Amid the passing years, Scrooge looks to speak comfort to a friend.
“Away with you!”
“But Uncle! Can’t you stay a while?”
The children crowded around the old man, dancing and swinging from his great coat, even as he tried to wind his scarf about his thin neck.
“Away with you!”
The children laughed and danced about again, filled with mischievous spirit.
The old man could not suppress his smile, nor his delight at their entreaties.
He reached down and caught the smaller girl, Belinda, and swung her high into the low rafters, her delighted giggles only serving to spur the others on.
“But my treasure, this night of all nights, you must away to bed and close your eyes tightly, or the magic will not come!”
“Uncle, it is hours before then, must you go so early?”
The old man hugged the small girl tightly, and then threw an arm around each child at his waist in turn, before turning to the parents who sat, tired but content, either side of a luxurious fire in the hearth.
“I must go and speak to an old friend.”
The children knew there was no turning and hugged the skinny legs of their beloved uncle, though he was not related by blood.
One by one he detached them, each with a kiss on their heads, even the older ones, and girded himself against the cold.
He leaned across the small table where the remains of their festive meal still sat, and shook the hand of his friend.
“Goodnight Bob, and Merry Christmas to you.”
He turned then to the lady of the house, who rose swiftly and came around the table. She reached up on tiptoe and kissed the old man’s cheek.
“Good night, Mrs…”
“Emily!” she said insistently, as though she were determined on the usage.
“Merry Christmas to you, Emily.”
He turned to the gaggle still blocking the door and endured more hugs and kisses and wishes for the season.
Ebenezer Scrooge closed the door of the modest house behind him and took a deep breath of frosty air. He gave a little laugh, a last draft of the delight that existed in the Cratchit house, before setting off.
The way was not far, but the night was bitter and ice lay underfoot. Though elderly, Scrooge kept up a brisk pace, his blood running warm to his bony hands and long nose, quickened by the fun and sport just past.
He resisted the urge to look at his watch, as he heard the bells of St Paul’s mark half past ten, and he quickened his step a little. Though he was looking forward to his assignation, there was yet a heaviness to his heart.
Scrooge had left the home of his friend Bob Cratchit and his family each Christmas Eve night for the last three to make his way home. That first night when he had shared table with that wonderful family, he simply left as he was overwhelmed. Though his sincerity in keeping Christmas was not in doubt, the change in himself was such that it had sometimes overtaken his ability to express it.
Outside that night, he found himself passing the churchyard where his friend Jacob Marley lay. He was reminded of the appearance of his friend, when his shade appeared and told him of the visits of the three ghosts that would so change his world. Though heartily grateful for the intercession of his friend, he was yet chilled by the words spoken by the ghost…
“Look to see me no more.”
Scrooge had spoken out loud that night, addressing his old friend through the gates.
“I would speak comfort to you, Jacob.”
This night, reaching his front door, Scrooge ignored the knocker, knowing no visage would there appear, and hurried in and up the stairs. Though he had brought joy to many in the intervening years, Scrooge still had little taste for comforts, and what comforts there were, were mostly enjoyed by the housekeeper.
On reaching his rooms, he closed and locked the door, as was his custom this many years, and put on his night attire, lighting the candle and stoking the fire in the grate.
There he waited, even as the echoes of children’s laughter kept the shadows at bay.
He was not sure if he had fallen asleep, but he started at a noise that was now all too familiar. A rumble and clink, as if heavy chains and irons were being dragged up the stairs, now became distinct. Amid the clamour, Scrooge could not hold back a smile though there was a tinge of melancholy to it.
The door of the room, despite its stout bolts and sturdy fastening, opened suddenly and there stood, wreathed in heavy chains, the shade of Jacob Marley.
More than ten years dead now, the shade did not wait to be welcomed, but made its ponderous way to the chair that stood opposite Scrooge.
“Come in, come in, old friend! I am most heartened to see you once more.”
Though used now to seeing his friend, Scrooge was surprised that night three years ago when his friend appeared. Sitting then, as now, Marley, undoing his chin cloth had said:
“Speak comfort, Ebenezer.”
Overcome with delight, Scrooge began to babble of his new life and the delights of family and friends. He regaled his friend of the dinners and dancing at his nephew’s house, how the young people sang and enjoyed each other’s company. He told him of how he made Bob a partner, and the provisions made for the education of Belinda and the position found for Peter. Scrooge could barely contain himself as he described the improvement in Tiny Tim, and how a good physician had done so much for the boy.
In it all, Marley sat but never spoke another word.
Each year, on that night since, Scrooge had made his way home and followed that same ritual, in the hope that his friend might come. Each time Marley appeared, Scrooge felt the weight of expectation lift, and made carefully to have a good account of what had transpired since.
And yet, this night, as Marley appeared, he sat upon the usual chair, but said nothing. He made no attempt to unfetter his jaw, but merely gazed past Scrooge, as was his wont.
Scrooge began upon his account, leaving out no detail of the work he had undertaken for the betterment of the less fortunate, to both honour and commemorate his friend.
There were schools funded and renovated, with libraries stocked and detailed. Homes were built for mothers and children, and refuges made for unfortunates, all bearing the name of Jacob Marley.
As he spoke, Scrooge thought he saw flickers of acknowledgement, even as the shade shimmered.
At last Scrooge was silent, his stock of works spent.
“Jacob, I am most grateful for your company these nights, but I am worried in your appearance.”
Marley sat still.
“I fear, my friend, that you are fading.”
The ghost showed no response.
“Is it my old eyes, or do you grow more… gaunt on every visit?”
Marley looked at Scrooge, or at least his ghost made to do so.
Scrooge knew in his heart he might see his friend no more.
“Oh Jacob, I had thought, perhaps, that in turning my heart to my fellow human, I might lighten your load. I hoped with kindness and care, I might break those chains and bonds that weigh you so. You did so much for me, Jacob, I hoped that a kindness in your name might begin to loosen your bonds.”
Scrooge looked at Marley, and the chains that wound about him, spilling from his limbs, across the floor and back through the door from whence he came. Though ghostly, they looked as stout and wearisome as ever.
Scrooge looked back to the ghostly visage of his old friend and observed a slight shake of the head.
He heaved a great sigh.
“Is there no hope then, you might be spared this fate?”
Again, Marley’s head shook slightly.
Scrooge hung his head.
“Jacob, I care not for my own fate. These years I have had to bring comfort and joy to others have unchained my heart. Even if I my soul must spend eternity in chains, my heart has known joy and I will carry it with me. But I owe that to you, old friend. Is there not some means by which that kindness can lighten your way?”
Marley signalled the expected response.
A heavy silence fell.
A bell beyond struck the hour of one and before the last reverberations had ceased, Marley rose and gathered his chains about him, boxes and chests falling into line, as he made his way towards the window. Without him turning, Scrooge knew he was bidding goodbye and even as the candle flickered and firelight writhed, Marley faded with every step. Before ever reaching the windowsill, the figure had gone. The sound of the chains faded too, their image disappearing after the figure, drawn on now by unseen hands.
Scrooge sat back and mourned for his old friend, the heavy chain of Jacob’s sacrifice wound firmly about his heart.