Unless you know me well personally, you may not realize that I’m a nerd for ghost stories. Big time.
That particular topic is for another time, though. This post is to celebrate the spooky season with one of my favorite ghost stories, Smee by A.M. Burrage.
Set during a Christmas Eve, it’s a delightful look at an innocent game of hide-and-seek called “Smee” (a portmanteau of “It’s” and “Me”) that includes an unexpected player for the evening. As with the best short ghost stories, the supernatural is casual and softly haunting; not as vulgar jump scares or “gotcha!” moments of cheap thrills. (The best of this post-facto type of uneasiness is likely Afterward by Edith Wharton.)
‘No,’ said Jackson, with a deprecatory smile, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t want to upset your game. I shan’t be doing that because you’ll have plenty without me. But I’m not playing any games of hide-and-seek.’
It was Christmas Eve, and we were a party of fourteen with just the proper leavening of youth. We had dined well; it was the season for childish games, and we were all in the mood for playing them—all, that is, except Jackson. When somebody suggested hide-and-seek there was rapturous and almost unanimous approval. His was the one dissentient voice.
It was not like Jackson to spoil sport or refuse to do as others wanted. Somebody asked him if he were feeling seedy.
‘No,’ he answered, ‘I feel perfectly fit, thanks. But,’ he added with a smile which softened without retracting the flat refusal, ‘I’m not playing hide-and-seek.’
One of us asked him why not. He hesitated for some seconds before replying.
‘I sometimes go and stay at a house where a girl was killed through playing hide-and-seek in the dark. She didn’t know the house very well. There was a servants’ staircase with a door to it. When she was pursued she opened the door and jumped into what she must have thought was one of the bedrooms—and she broke her neck at the bottom of the stairs.’
We all looked concerned, and Mrs Fernley said:
‘How awful! And you were there when it happened?’
Jackson shook his head very gravely. ‘No,’ he said, ‘but I was there when something else happened. Something worse.’
‘I shouldn’t have thought anything could be worse.’
‘This was,’ said Jackson, and shuddered visibly. ‘Or so it seemed to me.’
I think he wanted to tell the story and was angling for encouragement. A few requests which may have seemed to him to lack urgency, he affected to ignore and went off at a tangent.
‘I wonder if any of you have played a game called “Smee”. It’s a great improvement on the ordinary game of hide-and-seek. The name derives from the ungrammatical colloquialism, “It’s me.” You might care to play if you’re going to play a game of that sort. Let me tell you the rules.
‘Every player is presented with a sheet of paper. All the sheets are blank except one, on which is written “Smee”. Nobody knows who is “Smee” except “Smee” himself—or herself, as the case may be. The lights are then turned out and “Smee” slips from the room and goes off to hide, and after an interval the other players go off in search, without knowing whom they are actually in search of. One player meeting another challenges with the word “Smee” and the other player, if not the one concerned, answers “Smee”.
‘The real “Smee” makes no answer when challenged, and the second player remains quietly by him. Presently they will be discovered by a third player, who, having challenged and received no answer, will link up with the first two. This goes on until all the players have formed a chain, and the last to join is marked down for a forfeit. It’s a good noisy, romping game, and in a big house it often takes a long time to complete the chain. You might care to try it; and I’ll pay my forfeit and smoke one of Tim’s excellent cigars here by the fire until you get tired of it.’
I remarked that it sounded a good game and asked Jackson if he had played it himself. ‘Yes,’ he answered; ‘I played it in the house I was telling you about.’
‘And she was there? The girl who broke—‘
‘No, no,’ Mrs Fernley interrupted. ‘He told us he wasn’t there when it happened.’
Jackson considered. ‘I don’t know if she was there or not. I’m afraid she was. I know that there were thirteen of us and there ought only to have been twelve. And I’ll swear that I didn’t know her name, or I think I should have gone clean off my head when I heard that whisper in the dark. No, you don’t catch me playing that game, or any other like it, any more. It spoiled my nerve quite a while, and I can’t afford to take long holidays. Besides, it saves a lot of trouble and inconvenience to own up at once to being a coward.’
Tim Vouce, the best of hosts, smiled around at us, and in that smile there was a meaning which is sometimes vulgarly expressed by the slow closing of an eye. ‘There’s a story coming,’ he announced.
‘There’s certainly a story of sorts,’ said Jackson, ‘but whether it’s coming or not—‘ He paused and shrugged his shoulders.
