge had ob-
served at the baker's), that, notwithstanding his
gigantic size, he could accommodate himself to
any place with ease ; and that he stood beneath
a low roof quite as gracefully and like a super-
natural creature as it was possible he could have
done in any lofty hall.

And perhaps it was the pleasure the good
Spirit had in showing off this power of his, or
else it was his own kind, generous, hearty nature,
and his sympathy wnth all poor men, that led
him straight to Scrooge's clerk's ; for there he
went, and took Scrooge with him, holding to his
robe ; and, on the threshold of the door, the
Spirit smiled, and stopped to bless Bob Cratchit's
dwelling with the sprinklings of his torch. Think
of that ! Bob had but fifteen " Bob " a week
himself; he pocketed on Saturdays but fifteen
copies of his Christian name ; and yet the Ghost
of Christmas Present blessed his four-roomed
house !

Then up rose Mrs. Cratchit, Cratchit's wife,
dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned gown,
but brave in ribbons, which are cheap, and make
a goodly show for sixpence ; and she laid the
cloth, assisted by Belinda Cratchit, second of her
daughters, also brave in ribbons ; while Master
Peter Cratchit plunged a fork into the saucepan
of potatoes, and, getting the corners of his mon-
strous shirt collar (Bob's private property, con-
ferred upon his son and heir in honour of the
day) into his mouth, rejoiced to find himself so
gallantly attired, and yearned to show his linen
in the fashionable Parks. And now two smaller
Cratchits, boy and girl, came tearing in, scream-
ing that outside the baker's they had smelt the
goose, and known it for their own ; and, basking
in luxurious thoughts of sage and onion, these
young Cratchits danced about the table, and
exalted Master Peter Cratchit to the skies, while
he (not proud, although his collars nearly choked
him) blew the fire, until the slow potatoes,



bubbling up, knocked loudly at the saucepan
lid to be let out and peeled.

" What has ever got your precious father,
then?" said Mrs. Cratchit. " And your brother,
Tiny Tim ? And Martha warn't as late last
Christmas-day by half an hour ! "

" Here's Martha, mother ! " said a girl, appear-
ing as she spoke.

" Here's Martha, mother ! " cried the two
young Cratchits. " Hurrah ! There's such a
goose, Martha ! "

" Why, bless your heart alive, my dear, how
late you are ! " said Mrs. Cratchit, kissing her a
dozen times, and taking off her shawl and
bonnet for her with officious zeal.

" We'd a deal of work to finish up last night,"
replied the girl, " and had to clear away this
morning, mother ! "

" Well ! never mind so long as you are come,"
said Mrs. Cratchit. "Sit ye down before the
fire, my dear, and have a warm. Lord bless ye ! "

" No, no ! There's father coming," cried the
two young Cratchits, who were everywhere at
once. " Hide, Martha, hide !"

So Martha hid herself, and in came little Bob,
the father, with at least three feet of comforter,
exclusive of the fringe, hanging down before
him; and his threadbare clothes damed up and
brushed to look seasonable ; and Tiny Tim upon
his shoulder. Alas for Tiny Tim, he bore a little
crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron
frame !

" Why, Where's our Martha ? " cried Bob
Cratchit, looking round.

" Not coming," said Mrs. Cratchit.

"Not coming!" said Bob with a sudden
declension in his high spirits ; for he had been
Tim's blood horse all the w^ay from church, and
had come home rampant. " Not coming upon
Christmas-day ! "

Martha didn't like to see him disappointed, if
it were only in joke ; so she came out prema-
turely from behind the closet door, and ran into
his arms, while the two young Cratchits hustled
Tiny Tim, and bore him off into the wash-house,
that he might hear the pudding singing in the
copper.

" And how did little Tim behave ?" asked
Mrs. Cratchit when she had rallied Bob on his
credulity, and Bob had hugged his daughter to
his heart's content.

" As good as gold," said Bob, " and better.
Somehow, he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself
so much, and thinks the strangest things you
ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he
hoped the people saw him in the church, because
he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to



AT BOB CRATCHITS.



21



them to remember upon Christmas- day who
made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."

