A Christmas Ghost Story
FOR ADULTS ONLY
" I can never see why creepy stories should be considered suitable for Christmas," protested the doctor. " They arc not the least appropriate to the Christian festival nor even to the Dickens Christmas."
" I suppose it is the wintet season that they really belong to," replied Symonds; " long evenings and big fires and the storm howling outside, you know. And Christmas happens to be the moment in the winter when the biggest . house-parties are gathered round the fire wanting entertainment. But what does it matter anyway?"
"It matters a good deal to 'me because I never did particularly like the association with Christmas and then one year the real thing happened actually on Christmas night."
"I should have thought that that would have confirmed the association," said Symonds.
" It did, but in the way that truth and falsehood are associated, or good and evil." "What did you see?"
"I saw the man who had seen it. I ..vas staying with friends nearby for Christmas and was fetched when I got back from midnight Mass to attend him. When I arrived he was still where they found him, at the foot of the stair-well. He had been too badly broken for them to move him. Evidently he had fallen backwards over the rail of the gallery. There was no sign of violence but there was a sort of spume on his lips and breast which was never explained."
" Was he dead?"
" No, he lingered two or three .hours and towards the end he began to talkdeliriously, of course. He made me see what he had seen almost as vividly as if I had seen it myself. It still frightens me sometimes. I can see him straining backwards from it over that railing now."
'Surely you must be speaking of the Pendhu deaths? A double tragedy,' the papers called it, though they never gave the explanation."
" They never knew it," said the doctor. " But it's true that there was another death that night. His little girl, not two years old, was found stone cold and wasted away when they went into her room in the morning."
"She had been wasting for some time, I understood."
"She had," replied the doctor.
"Then what was queer about it? What did the local doctor have to say?"
" He had never been called in. He had heard some talk in the village but not enough to take definite action on. The child's nurse had a lot to say afterwards about the complaints she had made to her master about the child's health, but I have my doubts. I don't think that any of the servants dared to cross him. And when it came to giving a death certificate Trevinnick saw no sufficient reason to make difficulties about it. He had been out at a maternity case that night. That was why I was fetched to attend the father. I had to go back to my own practice the next day and we never met to compare notes."
" But you know the truth?"
" I know enough."
There was a long pause.
" You won't like it," the doctor went on at last, " but I suppose I have gone too far to stop now.
"I knew Sayers first as an undergraduate. He had something very likeable about him in those days but something rather odd even then-tall, and a little inclined to droop, with long black hair and a way of looking past you. As he grew older his hair seemed to get lanker and darker, his cheeks more sallow and his eyes seemed not to belong to him at all. He was supposed to be doing some kind of research but it was apparently in something that didn't suit his college's idea of a Fellowship for he went down without even submitting a thesis and retired to his family place at Pendhu.
"It was a picturesque old place then with a reputation for ghosts and just the setting for them, you would have said. In fact, it was commonly supposed that that was its attraction for him. So when he married and took his wife there and she died in giving birth to the little girl, there were hard words spoken.
" Then to everyone's surprise he began modernising the place, stripping off dark panelling, straightening out awkward corners, installing electric light and so forth.
" He even altered the plan of it, making all the upstairs rooms open on to a long straight corridor running down the centre line of the house until it reached the stairwell I spoke of where it branched right and left so as to form the gallery running round it.
" Anyone who didn't know Sayers would have said that he had had enough of ghosts and was trying to clear them out of the house. And so he was in a way, but not out of the whole house. What no one outside knew until it was all over was that one room remained unaltered, the one at the far end of the corridor, with its door facing down it.
" It really did look as if he had been trying to drain into it whatever spirit presences occupied the house, and you must remember that he implicitly believed in them. Only he would have given a different name to what he was doing. His psychical research friends were very reticent about it all afterwards, naturally, but
I got enough out of them to show that his head was full of materialisations, ectoplasm, and so forth and some special ideas of his own about child mediums.
" Anyhow, it was in that room that the shrunken body of his little daughter was found.
" You must do your own theorising about it. You may even say if you like that what Sayers saw that Christmas night was just an hallucination of the brain. I don't, because I heard him talk, His language was quite uncontrolled but that is just why it conveyed such a tremendous sense of physical reality.
" Or you can say if you like that he saw the Pendhu ghost. Perhaps in a sense he did-he had got it to make itself visible.
" He seems to have been expecting a definite manifestation that night. The servants said that he could not settle down after dinner but kept mounting the staircase and pacing round the gallery, stopping every time he passed the end of the passage to peer at the child's bedroom door. Every light was full on-apparently it was a standing rule of the house-so that what with the new white paintwork and distemper and the stark bare lines the effect must have been more that of a laboratory than a haunted house. Certainly there seemed to be no place for the littlest sprite or the slightest creepiness.
" Only in the child's room the old panelling, the heavy hangings, the narrow, heavily leaded windows and the musty atmosphere remained all the traditional background of the ghost story. But it was not there that the thing appeared.
" By midnight all the house was still and he was watching, by the stair-rail.
" The door of his daughter's sick-room opened. Slowly and into the brilliant corridor there padded a little figure, that shrank from the light but this time did not dissolve in it.
" It washot her. It was foul, but somehow it physically suggested her. It toddled up to him and lifted a sort of face, half formless even under the blazing lights. There was a damp gape for a mouth.
" He edged backwards against the rail, but he could not escape. He was held by his feelings, the feelings of a father.
" The thing put out baby arms with a gesture of irresistible appeal. I.oathingly he was drawn to it. He stooped an lifted it, then drew it to his backward straining head, and as he slipped he kissed it."