It's Christmas Eve, which means this is my final Christmas ghost story—at least for this year. I wish I could say I saved the best for last, but I wrote this story myself, and I am certainly no Charles Dickens. I'm not even English, which you might think would disqualify me from what is essentially an English tradition. However, I am an English major, which means I have studied Dickens—along with a host of other British writers.
I have also been an Anglophile for most of my life, having discovered Sherlock Holmes in elementary (“my dear Watson”—and yes, I know he never said it, but it was too good to pass up) school, Ealing Studios (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lady Killers) in high school, and Monty Python and Doctor Who in college.
And as you may guess from the title of the following story, I have been a regular viewer of Masterpiece Theatre since its first season.
The Shadow of Downton Abbey
Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham, politely excused himself from the dining room of Downton Abbey, leaving his three sons-in-law to discuss politics over port and cigars. He was, quite frankly, annoyed—not with his sons-in-law or their topic of discussion, but by the fact that, for reasons of health, he was not allowed to partake of the port or cigars. His annoyance subsided somewhat as he walked past the magnificent twenty-foot Christmas tree that adorned the entry hall, and evaporated completely when he entered the library to find his mother, sister, wife, and daughters comfortably seated before a cheerful fire, while his three eldest grandchildren played Snakes and Ladders on the floor.
“‘Happy, happy Christmas!’” he declaimed, “‘that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!’”
His wife Cora, the American-born Countess of Grantham, applauded. “That was lovely, Robert! Was it from A Christmas Carol?”
“The Pickwick Papers,” Robert replied.
“We've just been discussing A Christmas Carol,” said Robert’s sister, Lady Rosamund Painswick.
“The children were wondering if you might be prevailed upon to read it to them,” said Lady Mary Talbot, Robert’s oldest daughter.
“The way you used to read it to us, when we were children,” added his second daughter, Lady Edith Pelham, Marchioness of Hexham.
“After all,” said Cora, “What is Christmas without Dickens?”
“Quite as pleasant as Christmas with him, I'm sure,” said Lady Violet, the venerable Dowager Countess of Grantham. “Possibly more so.”
Ignoring his mother’s remark, Robert addressed his three grandchildren: “Who can tell me how many ghosts Scrooge met on Christmas Eve?”
“That’s easy,” replied seven-year-old George Crawley, the precocious future 8th Earl. “There were three ghosts: Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come.”
“There were four ghosts,” corrected his cousin Sybil Branson, better known as Sybbie. She was only a year older than George, but had read at least twice as many books. “You’re forgetting Marley.”
“That’s right, Sybbie,” said Robert. “Everyone always forgets poor old Marley.”
“Are there really such things as ghosts, Donk?” asked Sybbie. She had given Robert that nickname years ago, during a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Now he was “Donk” to all of his grandchildren (and occasionally to other members of the family as well, much to his chagrin).
“No one knows for certain, but I believe that, as Shakespeare put it, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.’”
“Does that mean yes?”
“It means maybe.”
“Is my mother a ghost?” asked Sybbie, whose mother—Robert and Cora's youngest daughter Sybil, after whom she was named—had died just after she was born.
Well, he'd certainly put his foot in it, hadn't he? How could he not have seen that question coming? And how on earth was he supposed to answer it?
Fortunately, Cora came to his rescue. “No, Dear. Your mother is in heaven, with the angels.”
“What about my father?” asked George, whose father—Matthew Crawley, Mary's first husband—had been killed in an automobile accident just after he was born.
“He’s in heaven too,” replied his mother. “And now perhaps Donk will read us that story?”
Yes! Anything to change the subject. “Very well; if the children have finished their game.”
“We've finished,” said George. “Sybbie won. Sybbie always wins.”
While Robert began hunting among the many hundreds of books in the Downton Abbey library, the children put away the game and found their seats: George and Sybbie on the floor, their younger cousin Marigold on the sofa next to her mother, Edith.
“Now where the dickens has Dickens got to?” Robert muttered, searching the shelves. After a few minutes, he gave up. “Never mind. A Christmas Carol is a bit long, anyway; it would be hours past your bedtime by the time we finished it. How would it be if I told you a story, instead?”
