Do you Believe in Ghosts?
by H.R.F. Keating
“DO you believe in ghosts?” Bob Bridges asked the guests. They were sitting in the half-dark of the great hall of Helston Manor House, the Yule log on its bed of glowing ashes in the wide hearth sputtering from time to time into bright outbursts of flame.
“Oh, yes, yes, yes.”
It was Adam Lyon’s new American wife, Marilyn, all enthusiasm, eyes sparkling in the warm light of the fire as brightly as the diamonds round her neck and at her ears.
Bob could not restrain a chuckle. “All right, you’re entitled,” he said. “A newcomer to this country, you’ve every right to be provided with all we can offer in the way of a good, old-fashioned Christmas. Well, that’s what Adam asked me to do for you when he was called away to America like that at such short notice.”
“Really, to come over from your own home on Christmas Eve and act as host in Adam’s place,” Marilyn answered. “That’s way beyond the call of friendship.”
Bob laughed. “Oh, I wasn’t making any huge sacrifice, you know. I’m all alone in our little cottage while my wife’s off seeing her parents in Australia. So I wouldn’t have had a very cheerful Christmas, although the vicar has done the Christian thing and invited me for dinner tomorrow-which is why, incidentally, we’ve rather put things back to front and have already consumed that huge goose, that even bigger plum pudding, all those mince pies and, best of all, those last few bottles of that wonderful burgundy from Adam’s cellar tonight.”
He turned to the others in the half-circle round the fire, acquaintances of the absent Adam Lyon, originally invited to meet the American girl he had married. There was Dame Shelagh Mitchel, “theatrical legend,” now in retirement at a house in the neighbourhood. There was Peter Watson, an old school chum, now “something in banking,” accompanied by his wife, Brenda. There was Gerald Martindale, “something in the galleries world,” and there was young Lord Hareswold, “something in the card-playing world,” apparently very successful.
“But now,” Bob went on, “I think it’s time we switched the clock back. It’s actually Christmas Eve, and I think we should, if only for Marilyn’s benefit, do all the old traditional things that used to be done on the night before Christmas, like telling ghost stories while sitting round a Yule log fire, though, to be frank, most of the Yule logs one sees nowadays are about three inches long and made of chocolate. But we’ll ignore that. So, I asked ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ And Marilyn said ‘Yes,’ or rather ‘Yes, yes, yes.'”
Bob turned then towards Dame Shelagh, sitting upright as a wooden soldier in a high-backed chair. He was about to speak when the ever-lively Marilyn burst in. “Okay, okay, I did say I believe in ghosts. And when I was a kid I just longed to see one. I even wanted to go to England just for that. But now that I’m here, and kind of grown-up, I think if I did really, really see one I’d just die of fright.”
“Oh, come on, Marilyn. A tough American girl. I suspect it’d be the ghost that came off worst.”
“Guess I hope so. But, come to think of it, I might just die of fright for real. I’ve got a kind of funny heart.”
Anxious to steer away from the awkward facts of reality, Bob hastily turned to the retired actress once again. “Dame Shelagh, do you believe in ghosts?”
“There are haunted theatres, of course, and I have played in most of them,” Dame Shelagh’s richly vowelled voice proclaimed, “but, no. No, when any Hamlet saw the ghost of his father as I gave my Gertrude, I knew very well it was my look of pained incredulity that made the audience believe in the ghostly presence which Shakespeare proposed that the queen could not see.”
She got, as she had demanded, her appreciative murmur.
“But tell me one thing,” she said. “That is, unless I have been told already. You know, one’s memory . . . Indeed, the last time I played Lady Bracknell-and I think I was then well into my eighties-I’m afraid I failed to remember what it was that the Prism woman had left the baby in. But, of course, the play must go on. I spoke. Do you think it likely that the baby was found in a washbag? Well, the audience thought so; I saw to that. But, tell me, please, why isn’t Adam here? He invited me. That’s something I do distinctly remember.”
“Yes, he did ask you for this evening, Dame Shelagh. But his employers-he still works for that law firm, you know-unexpectedly had to deliver some documents to New York and none of the partners would go. So . . .”
“Poor boy, poor boy.” Dame Shelagh infused the words with such poignancy that any audience would have wept.
“Oh, he’s not been so badly done by,” Marilyn interjected. “You know, he’d never been to the States. Nowhere. Ever. So he kind of leapt at the chance to see New York, if only for a quick visit. And when you volunteered to take his place, Bob . . .”
“The least I could do. But, Brenda, do you believe in ghosts?”
Brenda Watson, as always looking pale and washed out beside her assertive husband, gave a small shrug. “No,” she said. “I don’t. Or not really.”
Bob, giving politeness its due, turned to Lord Hareswold sitting next to Brenda. “Well, do you believe in ghosts?”
