ONCE UPON A TIME -- of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve, Dr. Fred Scrooge sat in his office from which, as its Director, he attempted to guide the fortunes of the Great Museum. It was cold, bleak, biting weather outside, but in Scrooge's room and in the adjoining room where his secretary, Miss Cratchit, worked, all was comfort, culture and amenity. It was just upon five o'clock.

"Unless you have something further, I'll go now," said Miss Cratchit; "I've a few details of Christmas shopping to finish."

"A very Merry Christmas to you, Roberta," said Dr. Scrooge, rising and pressing upon her an expensive phial of perfume. Where would she wear it? At dinner with her large and loving tribe of nephews and nieces; no husband, no lover, but Miss Cratchit nevertheless liked being treated as a woman of incalculable allure.

"Oh, Dr. Scrooge, you are always so kind," said Roberta; "how I wish that all the staff wished you a Merry Christmas! But I do! I do" -- and she hurried out, in an emotional flutter, for she admired Dr. Scrooge, in an entirely nice way.

But of course the staff did not wish Dr. Scrooge a Merry Christmas, for they were professional museologists, hard and sharp as flint from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, and although, in the tradition of their profession, they were jealous and intolerant of one another, they were exceptionally intolerant and jealous of the Director, who was, by virtue of his office, their enemy.

This was Dr. Scrooge's great sorrow, for he came of a long line of philanthropists, and wished to love all men and be loved in his turn. Had not his great-great grandfather been that very Fred Scrooge, nephew of the Great Ebenezer Scrooge, from whom the family wealth and the family disposition toward broad philanthropy descended? Dr. Scrooge had never quite cursed his wealth, which he had used so well on behalf of the arts and sciences, but sometimes he had heartily cursed the family inheritance of benevolence and the desire to be loved. It was that weakness in his nature which was now driving him toward crime -- or what his colleagues would certainly regard as crime.

He opened a concealed panel in his office wall, revealing an illuminated screen, upon which was a plan of the Great Museum; little red lights were appearing in every gallery, and as he watched, a pattern was completed, and he knew that all the staff had left the building, and the alarm system was in action -- that very expensive system which was designed to defeat even the remarkably cunning thieves who make museums their prey. He touched a combination of buttons, and the red lights went off in the foyer, the Medieval Galleries, the Gallery of Musical Instruments, and the Near Eastern Galleries.

Quite needlessly on tiptoe, Dr. Scrooge ran downstairs, through the foyer, the Armour Hall, the Gallery of Musical Instruments, and into the Near Eastern Section, and stopped by showcase Number 333. Yes, there it was! Of course it was there, for who but himself and the Curator, Dr. Dagon Croucher, had access to that case? There it was, the thorn in his flesh, the bone of contention!

So small a thing to cause such a mighty row! Just a small flask of smoky glass, with a nicely wrought silver stopper, but unquestionably Persian, unquestionably 12th century, and unlike any of the other ancient glass objects in the case. Last summer, during his travels, Dr. Scrooge had found it in the shop of a dealer in Istanbul, and had bought it for a substantial sum of his own money. He had presented it to Dr. Croucher with glee, as an addition to the Great Museum's splendid collection of Near Eastern glass objects, hoping that Croucher would be pleased. But Croucher had been furious, and was furious still.

How dared the Director interfere with Dr. Croucher's careful plan of acquisitions? How dared he buy such an object without consulting Croucher beforehand? Even though he had bought it with his own money, the Director had no right -- this was outright abuse of the Directorial supervisory mandate -- was Croucher to be patronized and taught his job by someone whose own area was Renaissance Carved Gems -- a dabbler who wouldn't know a 12th-century flask from a Coke bottle -- Dr. Croucher's rage made him incoherent. He wrote a memo to the Governors, protesting intemperately. He roused his curatorial colleagues, Drs. Katt, Grout and Eisel against the Director, and gained power by so doing, for though Katt, Grout and Eisel hated Croucher, they hated the Director even more. Dr. Croucher raised hell, and was raising it still.

Of course the Curator put the flask on exhibition, for in his black heart he knew it was a good piece, but he put it in a position of disadvantage, and attached to it a description that knowing readers could tell threw doubt on its authenticity. The description said it was a Gift, but named no Donor. Dr. Croucher had not enjoyed himself so much in years -- not, in fact, since he had diseredited a book which was the life work of his greatest rival; the rival had died of rage and mortification. Maybe Dr. Croucher could hound the Director out of his job, thereby crowning his own career as a learned malcontent.

