I’ve always wanted to be invited to a big, rambling, haunted, rich (important, for the upkeep. I am very expensive to keep up) English country house for Christmas holidays. Since I don’t actually, you know, live in England, or know many English people and only one that had a house anywhere approaching my requirements, I shall probably end up having to purchase my own.
Hope the cheque clears. Christmas is a time of miracles, isn’t it?
Anyhoodle, in the spirit of grand English country estates and grand English country house parties, here’s a grand example: Smee, by A. M. Burrage, one of the most goosepimpling of stories, and a classic example of the scorpion sting in the tail. At first, it’s all jolly yuletide and hail wassail, but then a hint, just a hint, of something unfresh seeps in. It grows and grows, while you’re still not sure it is any Thing at all. And then…ah, but that would be telling! You’ll never play hide and seek again without thinking about this story, I’d lay odds on it.
Enjoy one of the most famous of all Christmas ghost stories, a good old-fashioned country house creeper!
by A.M. Burrage
A Christmas Ghost
No,’ said Jackson with a shy little smile. `I’m sorry. I won’t play hide and seek.’
It was Christmas Eve, and there were fourteen of us in the house. We had had a good dinner, and we were all in the mood for fun and games – all, that is, except Jackson. When somebody suggested hide and seek, there were loud shouts of agreement. Jackson’s refusal was the only one.
It was not like Jackson to refuse to play a game. `Aren’t you feeling well?’ someone asked.
`I’m perfectly all right, thank you,’ he said. `But,’ he added with a smile that softened his refusal but did not change it, `I’m still not playing hide and seek.’
`Why not?’ someone asked. He hesitated for a moment before replying.
`I sometimes go and stay at a house where a girl was killed. She was playing hide and seek in the dark. She didn’t know the house very well. There was a door that led to the servants’ staircase. When she was chased, she thought the door led to a bedroom. She opened the door and jumped – and landed at the bottom of the stairs. She broke her neck, of course.’
We all looked serious. Mrs Fernley said, `How terrible! And were you there when it happened?’
Jackson shook his head sadly. `No,’ he said, `but I was there when something else happened. Something worse.’
`What could be worse than that?’
`This was,’ said Jackson. He hesitated for a moment, then he said, `I wonder if any of you have ever played a game called “Smee”. It’s much better than hide and seek. The name comes from “It’s me”, of course. Perhaps you’d like to play it instead of hide and seek. Let me tell you the rules of the game.
`Every player is given a sheet of paper. All the sheets except one are blank. On the last sheet of paper is written “Smee”. Nobody knows who “Smee” is except “Smee” himself – or herself. You turn out the lights, and “Smee” goes quietly out of the room and hides. After a time the others go off to search for “Smee” – but of course they don’t know who they are looking for. When one player meets another he challenges him by saying, “Smee”. The other player answers “Smee”, and they continue searching.
`But the real “Smee” doesn’t answer when someone challenges. The second player stays quietly beside him. Presently they will be discovered by a third player. He will challenge and receive no answer, and he will join the first two. This goes on until all the players are in the same place. The last one to find “Smee” has to pay a forfeit. It’s a good, noisy, amusing game. In a big house it often takes a long time for everyone to find “Smee”. Perhaps you’d like to try. I’ll happily pay my forfeit and sit here by the fire while you play.’
`It sounds a good game,’ I remarked. `Have you played it too, Jackson?’
`Yes,’ he answered. `I played it in the house that I was telling you about.’
`And she was there? The girl who broke – .’
`No, no,’ said someone else. `He told us he wasn’t there when she broke her neck.’
Jackson thought for a moment. `I don’t know if she was there or not. I’m afraid she was. I know that there were thirteen of us playing the game, and there were only twelve people in the house. And I didn’t know the dead girl’s name. When I heard that whispered name in the dark, it didn’t worry me. But I tell you, I’m never going to play that kind of game again. It made me quite nervous for a long time.
I prefer to pay my forfeit at once!’
We all stared at him. His words did not make sense at all.
Tim Vouce was the kindest man in the world. He smiled at us all.
`This sounds like an interesting story,’ he said. `Come on, Jackson, you can tell it to us instead of paying a forfeit.’
