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A Christmas Carol: Stave One: MARLEY'S GHOST

A Christmas Carol.
In Prose.
Being a Ghost Story of Reason.
OR
It's an Ayn Rand Christmas.



Stave One
Marley's Ghost

Marley was dead: to begin with. And to end with, for that matter. There was no doubt whatsoever about that. He was as dead as a door-nail. Dead as a dodo. Dead as the class pet left to fend for itself over Christmas break.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail, a dodo, or any particular class pet. What ironmongery and large, flightless birds have to do with death I am not completely sure. The class pet? Well, the screams of the little 'uns may give the smallest of hints. But! The wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my hallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail. As dead as a dodo. And as dead as the class pet left to fend for itself over Christmas break.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residual legatee, his sole friend, and his sole mourner. Although I must be careful and explain when I say "mourner" I mean merely "funeral attendee" not "weeper at coffin-side," for Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event. In fact, he was an even more excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnized it by making sure to double check which of his customers were in arrears and penalized them accordingly.

The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt 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 Jesus Christ had died for our sins, there would be nothing remarkable about him waking up on the third day and strolling out of his resting place, than there would be in any other Jewish gentleman waking up from a long rest and rashly turning out for breakfast – say at Mickey's Diner - literally to astonish Christians' weak minds.

Oh! But Scrooge was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! He never even bothered painting out Old Marley's name from the firm's sign above the door: saved the cost of paint, brush, and painter there. Hard and sharp as flint, was Scrooge, from which no steel has ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster clutching it's pearl (and three times as unlikely to give it up without a fierce fight). You may be, about this time, thinking of the word "miserly," but be warned that doesn't go far enough, for most misers cackle with glee over their large sums of treasure – but not Scrooge! - Scrooge merely coldly, calculatingly, used it as a way to keep score: he with more means, means more. He with the most means, means the most.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?" No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o'clock, no man or woman ever once in all their life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy and sycophancy to keep its distance.

So.

Once upon a time – of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve – old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather - foggy withal – and he could hear the people in the court outside go wheezing to and fro, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had just gone three, but it was quite dark already, and indeed had been so all day, for there'd been a dark, gray, leaden sky that moved at a brisk pace from the wind. Early on there'd been hope the strong wind would blow the heavy clouds away, but all it'd brought was more leaden clouds, a wind chill of nearly unbearable degree, and a great fall of branches, trees, and telephone poles, knocking out all power. Candles had been lit throughout the day and were flaring and stuttering in the windows of the neighboring offices.

The door to Scrooge's office was open that he might keep an eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, was copying letters. Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk's fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn't replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. The clerk drew his candle ever closer to him in the hope it might offer warmth; what it offered, however, was merely more wax to be scraped off his carefully copied pages.

"A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

"Bah!" said Scrooge, "Humbug!"

He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge's, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

"Christmas a humbug, uncle!" said Scrooge's nephew. "You don't mean that, I am sure?"

"I do," said Scrooge. "Merry Christmas! What right do you have to be merry? And which god do you believe will save me? What reason have you to be merry? You're poor enough."

"Come, then," returned the nephew gaily. "What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough."

Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, "Bah!" again; and followed it up with "Humbug" for good measure.

"Don't be cross, uncle!" said the nephew.

"What else can I be," returned the uncle, "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 buying things on credit; a time to mindlessly and endlessly consume that which you are told to consume by your betters; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer, If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!"

"Uncle!" pleaded the nephew.

"Nephew!" returned the uncle sternly, "keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine."

"Keep it!" repeated Scrooge's nephew. "But you don't keep it!"

"Let me leave it alone, then," said 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 nephew. "Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they were really fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, 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, God bless it!"

The clerk in the cell involuntarily applauded. Becoming immediately sensible of the impropriety, he started rubbing his hands together as if trying to keep warm, then poked his meager fire, and extinguished the last frail spark forever.

"Let me hear another sound from you," said Scrooge, "and you'll keep Christmas by losing your situation! You're quite a powerful speaker, sir," he added, turning to his nephew. "I wonder you don't go into Parliament."

"Don't be angry, uncle. Come! Dine with us tomorrow."