‘Well, you’re going to pay a forfeit instead of playing?’
‘Please. But have a heart and let me down lightly. It’s not just a sheer cussedness on my part.’
‘Payment in advance,’ said Tim, ‘insures honesty and promotes good feeling. You are therefore sentenced to tell the story here and now.’
And here follows Jackson’s story, unrevised by me and passed on without comment to a wider public:
Some of you, I know, have run across the Sangstons. Christopher Sangston and his wife, I mean. They’re distant connections of mine—at least, Violet Sangston is. About eight years ago they bought a house between the North and South Downs on the Surrey and Sussex border, and five years ago they invited me to come and spend Christmas with them.
It was a fairly old house—I couldn’t say exactly of what period—and it certainly deserved the epithet ‘rambling’. It wasn’t a particularly big house, but the original architect, whoever he may have been, had not concerned himself with economising in space, and at first you could get lost in it quite easily.
Well, I went down for that Christmas, assured by Violet’s letter that I knew most of my fellow-guests and that the two or three who might be strangers to me were all ‘lambs’. Unfortunately, I’m one of the world’s workers, and couldn’t get away until Christmas Eve, although the other members of the party had assembled on the preceding day. Even then I had to cut it rather fine to be there for dinner on my first night. They were all dressing when I arrived and I had to go straight to my room and waste no time. I may even have kept dinner waiting a bit, for I was last down, and it was announced within a minute of my entering the drawing-room. There was just time to say ‘hullo’ to everybody I knew, to be briefly introduced to the two or three I didn’t know, and then I had to give my arm to Mrs Gorman.
I mention this as the reason why I didn’t catch the name of a tall, dark, handsome girl I hadn’t met before. Everything was rather hurried and I am always bad at catching people’s names. She looked cold and clever and rather forbidding, the sort of girl who gives the impression of knowing all about men and the more she knows of them the less she likes them. I felt that I wasn’t going to hit it off with this particular ‘lamb’ of Violet’s, but she looked interesting all the same, and I wondered who she was. I didn’t ask, because I was pretty sure of hearing somebody address her by name before very long.
Unluckily, though, I was a long way off her at table, and as Mrs Gorman was at the top of her form that night I soon forgot to worry about who she might be. Mrs Gorman is one of the most amusing women I know, an outrageous but quite innocent flirt, with a very sprightly wit which isn’t always unkind. She can think half a dozen moves ahead in conversation just as an expert can in a game of chess. We were soon sparring, or, rather, I was ‘covering’ against the ropes, and I quite forgot to ask her in an undertone the name of the cold, proud beauty. The lady on the other side of me was a stranger, or had been until a few minutes since, and I didn’t think of seeking information in that quarter.
There was a round dozen of us, including the Sangstons themselves, and we were all young or trying to be. The Sangstons themselves were the oldest members of the party and their son Reggie, in his last year at Marlborough, must have been the youngest. When there was talk of playing games after dinner it was he who suggested ‘Smee’. He told us how to play it just as I’ve described it to you.
His father chipped in as soon as we all understood what was going to be required of us. ‘If there are any games of that sort going on in the house,’ he said, ‘for goodness’ sake be careful of the back stairs on the first-floor landing. There’s a door to them and I’ve often meant to take it down. In the dark anybody who doesn’t know the house very well might think they were walking into a room. A girl actually did break her neck on those stairs about ten years ago when the Ainsties lived here.’
I asked how it happened.
‘Oh,’ said Sangston, ‘there was a party here one Christmas time and they were playing hide-and-seek as you propose doing. This girl was one of the hiders. She heard somebody coming, ran along the passage to get away, and opened the door of what she thought was a bedroom, evidently with the intention of hiding behind it while her pursuer went past. Unfortunately it was the door leading to the back stairs, and that staircase is as straight and almost as steep as the shaft of a pit. She was dead when they picked her up.’
We all promised for our own sakes to be careful. Mrs Gorman said that she was sure nothing could happen to her, since she was insured by three different firms, and her next-of-kin was a brother whose consistent ill-luck was a byword in the family. You see, none of us had known the unfortunate girl, and as the tragedy was ten years old there was no need to pull long faces about it.