Dr. Scrooge, however, was not a man whose soul was entirely defined by Renaissance Carved Gems, and he suspected something that would never have occurred to Dr. Croucher. He opened the display case with his master key, removed the flask, and looked carefully at the stopper.

Nobody had been able to open it, though if Dr. Croucher had been less malignant and scornful the preparatorial staff might have found out how to do so. Pulling and twisting had been of no avail, but Dr. Scrooge suspected that the stopper worked like that of one of those modern medicine bottles that are for the protection of children; you pushed it inward, then gave it a quarter turn to the left. The Gallery was as dark as five o'clock on Christmas Eve can be, but the Director had a flashlight, and now he tried his theory. It worked like a charm.

Like a charm indeed, for there was a flash, a roar, a gust of wind that threw Dr. Scrooge back against a neighboring case, and towering above him stood a huge naked Jinnee of surpassing ugliness, who roared, "Speak, Master, what is your will? I hear and obey."

Dr. Scrooge had been expecting something of the sort, so although he was startled he was neither dismayed nor afraid. Aware that his voice was a lyric tenor, as contrasted with the basso roar of the Jinnee, he fluted authoritatively: "First, I must return this bottle to its case, lock the case and get away as fast as possible. Meet me in my office at once, and I should be glad if you would put on some clothes, and perhaps assume a less extraordinary appearance."

There was a very rapid whirlwind, and Dr. Scrooge was seated in his office, with the transformed Jinnee in the visitor's chair.

"Inshallah, you are a cool one," said the Jinnee, smiling broadly. He was now an Oriental gentleman of impeccable elegance; he wore a pearl-gray morning suit, and shoes of patent leather, with pearl-gray buttoned tops. Upon his head was a most beautiful rose turban, his complexion was coppery, and his beard and moustache were splendidly in order. "How do I look?" said he; "quite the modern museum curator, I think. Don't you feel the pearl in the tie inspires confidence?"

Dr. Scrooge, who was himself a good dresser, thought of the terrible garments affected by Croucher, Katt and Eisel (though not Grout) and did not answer. Instead he came to the point.

"My problem is this," said he, "and I want your most carefully considered advice and help in solving it."

When he had finished his explanation, which took about half an hour and was perhaps rather emotional, the Jinnee, who had never ceased smiling, sopke.

"If I have understood you correctly, O Master, your colleagues detest you for professional reasons, and you wish to sweeten their dispositions, to change their characters, as the character of your great ancestor, Ebenezer Scrooge, was changed in a single Christmas Eve experience. You want them to have a Merry Christmas."

"But nothing Dickensian, please," said Dr. Scrooge. "No big turkeys, no dancing Sir Roger de Coverley. These are people of today, you understand."

And Dr. Scrooge looked mistrustfully at the Jinnee's patent-leather shoes with the buttoned cloth tops, which hinted to him that the Jinnee was not fully aware of the modern era. He looked rather pre-First World War. But the Jinnee was full of assurance and spoke laughingly.

"No, no, of course nothing Dickensian," he said. "But human nature does not really change much. Every man has his price, what?"

"Don't forget that Dr. Katt is a woman," said the Director.

"No, of course not. Do they really call her Pussy Katt? How awful! But a Pussy Katt must have a price, too. A nice mousie, do you think?" And the Jinnee laughed merrily.

"Everything is now in your hands," said Dr. Scrooge. "The Museum is closed on Boxing Day, but I shall be here at five o'clock in the evening, and I shall expect your report then."

"Master, I hear and obey," said the Jinee and vanished, fancy shoes and all.

"AFTER A CHRISTMAS DAY and a Boxing Day in which he vacillated between hope and doubt, Dr. Scrooge was prompt to the minute in his Museum office. A glance at the Jinnee's face confirmed his worst fears. The Jinnee was greenish, rather than a ruddy copper in complexion, and his clothes did not fit so well as before. There was even -- could it be -- a splash of salty slush on the toe of one of the splendid shoes, and his expression was almost hangdog.

"Let me know the worst," said Dr. Scrooge.

"Alas, Master, these are such people as I have never met before. My principle is the age-old one of my kind: all men desire Gold, Earthly Power, or the Joys of Sex. But in the past thousand years much has happened to complicate such work as mine. Listen, and you shall hear.