“I believe in luck. Seem to have a bit of that at the table usually. But, no, I certainly don’t believe in ghosts.”
“No, not at all. I don’t believe in Hareswold’s sort of luck, either. You make your luck by studying the market and nothing more. You wouldn’t get very far in the city relying on superstitions.”
“And, finally, Gerald. Do you believe in ghosts?”
Gerald Martindale shook his head with judicious gravity. “No,” he said. “In the art world one has to have a certain sense for the rightness of a thing or for its utter wrongness. It’s something that, you know, goes beyond logic. And one has it, or one doesn’t. But ghosts? No, I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Well then,” Bob said, “I see I’m going to have a pretty skeptical audience. But nevertheless I’m going to do the traditional Christmas Eve thing, at least as it used to be, and tell a ghost story-or a ghost story of a sort, I suppose. It’s one which Adam told me, though I’ll use my own words tonight. And it happened in this very house where, as you probably know, Adam’s family has lived for-I don’t know-generations, certainly, in good times and in bad.”
“My poor Adam,” Marilyn murmured. “He certainly came in for some bad times, especially after his first wife died, and when the dot-com firm he set up went broke. But at least he met me eventually.”
“Well, he’s a lucky man. A lucky man indeed. But, now, listen to the story.” And he began.
It was Christmas Eve, a few years before the turn of the century and all round Helston Manor the snow lay white and deep. At the hearth in the great hall there were gathered six souls.
First there was the Lord of the Manor. Lord of the Manor indeed, but reduced by financial stringency to becoming, in early middle age, a student of medicine. In the firelight he glanced from time to time at his bride of six weeks, whom we’ll call Julia, daughter of the head of a great firm of-shall we say-pill makers. Then there was an aged neighbour, Lady Mortmain, sitting beside her nephew James and James’ wife, Alice. Opposite Julia in the half-circle round the fire sat the bachelor vicar of the parish, the Reverend Montague South.
It was he who broke a somewhat long silence. “And are we to see the much-feared Helston Manor ghost tonight?” he asked. “Christmas Eve, I believe, is the one day in the year it is said to walk.”
“Oh, no. I hope not,” Julia exclaimed. “My dear husband told me that terrible story only yesterday, how into our very bedroom there steps at midnight the figure of a lady dressed all in white, and, if there should be anyone, man or woman, alone there, leans over them and puts on their brow a kiss. An icily cold kiss. And in the morning they are found dead, the white mark of the ice still where it was placed. No, I really cannot bear it.”
Her husband chuckled. “My dear wife,” he said, “I was perhaps wrong to tell you the tale. But that terrible fate is said to have happened in this house not once but twice in the course of the years, and I thought it best you should know. However, as I shall be there at your side all night, you can sleep as quietly as a babe. Remember it is only the solitary soul that this phantom can touch with that cold kiss.”
“As a clergyman,” Mr. South put in, “I must set my face against all such tales of bugaboos and ghouls.” He paused for a moment, looked at the old flagstones at his feet. “However. . .” he said.
And said no more.
It was then at the far end of the wide and gloom-filled hall, just beside the flickering light of the tall Christmas tree with its array of tiny-flamed candles, a door opened. Under the big mistletoe bough hung each year on the lintel, there stood an ancient family servant, black-coated, stooped of frame, silver-haired.
Slowly as a shiny black beetle, he made his way down the length of the immense room to where his master sat. No one spoke, though none of them could have said why they felt compelled to keep silent as the old retainer crept towards them.
At last he was within a few feet of his master’s chair.
“Sir, there is a message.”
“A message? At this time of night? On Christmas Eve? Who on earth sends me a message now?”
The old servant made no reply but handed his master a folded sheet of paper, which bore the grime of much handling. He jerked it open, then turned it towards the fire to get a better light. But, when evidently he had read the few words there seemed to be on the sheet, he sat there saying nothing.
“My dear, what is it?” his young wife asked at last.
He bit his lip. “It’s nothing. No. No, my dear. I am very much afraid it is something. A matter, it seems, of life or death, and I must go out immediately.”
Each person there saw the look of sudden fear on Julia’s youthful face.
“I really ought to leave at once,” her husband gabbled. “It’s damnably urgent. I-I’d like to explain, but the truth is that there isn’t time.” He shot up from his chair then, crossed swiftly over to his wife, brushed a kiss onto her cheek and, before any of the party had properly taken it in, vanished.
The guests sat in silence for more than a minute, astonished and mystified. By the time the vicar had thought to call out to the servant to ask who had brought the message, the old man had crept, beetle-like, out of the door.
Then Julia spoke, with a little harsh laugh that might have been half a sob. “So I shall be sleeping alone in that room tonight. On Christmas Eve.”
“Now, I am sure there is nothing to be concerned about,” Mr. South at once reassured her.