“A ghost story?” asked George.
“Why not? After all, what’s Christmas without a ghost story?”
“Quite as pleasant as Christmas without Dickens, I should say,” said the Dowager Countess.
“Now, Mother—Dickens and ghost stories are cherished Christmas traditions.”
“Humbug! Both are sentimental relics of a bygone era, best forgotten. I should know. I am a relic of that same era. But don’t mind me; go ahead with your story.”
“And make it a scary one!” said George.
“Not too scary,” whispered Marigold, moving closer to her mother.
“Scary, but not too scary. Very well.” Robert looked out the library window. The snow-covered grounds shone like silver beneath a bright, gibbous moon. A line came to him from a popular American poem: “The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow gave a luster of mid-day to objects below,” he recited.
“‘A Visit from St. Nicholas?’ That’s not a ghost story!” George considered himself far too mature for those sorts of stories.
“Which is why I’m not going to tell it. Instead I’m going to tell you a story about a different sort of Christmas visitor. It’s called, ‘The Shadow of Downton Abbey.’ My grandfather told it to me when I was about your age. Do you remember it, Rosamund?”
“No, but I doubt our grandfather ever said more than two words to me.”
“You should be grateful,” said the Dowager Countess. “My father-in-law rarely had anything to say that was worth repeating. This doesn’t have anything to do with the horse he put in his father’s bedroom, does it?”
“Good,” said the Dowager Countess, with a nod toward her great-grandson. “We certainly wouldn’t want to give anyone any ideas.”
“‘The Shadow of Downton Abbey,’” said George breathlessly. “It sounds ripping!”
“Oh, I hope not,” said the Dowager Countess. “I don’t think ‘ripping’ can be a good thing for a child at bedtime.”
“I completely agree!” said Cora, who seldom said those words to her mother-in-law. “Robert, please promise me you won’t frighten the children.”
“I promise. Now, my grandfather told me he heard this story from his father, the 4th Earl...”
“The one who collected all of these books!” said Sybbie, who had made it her goal to read every last one of them.
“That’s right, dear.”
“Granny Violet says he also collected horses and women,” George added. He could see why someone might want to collect horses, but he wished someone would explain about the women. He wondered where his however-many-greats-grandfather had kept them. He tried to imagine them lined up on shelves, like the books in the library.
“Granny, I do wish you would be more careful what you say around the children,” said Mary. “Little pitchers have big ears.”
“True,” said the Dowager Countess. “But I suppose that old pitchers may be excused for having big mouths.”
“Go on with your story, Dear,” said Cora, “If you’re sure it’s not too scary.”
“Yes, do,” said Mary. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it. Have you, Edith?”
“How could I possibly have heard it, if you haven’t?” replied her sister.
“There’s no need to snap at me,” snapped Mary.
“I can see that I shall never be allowed to finish this story without interruption,” said Robert, “But is it too much to ask to at least be allowed to begin it?”
“I’m sorry, Papa,” said Mary. “Do go on.”
“Yes, please do,” said Edith.
Horace Grimley, aka “The Yorkshire Creeper,” made his way closer to the house, always keeping to the shadows. He stopped in the shadow of a large tree, from which he had a clear view of the house. The windows were still brightly lit, but soon the family and servants would be in bed, and then he would then make his move.
It was a lucky thing running into that servant girl in town. It was never any trouble getting information out of a silly girl like that: guests spending the night, dogs on the premises, even the layout of the rooms.
He smiled as he thought of all the loot inside the house: in addition to the priceless gems belonging to Countess Grantham and Lady Mary, the Dowager Countess, Lady Rosamund, and the Marchioness of Hexham were all staying the night, and would doubtless have their jewelry with them. Downton Abbey was an immense jewelry box filled to the brim with treasure, just waiting for a seasoned second-story man like Horace Grimley to come along and empty it. The pockets of his dark pea coat held all of the tools he would need.
And if someone had to die tonight—well, he had a tool for that, too.
“Wait,” said George, “If we’re to have a ghost story, shouldn’t we have the lights out?”
