Oh, you'll see why I chose this picture later.

Christmas Ghost Stories: A Christmas Story, by Sarban

Oh, you'll see why I chose this picture later.

Oh, you’ll see why I chose this picture later.

This, the last in our series, is THE Christmas Ghost Story. Sure, it’s just called “A Christmas Story” but that’s because, like the Olympic gold medalist who says, “I’m a student” when asked who she is, it’s just being humble. Trust me, this is THE Christmas story.

And there aren’t even any sheep or any “quote unquote” ghosts. There is snow. There is the cold hand of the Lord Frost. There is dashing pilot Igor Palyevsky, whom I would marry in a heartbeat. There are colourful ethnic people from all over Europe, fantastic scenes on the shores of distant Siberia, and there is a remarkable, drunken party in Saudi Arabia featuring esoteric garb, an esoteric liquor, and even more esoteric conversation.

We are indeed a long way from the traditional cosy country house of the hospitable British squire. Pour yourself of some comforting spirits and prepare to commune with some restless ones indeed in this exotic, and all-too-forgotten tale by Sarban, aka British diplomat John William Wall.

A Note: The story is, of course, still under copyright, as I found out previously on this blog. I’ve taken down all instances of it from everywhere I CAN reach, and the only place it exists online still is on this blog, to which I no longer have access, and which will surely go offline at some point. So enjoy this while you can, and if you do enjoy it, consider purchasing his books, available at Amazon.

To read the story, follow this link to my ancient food/booze blog and either skip the preamble or savour it, depending on whether or not it is to your taste. The story begins about three hundred words down, where you’ll see the title. Enjoy!

Oh, and while I have your attention, I’m just going to mention there’s less than a week left for my medical fundraiser, to cover the costs of my physio. We met our original goal within 24 hours, thanks to amazing generosity including one old friend who donated a thousand dollars! But after seeing my surgeon and consulting with the physiologist, the cost of physio has significantly more than doubled, and I do need a few more hundred dollars, at least until I am back at work. Thanks to all who have contributed, and if you’re skint, I feel ya. A FB or Twitter share is worth its weight in gold, so share away!

Punch and Judy from the Royal Museums

Christmas Ghost Stories: The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance by M.R. James

It’s not every author who gets two kicks at the can in our advent collection of Christmas Ghost Stories, but M.R. James is a special case. Indeed, he, more even than Dickens, popularized the phenomenon of the Christmas ghost story, and he wrote some real creepers, as we’ve seen from the previously-featured Stalls of Barchester Cathedral. In fact, compared to Dickens, whom I find unspooky and quaint, he’s practically Lucio Fulci with his quotidian ash trees and crumpled linens transformed suddenly and irrevocably into things of horror.

I won’t walk under an ash tree, even now. Thank god I live in the piney wastes, eh?

This, The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance, is truly one of his most memorable, even if one can never remember the damn title. And one of his most seasonal, too, as it not only takes place over Christmas, but also features a Punch and Judy show.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a Punch and Judy show, but they’re hella creepy. I don’t know who first put those things together and thought that would be a suitable entertainment for children, but a) they clearly hated children b) I guess the history of LSD goes back farther than we expected.

Oh, and since we were out late with family yesterday and skipped posting a story then, we’ll get you a bonus story before midnight. And then, tomorrow, The Big One You’ve All Been Waiting For! Which isn’t A Christmas Carol. It’s better, I promise.


The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance
by M.R. James

Punch and Judy from the Royal Museums

Punch and Judy from the Royal Museums

The letters which I now publish were sent to me recently by a person who knows me to be interested in ghost stories. There is no doubt about their authenticity. The paper on which they are written, the ink, and the whole external aspect put their date beyond the reach of question.

The only point which they do not make clear is the identity of the writer. He signs with initials only, and as none of the envelopes of the letters are preserved, the surname of his correspondent—obviously a married brother—is as obscure as his own. No further preliminary explanation is needed, I think. Luckily the first letter supplies all that could be expected.

LETTER I

Great Chrishall, Dec. 22, 1837.
My Dear Robert,—It is with great regret for the enjoyment I am losing, and for a reason which you will deplore equally with myself, that I write to inform you that I am unable to join your circle for this Christmas: but you will agree with me that it is unavoidable when I say that I have within these few hours received a letter from Mrs. Hunt at B——, to the effect that our Uncle Henry has suddenly and mysteriously disappeared, and begging me to go down there immediately and join the search that is being made for him. Little as I, or you either, I think, have ever seen of Uncle, I naturally feel that this is not a request that can be regarded lightly, and accordingly I propose to go to B—— by this afternoon’s mail, reaching it late in the evening. I shall not go to the Rectory, but put up at the King’s Head, and to which you may address letters. I enclose a small draft, which you will please make use of for the benefit of the young people. I shall write you daily (supposing me to be detained more than a single day) what goes on, and you may be sure, should the business be cleared up in time to permit of my coming to the Manor after all, I shall present myself. I have but a few minutes at disposal. With cordial greetings to you all, and many regrets, believe me, your affectionate Bro.,

W. R.

LETTER II

King’s Head, Dec. 23, ’37.
My Dear Robert,—In the first place, there is as yet no news of Uncle H., and I think you may finally dismiss any idea—I won’t say hope—that I might after all “turn up” for Xmas. However, my thoughts will be with you, and you have my best wishes for a really festive day. Mind that none of my nephews or nieces expend any fraction of their guineas on presents for me.

Since I got here I have been blaming myself for taking this affair of Uncle H. too easily. From what people here say, I gather that there is very little hope that he can still be alive; but whether it is accident or design that carried him off I cannot judge. The facts are these. On Friday the 19th, he went as usual shortly before five o’clock to read evening prayers at the Church; and when they were over the clerk brought him a message, in response to which he set off to pay a visit to a sick person at an outlying cottage the better part of two miles away. He paid the visit, and started on his return journey at about half-past six. This is the last that is known of him. The people here are very much grieved at his loss; he had been here many years, as you know, and though, as you also know, he was not the most genial of men, and had more than a little of the martinet in his composition, he seems to have been active in good works, and unsparing of trouble to himself.

Poor Mrs. Hunt, who has been his housekeeper ever since she left Woodley, is quite overcome: it seems like the end of the world to her. I am glad that I did not entertain the idea of taking quarters at the Rectory; and I have declined several kindly offers of hospitality from people in the place, preferring as I do to be independent, and finding myself very comfortable here.

You will, of course, wish to know what has been done in the way of inquiry and search. First, nothing was to be expected from investigation at the Rectory; and to be brief, nothing has transpired. I asked Mrs. Hunt—as others had done before—whether there was either any unfavourable symptom in her master such as might portend a sudden stroke, or attack of illness, or whether he had ever had reason to apprehend any such thing: but both she, and also his medical man, were clear that this was not the case. He was quite in his usual health. In the second place, naturally, ponds and streams have been dragged, and fields in the neighbourhood which he is known to have visited last, have been searched—without result. I have myself talked to the parish clerk and—more important—have been to the house where he paid his visit.

There can be no question of any foul play on these people’s part. The one man in the house is ill in bed and very weak: the wife and the children of course could do nothing themselves, nor is there the shadow of a probability that they or any of them should have agreed to decoy poor Uncle H. out in order that he might be attacked on the way back. They had told what they knew to several other inquirers already, but the woman repeated it to me. The Rector was looking just as usual: he wasn’t very long with the sick man—”He ain’t,” she said, “like some what has a gift in prayer; but there, if we was all that way, ‘owever would the chapel people get their living?” He left some money when he went away, and one of the children saw him cross the stile into the next field. He was dressed as he always was: wore his bands—I gather he is nearly the last man remaining who does so—at any rate in this district.

You see I am putting down everything. The fact is that I have nothing else to do, having brought no business papers with me; and, moreover, it serves to clear my own mind, and may suggest points which have been overlooked. So I shall continue to write all that passes, even to conversations if need be—you may read or not as you please, but pray keep the letters. I have another reason for writing so fully, but it is not a very tangible one.

