A Strange Christmas Game
by J. H. Riddell
As a group of friends gathers for holiday festivities, they decide to engage in the mysterious and increasingly unsettling "Game of Forfeits." Each participant contributes a forfeit, leading to a series of enigmatic tasks with an otherworldly twist. Riddell weaves an atmosphere of suspense, blending the festive spirit of Christmas with a dark and haunting undertone.
When, through the death of a distant relative, I, John Lester, succeeded to the Martingdale Estate, there could not have been found in the length and breadth of England a happier pair than myself and my only sister Clare.
We were not such utter hypocrites as to affect sorrow for the loss of our kinsman, Paul Lester, a man we had never seen, of whom we had heard but little, and that little unfavorable, at whose hands we had never received a single benefit—who was, in short, as great a stranger to us as the then Prime Minister, the Emperor of Russia, or any other human being utterly removed from our extremely humble sphere of life.
His loss was very certainly our gain. His death represented to us, not a dreary parting from one long loved and highly honored, but the accession of lands, houses, consideration, wealth, to myself—John Lester, Esquire, Martingdale, Bedfordshire: whilom, Jack Lester, artist and second-floor lodger at 32, Great Smith Street, Bloomsbury.
Not that Martingdale was much of an estate as county properties go. The Lesters who had succeeded to that domain from time to time during the course of a few hundred years could, by no stretch of courtesy, have been called prudent men. In regard to their posterity, they were, indeed, scarcely honest, for they parted with manors and farms, with common rights and advowsons, in a manner at once so baronial and so unbusiness-like, that Martingdale at length, in the hands of Jeremy Lester, the last resident owner, melted to a mere little dot on the map of Bedfordshire.
Concerning this Jeremy Lester, there was a mystery. No man could say what had become of him. He was in the oak parlour at Martingdale one Christmas-eve, and before the next morning, he had disappeared—to reappear in the flesh no more.
Overnight, one Mr. Warley, a great friend and boon companion of Jeremy’s, had sat playing cards with him until after twelve o’clock chimed, then he took leave of his host and rode home under the moonlight. After that, no person, as far as could be ascertained, ever knew his ways of life had not been either the most regular or the most respectable, and it was not until a new year had come in without any tidings of his whereabouts reaching the house that his servants became seriously alarmed concerning his absence.
Then inquiries were set on foot concerning him—inquiries that grew more urgent as weeks and months passed by without the slightest clue being obtained as to his whereabouts. Rewards were offered, advertisements inserted, but still Jeremy made no sign; and so in the course of time, the heir-at-law, Paul Lester, took possession of the house and went down to spend the summer months at Martingdale with his rich wife and her four children by a first husband. Paul Lester was a barrister—an overworked barrister, who, everyone supposed, would be glad enough to leave the bar and settle at Martingdale, where his wife’s money and the fortune he had accumulated could not have failed to give him a good standing even among the neighboring county families; and perhaps it was with some such intention that he went down into Bedfordshire.
If this were so, however, he speedily changed his mind, for with the January snows he returned to London, let off the land surrounding the house, shut up the Hall, put in a care-taker, and never troubled himself further about his ancestral seat.
Time went on, and people began to say the house was haunted, that Paul Lester had “seen something,” and so forth—all of which stories were duly repeated for our benefit when, forty-one years after the disappearance of Jeremy Lester, Clare and I went down to inspect our inheritance.
I say “our,” because Clare had stuck bravely to me in poverty—grinding poverty—and prosperity was not going to part us now. What was mine was hers, and that she knew, God bless her, without my needing to tell her so.
The transition from rigid economy to comparative wealth was, in our case, the more delightful also because we had not in the least anticipated it. We never expected Paul Lester’s shoes to come to us, and accordingly, it was not upon our consciences that we had ever, in our dreariest moods, wished him dead.
Had he made a will, no doubt we never should have gone to Martingdale, and I, consequently, never written this story; but, luckily for us, he died intestate, and the Bedfordshire property came to me.
As for his fortune, he had spent it in traveling and in giving great entertainments at his grand house in Portman Square. Concerning his effects, Mrs. Lester and I came to a very amicable arrangement, and she did me the honor of inviting me to call upon her occasionally, and, as I heard, spoke of me as a very worthy and presentable young man “for my station,” which, of course, coming from so good an authority, was gratifying. Moreover, she asked me if I intended residing at Martingdale, and on my replying in the affirmative, hoped I should like it.
It struck me at the time that there was a certain significance in her tone, and when I went down to Martingdale and heard the absurd stories which were afloat concerning the house being haunted, I felt confident that if Mrs. Lester had hoped much, she feared more.
People said Mr. Jeremy “walked” at Martingdale. He had been seen, it was averred, by poachers, by gamekeepers, by children who had come to use the park as a near cut to school, by lovers who kept their tryst under the elms and beeches.