“Please, not all of them,” said Marigold.
“Very well,” said Robert. He went around the room, turning off all of the lights except for a small reading lamp near the fireplace. Then he sat down on the sofa next to Marigold and her mother. “There we are,” he said, “Nothing to be frightened of. Nice and cozy.”
“Nice and cozy,” echoed Marigold, who, now firmly wedged between her mother and her grandfather, felt nice and cozy, and no longer very afraid.
“Now then,” Robert began, “This story begins long, long ago, before any of us were born…”
“Even Granny Violet?” asked George.
“Even Granny Violet,” said Robert.
“But that’s ages ago!”
“George, that is unkind,” said Mary. “Apologize to Granny Violet this instant.”
“I’m sorry,” said George.
“Not at all,” said the Dowager Countess. “At times, even I find it difficult to believe how old I am. By rights, I should be a ghost myself.”
“As I was saying,” Robert continued, “Long, long ago, there was an actual abbey right here where this house is, with actual monks.”
“Why is that funny?” asked her grandfather.
“Monkeys!” she giggled.
“Not monkeys,” corrected George (who, as has been mentioned, was quite precocious). “Monks: bald men who go about wearing dressing gowns and singing in Latin. Right, Donk?”
“More or less,” said Robert. “Anyway, the monks lived here peacefully enough until around four hundred years ago, when Henry VIII decided he wanted their land and told them they had to go. Most of them left, but a few stayed and fought—fought to the death. And one of them is said to be here still.”
“Downton Abbey has a ghost?” George asked, breathlessly.
“Of course!” said Robert. “Every old English house must have a ghost.”
Marigold let out a small whimper.
“Don’t be frightened, dear. Our ghost is a good ghost. He’s here to protect Downton—and to protect us—just as he tried to protect his abbey and fellow monks, centuries ago.”
“What's his name?” asked Marigold.
“No one knows—which is why he’s only known as ‘The Shadow of Downton Abbey’—but it’s generally believed that he must have been a knight before he became a monk. It’s said that he was the fiercest fighter of all the monks, and that he carried an enormous broadsword, with which he decapitated many of the attackers.”
“Robert!” gasped Cora.
“Ah!” said the Dowager Countess. “I see we have come to the ‘ripping’ part.”
“What does ‘decrapitated’ mean?” asked Marigold.
“Er...never mind,” said Robert. “It’s not important to the story.”
“It means he cut their heads off,” George whispered to his cousin, who immediately buried her face in her mother’s lap.
“Now look what you’ve done, Robert,” Cora admonished her husband. “You promised not to frighten them!”
“I’m sorry,” said Robert. “Look, the important thing to know is that the Shadow has never harmed anyone in our family; on the contrary, the only time he is said to appear is to protect the family, when they need help. And he has only ever appeared at Christmas time, on a bright, moon-lit night.”
“Like tonight,” said Sybbie. She had left her place by the fire, and was looking out the window.
“Like tonight,” said Robert.
“I hope we see him!” said George, pushing in next to Sybbie to peer out at the moonlit grounds.
“Ah ohmp ee ohnt!” said Marigold, whose face was still buried in her mother’s lap.
“What’s that, Darling?” asked Edith.
Marigold lifted her head and shouted, “I SAID, I HOPE WE DON’T!”
“Don’t worry, Dear,” said Robert. “He never appears inside the house, and as I said, when he does appear, it’s only to help. My grandfather said the last time he appeared was to his father, when he was about your age, which was well over a hundred years ago. Surely you remember the story now, Mother.”
“I do not,” replied the Dowager Countess.
“That’s strange,” said Robert.
“Not at all. Just you see how much you remember when you get to be my age. Anyway, it sounds like a great deal of nonsense to me. When your grandfather told it to you, had he been drinking?”
“Now that is strange. And now, I fear I must say goodnight. It has been an exhausting day, and not even a host of ghostly, sword-wielding monks could keep me awake.”
“I’ll take you upstairs,” said Rosamund. “The children can tell us the end of the story tomorrow. Goodnight everyone.”
Horace Grimley was getting impatient.
