One hundred sixty five years ago a little Christmas Book was published. It was a morality play, depicting a heartless man learning better. The working title for this work was The Sledgehammer, but fortunately for us all its author, Charles Dickens changed that to the title we all know today, that of A Christmas Carol. It has influenced countless stories and has shaped Christmas as we know it today.
Two years ago tomorrow, I wrote the following story, serving as a prequel to the classic tale. I had then and have now no pretense as to its status. It is a ghost story of sorts, closer to that fine tradition than the original ever hoped to be. If it gives a shiver, I am satisfied. If it sends Dickens spinning in his grave… well, he takes himself too seriously.
Though, between you and me, I think it’s one of the best thing I’ve written for this site. So much so that the thought of it lost in the depths of this place made me a wee bit sad. I considered pushing the post up datewise… but then I noticed a few areas I thought needed correcting. For instance, at one point I used the term “meal ticket” which not only wasn’t right for the time period this story, it was also slang from a different country entirely. Oops!
That and a few words here and there have been changed or added. Unlike a certain Star Wars creator, I’m not ashamed of my old work; you can still find the first go here. Also, if you have already read the first, the second does not stray that far, thus excusing any further reading. However, this is my preferred text, and were you to want to read the story again, I’d rather the new over the old. I think it works better.
One final note. As a man who is his own lawyer might have a fool for a client, so to might a man who does his own editing. I’m far from perfect grammatically-wise or spelling-wise, and for every little error like “meal ticket” corrected I may well have put two major ones in it’s place. Such is my addled little brain. Do not hesitate to point them out so I might correct them. I won’t bite, so long as the laughter isn’t too great.
We’ve tarried too long here. Let’s visit an ailing man and his guest…
He had been sitting in his bed, working on his books, when the question popped into his head. It was an odd one, for he was certain he had known a moment before. He glanced up and spied his manservant, standing by the bedroom door. Perhaps it was unwise to show weakness before the help, but he felt he had to ask, “What day is this?”
Good man. Didn’t even bat an eyelash. “Saturday, sir. Christmas Eve to be precise.”
Marley stared down at the books. He had checked through three quarters of them. It took him but a single day. Age had done nothing to his mind. Nothing at all.
And yet he frowned instead of smiled. “Christmas Eve. It felt like just another day.”
Another oddity, especially from him. Why did the day feel so important?
No response was needed for Marley’s comment, and yet his manservant spoke nonetheless, “Isn’t it, sir?”
This drew a rattle of a laugh from Marley. “Indeed. Indeed.”
“Will it still be mutton tonight, then? Or will you…”
“Of course it will be mutton. Saturday is always mutton. Don’t take leave of your senses.”
Marley blinked. He would have sworn it was just a blink.
And yet the room was empty. The manservant was gone, no doubt to another task. That was well and good. He had been hovering of late. No doubt suspecting his paymaster was about to shuffle from this mortal coil. If he had such a notion, he was a fool. The Marleys were a good breed, healthy in mind and body. It would take more than… whatever this blasted illness was to drag him into the grave.
Morbid thought. Back to business
The credit books he had been pouring over had slipped off of his lap. Some were close to dropping of the bed itself. The quill and pen he had had in his hand were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the manservant had seen to that as well.
What had happened, then, was most clear. At some point Marley had fallen asleep and hadn’t realized it. The damnable illness had been stealing minutes from him since it came. Fogged his head at times. He would have to go over the books again tomorrow, then.
Or have Ebenezer do so. Yes. His partner had been shirking his duties of late. For some reason this time of year made him… moody. No clear reason, but there needn’t be. It was a weakness, one that should have been removed years ago, had the man a lick of real business sense.
A small shift in position almost sent the books to the floor. He could have reached forward and pulled things back, but didn’t. Time wasn’t the only thing striped away. Arms felt like wet noodles when they didn’t feel like lead. Calling the manservant back would be the way to go, had it seemed less of an effort.
Hell. He’d spent his life building his fortune. Would a few minutes out of so many years send him to debtor’s prison? He thought not.