Bob's voice was tremulous when he told them
this, and trembled more when he said that Tiny
Tim was growing strong and hearty.

His active little crutch was heard upon the
floor, and back came Tiny Tim before another
word was spoken, escorted by his brother and
sister to his stool beside the fire ; and while Bob,
turning up his cuffs — as if, poor fellow, they were
capable of being made more shabby — com-
pounded some hot mixture in a jug with gin
and lemons, and stirred it round and round, and
put it on the hob to simmer, Master Peter and
the two ubiquitous young Cratchits went to fetch
the goose, with which they soon returned in
high procession.

Such a bustle ensued that you might have
thought a goose the rarest of all birds ; a
feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan
was a matter of course — and, in truth, it was
something very like it in that house. Mrs,
Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in
a little saucepan) hissing hot ; Master Peter
mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour;
Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple sauce ;
Martha dusted the hot plates ; Bob took Tiny
Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table ;
the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody,
not forgetting themselves, and, mounting guard
upon their posts, crammed spoons into their
mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before
their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes
were set on, and grace was said. It was suc-
ceeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs. Cratchit,
looking slowly all along the carving-knife, pre-
pared to plunge it in the breast ; but when she
did, and when the long-expected gush of stuffing
issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all
round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by
the two young Cratchits, beat on the table
with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried
Hurrah !

There never was such a goose. Bob said he
didn't believe there ever was such a goose
cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and
cheapness, were the themes of universal admira-
tion. Eked out by apple sauce and mashed
potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole
family ; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great
delight (surveying one small atom of a bone
upon the dish), they hadn't ate it all at last 1
Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest
Cratchits, in particular, were steeped in sage
and onion to the eyebrows ! But now, the plates
being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs. Cratchit
left the room alone — too nervous to bear



witnesses — to take the pudding up, and bring
it in.

Suppose it should not be done enough ! Sup-
pose it should break in turning out ! Suppose
somebody should have got over the wall of the
back-yard and stolen it, while they were merry
with the goose — a supposition at which the two
young Cratchits became livid ! All sorts of
horrors were supposed.

Hallo 1 A great deal of steam ! The pudding
was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-
day ! That was the cloth. A smell like an
eating-house and a pastrycook's next door to
each other, with a laundress's next door to that !
That was the pudding ! In half a minute Mrs.
Cratchit entered — flushed, but smiling proudly —
with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball,
so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern
of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas
holly stuck into the top.

Oh, a wonderful pudding ! Bob Cratchit said,
and calmly too, that he regarded it as the
greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since
their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that, now
the weight was off her mind^ she would confess
she had her doubts about the quantity of flour.
Everybody had something to say about it, but
nobody said or thought it was at all a small
pudding for a large family. It would have been
flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have
blushed to hint at such a thing.

At last the dinner was all done, the cloth was
cleared, the hearth swept, and the fire made up.
The compound in the jug being tasted, and
considered perfect, apples and oranges were put
upon the table, and a shovel full of chestnuts
on the fire. Then all the Cratchit family drew
round the hearth in what Bob Cratchit called a
circle, meaning half a one ; and at Bob Cratchit's
elbow stood the family display of glass. Two
tumblers and a custard cup without a handle.

These held the hot stuff from the jug, how-
ever, as well as golden goblets would have done ;
and Bob served it out with beaming looks, while
the chestnuts on the fire sputtered and cracked
noisily. Then Bob proposed :

" A merry Christmas to us all, my dears.
God bless us !"

Which all the family re-echoed.

" God bless us every one ! " said Tiny Tim,
the last of all.

He sat very close to his father's side, upon his
little stool. Bob held his withered little hand
in his, as if he loved the child, and wished to
keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might
be taken from him.

" Spirit," said Scrooge with an interest he



A CHRISTMAS CAROL.



had never felt before, " tell me if Tiny Tim will
live."

" I see a vacant seat," replied the Glwst, " in
the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without
an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows
remain unaltered by the Future, the child will
die."

" No, no," said Scrooge. " Oh no, kvnd
Spirit ! say he will be spared."

"If these shadows remain unaltered by the
Future, none other of my race," returned the
Ghost, " will find him here. What then ? If
he be like to die, he had better do it, and de-
crease the surplus population."

