Christmas Ghost Stories: The Snow, by Hugh Walpole

The only thing better than a good, creepy Christmas ghost story is one with ice-cold revenge at its heart. This, my friends, this is such a story. Relentless, unyielding, implacable, and cold, as cold as the ninth circle of Hell. What makes it weird, rather than predictable, is that the victim isn’t particularly evil. She’s just ordinary. And that, for the First Wife, is the whole problem. You may think you’ve heard this story before, but you haven’t!

Enjoy The Snow, by Hugh Walpole.


Winter Snow, by Winter Capricorn on Tumblr

Winter Snow, by Winter Capricorn on Tumblr

The second Mrs. Ryder was a young woman not easily frightened, but
now she stood in the dusk of the passage leaning back against the
wall, her hand on her heart, looking at the grey-faced window
beyond which the snow was steadily falling against the lamplight.

The passage where she was led from the study to the dining-room,
and the window looked out on to the little paved path that ran at
the edge of the Cathedral green. As she stared down the passage
she couldn’t be sure whether the woman were there or no. How
absurd of her! She knew the woman was not there. But if the woman
was not, how was it that she could discern so clearly the old-
fashioned grey cloak, the untidy grey hair and the sharp outline of
the pale cheek and pointed chin? Yes, and more than that, the long
sweep of the grey dress, falling in folds to the ground, the flash
of a gold ring on the white hand. No. No. NO. This was madness.
There was no one and nothing there. Hallucination . . .

Very faintly a voice seemed to come to her: ‘I warned you. This
is for the last time. . . .’

The nonsense! How far now was her imagination to carry her? Tiny
sounds about the house, the running of a tap somewhere, a faint
voice from the kitchen, these and something more had translated
themselves into an imagined voice. ‘The last time . . .’

But her terror was real. She was not normally frightened by
anything. She was young and healthy and bold, fond of sport,
hunting, shooting, taking any risk. Now she was truly STIFFENED
with terror–she could not move, could not advance down the passage
as she wanted to and find light, warmth, safety in the dining-room.
All the time the snow fell steadily, stealthily, with its own
secret purpose, maliciously, beyond the window in the pale glow of
the lamplight.

Then unexpectedly there was noise from the hall, opening of doors,
a rush of feet, a pause and then in clear beautiful voices the well-
known strains of ‘Good King Wenceslas.’ It was the Cathedral choir
boys on their regular Christmas round. This was Christmas Eve.
They always came just at this hour on Christmas Eve.

With an intense, almost incredible relief she turned back into the
hall. At the same moment her husband came out of the study. They
stood together smiling at the little group of mufflered, becoated
boys who were singing, heart and soul in the job, so that the old
house simply rang with their melody.

Reassured by the warmth and human company, she lost her terror. It
had been her imagination. Of late she had been none too well.
That was why she had been so irritable. Old Doctor Bernard was no
good: he didn’t understand her case at all. After Christmas she
would go to London and have the very best advice . . .

Had she been well she could not, half an hour ago, have shown such
miserable temper over nothing. She knew that it was over nothing
and yet that knowledge did not make it any easier for her to
restrain herself. After every bout of temper she told herself that
there should never be another–and then Herbert said something
irritating, one of his silly muddle-headed stupidities, and she was
off again!

She could see now as she stood beside him at the bottom of the
staircase, that he was still feeling it. She had certainly half an
hour ago said some abominably rude personal things–things that she
had not at all meant–and he had taken them in his meek, quiet way.
Were he not so meek and quiet, did he only pay her back in her own
coin, she would never lose her temper. Of that she was sure. But
who wouldn’t be irritated by that meekness and by the only
reproachful thing that he ever said to her: ‘Elinor understood me
better, my dear ‘? To throw the first wife up against the second!
Wasn’t that the most tactless thing that a man could possibly do?
And Elinor, that worn elderly woman, the very opposite of her own
gay, bright, amusing self? That was why Herbert had loved her,
because she was gay and bright and young. It was true that Elinor
had been devoted, that she had been so utterly wrapped up in
Herbert that she lived only for him. People were always recalling
her devotion, which was sufficiently rude and tactless of them.

Well, she could not give anyone that kind of old-fashioned sugary
devotion; it wasn’t in her, and Herbert knew it by this time.

