‘A CHRISTMAS PRELUDE’
BY TIM ROBERTS, BASED ON ‘A CHRISTMAS CAROL’
BY CHARLES DICKENS
STAVE ONE : ‘SCROOGE’S GENESIS’
SCROOGE WAS BORN : to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his birth was signed by the midwife, the clerk, his mother and his father. Yes, Scrooge senior signed it : and ‘Edwin Scrooge’s name was good upon the Exchange, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Young Ebenezer Scrooge was, emphatically, as alive as you and me.
This point must be distinctly understood, or nothing either profound or provoking can come of the story I am going to relate. Furthermore, not only was the infant Ebenezer Scrooge alive – he was that kind of alive that can only be achieved through the bringing to birth of a babe conceived in a bower of true love. For, there is no doubt that Edwin and Georgina Scrooge were very much in love. This too must be distinctly understood as wonderful. If we were not perfectly convinced that Romeo loved young Juliet, there would be nothing more remarkable in their rallying forth up and down the Capulet balcony vines, than there would be any other everyday meeting between contradictory genders in any suchlike place – say Waterloo Bridge for instance. And Ebenezer was such a lively, rambunctious baby that even the midwife herself noted that such a bairn would have to be put to good use as if the energy effusing from his fount and person were to be used for ill, there would be no hope or reclamation for mankind.
Oh! But he was an open-handed spirit of freedom, Edwin Scrooge! A beneficent, charitable, hospitable, lavish, munificent, prodigal, unstinting saint of a man! Soft as a chaise, from which no renegade spring had sprung its surprise prong; honest and gregarious as a meerkat. The warmth within him glozed his cherub features, bulbed his cheerful nose, reddened his cheek, loosened his gait; made his eyes glow, his thick lips glisten; and spoke out balmy in his chocolate voice. The sun itself was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his dimpled chin. He carried his own balmy temperature always about with him; he warmed his office at Christmastime without recourse to log or coal scuttle. Though he added them too for good measure.
People always stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?” Beggars took advantage of his good nature; children knew he was good for a telling of the time; both men and women always found him approachable for general directions, Edwin Scrooge. Even the blindmen’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners up towards him and then would wag their tails as though they said, “a warm eye like this might thaw your frozen eye, dark master!”
Once upon a time – of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve – Scrooge senior, as aforementioned, was the happy signature of a healthy young son. It was cold, bleak, biting weather on this birth day of young Scrooge. Foggy withal. Edwin 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 houses, 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 buildings opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.
The door of Georgina’s room was open that he might keep his eye upon developments as the midwife had reliably informed the pacing Edwin that complications had developed in the aftermath of the roaring boy. Though the yet-to-be-named Ebenezer was as solid as an Exchange handshake, the trials and tribulations of his birth had taken their toll on his poor mother who, if we were to extend the metaphor, was currently as limp as a greeting from the Mayor of London himself.
“Congratulations, Edwin! God save you! A boy!” cried a melancholic voice which didn’t mean to match the sentiment. It was the voice of Edwin’s business partner, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
“Hah!” said Edwin, “Thank you!”
He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this partner of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and burning; his eyes flickered, and his breath smoked like a dragon.
“A boy means an heir, my dearest partner of greatness!” so spoke this partner of Edwin, sparking up his words as readily as he did his matchbook. Strange though nonetheless advantageous, it always seemed to Edwin, that every time he craved a smoke Luke was there instinctively with a lighted flame. “Someone to ease your burden and share your workload as you get older and, thus unburdened, crawl towards death.” The glow from the lighted tobacco in Edwin’s pipe reddened the face of Luke Furniss yet further and, added to the blasphemous halo of smoke encircling his tightly curled head, lent him a Mephistophelian air.
“You needn’t worry, Luke. Heir or not, we are partners in Scrooge and Furniss. Dual owners. I’ll not steer you wrong.”
“Edwin Scrooge couldn’t steer a Hansom cab wrong, never mind a handsome man!” Luke cackled to himself, his voice as he did so the timbre of shovelled coal as he struck up another match from the matchbook, for no other reason, it seemed to Scrooge, than for his own entertainment. “I warrant you’ll steer this business proposition well with Old Pendulum’s firm; if you’d only give me a straight answer whether or no..?” the partner added, watching the flame lick its way down towards his frost-nipped finger-ends.