Marley closed his eyes, only to snap them open again. No. No more time for you, sickness. Better to look about the room. Take in what he had accomplished with his life.
The common eye would think he spent quite a bit on the furnishing the room. The wall paper was of quality, the paintings artful and crisp, the bed itself well carved, well bit. All of it, even the firm pillow he had between his back and his bed board, had been picked up at but a fraction of the cost. Some of the people he had dealt with had offered it to him as a sop to keep him from foreclosing in proper time. He had taken it all and then, in proper course and time, taken from them what they owed him, too. Business was war, and all things were fair in war.
Marley blinked and Ebenezer entered the room, dressed in a black coat and pants as if in mourning. A moment passed before he could fathom what this meant. Then he cursed beneath his breath. For all of his intentions, he had drifted off again. Blast whatever it was keeping him this way. A bother, it was a real bother.
He tried to rise from his bed to greet his partner, but again his limbs had no strength to them. Hell, even his voice tried giving out on him, “What are you doing here?”
“So quarrelsome,” Ebenezer grinned. Odd that he did not push the bedroom door closed behind him, as was his custom. “Must I have any other purpose but to see my dear friend?”
“If you have an ounce of brains in your head, you should.”
“And I do. I have come for the books. Some if not all. You have stole too many away from me and now I sit at work and do nothing. It makes me idle, and idle hands…”
Marley laughed. Or coughed. They sounded so much a like these days. “Take them and be happy. I have balanced these here on the left, but you may want to double check the numbers. This illness of mine is doing things to my mind.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Ebenezer said as he gathered the books. “You have the finest brain I have ever known.”
“Honesty has always been your biggest fault.”
Which was true. Ebenezer had never acquired things the way Marley had. He dickered, true, and sought out the best prices, but he kept his word. Always, even back when they were clerks. A bit foolish, and perhaps why Ebenezer wasn’t the business man Marley was. Still, he was a rock when push came to shove. A good partner through and through. Things might have been worse without him.
Not much, mind. A little.
There seemed to be too many books for him to carry, but when Marley suggested a brief loan of his manservant, the idea was waved away. “Brought Cratchit with me. He may as well earn his pay for once.”
Books bulging his arms to the brink, Ebenezer stalked towards the doorway, only to pause half out. He turned a fraction at the hip and said, “Your man seems off today. Is there something the matter? Something I should know about?”
“No doubt he’s wishing he could spend Christmas Eve with his family. He muttered something about them not so long ago.”
Ebenezer’s craggy face twisted. Hardened, if one could believe it. “Christmas Eve? Today? Where does the time go? I had thought today just another day.”
“I had always believed it to be. Is it more?”
“Yes. It is dusk to tomorrow’s black night.”
But before an explanation could be asked for, Ebenezer was gone.
Marley blinked and now the bedroom door was closed. The room seemed darker. More day slipping away. He sighed, most vexed. This malady had plagued him for near a month now, if not more. No doubt it was time to call in a doctor, see what was what. He hated to waste the money, but if he was to function…
“I could tell thee,” a voice whispered. “I could tell thee if thy want to know.”
He jerked in bed. All this sleep, why did it not clear the lethargy in his limbs, in his head? Anyone could have darted about to any number of hiding places in the time it took to look about the room. “Who said that? Who’s here? Don’t you know you trespassing?”
A cold breath caressed Marley’s face, yet no countenance was there for such an utterance to come from. The voice spoke again, “I am the forger of chains, built from the material you yourself have made. I am the locker of locks, come to grant upon thee mine handiwork. I do not trespass, as I have been invited in by thee.”
With the mention of chains and locks, something metal rattled beneath his bed. For some reason this drove an icicle of fear into his heart. “No I haven’t! No I…”
He closed his eyes. A dream. This was but a dream, brought on by his sickness. Had to be.
“Not a dream,” the voice whispered. “Not sickness. Poison. Poison clots your heart and frees thy mind so that I might speak to thee.”