Nevertheless she loved Herbert in her own way, as he must know,
know it so well that he ought to pay no attention to the bursts of
temper. She wasn’t well. She would see a doctor in London . . .

The little boys finished their carols, were properly rewarded, and
tumbled like feathery birds out into the snow again. They went
into the study, the two of them, and stood beside the big open log-
fire. She put her hand up and stroked his thin beautiful cheek.

‘I’m so sorry to have been cross just now, Bertie. I didn’t mean
half I said, you know.’

But he didn’t, as he usually did, kiss her and tell her that it
didn’t matter. Looking straight in front of him, he answered:

‘Well, Alice, I do wish you wouldn’t. It hurts, horribly. It
upsets me more than you think. And it’s growing on you. You make
me miserable. I don’t know what to do about it. And it’s all
about nothing.’

Irritated at not receiving the usual commendation for her sweetness
in making it up again, she withdrew a little and answered:

‘Oh, all right. I’ve said I’m sorry. I can’t do any more.’

‘But tell me,’ he insisted, ‘I want to know. What makes you so
angry, so suddenly?–and about nothing at all.’

She was about to let her anger rise, her anger at his obtuseness,
obstinacy, when some fear checked her, a strange unanalysed fear,
as though someone had whispered to her, ‘Look out! This is the
last time!’

‘It’s not altogether my own fault,’ she answered, and left the
room.

She stood in the cold hall, wondering where to go. She could feel
the snow falling outside the house and shivered. She hated the
snow, she hated the winter, this beastly, cold dark English winter
that went on and on, only at last to change into a damp, soggy
English spring.

It had been snowing all day. In Polchester it was unusual to have
so heavy a snowfall. This was the hardest winter that they had
known for many years.

When she urged Herbert to winter abroad–which he could quite
easily do–he answered her impatiently; he had the strongest
affection for this poky dead-and-alive Cathedral town. The
Cathedral seemed to be precious to him; he wasn’t happy if he
didn’t go and see it every day! She wouldn’t wonder if he didn’t
think more of the Cathedral than he did of herself. Elinor had
been the same; she had even written a little book about the
Cathedral, about the Black Bishop’s Tomb and the stained glass and
the rest . . .

What was the Cathedral after all? Only a building!

She was standing in the drawing-room looking out over the dusky
ghostly snow to the great hulk of the Cathedral that Herbert said
was like a flying ship, but to herself was more like a crouching
beast licking its lips over the miserable sinners that it was for
ever devouring.

As she looked and shivered, feeling that in spite of herself her
temper and misery were rising so that they threatened to choke her,
it seemed to her that her bright and cheerful fire-lit drawing-room
was suddenly open to the snow. It was exactly as though cracks had
appeared everywhere, in the ceiling, the walls, the windows, and
that through these cracks the snow was filtering, dribbling in
little tracks of wet down the walls, already perhaps making pools
of water on the carpet.

This was of course imagination, but it was a fact that the room was
most dreadfully cold although a great fire was burning and it was
the cosiest room in the house.

Then, turning, she saw the figure standing by the door. This time
there could be no mistake. It was a grey shadow, and yet a shadow
with form and outline–the untidy grey hair, the pale face like a
moon-lit leaf, the long grey clothes, and something obstinate,
vindictive, terribly menacing in its pose.

She moved and the figure was gone; there was nothing there and the
room was warm again, quite hot in fact. But young Mrs. Ryder, who
had never feared anything in all her life save the vanishing of her
youth, was trembling so that she had to sit down, and even then her
trembling did not cease. Her hand shook on the arm of her chair.

She had created this thing out of her imagination of Elinor’s
hatred of her and her own hatred of Elinor. It was true that they
had never met, but who knew but that the spiritualists were right,
and Elinor’s spirit, jealous of Herbert’s love for her, had been
there driving them apart, forcing her to lose her temper and then
hating her for losing it? Such things might be! But she had not
much time for speculation. She was preoccupied with her fear. It
was a definite, positive fear, the kind of fear that one has just
before one goes under an operation. Someone or something was
threatening her. She clung to her chair as though to leave it were
to plunge into disaster. She looked around her everywhere; all the
familiar things, the pictures, the books, the little tables, the
piano were different now, isolated, strange, hostile, as though
they had been won over by some enemy power.

