By Sir Andrew Caldecott
The story unfolds as Richard Dreyton voices his distrust of their guest, Mr. Clarence Love, to his wife Elinor on Christmas Eve. Dreyton suspects Love's shady past, especially regarding his sudden wealth from an Australian venture and a dubious family history. As the Christmas festivities progress, Love's behavior becomes increasingly unsettling, culminating in a mysterious Santa Claus impersonation.
‘I cannot explain what exactly it is about him; but I don’t like your Mr Clarence Love, and I’m sorry that you ever asked him to stay.’
Thus Richard Dreyton to his wife Elinor on the morning of Christmas Eve.
‘But one must remember the children, Richard. You know what marvellous presents he gives them.’
‘Much too marvellous. He spoils them. Yet you’ll have noticed that none of them likes him. Children have a wonderful intuition in regard to the character of grown-ups.’
‘What on earth are you hinting about his character? He’s a very nice man.’
Dreyton shuffled off his slippers in front of the study fire and began putting on his boots.
‘I wonder, darling, whether you noticed his face just now at breakfast, when he opened that letter with the Australian stamps on?’
‘Yes; he did seem a bit upset: but not more so than you when you get my dressmaker’s bill!’
Mrs Dreyton accompanied this sally with a playful pat on her husband’s back as he leant forward to do up his laces.
‘Well, Elinor, all that I can say is that there’s something very fishy about his antipodean history. At five-and-twenty, he left England a penniless young man and, heigh presto! he returns a stinking plutocrat at twenty-eight. And how? What he’s told you doesn’t altogether tally with what he’s told me; but, cutting out the differences, his main story is that he duly contacted old Nelson Joy, his maternal uncle, whom he went out to join, and that they went off together, prospecting for gold. They struck it handsomely; and then the poor old uncle gets a heart-stroke or paralysis, or something, in the bush, and bids Clarence leave him there to die and get out himself before the food gives out. Arrived back in Sydney, Clarence produces a will under which he is the sole beneficiary, gets the Court to presume old Joy’s death, and bunks back here with the loot.’
Mrs Dreyton frowned. ‘I can see nothing wrong or suspicious about the story,’ she said, ‘but only in your telling of it.’
‘No! No! In his telling of it. He never gets the details quite the same twice running, and I’m certain that he gave a different topography to their prospecting expedition this year from what he did last. It’s my belief that he did the uncle in, poor old chap!’
‘Don’t be so absurd, Richard; and please remember that he’s our guest, and that we must be hospitable: especially at Christmas. Which reminds me: on your way to office, would you mind looking in at Harridge’s and making sure that they haven’t forgotten our order for their Santa Claus tomorrow? He’s to be here at seven; then to go on to the Simpsons at seven-thirty, and to end up at the Joneses at eight. It’s lucky our getting three households to share the expenses: Harridge’s charge each of us only half their catalogued fee. If they could possibly send us the same Father Christmas as last year it would be splendid. The children adored him. Don’t forget to say, too, that he will find all the crackers, hats, musical toys and presents inside the big chest in the hall. Just the same as last year. What should we do nowadays without the big stores? One goes to them for everything.’
‘We certainly do,’ Dreyton agreed; ‘and I can’t see the modern child putting up with the amateur Father Christmas we used to suffer from. I shall never forget the annual exhibition Uncle Bertie used to make of himself, or the slippering I got when I stuck a darning-needle into his behind under pretence that I wanted to see if he was real! Well, so long, old girl: no, I won’t forget to call in at Harridge’s.’
By the time the festive Christmas supper had reached the dessert stage, Mrs Dreyton fully shared her husband’s regret that she had ever asked Clarence Love to be of the party. The sinister change that had come over him on receipt of the letter from Australia became accentuated on the later arrival of a telegram which, he said, would necessitate his leaving towards the end of the evening to catch the eight-fifteen northbound express from King’s Pancras. His valet had already gone ahead with the luggage and, as it had turned so foggy, he had announced his intention of following later by Underground, in order to avoid the possibility of being caught in a traffic-jam.