As for the care-taker and his wife, the third in residence since Jeremy Lester’s disappearance, the man gravely shook his head when questioned, while the woman stated that wild horses, or even wealth untold, should not draw her into the red bedroom, nor into the oak parlor, after dark.
“I have heard my mother tell, sir—it was her as followed old Mrs. Reynolds, the first care-taker—how there were things went on in those self-same rooms as might make any Christian’s hair stand on end. Such stamping, and swearing, and knocking about of furniture; and then tramp, tramp, up the great staircase, and along the corridor and so into the red bedroom, and then bang, and tramp, tramp again. They do say, sir, Mr. Paul Lester met him once, and from that time the oak parlor has never been opened. I never was inside it myself.”
Upon hearing which fact, the first thing I did was to proceed to the oak parlor, open the shutters, and let the August sun stream in upon the haunted chamber. It was an old-fashioned, plainly furnished apartment, with a large table in the center, a smaller in a recess by the fireplace, chairs ranged against the walls, and a dusty moth-eaten carpet on the floor. There were dogs on the hearth, broken and rusty; there was a brass fender, tarnished and battered; a picture of some sea-fight over the mantelpiece, while another work of art about equal in merit hung between the windows. Altogether, an utterly prosaic and yet not uncheerful apartment, from out of which the ghosts flitted as soon as daylight was let into it, and which I proposed, as soon as I “felt my feet,” to redecorate, refurnish, and convert into a pleasant morning-room. I was still under thirty, but I had learned prudence in that very good school, Necessity; and it was not my intention to spend much money until I ascertained for certain what were the actual revenues derivable from the lands still belonging to the Martingdale estates and the charges upon them. In fact, I wanted to know what I was worth before committing myself to any great extravagance, and the place had for so long a time been neglected that I experienced some difficulty in arriving at the state of my real income.
But in the meanwhile, Clare and I found great enjoyment in exploring every nook and corner of our domain, in turning over the contents of old chests and cupboards, in examining the faces of our ancestors looking down on us from the walls, in walking through the neglected gardens, full of weeds, overgrown with shrubs and birdweed, where the boxwood was eighteen inches high, and the shoots of the rose-trees yards long. I have put the place in order since then; there is no grass on the paths, there are no trailing brambles over the ground, the hedges have been cut and trimmed, and the trees pruned, and the boxwood clipped; but I often say nowadays that, despite all my improvements, or rather in consequence of them, Martingdale does not look one half so pretty as it did in its pristine state of uncivilized picturesqueness.
Although I determined not to commence repairing and decorating the house until better informed concerning the rental of Martingdale, still the state of my finances was so far satisfactory that Clare and I decided on going abroad and taking our long-talked-of holiday before the fine weather was past. We could not tell what a year might bring forth, as Clare sagely remarked; it was wise to take our pleasure while we could; and accordingly, before the end of August arrived, we were wandering about the continent, loitering at Rouen, visiting the galleries in Paris, and talking of extending our one month of enjoyment to three. What decided me on this course was the circumstance of our becoming acquainted with an English family who intended wintering in Rome. We met accidentally, but discovering we were near neighbors in England—in fact, that Mr. Cronson’s property lay close beside Martingdale—the slight acquaintance soon ripened into intimacy, and ere long we were traveling in company.
From the first, Clare did not much like this arrangement. There was “a little girl” in England she wanted me to marry, and Mr. Cronson had a daughter who certainly was both handsome and attractive. The little girl had not despised John Lester, artist, while Miss Cronson indisputably set her cap at John Lester of Martingdale, and would have turned away her pretty face from a poor man’s admiring gaze—all this I can see plainly enough now, but I was blind then and should have proposed for Marybel—that was her name—before the winter was over, had news not suddenly arrived of the illness of Mrs. Cronson, senior. In a moment the program was changed; our pleasant days of foreign travel were at an end. The Cronsons packed up and departed, while Clare and I returned more slowly to England, a little out of humor, it must be confessed, with each other.
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, and 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. For myself, the Cronsons were still absent in 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 rooms 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, and “noises” grew frequent in the house. Clare and I, with our own ears, heard the tramp, tramp, the banging, and the clattering which had been described to us.
My dear reader, you doubtlessly are utterly 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 no one save an old caretaker 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 that the visitation must be supernatural, and Martingdale, by consequence, untenantable. Still being practical people and 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 until 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 idea 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 by myself in the red bed-chamber. Even to Clare, I never mentioned my intention.
About ten, tired out with our previous vigils, we each retired to rest. Somewhat ostentatiously, perhaps, I noisily shut the door of my room. 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 had 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 was 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 parlour.”
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 parlour—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 of about five-and-twenty, 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 at 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 to 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-one, fifteen-two, 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 full 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 doubtlessly 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 now 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.