She longed for Herbert to come and protect her; she felt most
kindly to him. She would never lose her temper with him again–and
at that same moment some cold voice seemed to whisper in her ear:
‘You had better not. It will be for the last time.’

At length she found courage to rise, cross the room and go up to
dress for dinner. In her bedroom courage came to her once more.
It was certainly very cold, and the snow, as she could see when she
looked between her curtains, was falling more heavily than ever,
but she had a warm bath, sat in front of her fire and was sensible
again.

For many months this odd sense that she was watched and accompanied
by someone hostile to her had been growing. It was the stronger
perhaps because of the things that Herbert told her about Elinor;
she was the kind of woman, he said, who, once she loved anyone,
would never relinquish her grasp; she was utterly faithful. He
implied that her tenacious fidelity had been at times a little
difficult.

‘She always said,’ he added once, ‘that she would watch over me
until I rejoined her in the next world. Poor Elinor!’ he sighed.
‘She had a fine religious faith, stronger than mine, I fear.’

It was always after one of her tantrums that young Mrs. Ryder had
been most conscious of this hallucination, this dreadful discomfort
of feeling that someone was near you who hated you–but it was only
during the last week that she began to fancy that she actually saw
anyone, and with every day her sense of this figure had grown
stronger.

It was, of course, only nerves, but it was one of those nervous
afflictions that became tiresome indeed if you did not rid yourself
of it. Mrs. Ryder, secure now in the warmth and intimacy of her
bedroom, determined that henceforth everything should be sweetness
and light. No more tempers! Those were the things that did her
harm.

Even though Herbert were a little trying, was not that the case
with every husband in the world? And was it not Christmas time?
Peace and Good Will to men! Peace and Good Will to Herbert!

They sat down opposite to one another in the pretty little dining-
room hung with Chinese woodcuts, the table gleaming and the amber
curtains richly dark in the firelight.

But Herbert was not himself. He was still brooding, she supposed,
over their quarrel of the afternoon. Weren’t men children?
Incredible the children that they were!

So when the maid was out of the room she went over to him, bent
down and kissed his forehead.

‘Darling . . . you’re still cross, I can see you are. You mustn’t
be. Really you mustn’t. It’s Christmas time and, if I forgive
you, you must forgive me.’

‘You forgive me?’ he asked, looking at her in his most aggravating
way. ‘What have you to forgive me for?’

Well, that was really too much. When she had taken all the steps,
humbled her pride.

She went back to her seat, but for a while could not answer him
because the maid was there. When they were alone again she said,
summoning all her patience:

‘Bertie dear, do you really think that there’s anything to be
gained by sulking like this? It isn’t worthy of you. It isn’t
really.’

He answered her quietly.

‘Sulking? No, that’s not the right word. But I’ve got to keep
quiet. If I don’t I shall say something I’m sorry for.’ Then,
after a pause, in a low voice, as though to himself: ‘These
constant rows are awful.’

Her temper was rising again; another self that had nothing to do
with her real self, a stranger to her and yet a very old familiar
friend.

‘Don’t be so self-righteous,’ she answered, her voice trembling a
little. ‘These quarrels are entirely my own fault, aren’t they?’

‘Elinor and I never quarrelled,’ he said, so softly that she
scarcely heard him.

‘No! Because Elinor thought you perfect. She adored you. You’ve
often told me. I don’t think you perfect. I’m not perfect either.
But we’ve both got faults. I’m not the only one to blame.’

‘We’d better separate,’ he said, suddenly looking up. ‘We don’t
get on now. We used to. I don’t know what’s changed everything.
But, as things are, we’d better separate.’

She looked at him and knew that she loved him more than ever, but
because she loved him so much she wanted to hurt him, and because
he had said that he thought he could get on without her she was so
angry that she forgot all caution. Her love and her anger helped
one another. The more angry she became the more she loved him.

‘I know why you want to separate,’ she said. ‘It’s because you’re
in love with someone else. (‘How funny,’ something inside her
said. ‘You don’t mean a word of this.’) You’ve treated me as you
have, and then you leave me.’

‘I’m not in love with anyone else,’ he answered her steadily, ‘and
you know it. But we are so unhappy together that it’s silly to go
on . . . silly. . . . The whole thing has failed.’