`Very well,’ said Jackson. And here is his story.
Have you met the Sangstons? They are cousins of mine, and they live in Surrey. Five years ago they invited me to go and spend Christmas with them.
It was an old house, with lots of unnecessary passages and staircases. A stranger could get lost in it quite easily.
Well, I went down for that Christmas. Violet Sangston promised me that I knew most of the other guests. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get away from my job until Christmas Eve. All the other guests had arrived there the previous day. I was the last to arrive, and I was only just in time for dinner. I said `Hullo’ to everyone I knew, and Violet Sangston introduced me to the people I didn’t know. Then it was time to go in to dinner.
That is perhaps why I didn’t hear the name of a tall, darkhaired handsome girl whom I hadn’t met before. Everyone was in rather a hurry and I am always bad at catching people’s names. She looked cold and clever. She didn’t look at all friendly, but she looked interesting, and I wondered who she was. I didn’t ask, because I was sure that someone would speak to her by name during the meal. Unluckily, however, I was a long way from her at table. I was sitting next to Mrs Gorman, and as usual Mrs Gorman was being very bright and amusing. Her conversation is always worth listening to, and I completely forgot to ask the name of the dark, proud girl.
There were twelve of us, including the Sangstons themselves. We were all young – or trying to be young. Jack and Violet Sangston were the oldest, and their seventeen-yearold son Reggie was the youngest. It was Reggie who suggested `Smee’ when the talk turned to games. He told us the rules of the game, just as I’ve described them to you. Jack Sangston warned us all. `If you are going to play games in the dark,’ he said, `please be careful of the back stairs on the first floor. A door leads to them, and I’ve often thought about taking the door off. In the dark a stranger to the house could think they were walking into a room. A girl really did break her neck on those stairs.’
I asked how it happened.
`It was about ten years ago, before we came here. There was a party and they were playing hide and seek. This girl was looking for somewhere to hide. She heard somebody coming, and ran along the passage to get away. She opened the door, thinking it led to a bedroom. She planned to hide in there until the seeker had gone. Unfortunately it was the door that led to the back stairs. She fell straight down to the bottom of the stairs. She was dead when they picked her up.’
We all promised to be careful. Mrs Gorman even made a little joke about living to be ninety. You see, none of us had known the poor girl, and we did not want to feel sad on Christmas Eve.
Well, we all started the game immediately after dinner. Young Reggie Sangston went round making sure all the lights were off, except the ones in the servants’ rooms and in the sitting-room where we were. We then prepared twelve sheets of paper. Eleven of them were blank, and one of them had `Smee’ written on it. Reggie mixed them all up, then we each took one.
The person who got the paper with `Smee’ on it had to hide. I looked at mine and saw that it was blank. A moment later, all the electric lights went out. In the darkness I heard someone moving very quietly to the door.
After a minute somebody blew a whistle, and we all rushed to the door. I had no idea who was `Smee’. For five or ten minutes we were all rushing up and down passages and in and out of rooms, challenging each other and answering, `Smee? – Smee!’ .
After a while, the noise died down, and I guessed that someone had found `Smee’. After a time I found a group of people all sitting on some narrow stairs. I challenged, and received no answer. So `Smee’ was there. I hurriedly joined the group. Presently two more players arrived. Each one was hurrying to avoid being last. Jack Sangston was last, and was given a forfeit.
`I think we’re all here now, aren’t we?’ he remarked. He lit a match, looked up the staircase and began to count.
. . . Nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen,’ he said, and then laughed. `That’s silly – there’s one too many!’
The match went out, and he lit another and began to count. He got as far as twelve, then he looked puzzled.
`There are thirteen people here!’ he said. `I haven’t counted myself yet.’
`Oh, nonsense!’ I laughed. `You probably began with yourself, and now you want to count yourself twice.’
His son took out his electric torch. It gave a better light than the matches, and we all began to count. Of course there were twelve of us. Jack laughed. `Well,’ he said, `I was sure I counted thirteen twice.’
From half way up the stairs Violet Sangston spoke nervously. `I thought there was somebody sitting two steps above me. Have you moved, Captain Ransome?’
The captain said that he hadn’t. `But I thought there was somebody sitting between Mrs Sangston and me.’