Well, we started the game almost immediately after dinner. The men allowed themselves only five minutes before joining the ladies, and then young Reggie Sangston went round and assured himself that the lights were out all over the house except in the servants’ quarters and in the drawing-room where we were assembled. We then got busy with twelve sheets of paper which he twisted into pellets and shook up between his hands before passing them round. Eleven of them were blank, and ‘Smee’ was written on the twelfth. The person drawing the latter was the one who had to hide. I looked and saw that mine was a blank. A moment later out went the electric lights, and in the darkness I heard somebody get up and creep to the door.
After a minute or so somebody gave a signal and we made a rush for the door. I for one hadn’t the least idea which of the party was ‘Smee’. For five or ten minutes we were all rushing up and down passages and in and out rooms challenging one another and answering, ‘Smee?—Smee!’
After a bit the alarums and excursions died down, and I guessed that ‘Smee’ was found. Eventually I found a chain of people all sitting still and holding their breath on some narrow stairs leading up to a row of attics. I hastily joined it, having challenged and been answered with silence, and presently two more stragglers arrived, each racing the other to avoid being last. Sangston was one of them, indeed it was he who was marked down for a forfeit, and after a little while he remarked in an undertone, ‘I think we’re all here now, aren’t we?’
He struck a match, looked up the shaft of the staircase, and began to count. It wasn’t hard, although we just about filled the staircase, for we were sitting each a step or two above the next, and all our heads were visible.
‘…nine, ten, eleven, twelve—thirteen‘ he concluded, and then laughed. ‘Dash it all, that’s one too many!’
The match had burned out and he struck another and began to count. He got as far as twelve, and then uttered an exclamation.
‘There are thirteen people here!’ he exclaimed. ‘I haven’t counted myself yet.’
‘Oh, nonsense!’ I laughed. ‘You probably began with yourself, and now you want to count yourself twice.’
Out came his son’s electric torch, giving a brighter and steadier light and we all began to count. Of course we numbered twelve.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I could have sworn I counted thirteen twice.’
From halfway up the stairs came Violet Sangston’s voice with a little nervous trill in it. ‘I thought there was somebody sitting two steps above me. Have you moved up. Captain Ransome?’
Ransome said that he hadn’t: he also said that he thought there was somebody sitting between Violet and himself. Just for a moment there was an uncomfortable Something in the air, a little cold ripple which touched us all. For that little moment it seemed to all of us, I think, that something odd and unpleasant had happened and was liable to happen again. Then we laughed at ourselves and at one another and were comfortable once more. There were only twelve of us, and there could only have been twelve of us, and there was no argument about it. Still laughing we trooped back to the drawing-room to begin again.
This time I was ‘Smee’, and Violet Sangston ran me to earth while I was still looking for a hiding-place. That round didn’t last long, and we were a chain of twelve within two or three minutes. Afterwards there was a short interval. Violet wanted a wrap fetched for her, and her husband went up to get it from her room. He was no sooner gone than Reggie pulled me by the sleeve. I saw that he was looking pale and sick.
‘Quick!’ he whispered, ‘while father’s out of the way. Take me into the smoke room and give me a brandy or a whisky or something.’
Outside the room I asked him what was the matter, but he didn’t answer at first, and I thought it better to dose him first and question him afterward. So I mixed him a pretty dark-complexioned brandy and soda which he drank at a gulp and then began to puff as if he had been running.
‘I’ve had rather a turn,’ he said to me with a sheepish grin.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I don’t know. You were “Smee” just now, weren’t you? Well, of course I didn’t know who “Smee” was, and while mother and the others ran into the west wing and found you, I turned east. There’s a deep clothes cupboard in my bedroom — I’d marked it down as a good place to hide when it was my turn, and I had an idea that “Smee” might be there. I opened the door in the dark, felt round, and touched somebody’s hand. “Smee?” I whispered, and not getting any answer I thought I had found “Smee”.’
‘Well, I don’t know how it was, but an odd creepy feeling came over me, I can’t describe it, but I felt that something was wrong. So I turned on my electric torch and there was nobody there. Now, I swear I touched a hand, and I was filling up the doorway of the cupboard at the time, so nobody could get out and past me.’ He puffed again. ‘What do you make of it?’ he asked.
‘You imagined that you had touched a hand,’ I answered, naturally enough.
He uttered a short laugh. ‘Of course I knew you were going to say that,’ he said. ‘I must have imagined it, mustn’t I?’ He paused and swallowed. ‘I mean, it couldn’t have been anything else but imagination, could it?’