“You know my mind on this point, Luke. It is a hazardous endeavour.” Edwin’s head flicked at the sound of a sigh or a cry from Georgina’s direction. Obtuse as Edwin Scrooge’s wayward partner was, even he was not impervious to the sense of disquiet in the air. “Got a name, yet, for the little blighter?” he asked, pigeon-holeing the business momentarily in favour of a feigned interest in the Scrooge progeny which was more benign than the malignant undertones Edwin picked up from Luke’s recent interrogation into the potential family inheritance plans.
“My mind is not on names for now.” Edwin chewed nervously at the mouthpiece of his pipe.
“My dear Edwin, whatever is the matter?”
“It’s Georgina. She’s not taken it at all well. The midwife’s in with her now. Doc Majolica’s on his way. It’s looking very grave, Luke.”
“Oh my dear chap, you should have said.” replied Luke, taking Edwin by the arm and thinking immediately of his own behaviours and how he can readjust them to win favours, rather than any labour-related traumas transpiring in the other room.
Suddenly, the owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol : but at the first sound of-
“God rest ye merry gentlemen!
May nothing you dismay!”
Furniss seized an unseasonal parasol from his partner’s hall stand with such energy of action, that the figure would have fled in terror had Edwin not wrestled the effeminate weaponry from Luke’s grip in a veritable pantomime of disarmament.
“No, Luke. Not on my account. Let him sing his carol out. Such soothing tones may help Georgina’s condition, and afterwards I have a shilling already prepared for such an eventuality.”
And so, though Luke thought it tantamount to begging, he humoured his beneficent partner and allowed the castrato voice of the vagabond caroller to drift through the flickering hallway and into Georgina’s boudoir, ultimately carrying the Good Doctor with it. Thereafter with Georgina’s door closed and herself in good hands, and the carol done and the caroller paid off, Scrooge and Furniss absented themselves and decamped to a neighbouring hostelry.
* * * * * * * * * * *
They took their melancholy dinner in their usual melancholy tavern, Edwin’s mind back with Georgina and Majolica’s ministrations, Luke attempting to beguile Edwin with news of the Exchange and flicking through their banker’s book as ardently as he ever did his matchbook. Luke spent some time endeavouring to engage his partner in talk of business – in particular a proposition Luke had to expand the business through merging with other companies of which Edwin had grave misgivings regarding their disreputable status among the men of the Exchange. Edwin countered his colleague’s motions with incredulity – not checking Furniss’ financial desperation thanks to the lodging of his mind and thoughts with his wife and newborn son. After Edwin’s attempts to eschew Luke’s fanciful schemes with his reading of the paper failed for the tenth time, he led their way out of the inn and into the gathering dark.
The fog and the darkness thickened so – and cold! Piercing, searching, biting cold. The ancient tower of a church chattered its frozen head and trembled the late hour as they passed beneath. In the side street hard by Scrooge and Furniss’ offices and warehouse, a brazier glowed and danced against brick, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered. Half a dozen Lucifer-lamps out of the street wouldn’t have lighted the entry too well, and as they crossed to their place of work Scrooge fancied he saw the silhouette of two figures grow on the wall – one small and one wild. He dismissed it as his over-active imagination indulging in phantasmagoria as he was wont, but as they turned the corner there they were – silhouettes no longer – cowering under slates and tin.
Wretched, abject, frightful and miserable. They were an old man and a young girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, feral; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled her features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, her features were more attuned to the elderly husk she kept company with. He held her stale hand in his shrivelled one. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has beggars half so woebegone and dread.
Furniss went to spit and kick at them, fired up at their audacity to shelter at their workplace, so that oaths flew from him at them as smuts and embers from a bonfire. Again, at length, Edwin poured water on Luke’s bonfire and felt for the waif and stray through the ensuing smoke and steam.
“Have you no refuge or resource?” asked Scrooge.
“We had.” Replied the old man. “It burnt down.”
“Well you can’t shelter here!” snapped Furniss, flicking carbon into flame like a threat. “There are plenty of prisons for the likes of you. And the Union workhouses and the Treadmill – these are novel policies my partner and I work hard to support. Those who are badly off must go there.”
“We can’t go there.” The old man retorted.
“And I would rather die.” The plaintive voice of the wretched girl-child supported her aged companion.
Furniss cackled a crackling snap of laughter at this last pronouncement, and seemed about to counter it with some studied Malthusian cruelty he had ready, when Edwin Scrooge facilitated in the hot debate.
“Excuse me...” he politely observed to the unfortunate vagrants, “...We don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the old man.