Just for a moment there was an uncomfortable something in the air. A cold finger seemed to touch us all. For that moment we all felt that something odd and unpleasant had just happened – and was likely to happen again. Then we laughed at ourselves, and at each other, and we felt normal again. There were only twelve of us, and that was that. Still laughing, we marched back to the sitting-room to begin again.
This time I was `Smee’. Violet Sangston found me while I was searching for a hiding-place. That game didn’t last long. Soon there were twelve people and the game was over. Violet felt cold, and wanted her jacket. Her husband went up to their bedroom to fetch it. As soon as he’d gone, Reggie touched me on the arm. He was looking pale and sick. `Quick!’ he whispered, `I’ve got to talk to you. Something horrible has happened.’
We went into the breakfast-room. `What’s the matter?’ I asked.
`I don’t know. You were “Smee” last time, weren’t you? Well, of course I didn’t know who “Smee” was. While Mother and the others ran to the west side of the house and found you, I went east. There’s a deep clothes cupboard in my bedroom. It looked like a good hiding-place. I thought that perhaps “Smee” might be there. I opened the door in the dark – and touched somebody’s hand. “Smee?” I whispered. There was no answer. I thought I’d found “Smee”.
`Well, I don’t understand it, but I suddenly had a strange, cold feeling. I can’t describe it, but I felt that something was wrong. So I turned on my electric torch and there was nobody there.
Now, I am sure I touched a hand. And nobody could get out of the cupboard, because I was standing in the doorway. What do you think?’
`You imagined that you touched a hand,’ I said.
He gave a short laugh. `I knew you would say that,’ he said. `Of course I imagined it. That’s the only explanation, isn’t it?’
I agreed with him. I could see that he still felt shaken. Together we returned to the sitting-room for another game of `Smee’. The others were all ready and waiting to start again.
Perhaps it was my imagination (although I’m almost sure that it was not). But I had a feeling that nobody was really enjoying the game any more. But everyone was too polite to mention it. All the same, I had the feeling that something was wrong. All the fun had gone out of the game. Something deep inside me was trying to warn me. `Take care,’ it whispered. `Take care’. There was some unnatural, unhealthy influence at work in the house. Why did I have this feeling? Because Jack Sangston had counted thirteen people instead of twelve? Because his son imagined he had touched someone’s hand in an empty cupboard? I tried to laugh at myself, but I did not succeed.
Well, we started again. While we were all chasing the unknown `Smee’ we were all as noisy as ever. But it seemed to me that most of us were just acting. We were no longer enjoying the game. At first I stayed with the others. But for several minutes no `Smee’ was found. I left the main group and started searching on the first floor at the west side of the house. And there, while I was feeling my way along, I bumped into a pair of human knees.
I put out my hand and touched a soft, heavy curtain. Then I knew where I was. There were tall, deep windows with window-seats at the end of the passage. The curtains reached to the ground. Somebody was sitting in a corner of one of the window-seats, behind a curtain.
`Aha!’ I thought, `I’ve caught “Smee”!’ So I pulled the curtain to one side – and touched a woman’s arm.
It was a dark, moonless night outside. I couldn’t see the woman sitting in the corner of the window-seat.
`Smee?’ I whispered.
There was no answer. When `Smee’ is challenged, he – or she – does not answer. So I sat down beside her to wait for the others. Then I whispered, `What’s your name?’
And out of the darkness beside me the whisper came: `Brenda Ford’.
I did not know the name, but I guessed at once who she was. I knew every girl in the house by name except one. And that was the tall, pale, dark girl. So here she was sitting beside me on the window-seat, shut in between a heavy curtain and a window. I was beginning to enjoy the game. I wondered if she was enjoying it too. I whispered one or two rather ordinary questions to her, and received no answer.
`Smee’ is a game of silence. It is a rule of the game that `Smee’ and the person or persons who have found `Smee’ have to keep quiet. This, of course, makes it harder for the others to find them. But there was nobody else about. I wondered, therefore, why she was insisting on silence. I spoke again and got no answer. I began to feel a little annoyed. `Perhaps she is one of those cold, clever girls who have a poor opinion of all men,’ I thought. `She doesn’t like me, and she is using the rules of the game as an excuse for not speaking. Well, if she doesn’t like sitting here with me, I certainly don’t want to sit with her!’ I turned away from her.