Scrooge said he would see him – yes, indeed he did. When the roast ham he dined upon for the holiday grew wings and flew.

"But why?" cried Scrooge's nephew. "Why?"

"Why did you get married?" said Scrooge.

"Because I fell in love."

"Because you fell in love!" growled Scrooge, as if that were the only thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas. "Good afternoon!"

"Nay, uncle, but you never came to see me before that happened. Why give it as a reason for not coming now?"

"Good afternoon," said Scrooge.

"I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be fiends?"

"Good afternoon," said 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 humor to the last. So, a Merry Christmas, uncle!"

"Good afternoon!" said Scrooge.

"And a Happy New Year!"

"Good afternoon," said Scrooge.

His nephew left the room without an angry word. He stopped at the outer door to bestow the greetings of the season on the clerk, who, cold as he was, was warmer than Scrooge; for he returned them cordially.

"There's another fellow," muttered Scrooge; who overheard him. "My clerk, with two hundred and ninety dollars a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas. Send him to the loony bin."

This lunatic, in letting Scrooge's nephew out, had let two other people in. They were portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, and now stood, with their hats in their hands, in Scrooge's office. They had pamphlets and papers in their hands, and nodded to him.

"Scrooge and Marley's, I believe" said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. "Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Scrooge, or Mr. Marley?"

"Marley died seven years ago this very night, "replied Scrooge. See? Scrooge did know Marley was dead.

"We have no doubt his liberality and generosity are well represented by his surviving partner," said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.

And they certainly were, for Marley and Scrooge had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous words "liberality" and "generosity," Scrooge frowned, shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute-"

"Hold it right there," said Scrooge, moving to his desk and grabbing a large stack of bills. "Are you here for a handout?"

"Well," replied the gentleman, "yes, we-"

"Are there no homeless shelters?" asked Scrooge, flipping the money from one hand to the other.

"Ye-"

"Are there no soup kitchens? Local, county, state, and federal programs? Medicare? Medicaid? Social Security? Low income lawyers?" asked Scrooge.

"All very busy, sir" said the gentleman, laying his pen down again.

"Oh! I was afraid that something might have occurred to stop them since I'd last checked," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

"They scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or bod-"

"Oh yes," said Scrooge, putting down his large stack of bills. "Christ. Where is Christ when there are all these poor to be taken care of, I wonder?"

"You s-"

"And the two of you. Hired to do this?' continued Scrooge. "You see, if I give you money for the poor and destitute, then they will no longer be poor and destitute."

"B-"

"And if they are no longer poor and destitute then the two of you will no longer have jobs," said Scrooge.

"We-"

"And if you no longer have jobs, you will become poor and destitute." finished Scrooge. "Please, kind sirs, do not ask me to put you out of work on Christmas Eve!"

"We nev-"

"Good afternoon, gentlemen!"

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labors with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.

The afternoon wore on to evening, and the cold became more intense. Piercing, searching, biting cold. A group of carolers huddled together outside Scrooge's business and began singing a carol, but at the first sound of, "God bless ye merry gentlemen, may nothing you dismay!" Scrooge rose with a LOOK, leaving the carolers to flee in terror.

As Scrooge turned his gaze toward his clerk, the lights came back on. "About time, too," said Scrooge, making sure the thermostat was turned down low as the electric heaters starting ticking on. "I was about to call and tell them to deduct the hours of inoperation from my next bill."

At length the hour of shutting up the counting-house arrived. With an ill-will Scrooge dismounted from his stool, and tacitly admitted the fact to the expectant clerk in his cell, who instantly put on his hat.

"You'll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?" said Scrooge.

"If quite convenient, sir."

"It's not convenient," said Scrooge, "and it's not fair. If I was to stop paying you for it, you'd think yourself ill-used, I'd say."

The clerk smiled faintly.

"And yet," said Scrooge," you don't think me ill-used when I pay you a day's wages for no work."

The clerk observed that it was only once a year.

"A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every Christmas day!” said Scrooge, buttoning his great-coat to the chin. "But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier next morning."