“It’s not our business!” Furniss returned.
“It’s enough for a man to understand his own business...” Scrooge expedited calmly, only to be overtaken once more by his impetuous partner.
“...We must not interfere with other people’s. My business occupies me constantly. Now if you don’t mind – leave our place of business ... now!” And with this final commandment Luke Furniss disappeared into the black night like an ember against soot. Scrooge was accustomed to his partner’s fits and sparks in this manner.
Many a time in business meetings with clients would he demand and decree, and then vanish before his audience could argue or assent – a moveable, changeable behaviour which suggested to Edwin that Luke was afraid of challenge and conquest in equal measure and would prefer a tactical withdrawal, leaving Edwin himself to pick up the pieces of burnt offerings left by Luke’s fiery tornado. As he watched the orange glow of Luke’s lit match become swallowed by the December mists Edwin also mused on his business partner’s deployment of the personal possessive pronoun “My” in connexion with their shared business in the first instance, hastily corrected by his hot colleague with the more political “our place of business”. His reverie continued in this vein until the elder of the two homeless shelterers broke it with subservient words, thus :
“We’ll be on our ways, then, if you please sir...” the poor unfortunate began.
“No, please, I beg you...” started Edwin, “you must not mind my partner there. He is as jealous in his dealings with space as he is with that of time and money. Of course you may shelter here – though our stores would be more comfortable for you, I am sure.”
The girl’s paper-thin face glowed for an instant at this kindness, and looked toward her superior relative as if for his due accord.
“Grandfather?” she pleaded.
“We could not trouble you in such a way.” Her proud grandfather parried against Edwin Scrooge’s open-handedness. “I know that merchants such as yourselves guard your stores carefully ‘fore the Exchange and would do nothing to drive a wedge between your partner and your good self.”
“Nonsense. Let me alone to deal with Mr Furniss. This is a mere helping hand I offer. A halfway house for you and your grand-daughter while you see to your affairs and find your own way out of the unfortunate situation you are faced with. My wife is on the board of certain charities...”
At the mention of the philanthropic epithet the old man bridled, but Edwin raised his hand in kindly supplication, cutting through his planned niceties to the plain sense of what he wished to offer. “...We wish to help you in any way we can.” Edwin brooked no answering negative, such was his giving nature – accentuated further by the season. “What is your name?” Edwin’s open hand extended in proffered greeting, and the old man’s pride melted into a handshake.
“Robert, sir. Robert Cratchitt – senior. And this is my grand-daughter, Martha.”
“Senior?” Edwin queried, shaking out the new connection, “so there are more Cratchitts out there seeking shelter?”
“Alas, circumstances have divided our family, I am afraid to admit, Mr...?”
“Scrooge. Edwin Scrooge.”
“...My son was kept with my late wife in one of the new workhouses which sprang up Camden way. In the City. She passed away, I was told.”
“I am sorry to hear it” sympathised the corn merchant with sincerity.
“It is the way of the world, as the playwrights would have it, Mr Scrooge. For personages such as we it is the workhouse, the walkway or we’re shipped to the New World, such as my brother. He was given the choice : sell his wife or take her to Australia. I am glad to say that love and decency now sees him in that hemisphere.”
“But you will not to Australia?” The old man shook his head. “Nor join your son in London?”
“If we go to London we’ll be chucked in the Spike!” spat the younger of the two unfortunates, certifying for good and all in Edwin Scrooge’s mind what he must do. With no further ado he ushered his unconventional guests to the store-rooms they were to call home – notwithstanding the necessity of their having to hide from Scrooge’s partner Furniss whenever he showed his forked face at their shared place of business – which fortunately for the Cratchitts was not as often as he had used to do, for reasons which will become clear to the reader at a later juncture.
The old gentleman and his grand-daughter made themselves as comfortable amongst the grain bags and weighing scales as two starving humans could, with as much gratitude and fortitude as can be imagined from two such desperate individuals. Indeed, their comfort, though still limited, was still far in excess of what they had been accustomed to of late; and it is amazing the feats of endurance a human being can withstand in this cruel world. As the great Bard once had it : Man must endure their going hence even as their coming hither. In addition to this same observation, it could quite truthfully be said that the comfort of the Cratchitts at this time in Scrooge’s story was not only far in excess of their own recent family history, but it was also exceeding that of the present case of Scrooge’s own afflicted wife and now mother to his baby son, Georgina.