It is strange how sometimes the human mind can harbour simultaneously two entirely contradictory emotions. Mrs Dreyton was consumed with annoyance that any guest of hers should be so inconsiderate as to terminate his stay in the middle of a Christmas party; but was, at the same time, impatient to be rid of such a skeleton at the feast. One of the things that she had found attractive in Clarence Love had been an unfailing fund of small talk, which, if not brilliant, was at any rate bright and breezy. He possessed, also, a pleasant and frequent smile and, till now, had always been assiduous in his attention to her conversation. Since yesterday, however, he had turned silent, inattentive, and dour in expression. His presentation to her of a lovely emerald brooch had been unaccompanied by any greeting beyond an unflattering and perfunctory ‘Happy Christmas!’ He had also proved unforgivably oblivious of the mistletoe, beneath which, with a careful carelessness, she stationed herself when she heard him coming down to breakfast. It was, indeed, quite mortifying; and, when her husband described the guest as a busted balloon, she had neither the mind nor the heart to gainsay him.
Happily for the mirth and merriment of the party Dreyton seemed to derive much exhilaration from the dumb discomfiture of his wife’s friend, and Elinor had never seen or heard her husband in better form. He managed, too, to infect the children with his own ebullience; and even Miss Potterby (the governess) reciprocated his fun. Even before the entry of Father Christmas it had thus become a noisy, and almost rowdy, company.
Father Christmas’s salutation, on arrival, was in rhymed verse and delivered in the manner appropriate to pantomime. His lines ran thus:
To Sons of Peace
Yule brings release
From worry at this tide;
But men of crime
This holy time
Their guilty heads need hide.
So never fear,
Ye children dear,
But innocent sing ‘Nowell’;
For the Holy Rood
Shall save the good,
And the bad be burned in hell.
This is my carol
And Nowell my parole.
There was clapping of hands at this, for there is nothing children enjoy so much as mummery; especially if it be slightly mysterious. The only person who appeared to dislike the recitation was Love, who was seen to stop both ears with his fingers at the end of the first verse and to look ill. As soon as he had made an end of the prologue, Santa Claus went ahead with his distribution of gifts, and made many a merry quip and pun. He was quick in the uptake, too; for the children put to him many a poser, to which a witty reply was always ready. The minutes indeed slipped by all too quickly for all of them, except Love, who kept glancing uncomfortably at his wrist-watch and was plainly in a hurry to go. Hearing him mutter that it was time for him to be off, Father Christmas walked to his side and bade him pull a farewell cracker. Having done so, resentfully it seemed, he was asked to pull out the motto and read it. His hands were now visibly shaking, and his voice seemed to have caught their infection. Very falteringly, he managed to stammer out the two lines of doggerel:
Re-united heart to heart
Love and joy shall never part.
‘And now,’ said Father Christmas, ‘I must be making for the next chimney; and, on my way, sir, I will see you into the Underground.’
So saying he took Clarence Love by the left arm and led him with mock ceremony to the door, where he turned and delivered this epilogue:
Ladies and Gentlemen, goodnight!
Let not darkness you affright.
Aught of evil here today
Santa Claus now bears away.
At this point, with sudden dramatic effect, he clicked off the electric light switch by the door; and, by the time Dreyton had groped his way to it in the darkness and turned it on again, the parlour-maid (who was awaiting Love’s departure in the hall) had let both him and Father Christmas out into the street.
‘Excellent!’ Mrs Dreyton exclaimed, ‘quite excellent! One can always depend on Harridge’s. It wasn’t the same man as they sent last year; but quite as good, and more original, perhaps.’
‘I’m glad he’s taken Mr Love away,’ said young Harold.
‘Yes,’ Dorothy chipped in; ‘he’s been beastly all day, and yesterday, too: and his presents aren’t nearly as expensive as last year.’
‘Shut up, you spoilt children!’ the father interrupted. ‘I must admit, though, that the fellow was a wet blanket this evening. What was that nonsense he read out about reunion?’
Miss Potterby had developed a pedagogic habit of clearing her throat audibly, as a signal demanding her pupils’ attention to some impending announcement. She did it now, and parents as well as children looked expectantly towards her.
‘The motto as read by Mr Love,’ she declared, ‘was so palpably inconsequent that I took the liberty of appropriating it when he laid the slip of paper back on the table. Here it is, and this is how it actually reads:
Be united heart to heart,
Love and joy shall never part.
That makes sense, if it doesn’t make poetry. Mr Love committed the error of reading ‘be united’ as ‘reunited’ and of not observing the comma between the two lines.’
‘Thank you, Miss Potterby; that, of course, explains it. How clever of you to have spotted the mistake and tracked it down!’
Thus encouraged, Miss Potterby proceeded to further corrective edification.