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words
quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with
penitence and grief.

"Man," said the Ghost, ''if man you be in
heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant
until you have discovered What the surplus is,
and Where it is. Will you decide what men
shall live, what men shall die ? It may be that,
in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless
and less fit to live than millions like this poor
man's child. Oh God ! to hear the Insect on
the leaf pronouncing on the too much life
among his hungry brothers in the dust ! "

Scrooge bent before the Ghost's rebuke, and,
trembling, cast his eyes upon the ground. But
he raised them speedily on hearing his own
name.

" Mr. Scrooge ! " said Bob. " I'll give you
Mr. Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast ! "

" The Founder of the Feast, indeed ! " cried
Mrs. Cratchit, reddening. " I wish I had him
here. I'd give him a piece of my mind to feast
upon, and I hope he'd have a good appetite for
it."

" My dear," said Bob, " the children ! Christ-
mas-day."

" It should be Christmas-day, I am sure,"
said she, " on which one drinks the health of
such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as
Mr. Scrooge. You know he is, Robert ! No-
body knows it better than you do, poor fellow ! "

" My dear ! " was Bob's mild answer. " Christ-
mas-day."

" I'll drink his health for your sake and the
Day's," said Mrs. Cratchit, " not for his. Long
life to him ! A merry Christmas and a happy
New Year ! He'll be very merry and very
happy, I have no doubt ! "

The children drank the toast after her. It
was the first of their proceedings which had no
heartiness in it. Tiny Tim drank it last of all,
but he didn't care twopence for it. Scrooge
was the Ogre of the family. The mention of



his name cast a dark shadow on the party, which
was not dispelled for full five minutes.

After it had passed away they were ten times
merrier than before, from the mere relief of
Scrooge the Baleful being done with. Bob
Cratchit told them how he had a situation in his
eye for Master Peter, which would bring in, if
obtained, full five-and-sixpence weekly. The
two young Cratchits laughed tremendously at
the idea ot Peter's being a man of business ; and
Peter himself looked thoughtfully at the fire
from between his collars, as if he were deliberat-
ing what particular investments he should favour
when he came into the receipt of that bewilder-
ing income. Martha, who was a poor apprentice
at a milliner's, then told them what kind of work
she had to do, and how many hours she worked
at a stretch, and how she meant to lie abed
to-morrow morning for a good long rest; to-
morrow being a holiday she passed at home.
Also how she had seen a countess and a lord
some days before, and how the lord " was much
about as tall as Peter ; " at which Peter pulled
up his collars so high, that you couldn't have
seen his head if you had been there. All this-
time the chestnuts and the jug went round and
round ; and by-and-by they had a song, about a
lost child travelling in the snow, from Tiny Tim,
who had a plaintive little voice, and sang it
very well indeed.

There was nothing of high mark in this.
They were not a handsome family ; they were
not well dressed ; their shoes were far from
being waterproof; their clothes were scanty ;
and Peter might have known, and very likely
did, the inside of a pawnbroker's. But they
were happy, grateful, pleased with one another,
and contented with the time ; and when they
faded, and looked happier yet in the bright
sprinklings of the Spirit's torch at parting,
Scrooge had his eye upon them, and especially
on Tiny Tim, until the last.

By this time it was getting dark, and snowing
pretty heavily ; and, as Scrooge and the Spirit
went along the streets, the brightness of the
roaring fires in kitchens, parlours, and all sorts
of rooms was wonderful. Here, the flickering
of the blaze showed preparations for a cosy
dinner, with hot plates baking through and
through before the fire, and deep red curtains,
ready to be drawn to shut out cold and dark-
ness, There, all the children of the house were
running out into the snow to meet their married
sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, and be
the first to greet them. Here, again, were
shadows on the window blinds of guests assem-
bling ; and there a group of handsome girls, all



OVER LAND AND SEA.



23



hooded and fur-booted, and all chattering at
once, tripped lightly off to some near neigh-
bour's house ; where, woe upon the single man
who saw them enter — artful witches, well they
knew it — in a glow !

