The author Charlotte Riddell was among the most prolific writers of Victorian England. Quite a few of her writings were published under male pseudonyms, as with the story brought before us, which was published under the name J.H. Riddell—her husband’s name. In “A Strange Christmas Game,” written in the British tradition of Christmas ghost stories, the hidden talents of the women are easily discernible—while the narrator is a man, he is revealed to be utterly incompetent compared to his independent and vigil sister Clare, who, in fact, solves the mystery. Confronted with the ineptitude and short-sightedness of the powerful male figures in the story, among them the investigating judge and the honorable Mr. Cronson who determines that, “There is nothing more, of course, to be done in the matter,” Clare is revealed as a sensitive and intelligent woman (obviously she is still seized with “hysteria” when witnessing violent sights, in full accordance with the conventions of the genre), who not only opens the eyes of the violent men around her to the truth, but even steers the destiny of her brother, the narrator, by identifying the woman who would eventually become his wife and the mother of his children.
It was the middle of November when we arrived at Martingdale, and found the place anything but romantic or pleasant. The walks were wet and sodden, the trees were leafless, there were no flowers save a few late pink roses blooming in the garden. It had been a wet season, and the place looked miserable. Clare would not ask Alice down to keep her company in the winter months, as she had intended; and for myself, the Cronsons were still absent in New Norfolk, where they meant to spend Christmas with old Mrs. Cronson, now recovered.
Altogether, Martingdale seemed dreary enough, and the ghost stories we had laughed at while sunshine flooded the room, became less unreal, when we had nothing but blazing fires and wax candles to dispel the gloom. They became more real also when servant after servant left us to seek situations elsewhere! when “noises” grew frequent in the house; when we ourselves, Clare and I, with our own ears heard the tramp, tramp, the banging and the chattering which had been described to us.
My dear reader, you doubtless are free from superstitious fancies. You pooh-pooh the existence of ghosts, and “only wish you could find a haunted house in which to spend a night,” which is all very brave and praiseworthy, but wait till you are left in a dreary, desolate old country mansion, filled with the most unaccountable sounds, without a servant, with none save an old care-taker and his wife, who, living at the extremest end of the building, heard nothing of the tramp, tramp, bang, bang, going on at all hours of the night.
At first I imagined the noises were produced by some evil-disposed persons, who wished, for purposes of their own, to keep the house uninhabited; but by degrees Clare and I came to the conclusion the visitation must be supernatural, and Martingdale by consequence untenantable. Still being practical people, unlike our predecessors, not having money to live where and how we liked, we decided to watch and see whether we could trace any human influence in the matter. If not, it was agreed we were to pull down the right wing of the house and the principal staircase.
For nights and nights we sat up till two or three o’clock in the morning, Clare engaged in needlework, I reading, with a revolver lying on the table beside me; but nothing, neither sound nor appearance rewarded our vigil. This confirmed my first ideas that the sounds were not supernatural; but just to test the matter, I determined on Christmas-eve, the anniversary of Mr. Jeremy Lester’s disappearance, to keep watch myself in the red bed chamber. Even to Clare I never mentioned my intention.
About 10, tired out with our previous vigils, we each retired to rest. Somewhat ostentatiously, perhaps, I noisily shut the door of my room, and when I opened it half-an-hour afterwards, no mouse could have pursued its way along the corridor with greater silence and caution than myself. Quite in the dark I sat in the red room. For over an hour I might as well have been in my grave for anything I could see in the apartment; but at the end of that time the moon rose and cast strange lights across the floor and upon the wall of the haunted chamber.
Hitherto I kept my watch opposite the window, now I changed my place to a corner near the door, where I was shaded from observation by the heavy hangings of the bed, and an antique wardrobe. Still I sat on, but still no sound broke the silence. I was weary with many nights’ watching, and tired of my solitary vigil, I dropped at last into a slumber from which I awakened by hearing the door softly opened.
“John,” said my sister, almost in a whisper; “John, are you here?”
“Yes, Clare,” I answered; “but what are you doing up at this hour?”
“Come downstairs,” she replied; “they are in the oak parlor.”
I did not need any explanation as to whom she meant, but crept downstairs after her, warned by an uplifted hand of the necessity for silence and caution. By the door — by the open door of the oak parlor, she paused, and we both looked in.
There was the room we left in darkness overnight, with a bright wood fire blazing on the hearth, candles on the chimney-piece, the small table pulled out from its accustomed corner, and two men seated beside it, playing, at cribbage. We could see the face of the younger player; it was that of a man about five and twenty, of a man who had lived hard and wickedly; who had wasted his substance and his health; who had been while in the flesh Jeremy Lester.
It would be difficult for me to say how I knew this, how in a moment I identified the features of the player with those of the man who had been missing for forty-one years — forty-one years that very night.
He was dressed in the costume of a bygone period; his hair was powdered, and round his wrists there were ruffles of lace. He looked like one who, having come from some great party, had sat down after his return home to play cards with an intimate friend. On his little finger there sparkled a ring, in the front of his shirt there gleamed a valuable diamond. There were diamond buckles in his shoes, and, according to the fashion of his time, he wore knee breeches and silk stockings, which showed off advantageously the shape of a remarkably good leg and ankle. He sat opposite the door, but never once lifted his eyes to it. His attention seemed concentrated on the cards.