‘You remarked just now, Mrs Dreyton, that the gentleman impersonating Father Christmas had displayed originality. His prologue and epilogue, however, were neither of them original, but corrupted versions of passages which you will find in Professor Borleigh’s Synopsis of Nativity, Miracle and Morality Plays, published two years ago. I happen to be familiar with the subject, as the author is a first cousin of mine, once removed.’
‘How interesting!’ Dreyton here broke in; ‘and now, Miss Potterby, if you will most kindly preside at the piano, we will dance Sir Roger de Coverley. Come on, children, into the drawing-room.’
On Boxing Day there was no post and no paper. Meeting Mrs Simpson in the Park that afternoon, Mrs Dreyton was surprised to hear that Father Christmas had kept neither of his two other engagements. ‘It must have been that horrid fog,’ she suggested; ‘but what a shame! He was even better than last year:’ by which intelligence Mrs Simpson seemed little comforted.
Next morning—the second after Christmas—there were two letters on the Dreytons’ breakfast-table, and both were from Harridge’s.
The first conveyed that firm’s deep regret that their representative should have been prevented from carrying out his engagements in Pentland Square on Christmas night owing to dislocation of traffic caused by the prevailing fog.
‘But he kept ours all right,’ Mrs Dreyton commented. ‘I feel so sorry for the Simpsons and the Joneses.’
The second letter cancelled the first, ‘which had been written in unfortunate oversight of the cancellation of the order’.
‘What on earth does that mean?’ Mrs Dreyton ejaculated.
‘Ask me another!’ returned her husband. ‘Got their correspondence mixed up, I suppose.’,
In contrast to the paucity of letters, the morning newspapers seemed unusually voluminous and full of pictures. Mrs Dreyton’s choice of what to read in them was not that of a highbrow. The headline that attracted her first attention ran ‘XMAS ON UNDERGROUND’, and, among other choice items, she learned how, at Pentland Street Station (their own nearest), a man dressed as Santa Claus had been seen to guide and support an invalid, or possibly tipsy, companion down the long escalator. The red coat, mask and beard were afterwards found discarded in a passage leading to the emergency staircase, so that even Santa’s sobriety might be called into question. She was just about to retail this interesting intelligence to her husband when, laying down his own paper, he stared curiously at her and muttered ‘Good God!’
‘What on earth’s the matter, dear?’
‘A very horrible thing, Elinor. Clarence Love has been killed! Listen;’ here he resumed his paper and began to read aloud: “The body of the man who fell from the Pentland Street platform on Christmas night in front of an incoming train has been identified as that of Mr Clarence Love, of I I Playfair Mansions. There was a large crowd of passengers on the platform at the time, and it is conjectured that he fell backwards off it while turning to expostulate with persons exerting pressure at his back. Nobody, however, in the crush, could have seen the exact circumstances of the said fatality.”‘
‘Hush, dear! Here come the children. They mustn’t know, of course. We can talk about it afterwards.’
Dreyton, however, could not wait to talk about it afterwards. The whole of the amateur detective within him had been aroused, and, rising early from the breakfast-table, he journeyed by tube to Harridge’s, where he was soon interviewing a departmental sub-manager. No: there was no possibility of one of their representatives having visited Pentland Square on Christmas evening. Our Mr Droper had got hung up in the Shenton Street traffic-block until it was too late to keep his engagements there. He had come straight back to his rooms. In any case, he would not have called at Mr Dreyton’s residence in view of the cancellation of the order the previous day. Not cancelled? But he took down the telephone message himself. Yes: here was the entry in the register. Then it must have been the work of some mischief-maker; it was certainly a gentleman’s, and not a lady’s voice. Nobody except he and Mr Droper knew of the engagement at their end, so the practical joker must have derived his knowledge of it from somebody in Mr Dreyton’s household.
This was obviously sound reasoning and, on his return home, Dreyton questioned Mrs Timmins, the cook, in the matter. She was immediately helpful and forthcoming. One of them insurance gents had called on the morning before Christmas and had been told that none of us wanted no policies or such like. He had then turned conversational and asked what sort of goings-on there would be here for Christmas. Nothing, he was told, except old Father Christmas, as usual, out of Harridge’s shop. Then he asked about visitors in the house, and was told as there were none except Mr Love, who, judging by the tip what he had given Martha when he stayed last in the house, was a wealthy and openhanded gentleman. Little did she think when she spoke those words as Mr Love would forget to give any tips or boxes at Christmas, when they were most natural and proper. But perhaps he would think better on it by the New Year and send a postal order. Dreyton thought it unlikely, but deemed it unnecessary at this juncture to inform Mrs Timmins of the tragedy reported in the newspaper.