You may ask if I have myself made any search in the fields near the cottage. Something—a good deal—has been done by others, as I mentioned; but I hope to go over the ground to-morrow. Bow Street has now been informed, and will send down by to-night’s coach, but I do not think they will make much of the job. There is no snow, which might have helped us. The fields are all grass. Of course I was on the qui vive for any indication to-day both going and returning; but there was a thick mist on the way back, and I was not in trim for wandering about unknown pastures, especially on an evening when bushes looked like men, and a cow lowing in the distance might have been the last trump. I assure you, if Uncle Henry had stepped out from among the trees in a little copse which borders the path at one place, carrying his head under his arm, I should have been very little more uncomfortable than I was. To tell you the truth, I was rather expecting something of the kind. But I must drop my pen for the moment: Mr. Lucas, the curate, is announced.

Later. Mr. Lucas has been, and gone, and there is not much beyond the decencies of ordinary sentiment to be got from him. I can see that he has given up any idea that the Rector can be alive, and that, so far as he can be, he is truly sorry. I can also discern that even in a more emotional person than Mr. Lucas, Uncle Henry was not likely to inspire strong attachment.

Besides Mr. Lucas, I have had another visitor in the shape of my Boniface—mine host of the “King’s Head”—who came to see whether I had everything I wished, and who really requires the pen of a Boz to do him justice. He was very solemn and weighty at first. “Well, sir,” he said, “I suppose we must bow our ‘ead beneath the blow, as my poor wife had used to say. So far as I can gather there’s been neither hide nor yet hair of our late respected incumbent scented out as yet; not that he was what the Scripture terms a hairy man in any sense of the word.”

I said—as well as I could—that I supposed not, but could not help adding that I had heard he was sometimes a little difficult to deal with. Mr. Bowman looked at me sharply for a moment, and then passed in a flash from solemn sympathy to impassioned declamation. “When I think,” he said, “of the language that man see fit to employ to me in this here parlour over no more a matter than a cask of beer—such a thing as I told him might happen any day of the week to a man with a family—though as it turned out he was quite under a mistake, and that I knew at the time, only I was that shocked to hear him I couldn’t lay my tongue to the right expression.”

He stopped abruptly and eyed me with some embarrassment. I only said, “Dear me, I’m sorry to hear you had any little differences: I suppose my uncle will be a good deal missed in the parish?” Mr. Bowman drew a long breath. “Ah, yes!” he said; “your uncle! You’ll understand me when I say that for the moment it had slipped my remembrance that he was a relative; and natural enough, I must say, as it should, for as to you bearing any resemblance to—to him, the notion of any such a thing is clean ridiculous. All the same, ‘ad I ‘ave bore it in my mind, you’ll be among the first to feel, I’m sure, as I should have abstained my lips, or rather I should not have abstained my lips with no such reflections.”

I assured him that I quite understood, and was going to have asked him some further questions, but he was called away to see after some business. By the way, you need not take it into your head that he has anything to fear from the inquiry into poor Uncle Henry’s disappearance—though, no doubt, in the watches of the night it will occur to him that I think he has, and I may expect explanations to-morrow.

I must close this letter: it has to go by the late coach.

LETTER III

Dec. 25, ’37.
My Dear Robert,—This is a curious letter to be writing on Christmas Day, and yet after all there is nothing much in it. Or there may be—you shall be the judge. At least, nothing decisive. The Bow Street men practically say that they have no clue. The length of time and the weather conditions have made all tracks so faint as to be quite useless: nothing that belonged to the dead man—I’m afraid no other word will do—has been picked up.

As I expected, Mr. Bowman was uneasy in his mind this morning; quite early I heard him holding forth in a very distinct voice—purposely so, I thought—to the Bow Street officers in the bar, as to the loss that the town had sustained in their Rector, and as to the necessity of leaving no stone unturned (he was very great on this phrase) in order to come at the truth. I suspect him of being an orator of repute at convivial meetings.

When I was at breakfast he came to wait on me, and took an opportunity when handing a muffin to say in a low tone, “I ‘ope, sir, you reconize as my feelings towards your relative is not actuated by any taint of what you may call melignity—you can leave the room, Elizar, I will see the gentleman ‘as all he requires with my own hands—I ask your pardon, sir, but you must be well aware a man is not always master of himself: and when that man has been ‘urt in his mind by the application of expressions which I will go so far as to say ‘ad not ought to have been made use of (his voice was rising all this time and his face growing redder); no, sir; and ‘ere, if you will permit of it, I should like to explain to you in a very few words the exact state of the bone of contention. This cask—I might more truly call it a firkin—of beer——”

I felt it was time to interpose, and said that I did not see that it would help us very much to go into that matter in detail. Mr. Bowman acquiesced, and resumed more calmly:

“Well, sir, I bow to your ruling, and as you say, be that here or be it there, it don’t contribute a great deal, perhaps, to the present question. All I wish you to understand is that I am as prepared as you are yourself to lend every hand to the business we have afore us, and—as I took the opportunity to say as much to the Orficers not three-quarters of an hour ago—to leave no stone unturned as may throw even a spark of light on this painful matter.”

In fact, Mr. Bowman did accompany us on our exploration, but though I am sure his genuine wish was to be helpful, I am afraid he did not contribute to the serious side of it. He appeared to be under the impression that we were likely to meet either Uncle Henry or the person responsible for his disappearance, walking about the fields, and did a great deal of shading his eyes with his hand and calling our attention, by pointing with his stick, to distant cattle and labourers. He held several long conversations with old women whom we met, and was very strict and severe in his manner, but on each occasion returned to our party saying, “Well, I find she don’t seem to ‘ave no connexion with this sad affair. I think you may take it from me, sir, as there’s little or no light to be looked for from that quarter; not without she’s keeping somethink back intentional.”

We gained no appreciable result, as I told you at starting; the Bow Street men have left the town, whether for London or not I am not sure.

This evening I had company in the shape of a bagman, a smartish fellow. He knew what was going forward, but though he has been on the roads for some days about here, he had nothing to tell of suspicious characters—tramps, wandering sailors or gipsies. He was very full of a capital Punch and Judy Show he had seen this same day at W——, and asked if it had been here yet, and advised me by no means to miss it if it does come. The best Punch and the best Toby dog, he said, he had ever come across. Toby dogs, you know, are the last new thing in the shows. I have only seen one myself, but before long all the men will have them.

Now why, you will want to know, do I trouble to write all this to you? I am obliged to do it, because it has something to do with another absurd trifle (as you will inevitably say), which in my present state of rather unquiet fancy—nothing more, perhaps—I have to put down. It is a dream, sir, which I am going to record, and I must say it is one of the oddest I have had. Is there anything in it beyond what the bagman’s talk and Uncle Henry’s disappearance could have suggested? You, I repeat, shall judge: I am not in a sufficiently cool and judicial frame to do so.

It began with what I can only describe as a pulling aside of curtains: and I found myself seated in a place—I don’t know whether indoors or out. There were people—only a few—on either side of me, but I did not recognize them, or indeed think much about them. They never spoke, but, so far as I remember, were all grave and pale-faced and looked fixedly before them. Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show, perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was only darkness, but in front there was a sufficiency of light. I was “strung up” to a high degree of expectation and looked every moment to hear the pan-pipes and the Roo-too-too-it. Instead of that there came suddenly an enormous—I can use no other word—an enormous single toll of a bell, I don’t know from how far off—somewhere behind. The little curtain flew up and the drama began.

I believe someone once tried to re-write Punch as a serious tragedy; but whoever he may have been, this performance would have suited him exactly. There was something Satanic about the hero. He varied his methods of attack: for some of his victims he lay in wait, and to see his horrible face—it was yellowish white, I may remark—peering round the wings made me think of the Vampyre in Fuseli’s foul sketch. To others he was polite and carneying—particularly to the unfortunate alien who can only say Shallabalah—though what Punch said I never could catch. But with all of them I came to dread the moment of death. The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.