For a time there was utter silence in the room, broken only by the momentous counting of the game. In the doorway we stood, holding our breath, terrified and yet fascinated by the scene which was being acted before us. The ashes dropped on the hearth softly and like the snow; we could hear the rustle of the cards as they were dealt out and fell upon the table; we listened to the count — fifteen two, fifteen-four, and so forth, — but there was no other word spoken till at length the player, whose face we could not see, exclaimed, ” I win; the game is mine.”
Then his opponent took up the cards, sorted them over negligently in his hand, put them close together, and flung the whole pack in his guest’s face, exclaiming, “Cheat; liar; take that.”
There was a bustle and confusion — a flinging over of chairs, and fierce gesticulation, and such a noise of passionate voices mingling, that we could not hear a sentence which was uttered. All at once, however, Jeremy Lester strode out of the room in so great a hurry that he almost touched us where we stood; out of the room, and tramp, tramp up the staircase to the red room, whence he descended in a few minutes with a couple of rapiers under his arm. When he re-entered the room he gave, as it seemed to us, the other man his choice of the weapons, and then he flung open the window, and after ceremoniously giving place for his opponent to pass out first, he walked forth into the night air, Clare and I following.
We went through the garden and down a narrow winding walk to a smooth piece of turf, sheltered from the north by a plantation of young fir trees. It was a bright moonlight night by this time, and we could distinctly see Jeremy Lester measuring off the ground.
“When you say ‘three,’” he said at last to the man whose back was still towards us.
They had drawn lots for the ground, and the lot had fallen against Mr. Lester. He stood thus with the moonbeams falling upon him, and a handsomer fellow I would never desire to behold.
“One,” began the other; ” two,” and before our kinsman had the slightest suspicion of his design, he was upon him, and his rapier through Jeremy Lester’s breast.
At the sight of that cowardly treachery, Clare screamed aloud. In a moment the combatants had disappeared, the moon was obscured behind a cloud, and we were standing in the shadow of the fir-plantation, shivering with cold and terror. But we knew at last what had become of the late owner of Martingdale, that he had fallen, not in fair fight, but foully murdered by a false friend.
When late on Christmas morning I awoke, it was to see a white world, to behold the ground, and trees, and shrubs all laden and covered with snow. There was snow everywhere, such snow as no person could remember having fallen for forty-one years.
“It was on just such a Christmas as this that Mr. Jeremy disappeared,” remarked the old sexton to my sister who had insisted on dragging me through the snow to church, whereupon Clare fainted away and was carried into the vestry, where I made a full confession to the Vicar of all we had beheld the previous night.
At first that worthy individual rather inclined to treat the matter lightly, but when, a fortnight after, the snow melted away and the fir-plantation came to be examined, he confessed there might be more things in heaven and earth than his limited philosophy had dreamed of. In a little clear space just within the plantation, Jeremy Lester’s body was found. We knew it by the ring and the diamond buckles, and the sparkling breast-pin; and Mr. Cronson, who in his capacity as magistrate came over to inspect these relics, was visibly perturbed at my narrative.
“Pray, Mr. Lester, did you in your dream see the face of — of the gentleman — your kinsman’s opponent?”
“No,” I answered, “he sat and stood with his back to us all the time.”
“There is nothing more, of course, to be done in the matter,” observed Mr. Cronson.
“Nothing,” I replied; and there the affair would doubtless have terminated, but that a few days afterwards, when we were dining at Cronson Park, Clare all of a sudden dropped the glass of water she was carrying to her lips, and exclaiming, “Look, John, there he is!” rose from her seat, and with a face as white as the table cloth, pointed to a portrait hanging on the wall. “I saw him for an instant when he turned his head towards the door as Jeremy Lester left it,” she explained; “that is he.”
Of what followed after this identification I have only the vaguest recollection. Servants rushed hither and thither; Mrs. Cronson dropped off her chair into hysterics; the young ladies gathered round their mamma; Mr. Cronson, trembling like one in an ague fit, attempted some kind of an explanation, while Clare kept praying to be taken away, — only to be taken away. I took her away, not merely from Cronson Park but from Martingdale.
Before we left the latter place, however, I had an interview with Mr. Cronson, who said the portrait Clare had identified was that of his wife’s father, the last person who saw Jeremy Lester alive.
“He is an old man now,” finished Mr. Cronson, “a man of over eighty, who has confessed everything to me. You won’t bring further sorrow and disgrace upon us by making this matter public?”
I promised him I would keep silence, but the story gradually oozed out, and the Cronsons left the country. My sister never returned to Martingdale; she married and is living in London. Though I assure her there are no strange noises in my house, she will not visit Bedfordshire, where the “little girl” she wanted me so long ago to “think of seriously,” is now my wife and the mother of my children.
*Image: Eugenio Recuenco