At luncheon Mrs Dreyton found her husband unusually taciturn and preoccupied; but, by the time they had come to the cheese, he announced importantly that he had made up his mind to report immediately to the police certain information that had come into his possession. Miss Potterby and the children looked suitably impressed, but knew better than to court a snub by asking questions. Mrs Dreyton took the cue admirably by replying: ‘Of course, Richard, you must do your duty!’
The inspector listened intently and jotted down occasional notes. At the end of the narration, he complimented the informant by asking whether he had formed any theory regarding the facts he reported. Dreyton most certainly had. That was why he had been so silent and absent-minded at lunch. His solution, put much more briefly than he expounded it to the inspector, was as follows.
Clarence Love had abandoned his uncle and partner in the Australian bush. Having returned to civilisation, got the Courts to presume the uncle’s death, and taken probate of the will under which he was sole inheritor, Love returned to England a wealthy and still youngish man. The uncle, however (this was Dreyton’s theory), did not die after his nephew’s desertion, but was found and tended by bushmen. Having regained his power of locomotion, he trekked back to Sydney, where he discovered himself legally dead and his property appropriated by Love and removed to England. Believing his nephew to have compassed his death, he resolved to take revenge into his own hands. Having despatched a cryptic letter to Love containing dark hints of impending doom, he sailed for the Old Country and ultimately tracked Love down to the Dreytons’ abode. Then, having in the guise of a travelling insurance agent ascertained the family’s programme for Christmas Day, he planned his impersonation of Santa Claus. That his true identity, revealed by voice and accent, did not escape his victim was evidenced by the latter’s nervous misreading of the motto in the cracker. Whether Love’s death in the Underground was due to actual murder or to suicide enforced by despair and remorse, Dreyton hazarded no guess: either was possible under his theory.
The inspector’s reception of Dreyton’s hypothesis was less enthusiastic than his wife’s.
‘If you’ll excuse me, Mr Dreyton,’ said the former, ‘you’ve built a mighty lot on dam’ little. Still, it’s ingenious and no mistake. I’ll follow your ideas up and, if you’ll call in a week’s time, I may have something to tell you and one or two things, perhaps, to ask.’
‘Why darling, how wonderful!’ Mrs Dreyton applauded. ‘Now that you’ve pieced the bits together so cleverly the thing’s quite obvious, isn’t it? What a horrible thing to have left poor old Mr Joy to die all alone in the jungle! I never really liked Clarence, and am quite glad now that he’s dead. But of course we mustn’t tell the children!’
Inquiries of the Australian Police elicited the intelligence that the presumption of Mr Joy’s death had been long since confirmed by the discovery of his remains in an old prospecting pit. There were ugly rumours and suspicions against his nephew but no evidence on which to support them. On being thus informed by the inspector Dreyton amended his theory to the extent that the impersonator of Father Christmas must have been not Mr Joy himself, as he was dead, but a bosom friend determined to avenge him. This substitution deprived the cracker episode, on which Dreyton had imagined his whole story, of all relevance; and the inspector was quite frank about his disinterest in the revised version.
Mrs Dreyton also rejected it. Her husband’s original theory seemed to her more obviously right and conclusive even than before. The only amendment required, and that on a mere matter of detail, was to substitute Mr Joy’s ghost for Mr Joy: though of course one mustn’t tell the children.
‘But,’ her husband remonstrated, ‘you know that I don’t believe in ghosts.’
‘No, but your aunt Cecilia does; and she is such a clever woman. By the way, she called in this morning and left you a book to look at.’
‘Yes, the collected ghost stories of M. R. James.’
‘But the stupid old dear knows that I have them all in the original editions.’
‘So she said: but she wants you to read the author’s epilogue to the collection which, she says, is most entertaining. It’s entitled “Stories I have tried to write”. She said that she’d side-lined a passage that might interest you. The book’s on that table by you. No, not that: the one with the black cover.’
Dreyton picked it up, found the marked passage and read it aloud.
There may be possibilities too in the Christmas cracker if the right people pull it and if the motto which they find inside has the right message on it. They will probably leave the party early, pleading indisposition; but very likely a previous engagement of long standing would be the more truthful excuse.
‘There is certainly,’ Dreyton commented, ‘some resemblance between James’s idea and our recent experience. But he could have made a perfectly good yarn out of that theme without introducing ghosts.’
His wife’s mood at that moment was for compromise rather than controversy.
‘Well, darling,’ she temporised, ‘perhaps not exactly ghosts.’