"Dr. Dagon Croucher is obviously a man whose soul yearns for earthly power. What would give such a man a Merry Christmas? My device was a subtle one. I discovered that for the past six months he has been intriguing against the scheme that brings thousands of children to visit the Museum. He says they are too young to understand, that they are noisy and disruptive, and that their teachers do it simply in order to spare themselves the trouble of teaching. All these things are true, but they go against the beliefs of the present time. Recently, in a television interview, Dr. Croucher won a brief notoriety by confessing, in answer to a direct question, that he hated children. Surely therein lies the seed of a Merry Christmas for Dr. Croucher.

"On the festive day he watches TV for many hours, because it is his pleasure to sneer at the seasonable programs. So I devised one, visible on his set alone, at which he could not sneer -- at which indeed he could rejoice, and be deeply happy. I arranged that the Slaughter of the Innocents should be played before him by the original cast, beginning with Herod the Great himself. Herod, as everybody knows, decreed that all children under two years old should be slain, and there was great lamentation and weeping in consequence. What St. Matthew fails to record is how the slaughter was accomplished, and it has been assumed for centuries that it was done by soldiers. With reprehensible carelessness I had assumed this myself. Alas, what appeared on Dr. Croucher's screen was different.

"It seems that Herod's soldiers had many duties at the time, and only a few could be spared for infanticide. So the palace eunuchs were marshalled, and not being fighting men they devised a rapid, effective but inglorious means of carrying out their orders. They divided themselves into groups of three, in which one eunuch seized the child, another restrained the mother, and the third and fattest eunuch placed the child beneath a cushion and sat on it as hard as he could. It was lacking in tragic dignity.

"Did it delight Dr. Croucher? It did not. He was soon on the telephone to the president of the broadcasting system which he believed, quite erroneously, to be screening my special program; the president, when at least he was found, was outraged and he and Dr. Croucher exchanged ugly words. Then Dr. Croucher called the Human Rights people -- another frustrating search for anyone in authority -- to complain that the program brought eunuchs into disrepute and derision, and that eunuchs were discriminated against as a minority, and what was going to be done about it?

"I fear it was a day of total frustration for Dr. Croucher. He has a new outrage to deplore -- society's indefensible neglect of the rights of eunuchs. He is even more immovably the man he was. Not a Merry Christmas at all."

Dr. Scrooge felt sorry for the Jinnee. He said, kindly, "Well, well, don't be downhearted. I'm sure you managed beautifully with the others."

"Alas, Master," said the Jinnee, "women have changed greatly since last I left the happy obscurity of my bottle. What was I to do for Dr. Pussy Katt? I knew but one solution to the problem, and on Christmas Eve I placed in her bed a young man of surpassing beauty. His hair hung in ringlets scented with ambergris, his eyes were as pools of cream in which two perfect amethysts float, his teeth were like new ivory, his limbs were like old ivory, his armpits gave out gusts of musk and cinnamon and his sexual power was inexhaustible. When Dr. Katt returned from her bath he turned to her and cried musically, 'O thou garden of a thousand unexplored delights, hasten to embrace me, my sister, my spouse.'

"At first everything seemed to be going according to plan. Urged by a spirit of enquiry, and three hearty Scotches she had had during the evening, Dr. Katt allowed herself to be drawn into bed, where my young assistant linked the poetry of speech with the poetry of physical action until Dr. Katt stood -- or rather lay -- upon the threshold of an unusual experience in her life. But my young man failed -- a poetical failure.

"'O queen among women,' he breathed, 'when has the world seen your like? Your hair -- so rich an auburn and yet, like the mystery lying in the heart of a beautiful flower, with a thumb's span of dark green at the roots --'

"It was then that Dr. Katt gave a squawk which aroused her companion in life, a lady of much her own stature and sort, who professed Household Science at the University; she appeared with the Rolling-pin which she kept always on her bedside table for just such emergencies, and stunned my young man with a heavy blow. Confusion! A call to the police. My young man, wrapped in an eiderdown, whisked off to the police station, where I let him undergo interrogation for a bruising half-hour, to teach him a lesson. Then I spirited him away, and the police, who are entirely accustomed to the inexplicable disappearances of people under charge, promptly forgot all about him.

"Not so Dr. Katt and her companion. 'To think what might have happened,' said Pussy, half in awe of herself as an enchantress, half indignant; 'a rapist!' Her companion was half firm in her natural austerity, half jealous; 'Tush, Puss,' said she; 'just a crazy burglar. You were never in the least danger, so don't give yourself airs.'