`I hope someone finds us soon,’ I thought.
As I sat there, I realized that I disliked sitting beside this girl very much indeed. That was strange. The girl I had seen at dinner had seemed likeable in a cold kind of way. I noticed her and wanted to know more about her. But now I felt really uncomfortable beside her. The feeling of something wrong, something unnatural, was growing. I remembered touching her arm, and I trembled with horror. I wanted to jump up and run away. I prayed that someone else would come along soon.
Just then I heard light footsteps in the passage. Somebody on the other side of the curtain brushed against my knees. The curtain moved to one side, and a woman’s hand touched my shoulder. `Smee?’ whispered a voice that I recognized at once. It was Mrs Gorman. Of course she received no answer. She came and sat down beside me, and at once I felt very much better.
`It’s Tony Jackson, isn’t it?’ she whispered.
`Yes,’ I whispered back.
`You’re not “Smee”, are you?’
`No, she’s on my other side.’
She reached out across me. I heard her finger-nails scratch a woman’s silk dress.
`Hullo, “Smee”. How are you? Who are you? Oh, is it against the rules to talk? Never mind, Tony, we’ll break the rules. Do you know, Tony, this game is beginning to annoy me a little. I hope they aren’t going to play it all evening. I’d like to play a nice quiet game, all together beside a warm fire.’
`Me too,’ I agreed.
`Can’t you suggest something to them? There’s something rather unhealthy about this particular game. I’m sure I’m being very silly. But I can’t get rid of the idea that we’ve got an extra player . . . somebody who ought not to be here at all.’
That was exactly how I felt, but I didn’t say so. However, I felt very much better. Mrs Gorman’s arrival had chased away my fears. We sat talking. `I wonder when the others will find us?’ said Mrs Gorman.
After a time we heard the sound of feet, and young Reggie’s voice shouting, `Hullo, hullo! Is anybody there?’
`Yes,’ I answered.
`Is Mrs Gorman with you?’
`What happened to you? You’ve both got forfeits. We’ve all been waiting for you for hours.’
`But you haven’t found “Smee” yet,’ I complained. ‘
`You haven’t, you mean. I was “Smee” this time.’
`But “Smee” is here with us!’ I cried.
`Yes,’ agreed Mrs Gorman.
The curtain was pulled back and we sat looking into the eye of Reggie’s electric torch. I looked at Mrs Gorman, and then on my other side. Between me and the wall was an empty place on the window-seat. I stood up at once. Then I sat down again. I was feeling very sick and the world seemed to be going round and round.
`There was somebody there,’ I insisted, `because I touched her.’
`So did I,’ said Mrs Gorman, in a trembling voice. `And I don’t think anyone could leave this window-seat without us knowing.’
Reggie gave a shaky little laugh. I remembered his unpleasant experience earlier that evening. `Someone’s been playing jokes,’ he said. `Are you coming down?’
We were not very popular when we came down to the sitting-room.
`I found the two of them sitting behind a curtain, on a window-seat,’ said Reggie.
I went up to the tall, dark girl.
`So you pretended to be “Smee”, and then went away!’ I accused her.
She shook her head. Afterwards we all played cards in the sitting-room, and I was very glad.
Some time later, Jack Sangston wanted to talk to me. I could see that he was rather cross with me, and soon he told me the reason.
`Tony,’ he said, `I suppose you are in love with Mrs Gorman. That’s your business, but please don’t make love to her in my house, during a game. You kept everyone waiting. It was very rude of you, and I’m ashamed of you.’
`But we were not alone!’ I protested. `There was somebody else there – somebody who was pretending to be “Smee”. I believe it was that tall, dark girl, Miss Ford. She whispered her name to me. Of course, she refused to admit it afterwards.’
Jack Sangston stared at me. `Miss who?’ he breathed.
`Brenda Ford, she said.’
Jack put a hand on my shoulder. `Look here, Tony,’ he said, `I don’t mind a joke, but enough is enough. We don’t want to worry the ladies. Brenda Ford is the name of the girl who broke her neck on the stairs. She was playing hide and seek here ten years ago.’