You know about A Christmas Carol, but Dickens was far from the only author of his era to set a ghost story during the holiday; for several years running, Valancourt Books has been collecting them in anthologies. This turn-of-the-century story, “The Christmas Ghost,” follows a group of young people who gather for some classic seasonal cheer on Christmas Eve—only to discover there’s an extra, spectral friend at the gathering. The piece is the work of New Yorker Anna Alice Chapin (1880-1920), who was the co-author of the fairy story Babes in Toyland in 1904, the adaptations of which—Laurel and Hardy’s in 1934, Shirley Temple’s in 1960, and Disney’s in 1961—have been Christmas favorites for decades. She was already publishing when still in her teenage years. This tale appeared, with slight textual variations, in at least five different American newspapers during the Christmas season in 1915; it appears this year in The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, volume 4, edited by Christopher Philippo, out now.
“And it’s going to be a real Christmas Eve party—old fashioned you know; with an open fire, and ghost stories, and punch with baked apples in it, and—”
“And a flash-light!”
“Who told you? A flash-light! How beastly!”
“No; what fun! What a lovely idea! Was it one of Candace’s?”
“I think it was. She wants a record of the evening, and we are all to have copies of the pictures to keep as souvenirs.”
They were all merry, and chattered like young birds, all except Myra Randall. She smiled, and was cheerful enough in a way, but she had never seemed quite carefree since the breaking of her engagement to Max Atwood, two years before.
Candace Jewett, the young hostess tonight, had been trying for months to bring the two together again, and had gone so far as to include them both in her Christmas Eve party, but neither Max nor Myra had acted at all comfortably. They had been singularly cool and calm and polite to each other, but nothing more.
Candace was disappointed enough to cry. Getting Myra off in a corner while the others were laughing and discussing the best games, for twelve people, she took her guest’s pretty slim shoulders into an affectionate though exasperated grasp.
“Myra, you little pig!” she said, with that ghost of a stammer which her many adorers found so irresistible, “why don’t you make up with Max? I’m sure anyone ought to be willing to.
“He’s a darling,” concluded Candace.
Myra was tall and daintily made, with grey eyes, and a vast quantity of smooth, red brown hair. She was a girl who rode to hounds a great deal and looked it. She was equally perfect in a riding habit and in full evening dress, but never showed up to advantage in shirt-waists or in frills.
Now she raised her level brows with a slightly mocking expression.
“Sorry, my dear,” she said, “but I can’t do it, even to oblige you. Max is attractive.”
She looked down the room and through the door to the young man, who was joking and flirting to the top of his bent with Letty Lovell. They were fixing up some mysterious game, weaving string round every conceivable object.
“He is attractive,” repeated Myra reflectively. “But frankly, Candy, I can’t marry a man who has no more heart than than—than a crocodile.”
“Myra Randall!” gasped Candace with sincere indignation. “How dare you compare our Max to a c—crocodile? He has the warmest, kindest, nicest understandingest heart in the world!”
“Candace,” said Myra, quietly looking straight in front of her—and Candace saw her slender, strong hands clench hard at her sides—“Beatrix loved Max; and he loved her—and said so. And yet within one year of her death he can joke and play at love like that.”
Candace nearly fell into the fire in surprise. Myra was the most unexpected person.
“Beatrix?” she repeated almost stupidly. “Beatrix! Who died last Christmas time?”
“Yes,” said Myra. “My cousin Beatrix. Didn’t you ever suspect? They cared for each other; that was why I broke the engagement.”
“But—did he—did she tell you? I don’t see how—”
“I heard Beatrix telephone him from here that Christmas Eve two years ago when we were all together. You remember?”
“Rather! Our first house-party since we were all grown up and out and so on.”
“Well, you know Max had sent word he couldn’t get out until Christmas day. On the afternoon of the day before Christmas I was curled up there—” Myra pointed to the little room opening out of the big library where they all were—“dozing over a book; and”—she laughed very bitterly —“thinking of Max. I adored him you see then—
“I heard a little rustle and Beatrix passed the half-open door and went to the telephone in the hall. She did not see me, and it never occurred to me to let her know until I heard her say:
“‘Oh, Max! Oh, darling! Is it you? Yes; they are all upstairs dressing. No; there’s no chance of her overhearing.’
“And so on—and so on—I—I can’t repeat it all.”
Myra’s clear color faded perceptibly at the memory, but she went steadily on.
“They agreed to meet in London that evening, for the last time. They had agreed to give each other up, you see. Do you remember that Beatrix was called to town suddenly that evening?”