"The complexity of hurt feelings, jealousy, and unfocussed indignation rages still in the dwelling of Dr. Katt and her friend, and I fear it will never be wholly subdued. Not at all a Merry Christmas, I fear."

"You must comfort yourself with the reflection that you did your best," said Dr. Scrooge, and immediately regretted it.

"My best belongs to another age, another concept of life," the Jinnee grieved. "The intrusive modern state has made such magic as mine wholly ineffective. Oh, what a mess of things I made with Dr. Ernst Eisel, third on your list, and a man who never stops whining about money, as well you know. So I gave him money.

"You have never been in the Eisels' house -- or rather, their stuffy apartment, which might well be in their native Bucharest, so firmly does it keep the New World outside its door. Twenty-five years here have done nothing to change them in any serious respect. Childless people, they make children of each other, and on Christmas Eve they hang up stockings, and secretly fill them. Pitiable, if they were not so nasty.

"The stockings made my task simple -- so I thought. When they were fast asleep, huddled together like withered children, I emptied Ernst's stocking of the candies and cookies and toys that Anna had provided, and instead tucked in one thousand bills each of one thousand dollars' value; it made quite a swollen stocking.

"Christmas morning came, and when Ernst unpacked his stocking he fainted dead away. Anna waited until she had counted the money, then she elected for hysterics instead of a faint. Slowly, I came to understand their problem. How could they possibly present notes of such a denomination in any shop, how to deposit them in their bank, how, in fact, conceal what they had? For if it became known that they had a million dollars, how could they explain where it had come from? They had no papers establishing an inheritance, no numbered account in which it could be concealed.

"Their pitiable state slowly became clear to me. There was much talk of a mysterious body called They, to whom such a fortune would have to be explained, and They seemed to be a muddle of tax authorities and public opinion. Their fear went even deeper. I understood, as they chattered in pain, that Ernst and Anna were wedded to what they regarded as their poverty -- meaning the by no means trival salary he receives as your Curator of Paleontology and some money he gets from his publications and a handful of widow-and-orphan investments. I had robbed them of their poverty, and they were stricken.

"Where to hide the money -- for it was quite out of their moral power to destroy it. It could not be buried, for they had not even a window box. As I left them, deeply cast down by my failure, Ernst was wrapping the money in small packages and sticking it at the back of their freezer, while Anna peeped from beneath drawn blinds to watch for the approach of the Secret Police, who were Jinn greater even than I in their terrible world. They still sit, trembling, unable even to dress themselves, waiting for something awful to happen. A failure, but not my greatest, Master. O, Master, not my greatest!

"For my greatest, I confess in tears of grief, was with the fourth of your colleagues, Dr. Dirk Grout, your elegant Curator of Fine Art.

"Grout lives, as I am sure you know, with a man younger than himself, an interior decorator ravenous in his yearning to turn their condominium -- which Grout paid for but which is now, lock, stock and barrel, in the name of his young friend -- into something so exquisite that even the heart of this inordinate youth could crave nothing finer. So, hopeful of pleasing Grout by appeasing the companion, I hastened on Christmas Eve to cram the condominium with what decorators call 'palace pieces' -- boiseries, cloisonne, silken carpets, rare tapestries, Buhl and intarsias, paintings of the quattrocento and tables and chairs of the dixhuitieme, all finer than any to be found even in your Great Museum. I took special care to include many articles made of scented woods, so that the condominium smelled like the very Garden of Paradise.

"But -- O wretched creature that I am! -- when Grout and his companion woke on Christmas morning, what a scene of jealousy and madness! The companion -- jealous because Grout seemed to have dared to acquire these things without seeking his approval and the seal of his impeccable taste! Grout -- insane because he had invited the Chairman of the Museum Board for dinner on this very day, hoping to poison the Chairman's mind against you, O Master!

"And now -- what would the Chairman think? Here there came into the uproar of lamentation and reproach an element utterly unknown to me, called Conflict of Interest. The Chairman, seeing the splendors of Grout's condominium, would at once assume that Grout had been obtaining for himself, at a heavy discount, objects which, as a matter of professional honor, he should have bought on behalf of the Great Museum.

