At every fresh question that was put to him, this nephew burst into a fresh roar of laughter; and was so inexpressibly tickled, that he was obliged to get up off the sofa and stamp. At last the plump sister, falling into a similar state, cried out:
`I have found it out! I know what it is, Fred! I know what it is!'
`What is it?' cried Fred.
`It's your Uncle Scrooge!'
Which it certainly was. Admiration was the universal sentiment, though some objected that the reply to `Is it a bear?' ought to have been `Yes;' inasmuch as an answer in the negative was sufficient to have diverted their thoughts from Mr Scrooge, supposing they had ever had any tendency that way.
`He has given us plenty of merriment, I am sure,' said Fred, `and it would be ungrateful not to drink his health. Here is a glass of mulled wine ready to our hand at the moment; and I say, "Uncle Scrooge!"'
`Well! Uncle Scrooge!' they cried.
`A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to the old man, whatever he is.' said Scrooge's nephew. `He wouldn't take it from me, but may he have it, nevertheless. Uncle Scrooge.'
Uncle Scrooge had imperceptibly become so gay and light of heart, that he would have pledged the unconscious company in return, and thanked them in an inaudible speech, if the Ghost had given him time. But the whole scene passed off in the breath of the last word spoken by his nephew; and he and the Spirit were again upon their travels.
Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery's every refuge, where vain man in his little brief authority had not made fast the door and barred the Spirit out, he left his blessing, and taught Scrooge his precepts.
It was a long night, if it were only a night; but Scrooge had his doubts of this, because the Christmas Holidays appeared to be condensed into the space of time they passed together. It was strange, too, that while Scrooge remained unaltered in his outward form, the Ghost grew older, clearly older. Scrooge had observed this change, but never spoke of it, until they left a children's Twelfth Night party, when, looking at the Spirit as they stood together in an open place, he noticed that its hair was grey.
`Are spirits' lives so short?' asked Scrooge.
`My life upon this globe is very brief,' replied the Ghost. `It ends to-night.'
`To-night!' cried Scrooge.
`To-night at midnight. Hark! The time is drawing near.'
The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.
`Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,' said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, `but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?'
`It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,' was the Spirit's sorrowful reply. `Look here!'
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
`Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!' exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.