I assured him that it couldn’t, meaning what I said, and he accepted this, but rather with the philosophy of one who knows he is right but doesn’t expect to be believed. We returned together to the drawing-room where, by that time, they were all waiting for us and ready to start again.
It may have been my imagination—although I’m almost sure it wasn’t—but it seemed to me that all enthusiasm for the game had suddenly melted like a white frost in strong sunlight. If anybody had suggested another game I’m sure we should all have been grateful and abandoned ‘Smee’. Only nobody did. Nobody seemed to like to. I for one, and I can speak for some of the others too, was oppressed with the feeling that there was something wrong. I couldn’t have said what I thought was wrong, indeed I didn’t think about it at all, but somehow all the sparkle had gone out of the fun, and hovering over my mind like a shadow was the warning of some sixth sense which told me that there was an influence in the house which was neither sane, sound nor healthy. Why did I feel like that? Because Sangston had counted thirteen of us instead of twelve, and his son had thought he had touched somebody in an empty cupboard. No, there was more in it than just that. One would have laughed at such things in the ordinary way, and it was just that feeling of something being wrong which stopped me from laughing.
Well, we started again, and when we went in pursuit of the unknown ‘Smee’, we were as noisy as ever, but it seemed to me that most of us were acting. Frankly, for no reason other than the one I’ve given you, we’d stopped enjoying the game. I had an instinct to hunt with the main pack, but after a few minutes, during which no ‘Smee’ had been found, my instinct to play winning games and be first if possible, set me searching on my own account. And on the first floor of the west wing following the wall which was actually the shell of the house, I blundered against a pair of human knees.
I put out my hand and touched a soft, heavy curtain. Then I knew where I was. There were tall, deeply-recessed windows with seats along the landing, and curtains over the recesses to the ground. Somebody was sitting in a corner of this window-seat behind the curtain. Aha, I had caught ‘Smee’! So I drew the curtain aside, stepped in, and touched the bare arm of a woman.
It was a dark night outside, and, moreover, the window was not only curtained but a blind hung down to where the bottom panes joined up with the frame. Between the curtain and the window it was as dark as the plague of Egypt. I could not have seen my hand held six inches before my face, much less the woman sitting in the corner.
‘Smee?’ I whispered.
I had no answer. ‘Smee’ when challenged does not answer. So I sat beside her, first in the field, to await the others. Then, having settled myself I leaned over to her and whispered:
‘Who is it? What’s your name, “Smee”?’
And out of the darkness beside me the whisper came back: ‘Brenda Ford.’
I didn’t know the name, but because I didn’t know it I guessed at once who she was. The tall, pale, dark girl was the only person in the house I didn’t know by name. Ergo my companion was the tall, pale, dark girl. It seemed rather intriguing to be there with her, shut in between a heavy curtain and a window, and I rather wondered whether she was enjoying the game we were all playing. Somehow she hadn’t seemed to me to be one of the romping sort. I muttered one or two commonplace questions to her and had no answer.
‘Smee’ is a game of silence. ‘Smee’ and the person or persons who have found ‘Smee’ are supposed to keep quiet to make it hard for the others. But there was nobody else about, and it occurred to me that she was playing the game a little too much to the letter. I spoke again and got no answer, and then I began to be annoyed. She was of that cold, ‘superior’ type which affects to despise men; she didn’t like me; and she was sheltering behind the rules of a game for children to be dis-courteous. Well, if she didn’t like sitting there with me, I certainly didn’t want to be sitting there with her! I half turned from her and began to hope that we should both be discovered without much more delay.
Having discovered that I didn’t like being there alone with her, it was queer how soon I found myself hating it, and that for a reason very different from the one which had at first whetted my annoyance. The girl I had met for the first time before dinner, and seen diagonally across the table, had a sort of cold charm about her which had attracted while it had half angered me. For the girl who was with me, imprisoned in the opaque darkness between the curtain and the window, I felt no attraction at all. It was so very much the reverse that I should have wondered at myself if, after the first shock of the discovery that she had suddenly become repellent to me, I had had room in my mind for anything besides the consciousness that her close presence was an increasing horror to me.