“Of course not,” Lady Mortmain quickly added. “You are not truly worried, are you, my dear?”
“No, no. Why should I be worried? Nobody nowadays believes in ghosts. Tell me, tell me the truth, each one of you. Do you believe in ghosts?”
Then, one by one, each of the others solemnly assured Julia, at greater or lesser length, that of course they did not believe in ghosts.
“Very well,” she said when the roll call had come to its conclusion. “Then I think I shall go to bed, if you will excuse me. I am suddenly very tired.”
They rose from their chairs. Someone asked Julia if she would like something warm to drink. Old Mr. South inquired whether there was a bedroom in the house standing empty. There was not. Mr. South looked for an instant a little perturbed, but then, with a sharp straightening of his bowed shoulders and a muttered, “No, no,” he followed Julia out.
But it was Lady Mortmain who, although she had shown no particular signs of anxiety at the fireside, felt impelled, as the hour of midnight approached, to go creeping from her room along the wide, oak-floored passages of the old house till she reached the door of the chamber where Julia should have been lying deep in sleep.
She gave the door a light tap, tap, tap. And was rewarded with hearing a tiny shriek of dismay.
She entered at once.
“Not asleep, my dear?” she said. “I feared as much. To lie alone in that bed on this night of all nights is really too trying for the nerves. However, I find my own bed is quite large enough for two, and I insist on you coming to share it with me. Your husband told me only the other day that your heart was not quite what the medical men would like it to be. Any sudden apparition, be it a ghost or even just a bat in the chimney, might quite well bring on a faint. Or something even more grave.”
Julia made some protests. But her heart was not in them. However, she was not immediately to fall comfortably asleep beside kindly Lady Mortmain. As they approached the older ladies room, a door almost opposite opened and Lady Mortmain’s nephew, James, poked his head out.
“I thought I heard voices,” he said.
Lady Mortmain, ushering Julia, who was clad only in a nightdress, into the room explained briefly what had happened when she had gone along to the famed haunted chamber.
James retired to his own room. There, in answer to his wife’s demands, he explained what had happened.
“And you know what I am going to do?” he concluded. “I am going to spend the remainder of the night in Julia’s place in that room. It is not yet midnight, but when it is, I shall see what I shall see.”
His wife (they had been married for two or three years) laughed. “And if I were to go anywhere near that door,” she said, “I should hear what I should hear. The sound of your snores.”
So, in the haunted room, huddled under Julia’s bedclothes James was more than determined to lie awake. Soon enough the twelve strokes of midnight rang out into the whirling snowflakes of the night from the clock over the stables.
As the sound faded away, one of the doors of a huge old oaken armoire in the far corner of the room opened with a slow grinding creak. James, head almost buried under the blankets, peered out.
A figure in flowing white seemed to be slowly approaching.
James lay there rigid as an iron bar.
Could this be . . . Are there . . . Are there really such things as ghosts? The figure was at the bedside. It tugged for a moment at the pillow beside James’ head, lifting it away. James squirmed yet lower under the blankets. In the deep darkness of the big old room the figure bent towards him.
Then he felt on his pale forehead, the only part of himself that in any way protruded, a sudden touch of ice. The next moment the pillow that had been pulled away descended onto his head, heavy as a weighted bag. It brought him instantly to life.
He shot up, hands clutching thin air. And found an instant later that his right hand had clutched more than air. In it-he knew that this was so-was a small piece of ice.
Now his brain was truly active.
Ice? A small piece of freezingly cold ice. It could not be anything but reality. Reality from somewhere outside on this cold, cold night. Reality from anywhere. Then he was out of bed, stumbling towards that grim old armoire to which the figure in white was slipping away. He was not quick enough in the dark to seize the fleeing figure. But, with his head inside the armoire, he heard at once, from what appeared to be a deep and narrow spiral staircase running downwards from its hollow back, the sound of thundering steps.
“And that,” Bob Bridges said, “is really the end of my Christmas Eve ghost story, which, as I said, was perhaps only a sort of ghost story. The man who had set out to dispose of his wealthy wife was, of course, arrested. But he was not even found guilty of attempted murder. Much was said in court about a gruesome practical joke. So he served only a comparatively short gaol term.”
“And to think all that happened in this very house!” Marilyn said with a shiver. “But I’m glad it was so many years ago. When was it you said, Bob, Christmas Eve a few years before the turn the century?”
“Well, yes, I did begin my tale like that. It seemed right for a ghost story. But, you know, over the years the century has turned a good many times. Once quite recently. We’ve only just emerged from the twentieth century, after all.”
“You mean . . .? Do you really mean the man who tried that ice trick . . . Hey, I guess that piece just came right out of a twentieth-century freezer. Do you mean he’s free and out of prison at this moment?”
Then, in the firelight, Marilyn shot to her feet.
“Adam,” she said. “Where is Adam?”