"Yes, sir!" exclaimed the clerk as Scrooge walked out with a growl. The office was closed in a jiffy, and the clerk, with the long ends of his sweater dangling below his waist (for he could boast no great-coat), went sliding down the hill at Dunning Park with some of the local kids in honor of it being Christmas Eve, and then ran home to Selby Avenue as fast as he could.

Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy diner; and having read all the newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker's book, went home to bed. He lived in Summit Manor which had once belonged to his deceased partner. They were an exceedingly large and exceedingly gloomy suite of rooms in an exceedingly ritzy part of town. Scrooge would never have spent his money on the place himself, but since it was left to him by his old partner and the mortgage had been paid off, Scrooge rented out the rooms to merchants during the day and slept there at night.

As Scrooge approached the great front doors, it must be said that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It may seem a trifle odd to bring up such a fact in the midst of this exposition at this point in time, but rest assured that the reason for this seemingly strange addition will soon come to light. It is also a fact that Scrooge had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence at that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of Saint Paul. Let it also be borne in mind that while we have discussed Scrooge's old partner with some frequency these last few pages, Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley since his last mention of his seven years' dead partner that afternoon. And then let any person explain to me, if they can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change – not a knocker, but Marley's face.

Marley's face. It had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up on its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot air; and, the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid color, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be a part of the ghostly apparition itself instead of something it was trying to project at others.

As Scrooge looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again.

To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy, would be untrue. But he put his hand upon the key he had relinquished, turned it sturdily, and walked in.

He did pause, with a moment's irresolution, before he shut the door; and he did look cautiously behind it at first, as if he half expected to be terrified with the site of Marley's ponytail sticking out in the hall. But there was nothing on the back of the door, except the screws and nuts that held the knocker on, so he said, "Pooh! Pooh!" and closed the door with a bang.

The sound resounded through the house like thunder. Every room above, and every cask in the wine-merchant's cellars below, appeared to have a separate peal of echoes of its own Scrooge was not a man to be frightened by echoes. He resolutely did not turn on the lights as he locked the door, and walked across the hall and up the stairs.

Darkness. Scrooge felt very comfortable in the dark. Darkness was cheap, and so was Scrooge. As he got to the top of the stairs he had just enough recollection of the face to check the entire house. Sitting room, bedroom, kitchen. All as they should be. Nobody under the table, nobody under the sofa; a small fire in the grate. Nobody under the bed; nobody in the closet; nobody in his robe, which was hanging up in a suspicious attitude against the wall.

Quite satisfied, he closed his door, and locked himself in; double-locked himself in, which was not his custom. Thus secured against surprise, he took off his tie; put on his robe and slippers; and sat down before the fire to take his gruel.

He sat before his small fire in his comfortable chair and opened up his banker's book. Nothing soothed him more than seeing all those numbers lined up so perfectly in his favor. After getting through a couple of pages of the ledger, his mind calmed, he sighed, lifted his eyes, and let his gaze fall where it may. It fell upon his phone. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this phone begin to ring. It rang so softly on the outset that it scarcely made a sound, but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every other phone in the house – all those merchants he rented out to with all their varying phone numbers, and still they all rang with the same infernal intensity and rhythm as the one in his private chambers.

This might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed an hour. The phones ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant's cellar. Scrooge then remembered to have heard that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains.

The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.

"It's humbug still!" said Scrooge. "I won't believe it."

His color changed, though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon it's coming in, the lights leapt up, as though they cried, "I know him; Marley's Ghost!" and fell again.

The same face: the very same. Marley in his ponytail and usual waistcoat. Marley in his usual tights and boots, the former worn because of a very lucrative bet won against the president of NYSE and the latter with tassels bristling. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley’s motives were transparent, but he had never suspected he’d see his old partner as transparent as this.

No, nor did he believe it even now. Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before; he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.

"How now!" said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. "What do you want with me?"

"Much!" - Marley’s voice, no doubt about it.

"Who are you?"

"Ask me who I was."

"Who were you, then?" said Scrooge, raising his voice. "You're very pedantic for a ghost."

"In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley."

"Marley's been dead these seven years."

"You don't believe in me," observed the Ghost.

"I do not," said Scrooge.

"What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?"