“To see her aunt who was ill. Yes.”
“And came back next day on the same train with Max?”
Candace nodded speechless.
“Well,” said Myra, “that was all—except that I broke the engagement.”
“Did you ever tell them?”
“No; I tried to save their feelings.”
Myra laughed again and shrugged her shoulders.
“You see,” she added simply, “I was fond of them both. I was quite sorry when it never came to anything between them in spite of my setting Max free. I suppose they must have quarreled. And a year later she was dead.”
“And you can wear mourning for her?” broke out Candace irrepressibly.
“Why not?” said Myra in faint surprise, looking down at her black dinner-dress. “She was first my cousin, and I loved her dearly. Beatrix was such a splendid, vital creature, with such will and poise. And to think that she is dead!”
Candace left her silently and went across to where Letty and Sibyl were talking in low tones.
“You seem very solemn girls!” she said, trying to speak lightly.
“Sib was saying how Beatrix would have loved it tonight,” said Letty again.
Candace started uncomfortably.
“Beatrix seems to be in the air!” she said almost impatiently.
“Well,” said Sibyl, “she said she would be, you know.”
“What on earth do you mean?” exclaimed Letty.
“Why, don’t you remember, how she used to laugh and say: ‘If I die first girls, I’ll come back and haunt you! I’ll never be quiet in my grave.’”
“We were just an even dozen then, counting Beatrix, at our party two years ago,” said Letty. “We are only eleven now, aren’t we?”
“No; still twelve,” said Candace. “My kid brother is old enough to join us now. And with Gracie’s brother Jimmy, and Max and Rudolph, the two Graves boys and Colin Clay we’re an even dozen still. It’s going to be just the old crowd.
“I didn’t want to ask an extra girl,” she added hesitatingly. “Somehow, on Beatrix’s account, I thought I’d let Jack be the twelfth.”
She went off to superintend the bringing in of the great bowl of steaming punch in which the baked apples floated in the true old English style.
Corny Grange had been given over to the young people that Christmas Eve. Candace’s father had repaired to his study at the back of the house, that her guests might be at liberty to make merry until the dawn if they liked.
And, of course, they took advantage of it to romp and laugh and pretend they were school children again. They played games, and sang carols, and told fortunes. Finally Candace suggested playing “Oracles.”
No one knew anything about it.
“You play it this way,” she explained. “Each of us writes a question and folds it up and writes a number outside; and then everyone draws from a hat a slip of blank paper with a number written on it and writes an answer to an imaginary question.
“Just any foolish thing you like: ‘Yes,’ or ‘Not at all,’ or ‘They are better with onions’; or you can put mysterious prophecies or sentimental messages—anything that occurs to you.
“Then you put them into a hat or bowl or something, and take them up to the Oracle. And then people go up one by one and read their number, and the Oracle hands them the answer corresponding, and they have to read out the question and answer. It is awfully funny sometimes!”
It was an absurd game, of course, but young people at Christmas time can get fun out of anything. So they appointed Jimmy Markwell the Oracle, and jestfully settled down to the game.
After they had written all the papers they turned all the answers over to Jimmy, who sat in a mysterious corner behind a fire screen.
They put out all the lights except one ghostly candle. Then one by one they went up and received their messages from Fate. Some of the combinations of questions and answers were ridiculously incongruous, and they had one or two good laughs before it came to Myra Randall’s turn.
She walked the length of the dark room, almost invisible in her sombre gown.
“Number eleven,” she said in a very low tone.
She felt now that the question she had written had been a foolish one; no, more than foolish—indiscreet. She dreaded having to read it aloud.
The Oracle handed over a slip. She approached the one candle. It spluttered so that she could hardly see to read.
“Question—Should one believe one’s own eyes and ears when one does not want to?”
“Hold on! The draught is getting worse,” struck in Max. “I’ll draw the curtain.”
Myra put her hand to her throat. She went on: “Answer—The eyes and ears of the living are dulled by earth.” She stopped short, appalled. How could so pat an answer have come by chance? Someone must have read her question before writing the answer.
“By jove!” said Rudolph uncomfortably.
“There’s no fun if it comes out as well as that! Who wrote it anyway—the answer, I mean? Don’t all speak at once.”
No one spoke.
The candle had stopped flickering, and now was burning with a clear, steady light. In its rather ghostly rays the faces of the twelve friends looked pale and unnatural.
Candace was the first to speak.
“I—I don’t think it’s proving a very funny game,” she said nervously. “Let’s do something more amusing.”