The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark, so that I could see nothing of the victim, and took some time to effect. It was accompanied by hard breathing and horrid muffled sounds, and after it Punch came and sat on the footboard and fanned himself and looked at his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and sniggered in so deadly a fashion that I saw some of those beside me cover their faces, and I would gladly have done the same. But in the meantime the scene behind Punch was clearing, and showed, not the usual house front, but something more ambitious—a grove of trees and the gentle slope of a hill, with a very natural—in fact, I should say a real—moon shining on it. Over this there rose slowly an object which I soon perceived to be a human figure with something peculiar about the head—what, I was unable at first to see. It did not stand on its feet, but began creeping or dragging itself across the middle distance towards Punch, who still sat back to it; and by this time, I may remark (though it did not occur to me at the moment) that all pretence of this being a puppet show had vanished. Punch was still Punch, it is true, but, like the others, was in some sense a live creature, and both moved themselves at their own will.

When I next glanced at him he was sitting in malignant reflection; but in another instant something seemed to attract his attention, and he first sat up sharply and then turned round, and evidently caught sight of the person that was approaching him and was in fact now very near. Then, indeed, did he show unmistakable signs of terror: catching up his stick, he rushed towards the wood, only just eluding the arm of his pursuer, which was suddenly flung out to intercept him. It was with a revulsion which I cannot easily express that I now saw more or less clearly what this pursuer was like. He was a sturdy figure clad in black, and, as I thought, wearing bands: his head was covered with a whitish bag.

The chase which now began lasted I do not know how long, now among the trees, now along the slope of the field, sometimes both figures disappearing wholly for a few seconds, and only some uncertain sounds letting one know that they were still afoot. At length there came a moment when Punch, evidently exhausted, staggered in from the left and threw himself down among the trees. His pursuer was not long after him, and came looking uncertainly from side to side. Then, catching sight of the figure on the ground, he too threw himself down—his back was turned to the audience—with a swift motion twitched the covering from his head, and thrust his face into that of Punch. Everything on the instant grew dark.

There was one long, loud, shuddering scream, and I awoke to find myself looking straight into the face of—what in all the world do you think? but—a large owl, which was seated on my window-sill immediately opposite my bed-foot, holding up its wings like two shrouded arms. I caught the fierce glance of its yellow eyes, and then it was gone. I heard the single enormous bell again—very likely, as you are saying to yourself, the church clock; but I do not think so—and then I was broad awake.

All this, I may say, happened within the last half-hour. There was no probability of my getting to sleep again, so I got up, put on clothes enough to keep me warm, and am writing this rigmarole in the first hours of Christmas Day. Have I left out anything? Yes; there was no Toby dog, and the names over the front of the Punch and Judy booth were Kidman and Gallop, which were certainly not what the bagman told me to look out for.
By this time, I feel a little more as if I could sleep, so this shall be sealed and wafered.

LETTER IV

Dec. 26, ’37.
My Dear Robert,—All is over. The body has been found. I do not make excuses for not having sent off my news by last night’s mail, for the simple reason that I was incapable of putting pen to paper. The events that attended the discovery bewildered me so completely that I needed what I could get of a night’s rest to enable me to face the situation at all. Now I can give you my journal of the day, certainly the strangest Christmas Day that ever I spent or am likely to spend.

The first incident was not very serious. Mr. Bowman had, I think, been keeping Christmas Eve, and was a little inclined to be captious: at least, he was not on foot very early, and to judge from what I could hear, neither men or maids could do anything to please him. The latter were certainly reduced to tears; nor am I sure that Mr. Bowman succeeded in preserving a manly composure. At any rate, when I came downstairs, it was in a broken voice that he wished me the compliments of the season, and a little later on, when he paid his visit of ceremony at breakfast, he was far from cheerful: even Byronic, I might almost say, in his outlook on life.

“I don’t know,” he said, “if you think with me, sir; but every Christmas as comes round the world seems a hollerer thing to me. Why, take an example now from what lays under my own eye. There’s my servant Eliza—been with me now for going on fifteen years. I thought I could have placed my confidence in Elizar, and yet this very morning—Christmas morning too, of all the blessed days in the year—with the bells a ringing and—and—all like that—I say, this very morning, had it not have been for Providence watching over us all, that girl would have put—indeed I may go so far to say, ‘ad put the cheese on your breakfast-table——” He saw I was about to speak, and waved his hand at me. “It’s all very well for you to say, ‘Yes, Mr. Bowman, but you took away the cheese and locked it up in the cupboard,’ which I did, and have the key here, or if not the actual key, one very much about the same size. That’s true enough, sir, but what do you think is the effect of that action on me? Why, it’s no exaggeration for me to say that the ground is cut from under my feet. And yet when I said as much to Eliza, not nasty, mind you, but just firm-like, what was my return? ‘Oh,’ she says: ‘well,’ she says, ‘there wasn’t no bones broke, I suppose.’ Well, sir, it ‘urt me, that’s all I can say: it ‘urt me, and I don’t like to think of it now.”

There was an ominous pause here, in which I ventured to say something like, “Yes, very trying,” and then asked at what hour the church service was to be. “Eleven o’clock,” Mr. Bowman said with a heavy sigh. “Ah, you won’t have no such discourse from poor Mr. Lucas as what you would have done from our late Rector. Him and me may have had our little differences, and did do, more’s the pity.”

I could see that a powerful effort was needed to keep him off the vexed question of the cask of beer, but he made it. “But I will say this, that a better preacher, nor yet one to stand faster by his rights, or what he considered to be his rights—however, that’s not the question now—I for one, never set under. Some might say, ‘Was he a eloquent man?’ and to that my answer would be: ‘Well, there you’ve a better right per’aps to speak of your own uncle than what I have.’ Others might ask, ‘Did he keep a hold of his congregation?’ and there again I should reply, ‘That depends.’ But as I say—yes, Eliza, my girl, I’m coming—eleven o’clock, sir, and you inquire for the King’s Head pew.” I believe Eliza had been very near the door, and shall consider it in my vail.

The next episode was church: I felt Mr. Lucas had a difficult task in doing justice to Christmas sentiments, and also to the feeling of disquiet and regret which, whatever Mr. Bowman might say, was clearly prevalent. I do not think he rose to the occasion. I was uncomfortable. The organ wolved—you know what I mean: the wind died—twice in the Christmas Hymn, and the tenor bell, I suppose owing to some negligence on the part of the ringers, kept sounding faintly about once in a minute during the sermon. The clerk sent up a man to see to it, but he seemed unable to do much. I was glad when it was over. There was an odd incident, too, before the service. I went in rather early, and came upon two men carrying the parish bier back to its place under the tower. From what I overheard them saying, it appeared that it had been put out by mistake, by someone who was not there. I also saw the clerk busy folding up a moth-eaten velvet pall—not a sight for Christmas Day.

I dined soon after this, and then, feeling disinclined to go out, took my seat by the fire in the parlour, with the last number of Pickwick, which I had been saving up for some days. I thought I could be sure of keeping awake over this, but I turned out as bad as our friend Smith. I suppose it was half-past two when I was roused by a piercing whistle and laughing and talking voices outside in the market-place. It was a Punch and Judy—I had no doubt the one that my bagman had seen at W——. I was half delighted, half not—the latter because my unpleasant dream came back to me so vividly; but, anyhow, I determined to see it through, and I sent Eliza out with a crown-piece to the performers and a request that they would face my window if they could manage it.

The show was a very smart new one; the names of the proprietors, I need hardly tell you, were Italian, Foresta and Calpigi. The Toby dog was there, as I had been led to expect. All B—— turned out, but did not obstruct my view, for I was at the large first-floor window and not ten yards away.

