`It matters little,' she said, softly. `To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.'
`What Idol has displaced you?' he rejoined.
`A golden one.'
`This is the even-handed dealing of the world,' he said. `There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth.'
`You fear the world too much,' she answered, gently. `All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?'
`What then?' he retorted. `Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.'
She shook her head.
`Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.'
`I was a boy,' he said impatiently.
`Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are,' she returned. `I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.'
`Have I ever sought release?'
`In words? No. Never.'
`In what, then?'
`In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another Hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us,' said the girl, looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him; `tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Ah, no.'
He seemed to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself. But he said with a struggle, `You think not?'
`I would gladly think otherwise if I could,' she answered, `Heaven knows. When I have learned a Truth like this, I know how strong and irresistible it must be. But if you were free to-day, to-morrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose a dowerless girl--you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything by Gain: or, choosing her, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow. I do; and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were.'
He was about to speak; but with her head turned from him, she resumed.
`You may--the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will--have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen.'
She left him, and they parted.
`Spirit,' said Scrooge, `show me no more. Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?'
`One shadow more,' exclaimed the Ghost.
`No more!' cried Scrooge. `No more, I don't wish to see it. Show me no more.'
But the relentless Ghost pinioned him in both his arms, and forced him to observe what happened next.
They were in another scene and place; a room, not very large or handsome, but full of comfort. Near to the winter fire sat a beautiful young girl, so like that last that Scrooge believed it was the same, until he saw her, now a comely matron, sitting opposite her daughter. The noise in this room was perfectly tumultuous, for there were more children there, than Scrooge in his agitated state of mind could count; and, unlike the celebrated herd in the poem, they were not forty children conducting themselves like one, but every child was conducting itself like forty. The consequences were uproarious beyond belief; but no one seemed to care; on the contrary, the mother and daughter laughed heartily, and enjoyed it very much; and the latter, soon beginning to mingle in the sports, got pillaged by the young brigands most ruthlessly.