“Lord yes!” said Rudolph. “Let’s tell ghost stories, or go and visit the graveyard, or do something really lively and cheerful.”
“Next!” called the Oracle. “We might as well finish, Candy. It’s your turn, anyway; you’re the only one left.”
“Twelve!” stammered Candy.
Her question was about making the offer. The answer— easily traceable to Sibyl Lee—was concerned with some rules for deportment. It was not a particularly amusing combination, but they all laughed rather hysterically. Myra’s coincidence had been a little depressing.
“So that’s your old game!” said Sibyl—scornfully. “Well, I don’t think much of that—”
“No. 13,” said someone.
They all jumped.
“Who on earth said that?” demanded the Oracle. “Somebody’s fooling,” said Max at once. “The game’s over.
There are only twelve of us here.”
“But there’s a paper here—there are two papers here!” protested the Oracle.
“Oh, well, I suppose it’s Rudolph!” said Candace. “He’s always playing jokes.”
She spoke quite as if Rudolph were not in the room.
“I swear I didn’t,” he protested.
“Read them out, Jimmy,” said Max.
“I can’t see to read over here,” said the Oracle crossly.
“Bring me that confounded candle.”
The candle was misbehaving again, but in a moment it stopped and burned clearly once more. Max carried it across the room and held it while Jimmy read out slowly and with many pauses.
“Number thirteen. Question—What was Beatrix doing on Christmas Eve two years ago?”
“Oh, Jimmy, that is too much!” gasped Candace, shocked. “Beatrix, who is dead! Oh, no one should drag her name into this nonsense!”
“I can’t help it,” said the misjudged Oracle indignantly. “That’s what’s on the paper here. Someone’s written it!”
“Then someone has very bad taste!” put in Sibyl.
“Do you want to hear the answer?” asked Jimmy.
Candace hesitated, but to everyone’s surprise Max spoke. “Yes, please,” he said quietly. “Let’s have the answer.”
And Jimmy read:
“Number thirteen. Answer—On Christmas eve, one year before she died, Beatrix went to the telephone at Gorby Grange and pretended to call up Max. She knew that Myra was in the next room, and she let her think that she was exchanging words of love with the man Myra was engaged to.
“She made believe she was agreeing to an appointment in town that evening and Myra saw her leave for the evening train. She and Max came to Corby Grange together next day, and Myra broke the engagement. Myra did not know that Beatrix had not spoken to Max for weeks until she met him on the train that morning—”
“I can hardly read this,” Jimmy said. “It’s so scrawly and queer—as if it had been written in a tearing hurry.
“ ‘—nor that—the receiver—’
“I think it’s ‘receiver’; yes, of course.
“‘—nor that the receiver had never been taken off the hook.’” Dead silence in the room; then suddenly without warning the candle went out.
Candace screamed outright. Sibyl clung to Rudolph. Grace and Lotty Lovell had both burst into tears. Myra did not cry, but she shook from head to foot with a strange excitement that was not entirely terror. Someone touched her hand softly in the darkness. Instinctively she knew it was Max.
“It’s all right,” he said nervously in her ear. “They’ll find a match in a minute. Just an absurd, rather rotten joke of someone’s.”
“Joke!” Myra gasped. “Oh Max, was it true what the thirteenth paper said?”
“I suppose so,” he said gently. “I never received a telephone message from Beatrix in my life.”
“Max!” she whispered, and he had time to draw her near him and kiss her before a rather tremulous match flared up.
“See here,” he said as he lighted—not the candle, but the gas. “I’ve had enough of this Oracle business.”
“It was ghostly,” said Candace, tearfully. “Who could have written those things?”
“I frankly suggest,” said Jimmy earnestly, “that we don’t ever try to find out.”
A knock sounded at the door.
“Were they ready for the flash-light?”
They welcomed the diversion gratefully, but it was twelve rather solemn young faces that faced the man with the camera. “One of you moved, didn’t you, during the flash?” asked the photographer.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” one of the group returned.
“But just as I touched off the flash, I thought I saw a pale young woman in a white dress sitting next to the tall gentleman, and, as you see, she is not there now.”
“No lady here tonight is wearing a white dress,” she said as she caught her breath.
“Oh, my mistake!” murmured the mystified photographer. “It—it might have been a window shade or—or—a curtain.”
“Yes, of course,” agreed Candace hastily.
The pictures were never sent around as souvenirs. The plate was discovered. For in the group in the photograph there was a thirteenth person, and the face was the face of Beatrix, who had been dead a year.