The play began on the stroke of a quarter to three by the church clock. Certainly it was very good; and I was soon relieved to find that the disgust my dream had given me for Punch’s onslaughts on his ill-starred visitors was only transient. I laughed at the demise of the Turncock, the Foreigner, the Beadle, and even the baby. The only drawback was the Toby dog’s developing a tendency to howl in the wrong place. Something had occurred, I suppose, to upset him, and something considerable: for, I forget exactly at what point, he gave a most lamentable cry, leapt off the footboard, and shot away across the market-place and down a side street. There was a stage-wait, but only a brief one. I suppose the men decided that it was no good going after him, and that he was likely to turn up again at night.

We went on. Punch dealt faithfully with Judy, and in fact with all comers; and then came the moment when the gallows was erected, and the great scene with Mr. Ketch was to be enacted. It was now that something happened of which I can certainly not yet see the import fully. You have witnessed an execution, and know what the criminal’s head looks like with the cap on. If you are like me, you never wish to think of it again, and I do not willingly remind you of it. It was just such a head as that, that I, from my somewhat higher post, saw in the inside of the showbox ; but at first the audience did not see it. I expected it to emerge into their view, but instead of that there slowly rose for a few seconds an uncovered face, with an expression of terror upon it, of which I have never imagined the like. It seemed as if the man, whoever he was, was being forcibly lifted, with his arms somehow pinioned or held back, towards the little gibbet on the stage. I could just see the nightcapped head behind him. Then there was a cry and a crash. The whole showbox fell over backwards; kicking legs were seen among the ruins, and then two figures—as some said; I can only answer for one—were visible running at top speed across the square and disappearing in a lane which leads to the fields.

Of course everybody gave chase. I followed; but the pace was killing, and very few were in, literally, at the death. It happened in a chalk pit: the man went over the edge quite blindly and broke his neck. They searched everywhere for the other, until it occurred to me to ask whether he had ever left the market-place. At first everyone was sure that he had; but when we came to look, he was there, under the showbox, dead too.

But in the chalk pit it was that poor Uncle Henry’s body was found, with a sack over the head, the throat horribly mangled. It was a peaked corner of the sack sticking out of the soil that attracted attention. I cannot bring myself to write in greater detail.

I forgot to say the men’s real names were Kidman and Gallop. I feel sure I have heard them, but no one here seems to know anything about them.

I am coming to you as soon as I can after the funeral. I must tell you when we meet what I think of it all.

Face in the Water by ParaSci

Christmas Ghost Stories: The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall, by John Kendrick Bangs

It’s about time we had a Christmas ghost story with a little decent sexual tension and a few snarky one-liners! This latest in our series, The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall, is probably the first one I ever read (including A Christmas Carol), having somehow bullied its way into a Scholastic anthology of seasonal cheer with many more age-appropriate tales.

It features some stock characters including a smartass heir and a sorrowful but totally-had-it-coming-to-her ghost who can be vicious when provoked. So far, so unsympathetic, but it gets better, for the heir and the ghost engage in a battle of wits and (yes, I’m going to say it) icy repartee that makes this unusual Christmas tale something that might have been written on a particularly inspired night by the last two regulars at the bar: Dorothy Parker and Jerome K. Jerome.

And what I wouldn’t give to have been at THAT party!


The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall
by John Kendrick Bangs

Face in the Water by ParaSci

Face in the Water by ParaSci

The trouble with Harrowby Hall was that it was haunted, what was worse, the ghost did not content itself with merely appearing at the bedside of the afflicted person who saw it, but persisted in remaining there for one mortal hour before it would disappear.

It never appeared except on Christmas eve, and then as the clock was striking twelve, in which respect alone was it lacking in that originality which in these days is a sine qua non of success in spectral life. The owners of Harrowby Hall had done their utmost to rid themselves of the damp and dewy lady who rose up out of the best bedroom floor at midnight, but without avail. They had tried stopping the clock, so that the ghost would not know when it was midnight; but she made her appearance just the same, with that fearful miasmatic personality of hers, and there she would stand until everything about her was thoroughly saturated.

Then the owners of Harrowby Hall calked up every crack in the floor with the very best quality of hemp, and over this were placed layers of tar and canvas; the walls were made waterproof, and the doors and windows likewise, the proprietors having conceived the notion that the unexorcised lady would find it difficult to leak into the room after these precautions had been taken; but even this did not suffice. The following Christmas eve she appeared as promptly as before, and frightened the occupant of the room quite out of his senses by sitting down alongside of him and gazing with her cavernous blue eyes into his; and he noticed, too, that in her long, aqueously bony fingers bits of dripping seaweed were entwined, the ends hanging down, and these ends she drew across his forehead until he became like one insane. And then he swooned away, and was found unconscious in his bed the next morning by his host, simply saturated with seawater and fright, from the combined effects of which he never recovered, dying four years later of pneumonia and nervous prostration at the age of seventy-eight.

The next year the master of Harrowby Hall decided not to have the best spare bedroom opened at all, thinking that perhaps the ghost’s thirst for making herself disagreeable would be satisfied by haunting the furniture, but the plan was as unavailing as the many that had preceded it.

The ghost appeared as usual in the room — that is, it was supposed she did, for the hangings were dripping wet the next morning, and in the parlor below the haunted room a great damp spot appeared on the ceiling. Finding no one there, she immediately set out to learn the reason why, and she chose none other to haunt than the owner of the Harrowby himself. She found him in his own cozy room drinking whiskey — whiskey undiluted — and felicitating himself upon having foiled her ghostship, when all of a sudden the curl went out of his hair, his whiskey bottle filled and overflowed, and he was himself in a condition similar to that of a man who has fallen into a water-butt. When he recovered from the shock, which was a painful one, he saw before him the lady of the cavernous eyes and seaweed fingers. The sight was so unexpected and so terrifying that he fainted, but immediately came to, because of the vast amount of water in his hair, which, trickling down over his face, restored his consciousness.

Now it so happened that the master of Harrowby was a brave man, and while he was not particularly fond of interviewing ghosts, especially such quenching ghosts as the one before him, he was not to be daunted by an apparition. He had paid the lady the compliment of fainting from the effects of his first surprise, and now that he had come to he intended to find out a few things he felt he had a right to know. He would have liked to put on a dry suit of clothes first, but the apparition declined to leave him for an instant until her hour was up, and he was forced to deny himself that pleasure. Every time he would move she would follow him, with the result that everything she came in contact with got a ducking. In an effort to warm himself up he approached the fire, an unfortunate move as it turned out, because it brought the ghost directly over the fire, which immediately was extinguished. The whiskey became utterly valueless as a comforter to his chilled system, because it was by this time diluted to a proportion of ninety percent of water. The only thing he could do to ward off the evil effects of his encounter he did, and that was to swallow ten two-grain quinine pills, which he managed to put into his mouth before the ghost had time to interfere. Having done this, he turned with some asperity to the ghost, and said:

“Far be it from me to be impolite to a woman, madam, but I’m hanged if it wouldn’t please me better if you’d stop these infernal visits of yours to this house. Go sit out on the lake, if you like that sort of thing; soak the water-butt, if you wish; but do not, I implore you, come into a gentleman’s house and saturate him and his possessions in this way. It is damned disagreeable.”

“Henry Hartwick Oglethorpe,” said the ghost, in a gurgling voice, “you don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Madam,” returned the unhappy householder, “I wish that remark were strictly truthful. I was talking about you. It would be shillings and pence — nay, pounds, in my pocket, madam, if I did not know you.”

“That is a bit of specious nonsense,” returned the ghost, throwing a quart of indignation into the face of the master of Harrowby. “It may rank high as repartee, but as a comment upon my statement that you do not know what you are talking about, it savors of irrelevant impertinence.

You do not know that I am compelled to haunt this place year after year by inexorable fate. It is no pleasure to me to enter this house, and ruin and mildew everything I touch. I never aspired to be a shower-bath, but it is my doom. Do you know who I am?”

“No, I don’t,” returned the master of Harrowby. “I should say you were the Lady of the Lake, or Little Sallie Waters.”

“You are a witty man for your years,” said the ghost.

“Well, my humor is drier than yours ever will be,” returned the master.