It came upon me just as quickly as I’ve uttered the words. My flesh suddenly shrank from her as you see a strip of gelatine shrink and wither before the heat of a fire. That feeling of something being wrong had come back to me, but multiplied to an extent which turned foreboding into actual terror. I firmly believe that I should have got up and run if I had not felt that at my first movement she would have divined my intention and compelled me to stay, by some means of which I could not bear to think. The memory of having touched her bare arm made me wince and draw in my lips. I prayed that somebody else would come along soon.
My prayer was answered. Light footfalls sounded on the landing. Somebody on the other side of the curtain brushed again my knees. The curtain was drawn aside and a woman’s hand, fumbling in the darkness, presently rested on my shoulder. ‘Smee?’ whispered a voice which I instantly recognised as Mrs Gorman’s.
Of course she received no answer. She came and settled down beside me with a rustle, and I can’t describe the sense of relief she brought me.
‘It’s Tony, isn’t it?’ she whispered.
‘Yes,’ I whispered back.
‘You’re not “Smee” are you?’
‘No, she’s on my other side.’
She reached a hand across me, and I heard one of her nails scratch the surface of a woman’s silk gown.
‘Hullo, “Smee”! How are you? Who are you? Oh, is it against the rules to talk? Never mind, Tony, we’ll break the rules. Do you know, Tony, this game is beginning to irk me a little. I hope they’re not going to run it to death by playing it all the evening. I’d like to play some game where we can all be together in the same room with a nice bright fire.’
‘Same here,’ I agreed fervently.
‘Can’t you suggest something when we go down? There’s something rather uncanny in this particular amusement. I can’t quite shed the delusion that there’s somebody in this game who oughtn’t to be in at all.’
That was just how I had been feeling, but I didn’t say so. But for my part the worst of my qualms were now gone; the arrival of Mrs Gorman had dissipated them. We sat on talking, wondering from time to time when the rest of the party would arrive.
I don’t know how long elapsed before we heard a clatter of feet on the landing and young Reggie’s voice shouting, ‘Hullo! Hullo, there! Anybody there?’
‘Yes,’ I answered.
‘Mrs Gorman with you?’
‘Well, you’re a nice pair! You’ve both forfeited. We’ve all been waiting you for hours.’
‘Why, you haven’t found “Smee” yet,’ I objected.
‘You haven’t, you mean. I happen to have been “Smee” myself.’
‘But “Smee’s” here with us,’ I cried.
‘Yes,’ agreed Mrs Gorman.
The curtain was stripped aside and in a moment we were blinking into the eye of Reggie’s electric torch. I looked at Mrs Gorman and then on my other side. Between me and the wall there was an empty space on the window seat. I stood up at once and wished I hadn’t, for I found myself sick and dizzy.
‘There was somebody there,’ I maintained, ‘because I touched her.’
‘So did I,’ said Mrs Gorman in a voice which had lost its steadiness. ‘And I don’t see how she could have got up and gone without our knowing it.’
Reggie uttered a queer, shaken laugh. He, too, had had an unpleasant experience that evening. ‘Somebody’s been playing the goat,’ he remarked. ‘Coming down?’
We were not very popular when we arrived in the drawing-room. Reggie rather tactlessly gave it out that he had found us sitting on a window-seat behind the curtain. I taxed the tall, dark girl with having pretended to be ‘Smee’ and afterwards slipping away. She denied it. After which we settled down and played other games. ‘Smee’ was done with for the evening, and I for one was glad of it.
Some long while later, during an interval, Sangston told me, if I wanted a drink, to go into the smoke room and help myself. I went, and he presently followed me. I could see that he was rather peeved with me, and the reason came out during the following minute or two. It seemed that, in his opinion, if I must sit out and flirt with Mrs Gorman—in circumstances which would have been considered highly compromising in his young days—I needn’t do it during a round game and keep everybody waiting for us.
‘But there was somebody else there,’ I protested, ‘somebody pretending to be “Smee”. I believe it was that tall, dark girl. Miss Ford, although she denied it. She even whispered her name to me.’
Sangston stared at me and nearly dropped his glass.
‘Miss Who? he shouted.
‘Brenda Ford—she told me her name was.’
Sangston put down his glass and laid a hand on my shoulder.
‘Look here, old man,’ he said, ‘I don’t mind a joke, but don’t let it go too far. We don’t want all the women in the house getting hysterical. Brenda Ford is the name of the girl who broke her neck on the stairs playing hide-and-seek here ten years ago.’