There was so much unhappiness, so much bitterness, in his voice
that she realised that at last she had truly gone too far. She had
lost him.

She had not meant this. She was frightened and her fear made her
so angry that she went across to him.

‘Very well then . . . I’ll tell everyone . . . what you’ve been.
How you’ve treated me.’

‘Not another scene,’ he answered wearily. ‘I can’t stand any more.
Let’s wait. Tomorrow is Christmas Day . . .’

He was so unhappy that her anger with herself maddened her. She
couldn’t bear his sad, hopeless disappointment with herself, their
life together, everything.

In a fury of blind temper she struck him; it was as though she were
striking herself. He got up and without a word left the room.
There was a pause, and then she heard the hall door close. He had
left the house.

She stood there, slowly coming to her control again. When she lost
her temper it was as though she sank under water. When it was all
over she came once more to the surface of life, wondering where
she’d been and what she had been doing. Now she stood there,
bewildered, and then at once she was aware of two things, one that
the room was bitterly cold and the other that someone was in the
room with her.

This time she did not need to look around her. She did not turn at
all, but only stared straight at the curtained windows, seeing them
very carefully, as though she were summing them up for some future
analysis, with their thick amber folds, gold rod, white lines–and
beyond them the snow was falling.

She did not need to turn, but, with a shiver of terror, she was
aware that that grey figure who had, all these last weeks, been
approaching ever more closely, was almost at her very elbow. She
heard quite clearly: ‘I warned you. That was the last time.’

At the same moment Onslow the butler came in. Onslow was broad,
fat and rubicund–a good faithful butler with a passion for church
music. He was a bachelor and, it was said, disappointed of women.
He had an old mother in Liverpool to whom he was greatly attached.

In a flash of consciousness she thought of all these things when he
came in. She expected him also to see the grey figure at her side.
But he was undisturbed, his ceremonial complacency clothed him
securely.

‘Mr. Fairfax has gone out,’ she said firmly. Oh, surely he must
see something, feel something.

‘Yes, Madam!’ Then, smiling rather grandly: ‘It’s snowing hard.
Never seen it harder here. Shall I build up the fire in the
drawing-room, Madam?’

‘No, thank you. But Mr. Fairfax’s study . . .’

‘Yes, Madam. I only thought that as this room was so warm you
might find it chilly in the drawing-room.’

This room warm, when she was shivering from head to foot; but
holding herself lest he should see . . . She longed to keep him
there, to implore him to remain; but in a moment he was gone,
softly closing the door behind him.

Then a mad longing for flight seized her, and she could not move.
She was rooted there to the floor, and even as, wildly trying to
cry, to scream, to shriek the house down, she found that only a
little whisper would come, she felt the cold touch of a hand on
hers.

She did not turn her head: her whole personality, all her past
life, her poor little courage, her miserable fortitude were
summoned to meet this sense of approaching death which was as
unmistakable as a certain smell, or the familiar ringing of a gong.
She had dreamt in nightmares of approaching death and it had always
been like this, a fearful constriction of the heart, a paralysis of
the limbs, a choking sense of disaster like an anaesthetic.

‘You were warned,’ something said to her again.

She knew that if she turned she would see Elinor’s face, set,
white, remorseless. The woman had always hated her, been vilely
jealous of her, protecting her wretched Herbert.

A certain vindictiveness seemed to release her. She found that she
could move, her limbs were free.

She passed to the door, ran down the passage, into the hall. Where
would she be safe? She thought of the Cathedral, where to-night
there was a carol service. She opened the hall door and just as
she was, meeting the thick, involving, muffling snow, she ran out.

She started across the green towards the Cathedral door. Her thin
black slippers sank in the snow. Snow was everywhere–in her hair,
her eyes, her nostrils, her mouth, on her bare neck, between her
breasts.

‘Help! Help! Help!’ she wanted to cry, but the snow choked her.
Lights whirled about her. The Cathedral rose like a huge black
eagle and flew towards her.

She fell forward, and even as she fell a hand, far colder than the
snow, caught her neck. She lay struggling in the snow and as she
struggled there two hands of an icy fleshless chill closed about
her throat.

Her last knowledge was of the hard outline of a ring pressing into
her neck. Then she lay still, her face in the snow, and the flakes
eagerly, savagely, covered her.

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