“No doubt. I’m never dry. I am the Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall, and dryness is a quality entirely beyond my wildest hope. I have been the incumbent of this highly unpleasant office for two hundred years tonight.”

“How the deuce did you ever come to get elected?” asked the master.

“Through a suicide,” replied the specter. “I am the ghost of that fair maiden whose picture hangs over the mantelpiece in the drawing room. I should have been your great-great-great-great-great-aunt if I had lived, Henry Hartwick Oglethorpe, for I was the own sister of your great-great-great-great-grandfather.”

“But what induced you to get this house into such a predicament?”

“I was not to blame, sir,” returned the lady. “It was my father’s fault. He it was who built Harrowby Hall, and the haunted chamber was to have been mine. My father had it furnished in pink and yellow, knowing well that blue and gray formed the only combination of color I could tolerate. He did it merely to spite me, and, with what I deem a proper spirit, I declined to live in the room; whereupon my father said I could live there or on the lawn, he didn’t care which. That night I ran from the house and jumped over the cliff into the sea.”

“That was rash,” said the master of Harrowby.

“So I’ve heard,” returned the ghost. “If I had known what the consequences were to be I should not have jumped; but I really never realized what I was doing until after I was drowned. I had been drowned a week when a sea nymph came to me and informed me that I was to be one of her followers forever afterwards, adding that it should be my doom to haunt Harrowby Hall for one hour every Christmas eve throughout the rest of eternity. I was to haunt that room on such Christmas eves as I found it inhabited; and if it should turn out not to be inhabited, I was and am to spend the allotted hour with the head of the house.”

“I’ll sell the place.”

“That you cannot do, for it is also required of me that I shall appear as the deeds are to be delivered to any purchaser, and divulge to him the awful secret of the house.”

“Do you mean to tell me that on every Christmas eve that I don’t happen to have somebody in that guest chamber, you are going to haunt me wherever I may be, ruining my whiskey, taking all the curl out of my hair, extinguishing my fire, and soaking me through to the skin?” demanded the master.

“You have stated the case, Oglethorpe. And what is more,” said the water ghost, “it doesn’t make the slightest difference where you are, if I find that room empty, wherever you may be I shall douse you with my spectral pres–”

Here the clock struck one, and immediately the apparition faded away. It was perhaps more of a trickle than a fade, but as a disappearance it was complete.

“By St. George and his Dragon!” ejaculated the master of Harrowby, wringing his hands. “It is guineas to hot-cross buns that next Christmas there’s an occupant of the spare room, or I spend the night in a bathtub.”

But the master of Harrowby would have lost his wager had there been any one there to take him up, for when Christmas eve came again he was in his grave, never having recovered from the cold contracted that awful night. Harrowby Hall was closed, and the heir to the estate was in London, where to him in his chambers came the same experience that his father had gone through, saving only that, being younger and stronger, he survived the shock. Everything in his rooms was ruined — his clocks were rusted in the works; a fine collection of watercolor drawings was entirely obliterated by the onslaught of the water ghost; and what was worse, the apartments below his were drenched with the water soaking through the floors, a damage for which he was compelled to pay, and which resulted in his being requested by his landlady to vacate the premises immediately.

The story of the visitation inflicted upon his family had gone abroad, and no one could be got to invite him out to any function save afternoon teas and receptions. Fathers of daughters declined to permit him to remain in their houses later than eight o clock at night, not knowing but that some emergency might arise in the supernatural world which would require the unexpected appearance of the water ghost in this on nights other than Christmas eve, and before the mystic hour when weary churchyards, ignoring the rules which are supposed to govern polite society, begin to yawn. Nor would the maids themselves have aught to do with him, fearing the destruction by the sudden incursion of aqueous femininity of the costumes which they held most dear.

So the heir of Harrowby Hall resolved, as his ancestors for several generations before him had resolved, that something must be done. His first thought was to make one of his servants occupy the haunted room at the crucial moment; but in this he tailed, because the servants themselves knew the history of that room and rebelled. None of his friends would consent to sacrifice their personal comfort to his, nor was there to be found in all England a man so poor as to be willing to occupy the doomed chamber on Christmas eve for pay.

Then the thought came to the heir to have the fireplace in the room enlarged, so that he might evaporate the ghost at its first appearance, and he was felicitating himself upon the ingenuity of his plan, when he remembered what his father had told him — how that no fire could withstand the lady’s extremely contagious dampness. And then he bethought him of steam-pipes. These, he remembered, could lie hundreds of feet deep in water, and still retain sufficient heat to drive the water away in vapor; and as a result of this thought the haunted room was heated by steam to a withering degree, and the heir for six months attended daily the Turkish baths, so that when Christmas eve came he could himself withstand the awful temperature of the room.

The scheme was only partially successful. The water ghost appeared at the specified time, and found the heir of Harrowby prepared; but hot as the room was, it shortened her visit by no more than five minutes in the hour, during which time the nervous system of the young master was wellnigh shattered, and the room itself was cracked and warped to an extent which required the outlay of a large sum of money to remedy. And worse than this, as the last drop of the water ghost was slowly sizzling itself out on the floor, she whispered to her would-be conqueror that his scheme would avail him nothing, because there was still water in great plenty where she came from, and that next year would find her rehabilitated and as exasperatingly saturating as ever.

It was then that the natural action of the mind, in going from one extreme to the other, suggested to the ingenious heir of Harrowby the means by which the water ghost was ultimately conquered, and happiness once more came within the grasp of the house of Oglethorpe.

The heir provided himself with a warm suit of fur underclothing. Donning this with the furry side in, he placed over it a rubber garment, tightfitting, which he wore just as a woman wears a jersey. On top of this he placed another set of underclothing, this suit made of wool, and over this was a second rubber garment like the first. Upon his head he placed a light and comfortable diving helmet, and so clad, on the following Christmas eve he awaited the coming of his tormentor.

It was a bitterly cold night that brought to a close this twenty-fourth day of December. The air outside was still, but the temperature was below zero. Within all was quiet, the servants of Harrowby Hall awaiting with beating hearts the outcome of their master’s campaign against his supernatural visitor.

The master himself was lying on the bed in the haunted room, clad as has already been indicated, and then — the clock clanged out the hour of twelve.

There was a sudden banging of doors, a blast of cold air swept through the halls, the door leading into the haunted chamber flew open, a splash was heard, and the water ghost was seen standing at the side of the heir of Harrowby, from whose outer dress there streamed rivulets of water, but whose own person deep down under the various garments he wore was as dry and as warm as he could have wished.

“Ha!” said the young master of Harrowby. “I’m glad to see you.”

“You are the most original man I’ve met, if that is true,” returned the ghost. “May I ask where did you get that hat?”

“Certainly, madam,” returned the master, courteously. “It is a little portable observatory I had made for just such emergencies as this. But, tell me, is it true that you are doomed to follow me about for one mortal hour — to stand where I stand, to sit where I sit?”

“That is my delectable fate,” returned the lady.

“We’ll go out on the lake,” said the master, starting up.

“You can’t get rid of me that way,” returned the ghost. “The water won’t swallow me up; in fact, it will just add to my present bulk.”

“Nevertheless,” said the master, firmly, “we will go out on the lake.”

“But, my dear sir,” returned the ghost, with a pale reluctance, “it is fearfully cold out there.

You will be frozen hard before you’ve been out ten minutes.”

“Oh no, I’ll not,” replied the master. “I am very warmly dressed. Come!” This last in a tone of command that made the ghost ripple.

And they started.

They had not gone far before the water ghost showed signs of distress.

“You walk too slowly,” she said. “I am nearly frozen. My knees are so stiff now I can hardly move. I beseech you to accelerate your step.”

“I should like to oblige a lady,” returned the master, courteously, “but my clothes are rather heavy, and a hundred yards an hour is about my speed. Indeed, I think we would better sit down here on this snowdrift and talk matters over.”

“Do not! Do not do so, I beg!” cried the ghost. “Let me move on. I feel myself growing rigid as it is. If we stop here, I shall be frozen stiff.”