Most of the lights were now off in the library, but at least one was still lit, and the dining room was lit as well. It was frustrating, not being able to see what was going on inside the house. If only the moon weren’t so bright (what was the line from that poem—something about the moon and the snow and the “bluster of mid-day?”) he could get closer to the house. But better to stay here in the shadows. As long as he kept to the shadows and kept still, he could not be seen.
The shadows: the moonlight made them seem unusually stark and sinister.
And did one of them just move?
“Perhaps we should all go to bed,” said Mary.
“Please, Mama,” pleaded George, “Let us hear the end of the story!”
“Yes, please!” added Sybbie.
“Very well,” said Mary. “But I hope it’s not much longer.”
“And has a pleasant ending,” added Edith, whose daughter's head was still buried in her lap.
“Don’t worry,” said Robert. “The story is almost over, and I assure you the rest is quite tame. One Christmas Eve, very much like this Christmas Eve, my great-grandfather woke up in the middle of the night and looked out his window. And what do you suppose he saw?”
“A shadow!” exclaimed Sybbie, breathlessly.
“That’s right! Out on the grounds, in the moonlight, he saw what appeared to be the shadow of a man, waving a large sword...”
“But there was no man!” said George.
“That’s right: nothing but a shadow. My great-grandfather woke his parents. His father smelled smoke and raised the alarm. It turned out a candle had been left burning in the kitchen, causing a fire to break out after everyone had gone to bed. But the house and everyone in it were saved—”
“Thanks to the Shadow of Downton Abbey,” said George.
“Thanks to the Shadow of Downton Abbey,” said Robert. “And that’s the end of the story.”
“Too bad the Shadow wasn’t around to warn us that time Edith tried to burn the house down,” said Mary.
“I did not try to burn the house down!” Edith replied, indignantly.
“Well, you did a dashed good job of it, for someone who wasn’t trying,” said Mary.
“Something out there moved,” said Sybbie, at the window.
There—it moved again. Horace Grimley was sure he saw it this time, out of the corner of his eye. But when he turned to look, there was nothing—nothing but the shadow of the trees.
Or was there perhaps a darker shadow, beneath the shadow of the trees: a shadow within a shadow?
And was it coming closer?
“I don’t see anything,” said George.
“Over there, under the trees,” said Sybbie.
“Wait—I did see something!” said George. “It looked like someone playing football! May we go outside and see?”
“Certainly not!” said Mary. “And who on earth would be playing football in this weather and at this time of night?”
“Robert, you’ve over-stimulated their imaginations,” said Cora. “Now they’ll never get to sleep.”
“I’ll read them a bedtime story,” said Mary, rising from her seat by the fire. “That always puts them to sleep.”
“No doubt thanks to that monotonous drone you call a voice,” said Edith.
“Let’s make a contest of it, shall we?” said Mary. “We’ll see which puts them to sleep first: my monotonous drone or your nasal whine. Come along, George!”
“But Mama, I want to see the Shadow!”
“There’s no such thing; it’s just a story,” said Mary. “Isn’t that right, Donk?”
“I suppose so,” said Robert. “Just a story.”
Mary and Edith gathered the children and headed upstairs. After they had gone, Robert went to the window.
“You don’t see anything out there, do you Robert?” asked Cora.
“Of course not,” said Robert.
Barrow, Downton Abbey’s butler, appeared silently at Robert’s side. “Will there be anything else this evening, my lord?”
“No, Barrow. I think we’re all just about ready for a ‘long winter’s nap.’”
“Very good, my lord.” Barrow turned to go.
“Just a moment, Barrow. Do you see anything out there?”
The butler looked out the window. “Only shadows, my lord.”
“Yes, of course. Only shadows. Goodnight, Barrow—and happy Christmas.”
“Happy Christmas, my lord.”
Outside, clouds had begun to move in, obscuring the moon and causing all shadows to fade. Snow began to fall and form a fresh, white blanket over the grounds of Downton Abbey.
If you looked closely, beneath the trees you might discern two mounds in the newly-fallen snow: a longish one approximately a foot shorter than Horace Grimley and, perhaps a dozen feet away, another of the approximate size and shape of a football.