But, if you had judged from the numbers of
people on their way to friendly gatherings, you
might have thought that no one was at home to
give them welcome when they got there, instead
of every house expecting company, and piling
up its fires half-chimney high. Blessings on it,
how the Ghost exulted ! How it bared its
breadth of breast, and opened its capacious
palm, and floated on, outpouring, with a gene-
rous hand, its bright and harmless mirth on
everything within its reach ! The very lamp-
lighter, who ran on before, dotting the dusky
street with specks of light, and who was dressed
to spend the evening somewhere, laughed out
loudly as the Spirit passed, though little kenned
the lamp-lighter that he had any company but
Christmas.

And now, without a word of warning from the
Ghost, they stood upon a bleak and desert
moor, where monstrous masses of rude stone
were cast about, as though it were the burial-
place of giants ; and water spread itself where-
soever it listed ; or would have done so, but for
the frost that held it prisoner; and nothing
grew but moss and furze, and coarse, rank
grass. Down in the west the setting sun had
left a streak of fiery red, which glared upon
the desolation for an instant, like a sullen eye,
and, frowning lower, lower, lower yet, was lost
in the thick gloom of darkest night.

" What place is this ? " asked Scrooge.

" A place where Miners live, who labour in
the bowels of the earth," returned the Spirit.
" But they know me. See ! "

A light shone from the window of a hut, and
swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing
through the wall of mud and stone, they found
a cheerful company assembled round a glowing
fire. An old, old man and woman, with their
children and their children's children, and an-
other generation beyond that, all decked out
gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a
voice that seldom rose above the howling of the
wind upon the barren waste, was singing them
a Christmas song ; it had been a very old song
when he was a boy ; and from time to time they
all joined in the chorus. So surely as they
raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe
and loud ; and, so surely as they stopped, his
vigour sank again.

The Spirit did not tarry here, but bade
Scrooge hold his robe, and, passing on above



the moor, sped whither? Not to sea ? To
sea. To Scrooge's horror, looking back, he saw
the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks,
behind them ; and his ears were deafened by
the thundering of water, as it rolled and roared,
and raged among the dreadful caverns it had
worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth.

Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks,
some league or so from shore, on which the
waters chafed and dashed, the wild year through,
there stood a solitary lighthouse. Great heaps
of seaweed clung to its base, and storm-birds —
born of the wind, one might suppose, as seaweed
of the water — rose and fell about it, like the
waves they skimmed.

But, even here, two men who watched the
light, had made a fire, that through the loop-
hole in the thick stone wall shed out a ray of
brightness on the awful sea. Joining their
horny hands over the rough table at which they
sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas in
their can of grog ; and one of them : the elder
too, with his face all damaged and scarred with
hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship
might be : struck up a sturdy song that was like
a gale in itself.

Again the Ghost sped on, above the black
and heaving sea — on, on — until, being far away,
as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted
on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at
the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers
who had the watch ; dark, ghostly figures in
their several stations ; but every man among
them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a
Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath
to his companion of some bygone Christmas-
day, with homeward hopes belonging to it.
And every man on board, waking or sleeping,
good or bad, had had a kinder word for one
another on that day than on any day in the
year; and had shared to some extent in its
festivities ; and had remembered those he cared
for at a distance, and had known that they
delighted to remember him.

It was a great surprise to Scrooge, while
listening to the moaning of the wind, and
thinking what a solemn thing it was to move
on through the lonely darkness over an unknown
abyss, whose depths were secrets as profound
as death : it was a great surprise to Scrooge,
while thus engaged, to hear a hearty laugh.
It was a much greater surprise to Scrooge to
recognise it as his own nephew's, and to find
himself in a bright, dry, gleaming room, with
the Spirit standing smiling by his side, and
looking at that same nephew with approving
affability !



24



A CHRISTMAS CAROL.



" Ha, ha ! " laughed Scrooge's nephew. " Ha,
ha, ha ! "

If you should happen, by any unlikely chance,
to know a man more blessed in a laugh than
Scrooge's nephew, all I can say is, I should
like to know him too. Introduce him to me,
and I'll cultivate his acquaintance.

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment
of things, that, while there is infection in disease



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 71 of 103)