"I don't know," said Scrooge, looking discomfited.

"Why do you, who put so much stock in your sense perception, doubt your senses?"

"Because," said Scrooge, "a little thing, at times, affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There's more of gravy than the grave about you, whatever you are!"

Scrooge wasn't much into playing with words or punning, believing the latter the surest sign of someone lacking measurable intelligence, but the truth is, Scrooge tried to be smart as a means of distracting his own attention and keeping down his terror; for the spectre's voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones, and the spectre's mere presence provided with an infernal atmosphere of its own. Scrooge could not feel it himself, but this was clearly the case; for though the Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair, and skirts, and tassels, were still agitated as by the hot vapor from an oven.

"Well," said Scrooge, "you've certainly managed to scare the dickens out of me."

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

"Ew!" said Scrooge. "Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?"

"Man of Reason!" replied the Ghost, "do you believe in me or not?"

"Of course not!" said Scrooge. "Besides a suspect dinner at that hole in the wall they call a diner, I've been under enormous stress from all the accounts I've been foreclosing on, given the end of this fiscal year; and my nephew and others have been 'Merry Christmas-ing' me and 'alms for the poor-ing' me and 'good will toward men-ing' me all week."

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the police would have been justified in arresting it for disturbing the peace. Scrooge would've been in complete agreement with the peace officers, for his peace was definitely disturbed by the Apparition.

"I will admit that I am very frightened; and I will admit the attention to detail and absolute terror my brain is able to conjure is truly astounding. Given the influence of stress and bad food, given that I can't seem to disapparate you for the time being, and given that my brain is trying to tell me something, it would seem to make the most sense to just get on with it. So," finished Scrooge, "why do spirits walk the earth and why do you come to me."

The Ghost sat down opposite Scrooge, sighed sepulchrally, and said, "It is required of all that the spirit within should walk among his fellow man, to wander the world – oh woe is me! - and witness the horrors and injustices it ignored in life without being able to help now."

"And the chains?" said Scrooge.

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I-"

"Because I was thinking," Scrooge said, "that steel purse you have there might be a hit in women's fashi-"

"Enough!" said the Ghost.

Scrooge flinched, then cowered, at the word spoken by his old partner, for when he said it, Scrooge was overcome with a melancholy and misgiving he had never experienced.

"I made it link by link, and yard by yard. I created it of my own free will, and by my own free will I must wear it. Would you know," continued the Ghost, "the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was as heavy and as long as this seven Christmas Eves ago, and you have labored on it greatly since."

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself. "You were the creator of the credit default swap!"

"Mankind should have been my business!"

Scrooge trembled. "Speak comfort to me, Jacob!"

"I have none to give. These chains are the very things keeping souls on earth. They weigh one down and prevent one from ascending to paradise. One cannot rest. One cannot stay. One cannot linger anywhere. My spirit must travel on for eternity, bearing witness to victims of horrors I cannot prevent. I have traveled far and I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day."

"You've, uh,"stammered Scrooge, "you've been, uh, peeping, uh, on me?"

It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief and unwarranted spying, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

"Observing you forge your chains!" roared the Spectre. "Hear me! My time is nearly gone. You will be haunted by Three Spirits."

"Four counting you," mumbled Scrooge, unable to lift his eyes to look at the Ghost.

"Three Spirits! Without their visits you cannot hope to escape my fate."

"I'd rather not."

The spectre took its wrapper and bound it round its head, as before. Scrooge knew this, by the ghastly sound its teeth made, when the jaws were brought together by the bandage. He ventured to raise his eyes again, and found his supernatural visitor confronting him in an erect – ahem! - attitude, with its chain wound over and about its arm.

The apparition walked backward from him; and at every step it took, the window raised itself a little, so that when the spectre reached it, it was wide open.

It beckoned Scrooge to approach, which he did. When they were within two paces of each other, Marley’s Ghost held up its hand, warning him to come no nearer. Scrooge stopped in surprise and fear of what he heard and saw outside - confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.

Scrooge ran to the window.

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

"Got it," said Scrooge, before he passed out, for his mind could take no more of the scene before him. "No rest. No peace. Incessant torture of remorse."