“That madam,” said the master slowly, and seating himself on an ice-cake — “that is why I have brought you here. We have been on this spot just ten minutes; we have fifty more. Take your time about it, madam, but freeze, that is all I ask of you.”

“I cannot move my right leg now,” cried the ghost, in despair, “and my overskirt is a solid sheet of ice. Oh, good, kind Mr. Oglethorpe, light a fire, and let me go free from these icy fetters.”

“Never, madam. It cannot be. I have you at last.”

“Alas!” cried the ghost, a tear trickling down her frozen cheek. “Help me, I beg. I congeal!”

“Congeal, madam, congeal!” returned Oglethorpe, coldly. “You have drenched me and mine for two hundred and three years, madam. Tonight have had your last drench.”

“Ah, but I shall thaw out again, and then you’ll see. Instead of the comfortably tepid, genial ghost I have been in my past, sir, I shall be iced water,” cried the lady, threateningly.

“No, you won’t, either,” returned Oglethorpe; “for when you are frozen quite stiff, I shall send you to a cold-storage warehouse, and there shall you remain an icy work of art forever more.”

“But warehouses burn.”

“So they do, but this warehouse cannot burn. It is made of asbestos and surrounding it are fireproof walls, and within those walls the temperature is now and shall forever be 416 degrees below the zero point; low enough to make an icicle of any flame in this world — or the next,” the master added, with an ill-suppressed chuckle.

“For the last time let me beseech you. I would go on my knees to you, Oglethorpe, were they not already frozen. I beg of you do not doo –”

Here even the words froze on the water ghost’s lips and the clock struck one. There was a momentary tremor throughout the ice-bound form, and the moon, coming out from behind a cloud, shone down on the rigid figure of a beautiful woman sculptured in clear, transparent ice.

There stood the ghost of Harrowby Hall, conquered by the cold, a prisoner for all time.

The heir of Harrowby had won at last, and today in a large storage house in London stands the frigid form of one who will never again flood the house of Oglethorpe with woe and seawater.

As for the heir of Harrowby, his success in coping with a ghost has made him famous, a fame that still lingers about him, although his victory took place some twenty years ago; and so far from being unpopular with the fair sex, as he was when we first knew him, he has not only been married twice, but is to lead a third bride to the altar before the year is out.

Ghost in Old Room by DivvuartRome

Christmas Ghost Stories: The Crown Derby Plate by Marjorie Bowen

Tonight’s featured Christmas Ghost Story is simply one of the best. Not particularly Christmasy, it’s true; this tale focuses more on the seeping damp, the eerie winds, the endless fens, and the sheer dreariness of wintertime in an isolated house on the English coast. The Woman in Black is another variety of this type of tale, which tends to favour long-simmering mysterious ghosts, far less personable than the jolly baronesses or lecherous footpads common elsewhere.

If you like gore and shock, this is not your thing. If you like fine china, slow creeps, polite but nervous starts, and feisty if somewhat dim spinsters, you will love The Crown Derby Plate! It’s one of my favourites; in fact, it’s not Christmas without it!


The Crown Derby Plate
by Marjorie Bowen

Ghost in Old Room by  DivvuartRome

Ghost in Old Room by DivvuartRome

Martha Pym said that she had never seen a ghost and that she would very much like to do so, “particularly at Christmas, for you can laugh as you like, that is the correct time to see a ghost.”

“I don’t suppose you ever will,” replied her cousin Mabel comfortably, while her cousin Clara shuddered and said that she hoped they would change the subject for she disliked even to think of such things.

The three elderly, cheerful women sat round a big fire, cosy and content after a day of pleasant activities; Martha was the guest of the other two, who owned the handsome, convenient country house; she always came to spend her Christmas with the Wyntons and found the leisurely country life delightful after the bustling round of London, for Martha managed an antique shop of the better sort and worked extremely hard. She was, however, still full of zest for work or pleasure, though sixty years old, and looked backwards and forwards to a succession of delightful days.

The other two, Mabel and Clara, led quieter but none the less agreeable lives; they had more money and fewer interests, but nevertheless enjoyed themselves very well.

“Talking of ghosts,” said Mabel, “I wonder how that old woman at ‘Hartleys’ is getting on, for ‘Hartleys,’ you know, is supposed to be haunted.”

“Yes, I know,” smiled Miss Pym, “but all the years that we have known of the place we have never heard anything definite, have we?”

“No,” put in Clara; “but there is that persistent rumour that the House is uncanny, and for myself, nothing would induce me to live there!”

“It is certainly very lonely and dreary down there on the marshes,” conceded Mabel. “But as for the ghost—you never hear what it is supposed to be even.”

“Who has taken it?” asked Miss Pym, remembering “Hartleys” as very desolate indeed, and long shut up.

“A Miss Lefain, an eccentric old creature—I think you met her here once, two years ago——”

“I believe that I did, but I don’t recall her at all.”

“We have not seen her since, ‘Hartleys’ is so un-get-at-able and she didn’t seem to want visitors. She collects china, Martha, so really you ought to go and see her and talk ‘shop.'”

With the word “china” some curious associations came into the mind of Martha Pym; she was silent while she strove to put them together, and after a second or two they all fitted together into a very clear picture.

She remembered that thirty years ago—yes, it must be thirty years ago, when, as a young woman, she had put all her capital into the antique business, and had been staying with her cousins (her aunt had then been alive) that she had driven across the marsh to “Hartleys,” where there was an auction sale; all the details of this she had completely forgotten, but she could recall quite clearly purchasing a set of gorgeous china which was still one of her proud delights, a perfect set of Crown Derby save that one plate was missing.

“How odd,” she remarked, “that this Miss Lefain should collect china too, for it was at ‘Hartleys’ that I purchased my dear old Derby service—I’ve never been able to match that plate——”

“A plate was missing? I seem to remember,” said Clara. “Didn’t they say that it must be in the house somewhere and that it should be looked for?”

“I believe they did, but of course I never heard any more and that missing plate has annoyed me ever since. Who had ‘Hartleys’?”

“An old connoisseur, Sir James Sewell; I believe he was some relation to this Miss Lefain, but I don’t know——”

“I wonder if she has found the plate,” mused Miss Pym. “I expect she has turned out and ransacked the whole place——”

“Why not trot over and ask?” suggested Mabel. “It’s not much use to her, if she has found it, one odd plate.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Clara. “Fancy going over the marshes, this weather, to ask about a plate missed all those years ago. I’m sure Martha wouldn’t think of it——”

But Martha did think of it; she was rather fascinated by the idea; how queer and pleasant it would be if, after all these years, nearly a lifetime, she should find the Crown Derby plate, the loss of which had always irked her! And this hope did not seem so altogether fantastical, it was quite likely that old Miss Lefain, poking about in the ancient house, had found the missing piece.

And, of course, if she had, being a fellow-collector, she would be quite willing to part with it to complete the set.

Her cousin endeavoured to dissuade her; Miss Lefain, she declared, was a recluse, an odd creature who might greatly resent such a visit and such a request.

“Well, if she does I can but come away again,” smiled Miss Pym. “I suppose she can’t bite my head off, and I rather like meeting these curious types—we’ve got a love for old china in common, anyhow.”

“It seems so silly to think of it—after all these years—a plate!”

“A Crown Derby plate,” corrected Miss Pym. “It is certainly strange that I didn’t think of it before, but now that I have got it into my head I can’t get it out. Besides,” she added hopefully, “I might see the ghost.”

So full, however, were the days with pleasant local engagements that Miss Pym had no immediate chance of putting her scheme into practice; but she did not relinquish it, and she asked several different people what they knew about “Hartleys” and Miss Lefain.

And no one knew anything save that the house was supposed to be haunted and the owner “cracky.”

“Is there a story?” asked Miss Pym, who associated ghosts with neat tales into which they fitted as exactly as nuts into shells.