"Grout rushed to the bathroom -- now a wonder of gold taps and marble fittings -- intent on suicide, but the elegant etagere I had substituted for the medicine cabinet offered nothing more noxious than a roll of Tums. In his distraction he began to rave of a garage sale on a scale of hitherto undreamed-of magnificence. But the companion, having had his fill of insult and affront, began to turn his mind to practicalities, and recalled an uncle who had solved a difficult financial problem with the aid of a fire. He rushed downstairs, siphoned all the gasoline out of the Bugatti Grout had given him last Christmas, and was back in an instant, flinging the stuff hither and thither, like a bishop aspersing his congregation, while Grout heaped any precious thing he could lift into a pile on the living-room floor.

"Alas, they were but children in arson, and they overdid things disastrously. Five minutes after they had left the condominium, flinging a lighted match behind them, the whole building was ablaze, and it was 24 hours before the Fire Department could bring it under control.

Eighty families are now homeless, four firemen are in hospital suffering from smoke inhalation, and the Chief has declared that the blaze must have been caused by a Christmas tree lighted with candles. The companion took an early plane to Florida; Grout is in a padded cell in the psychiatric ward. And I, O Master -- if death lay within my power, I would beg to die, but of course I can't. Do with me as you will."

The Jinnee, by this time, had shrunk in stature, his fine Edwardian clothes were rumpled and shabby, his beard was gray, and several buttons had burst from his splendid boots and hung by threads, like doll's eyes. Even his rose turban was dishevelled, and one end hung forward over his blubbered face. Grovelling on the carpet, he whined, over and over -- "And you commanded me to give these people a Merry Christmas! Another chance, Master, I beg you -- another chance. Let me accustom myself to this strange new world, so tangled in rules, restrictions and complexities of scruple, and then permit your slave to try again. I am sure I can learn."

Dr. Scrooge had no such certainty. He wanted time to reflect, and he gestured the Jinnee to silence.

What was to be done? He reached behind him to the shelf where stood the 24 elegantly bound volumes of Sermons of the Reverend Timothy Cratchit. Surely Tiny Tim, who had become an enormously popular Victorian evangelist, would have some words of guidance? By chance, however, his hand fell upon a book by a great, but now neglected, American sage and it opened, from long use, at a passage he had forgotten. It began, "Happiness is impossible, and even inconceivable, to a mind without scope and without pause, a mind driven by craving, pleasure or fear." Of course. Santayana knew what he was talking about. What a fool he was, to think that Croucher, Katt, Eisel and Grout could be made happy by anything. But -- but --

He was interrupted by the Jinnee, who was capering about the room in a transport of delight. "O Master, it has just come to me! I can make them all happy! Why did I not think of it before! When I looked into their minds -- dark caverns filled with serpents as they were -- they shared but a single desire. It was that you should resign. O Master, I entreat you to resign! Let me carry you to a castle, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, where a hundred slavegirls, every one with sound teeth and Totally free from superfluous hair, await your pleasure! O Master, let me inscribe your resignation in letters of purple on parchment made from the skin of an unborn lamb, and bear it at once to the Chairman of the Board!"

"Shut up, idiot!" said Dr. Scrooge. "Now listen to me --"

"O Prince of the Compassionate Word!" cried the Jinnee. "O fairest child of the Angel of Mercy!"

"Shh! I want to think. Now, see here: no more of this Arabian Nights business, do you hear? And no more thinkering with people to whom happiness is impossible, because inconceivable. You are to do something for me. And this time, if you don't get it right, I shall send you somewhere that you will dislike very much. Are you ready? Are you listening?"

The Jinnee was once more coppery, bright-eyed and smiling. "O Master, I hear and obey," said he, and his voice might have roused envy in Chaliapin.

"You are to give me a Merry Christmas. To hell with Merry Christmas for those who are without faith and therefore without joy. Be very careful because it is with my mind, my personality, indeed with my very soul, that you will be working. I command you, in the name of Allah, Who alone is great, Who sits throned in Eternity above the shifts of Time, to give me a mind freed of craving, pleasure and fear. And watch your step."

The Jinnee resumed his true guise, naked, splendid and awesome. "I hear and obey," said he.

DR. SCROOGE DID NOT resign, but remained Director until his mandatory retirement, at which he received a handsome pension and left the Great Museum regretted by all, for Croucher, Katt, Eisel and Grout, unable now to touch him, had become biddable and almost civil. It was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim would have observed, if he had the wits to do so, To Hell with Merry Christmas for those who are without faith, and therefore without joy!