“Poison!” Marley snorted twice at the thought. “Who would dare do that to me?”
“Thy servant. He seeks vengeance. In thy search for earthly wealth, many have been harmed. His kin are among that number. In fact, his brother sits in debtor’s prison as we speak because of thee.”
“Does he?” That couldn’t be right, could it? He would remember that, if it was true. And yet it didn’t sound wrong, either. “Does he really?”
“Yes. Yes really. He was one of those who help furnish this very room.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’ll sack the man. Sack him at once.”
He spoke as if this was real. He spoke as if he did believe. What wonders do dreams reveal.
The voice sighed, and for a moment Marley thought he could see something. A shadow sitting beside him on the edge of the bed. It might have been a person, or something like a person. an impression lingered, one of a mighty head, and sorrow. Such terrible sorrow, the likes of which Marley had never felt before.
It continued to whisper, “It is too late for that. Too late by far. While thy body might mend from the harm he has already caused, what he plans tonight will end thy life.”
“He will smother thee in this very bed, then claim illness spirited thee away. It is sad, too, for I shall have to make chains for him, as I have for thee. Chains so heavy he will be hard pressed to move.”
“What chains? What are you blathering about?”
Another soft rattle from beneath the bed. “Thy sins and thy penance. I speak of both.”
“Rot and nonsense. What sins have I committed? Being too shrewd, too smart for the rabble out there? Is that really a sin these days?”
“These are questions with answers known.”
Again, the voice’s words struck him deep for reasons he could not fathom. He ignored this, “Why? Why are you saying these things to me?”
“For his sake, for his doom for this planned sin harsh. For thy sake, for thee, too, will suffer. None bear witness for either of you. Nor will there ever be such a soul. You will wear your chains forever with no chance of respite.”
“But why, dammit why? Why say this much when I can do so little?”
“I would not speak, were there no chance at all. Were thee to say the right words, thy servant might yet stay his hands. Thy life would continue and the weight of the chains put off till another time. Or till never, were thee to change utterly. This is mine hope, for the chains I make are heavy and cold. A kind word must come from thee. Take heed, Jacob Marley. Take heed.”
Marley blinked. When he opened his eyes, he found himself without even the phantom of a shadow for a companion. Or he woke to find the voice had been but a dream. Yes. That seemed more realistic. More rational. It had been just a dream. Only this and nothing more.
And yet it felt as real as even Ebenezer’s visit. More so, for some reason. Perhaps he was being silly, but he thought he could still feel the chilly breath upon his face and hear the rattle of chains beneath his bead. As if he only wished the voice was gone, as if it was still here, ready, waiting…
No. He was being silly. Deucedly so.
Outside of his room came the soft tread of his manservant. No doubt bringing Marley his mutton. A good man. A good servant. Not the type to poison.
Not the type anyone would suspect of poisoning.
Hell, let it be silly, let it be crazy, what did it matter? Maybe he would say something, dream or no dream. Give the man the next few days off. Not saying the reasons, of course. The manservant wouldn’t believe in ghosts anymore than Marley did. Just an act of good will. Of charity.
He smiled at the thought. How Ebenezer would laugh.
The door creaked as it opened, and the manservant stuck his head in. “Are we awake, sir?”
“Indeed I am. I would have words with you.”
But whatever words might have come vanished as the manservant stepped into the room. His hands were empty. He had brought up nothing. No plate, no tray, nothing. The audacity of it all struck Marley like a blow. “Where is it?”
The manservant raised an eyebrow as he marched across the room, “Sir?”
“Where’s my dinner? You were supposed to bring my mutton! I always have mutton on Saturday!”
He almost leaped to Marley’s bedside. “It was taking too long. Thought I might dispense with the pretense. Depending on your mood. Sir.”
Marley managed a word, “What”, before the manservant grabbed his legs and yanked him down. His head bounced on the mattress and the pillow he had been sitting up against landed on his face. A weight fell upon him, impossible to shift. A weight that seemed so very heavy, but was only a feather compared to the weight that was to come.