But she was always told: “Oh, no, there isn’t a story, no one knows anything about the place, don’t know how the idea got about; old Sewcll was half-crazy, I believe, he was buried in the garden and that gives a house a nasty name——”

“Very unpleasant,” said Martha Pym, undisturbed.

This ghost seemed too elusive for her to track down; she would have to be content if she could recover the Crown Derby plate; for that at least she was determined to make a try and also to satisfy that faint tingling of curiosity roused in her by this talk about “Hartleys” and the remembrance of that day, so long ago, when she had gone to the auction sale at the lonely old house.

So the first free afternoon, while Mabel and Clara were comfortably taking their afternoon repose, Martha Pym, who was of a more lively habit, got out her little governess cart and dashed away across the Essex flats.

She had taken minute directions with her, but she had soon lost her way.

Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon, the olive-brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first stillness of a frost; the air was cold but not keen, everything was damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes; the flooded fields were haunted by black birds and white birds, gulls and crows, whining above the long ditch grass and wintry wastes.

Miss Pym stopped the little horse and surveyed this spectral scene, which had a certain relish about it to one sure to return to a homely village, a cheerful house and good company.

A withered and bleached old man, in colour like the dun landscape, came along the road between the sparse alders.

Miss Pym, buttoning up her coat, asked the way to “Hartley” as he passed her; he told her, straight on, and she proceeded, straight indeed across the road that went with undeviating length across the marshes.

“Of course,” thought Miss Pym, “if you live in a place like this, you are bound to invent ghosts.”

The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall that the perpetual damp had overrun with lichen, blue, green, white colours of decay.

“Hartleys,” no doubt, there was no other residence of human being in sight in all the wide expanse; besides, she could remember it, surely, after all this time, the sharp rising out of the marsh, the colony of tall trees, but then fields and trees had been green and bright—there had been no water on the flats, it had been summer-time.

“She certainly,” thought Miss Pym, “must be crazy to live here. And I rather doubt if I shall get my plate.”

She fastened up the good little horse by the garden gate which stood negligently ajar and entered; the garden itself was so neglected that it was quite surprising to see a trim appearance in the house, curtains at the window and a polish on the brass door knocker, which must have been recently rubbed there, considering the taint in the sea damp which rusted and rotted everything.

It was a square-built, substantial house with “nothing wrong with it but the situation,” Miss Pym decided, though it was not very attractive, being built of that drab plastered stone so popular a hundred years ago, with flat windows and door, while one side was gloomily shaded by a large evergreen tree of the cypress variety which gave a blackish tinge to that portion of the garden.

There was no pretence at flower-beds nor any manner of cultivation in this garden where a few rank weeds and straggling bushes matted together above the dead grass; on the enclosing wall which appeared to have been built high as protection against the ceaseless winds that swung along the flats were the remains of fruit trees; their crucified branches, rotting under the great nails that held them up, looked like the skeletons of those who had died in torment.

Miss Pym took in these noxious details as she knocked firmly at the door; they did not depress her; she merely felt extremely sorry for anyone who could live in such a place.

She noticed, at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a headstone showing above the sodden colourless grass, and remembered what she had been told about the old antiquary being buried there, in the grounds of “Hartleys.”

As the knock had no effect she stepped back and looked at the house; it was certainly inhabited—with those neat windows, white curtains and drab blinds all pulled to precisely the same level.

And when she brought her glance back to the door she saw that it had been opened and that someone, considerably obscured by the darkness of the passage, was looking at her intently.

“Good afternoon,” said Miss Pym cheerfully. “I just thought that I would call to see Miss Lefain—it is Miss Lefain, isn’t it?”

“It’s my house,” was the querulous reply.

Martha Pym had hardly expected to find any servants here, though the old lady must, she thought, work pretty hard to keep the house so clean and tidy as it appeared to be.

“Of course,” she replied. “May I come in? I’m Martha Pym, staying with the Wyntons, I met you there——”

“Do come in,” was the faint reply. “I get so few people to visit me, I’m really very lonely.”

“I don’t wonder,” thought Miss Pym; but she had resolved to take no notice of any eccentricity on the part of her hostess, and so she entered the house with her usual agreeable candour and courtesy.

The passage was badly lit, but she was able to get a fair idea of Miss Lefain; her first impression was that this poor creature was most dreadfully old, older than any human being had the right to be, why, she felt young in comparison—so faded, feeble, and pallid was Miss Lefain.

She was also monstrously fat; her gross, flaccid figure was shapeless and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained with earth and damp where Miss Pym supposed she had been doing futile gardening; this gown was doubtless designed to disguise her stoutness, but had been so carelessly pulled about that it only added to it, being rucked and rolled “all over the place” as Miss Pym put it to herself.

Another ridiculous touch about the appearance of the poor old lady was her short hair; decrepit as she was, and lonely as she lived she had actually had her scanty relics of white hair cropped round her shaking head.

“Dear me, dear me,” she said in her thin treble voice. “How very kind of you to come. I suppose you prefer the parlour? I generally sit in the garden.”

“The garden? But not in this weather?”

“I get used to the weather. You’ve no idea how used one gets to the weather.”

“I suppose so,” conceded Miss Pym doubtfully. “You don’t live here quite alone, do you?”

“Quite alone, lately. I had a little company, but she was taken away, I’m sure I don’t know where. I haven’t been able to find a trace of her anywhere,” replied the old lady peevishly.

“Some wretched companion that couldn’t stick it, I suppose,” thought Miss Pym. “Well, I don’t wonder—but someone ought to be here to look after her.”

They went into the parlour, which, the visitor was dismayed to see, was without a fire but otherwise well kept.

And there, on dozens of shelves was a choice array of china at which Martha Pym’s eyes glistened.

“Aha!” cried Miss Lefain. “I see you’ve noticed my treasures! Don’t you envy me? Don’t you wish that you had some of those pieces?”

Martha Pym certainly did and she looked eagerly and greedily round the walls, tables, and cabinets while the old woman followed her with little thin squeals of pleasure.

It was a beautiful little collection, most choicely and elegantly arranged, and Martha thought it marvellous that this feeble ancient creature should be able to keep it in such precise order as well as doing her own housework.

“Do you really do everything yourself here and live quite alone?” she asked, and she shivered even in her thick coat and wished that Miss Lefain’s energy had risen to a fire, but then probably she lived in the kitchen, as these lonely eccentrics often did.

“There was someone,” answered Miss Lefain cunningly, “but I had to send her away. I told you she’s gone, I can’t find her, and I am so glad. Of course,” she added wistfully, “it leaves me very lonely, but then I couldn’t stand her impertinence any longer. She used to say that it was her house and her collection of china! Would you believe it? She used to try to chase me away from looking at my own things!”

“How very disagreeable,” said Miss Pym, wondering which of the two women had been crazy. “But hadn’t you better get someone else.”

“Oh, no,” was the jealous answer. “I would rather be alone with my things, I daren’t leave the house for fear someone takes them away—there was a dreadful time once when an auction sale was held here——”

“Were you here then?” asked Miss Pym; but indeed she looked old enough to have been anywhere.

“Yes, of course,” Miss Lefain replied rather peevishly and Miss Pym decided that she must be a relation of old Sir James Sewell. Clara and Mabel had been very foggy about it all. “I was very busy hiding all the china—but one set they got—a Crown Derby tea service——”

“With one plate missing!” cried Martha Pym. “I bought it, and do you know, I was wondering if you’d found it——”

“I hid it,” piped Miss Lefain.

“Oh, you did, did you? Well, that’s rather funny behaviour. Why did you hide the stuff away instead of buying it?”

“How could I buy what was mine?”

“Old Sir James left it to you, then?” asked Martha Pym, feeling very muddled.

She bought a lot more,” squeaked Miss Lefain, but Martha Pym tried to keep her to the point.

“If you’ve got the plate,” she insisted, “you might let me have it—I’ll pay quite handsomely, it would be so pleasant to have it after all these years.”

“Money is no use to me,” said Miss Lefain mournfully. “Not a bit of use. I can’t leave the house or the garden.”

“Well, you have to live, I suppose,” replied Martha Pym cheerfully. “And, do you know, I’m afraid you are getting rather morbid and dull, living here all alone—you really ought to have a fire—why, it’s just on Christmas and very damp.”

“I haven’t felt the cold for a long time,” replied the other; she seated herself with a sigh on one of the horsehair chairs and Miss Pym noticed with a start that her feet were covered only by a pair of white stockings; “one of those nasty health fiends,” thought Miss Pym, “but she doesn’t look too well for all that.”

“So you don’t think that you could let me have the plate?” she asked briskly, walking up and down, for the dark, neat, clean parlour was very cold indeed, and she thought that she couldn’t stand this much longer; as there seemed no sign of tea or anything pleasant and comfortable she had really better go.

“I might let you have it,” sighed Miss Lefain, “since you’ve been so kind as to pay me a visit. After all, one plate isn’t much use, is it?”

“Of course not, I wonder you troubled to hide it——”

“I couldn’t bear,” wailed the other, “to see the things going out of the house!”

Martha Pym couldn’t stop to go into all this; it was quite clear that the old lady was very eccentric indeed and that nothing very much could be done with her; no wonder that she had “dropped out” of everything and that no one ever saw her or knew anything about her, though Miss Pym felt that some effort ought really to be made to save her from herself.

“Wouldn’t you like a run in my little governess cart?” she suggested. “We might go to tea with the Wyntons on the way back, they’d be delighted to see you, and I really think that you do want taking out of yourself.”

“I was taken out of myself some time ago,” replied Miss Lefain. “I really was, and I couldn’t leave my things—though,” she added with pathetic gratitude, “it is very, very kind of you——”

“Your things would be quite safe, I’m sure,” said Martha Pym, humouring her. “Who ever would come up here, this hour of a winter’s day?”

“They do, oh, they do! And she might come back, prying and nosing and saying that it was all hers, all my beautiful china, hers!”

Miss Lefain squealed in her agitation and rising up, ran round the wall fingering with flaccid yellow hands the brilliant glossy pieces on the shelves.

“Well, then, I’m afraid that I must go, they’ll be expecting me, and it’s quite a long ride; perhaps some other time you’ll come and see us?

“Oh, must you go?” quavered Miss Lefain dolefully. “I do like a little company now and then and I trusted you from the first—the others, when they do come, are always after my things and I have to frighten them away!”

“Frighten them away!” replied Martha Pym. “However do you do that?”

“It doesn’t seem difficult, people are so easily frightened, aren’t they?”

Miss Pym suddenly remembered that “Hartleys” had the reputation of being haunted—perhaps the queer old thing played on that; the lonely house with the grave in the garden was dreary enough around which to create a legend.

“I suppose you’ve never seen a ghost?” she asked pleasantly. “I’d rather like to see one, you know——”

“There is no one here but myself,” said Miss Lefain.

“So you’ve never seen anything? I thought it must be all nonsense. Still, I do think it rather melancholy for you to live here all alone——”

Miss Lefain sighed:

“Yes, it’s very lonely. Do stay and talk to me a little longer.” Her whistling voice dropped cunningly. “And I’ll give you the Crown Derby plate!”

“Are you sure you’ve really got it?” Miss Pym asked.

“I’ll show you.”

Fat and waddling as she was, she seemed to move very lightly as she slipped in front of Miss Pym and conducted her from the room, going slowly up the stairs—such a gross odd figure in that clumsy dress with the fringe of white hair hanging on to her shoulders.

The upstairs of the house was as neat as the parlour, everything well in its place; but there was no sign of occupancy; the beds were covered with dust sheets, there were no lamps or fires set ready. “I suppose,” said Miss Pym to herself, “she doesn’t care to show me where she reeally lives.”

But as they passed from one room to another, she could not help saying:

“Where do you live, Miss Lefain?”

“Mostly in the garden,” said the other.

Miss Pym thought of those horrible health huts that some people indulged in.

“Well, sooner you than I,” she replied cheerfully.

In the most distant room of all, a dark, tiny closet, Miss Lefain opened a deep cupboard and brought out a Crown Derby plate which her guest received with a spasm of joy, for it was actually that missing from her cherished set.

“It’s very good of you,” she said in delight. “Won’t you take something for it, or let me do something for you?”

“You might come and see me again,” replied Miss Lefain wistfully.

“Oh, yes, of course I should like to come and see you again.”

But now that she had got what she had really come for, the plate, Martha Pym wanted to be gone; it was really very dismal and depressing in the house and she began to notice a fearful smell—the place had been shut up too long, there was something damp rotting somewhere, in this horrid little dark closet no doubt.

“I really must be going,” she said hurriedly.

Miss Lefain turned as if to cling to her, but Martha Pym moved quickly away.

“Dear me,” wailed the old lady. “Why are you in such haste?”

“There’s—a smell,” murmured Miss Pym rather faintly.

She found herself hastening down the stairs, with Miss Lefain complaining behind her.

“How peculiar people are—she used to talk of a smell——”

“Well, you must notice it yourself.”

Miss Pym was in the hall; the old woman had not followed her, but stood in the semi-darkness at the head of the stairs, a pale shapeless figure.

Martha Pym hated to be rude and ungrateful but she could not stay another moment; she hurried away and was in her cart in a moment—really—that smell——

“Good-bye!” she called out with false cheerfulness, “and thank you so much!”

There was no answer from the house.

Miss Pym drove on; she was rather upset and took another way than that by which she had come, a way that led past a little house raised above the marsh; she was glad to think that the poor old creature at “Hartleys” had such near neighbours, and she reined up the horse, dubious as to whether she should call someone and tell them that poor old Miss Lefain really wanted a little looking after, alone in a house like that, and plainly not quite right in her head.

A young woman, attracted by the sound of the governess cart, came to the door of the house and seeing Miss Pym called out, asking if she wanted the keys of the house?

“What house?” asked Miss Pym.

“‘Hartleys,’ mum, they don’t put a board out, as no one is likely to pass, but it’s to be sold. Miss Lefain wants to sell or let it——”

“I’ve just been up to see her——”

“Oh, no, mum—she’s been away a year, abroad somewhere, couldn’t stand the place, it’s been empty since then, I just run in every day and keep things tidy——”

Loquacious and curious the young woman had come to the fence; Miss Pym had stopped her horse.

“Miss Lefain is there now,” she said. “She must have just come back——”

“She wasn’t there this morning, mum, ’tisn’t likely she’d come, either—fair scared she was, mum, fair chased away, didn’t dare move her china. Can’t say I’ve noticed anything myself, but I never stay long—and there’s a smell——”

“Yes,” murmured Martha Pym faintly, “there’s a smell. What—what—chased her away?”

The young woman, even in that lonely place, lowered her voice.

“Well, as you aren’t thinking of taking the place, she got an idea in her head that old Sir James—well, he couldn’t bear to leave ‘Hartleys,’ mum, he’s buried in the garden, and she thought he was after her, chasing round them bits of china——”

“Oh!” cried Miss Pym.

“Some of it used to be his, she found a lot stuffed away, he said they were to be left in ‘Hartleys,’ but Miss Lefain would have the things sold, I believe—that’s years ago——”

“Yes, yes,” said Miss Pym with a sick look. “You don’t know what he was like, do you?”

“No, mum—but I’ve heard tell he was very stout and very old—I wonder who it was you saw up at ‘Hartleys’?”

Miss Pym took a Crown Derby plate from her bag.

“You might take that back when you go,” she whispered. “I shan’t want it, after all——”

Before the astonished young woman could answer Miss Pym had darted off across the marsh; that short hair, that earth-stained robe, the white socks, “I generally live in the garden——”

Miss Pym drove away, breakneck speed, frantically resolving to mention to no one that she had paid a visit to “Hartleys,” nor lightly again to bring up the subject of ghosts.

She shook and shuddered in the damp, trying to get out of her clothes and her nostrils—that indescribable smell.

Winter Snow, by Winter Capricorn on Tumblr

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.