Monday, December 26, 2005

Richard's Revenge: A Christmas Eve Ghost Story


Some time ago, I began writing ghost stories for Christmas Eve - a Victorian tradition perfected by Robertson Davies which I think is just fun. This is the third of those stories. I was planning to get it out on Christmas eve, but I was in a hotel, no where near a computer.

So, I give it to you tonight as a bit of post-Christmas cheer. If anyone happens to enjoy it and says so in convincing enough terms, I will post the one that started it all, and the one that came after that.

Richard’s Revenge

There are times when one is faced with questions about one’s sanity. Times when one’s relatives look at one strangely and say things like “That’s not true” or “You’re making that up” and, when assured of one’s belief in the truth of what one has said, immediately follow up with, “You’re looney.”

And so, with trepidation, I reveal to you now events that are so far from believable that I expect to hear such reactions immediately upon the completion of their recital. I hasten to add that the ability to keep such comments to oneself until the end of the recital of these strange events would be greatly appreciated.

Now, for those who don’t know, some years ago I decided I would follow in the tradition of Robertson Davies—the great curmudgeon of Canadian Literature—and write a ghost story every Christmas. A way to have a little fun over the season, I thought; a way to keep my skills sharp.

Now, Robertson Davies claimed that all his stories were absolutely true. I thought that this was just a conceit, to make them that much more interesting. After all, a claim of truth has never hurt a good story.

So imagine my surprise when, upon first attempting to write such a story, the ghost of Robertson Davies himself appeared and informed me that, not only was it not a conceit, but that it was, in fact, a curse. Ghosts visited every Christmas. And since I had decided to take up the tradition, I got to take up the curse, too. The ghosts that had visited him would now start visiting me.

I had hoped he was bluffing. Unfortunately, a visit the following year from my cousin Charles convinced me other wise (And yes, Charles Dickens is a cousin on my mother’s side, seven times removed).

Well, once is accident, twice is coincidence, and the third time was last week while I was waiting to teach a class.

I was at Rapier Wit, Canada’s oldest and best stage combat studio on an empty Thursday night, waiting to teach the last martial arts class of the year. Unfortunately, twenty centimeters of snow were falling outside and those with any sense stayed home. I, being raised on the Canadian prairies, had no sense and was standing alone in the studio, stretching my muscles and waiting just ten more minutes for the third time when a rather non-descript fellow walked through the door of the armoury, holding a sword.

“Who the hell are you?” was on the tip of my tongue. I clamped my teeth together and kept it there. You see, I knew I was alone in the building. I knew that Christmas was coming and I knew that I had an unopened bottle of Jamieson’s Irish Whiskey in my bag.

It was the Jamieson’s that decided it. Ghosts never showed up when I was dry.

I watched the man walk towards me, taking in the loose shirt with laces at the neck, the wrinkled hose on his legs, the high boots on his feet, and the paunch that his belt was struggling mightily, if unsuccessfully, to keep in place. I wondered, who he was. What spirit had stepped out of the netherworld this year? I began to formulate a greeting; one that would take over from those words still balanced on the tip of my tongue, when he stepped close, raised a hand with a glove in it, and smacked me across the face.

I stood, stunned, as he stepped away, raised his blade, and assumed a guard. I discovered that those words sitting on the tip of my tongue were both still there and ready to break loose. I obliged them.

“Who the Hell are you?” I said.

“One who would end your life!”

I waited for more. None was forthcoming. “All right,” I said. “Why?”

“Why?” he repeated. “Why?!” he said again, this time adding an exclamation mark. “Why??!!!”

Given the five pieces of punctuation at the end of his last “why?” and the fact that I could hear them all, I could only come to one conclusion. “So, you’re an actor, then?” I said.

“An actor?” he said. “An actor?!”

“You’re not going for five punctuation marks again, are you?”

He glared. “I was not.”


“I was going for six.”

“You can’t.”

“Watch me.”

“All right.”

He cleared his throat. “AN ACTOR???!!!”

“That was six,” I said, rubbing my ringing ears, “And fully capitalized, too. Well done!”

“Thank you,” he said, bowing deeply. He resumed his pose. “I am no mere actor! I am the greatest performer the world has ever known!”

“I thought Olivier was blond,” I said.

“Olivier?” He sneered and waved a hand that at once displayed his distain for my comment and suggested my idiocy for making it. “A popinjay.”

“Oh,” I thought about it. “Gielgud?”









“Barrymore has his own play!”

“Oh, yeah. I Hate Hamlet.”

“So do I!” he thundered gesturing emphatically with his other hand. I hit the floor, as this was the hand with the sword in it. “That overly verbose hack didn’t know who he had working for him. “…and let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them…” Twelve years after my death and he still has to make his point. Like he ever wrote anything funny!”

There was a clue! I picked myself off the floor. “You are Richard Tarleton,” I declared. “Elizabeth’s court jester. The clown!”

“Clown? I am the greatest performer of my age! Of any age!”

‘No, the clown,” I said.

“The greatest performer of any age!” he said, advancing on me, point of the sword foremost.

“You may think so, but everyone remembers you as a clown,” I said, retreating. “It’s in all the history books.”

“Of course,” he looked disgusted. “My King Lier brought audiences to tears. My Famous Victories of Henry V made them scream with applause. My True Tragedy of Richard III made them tremble with awe. And what am I remembered for? Pratfalls, slapstick and eating a live chicken on stage!”

“Actually, no one remembers the chicken.”

“They should!” he declared, “It’s a good bit!” He sighed. “You know, all this rage makes a man thirsty.”

“I’m sure it does,” I agreed. “But I’m not giving out drinks until you tell me why you want to kill me.”

“Because history demands it!” He said, and before I could say, ‘it does?’ he added, “I demand it!” The sword was up again, and he was once more advancing. “En garde, you knave!”

“With what?” I demanded. “I don’t have a sword!”

With a sneer he tossed me his. It landed in my hand, an early rapier, well-balanced, and feeling as solid as the steel it should have been made of, but cold, as though it had been left out in the blizzard that had kept my students from coming and made all of this possible. I looked at him and discovered he had a matching blade in his own hand.

“Why me?” I demanded.

“Because you are a writer!” he said. “Your kind never makes proper use of the clowns. You but us in the back, you use us for filler between those boring scenes you think have meaning. We deserve better! I deserve better! History will no longer know Richard Tarleton as a clown! If I am not known as the greatest performer of my age, then I will be known as a villain! As a murderer! I shall kill you and in doing so gain my revenge on all your ilk!”

“And if I don’t want to fight?” I said.

“I will make you.”


“Your verse is terrible,” said he.

“True, but no reason to kill me,” I said.

“Your paragraphs are too short,” said he.

“Also true but—”

“Your characters are weak and two dimensional cut-outs that barely manage to drive forward those miserable excuses for plots that you scrawl,” said he.

“En Garde,” I said.

Now, Richard Tarleton was a man of his time; an actor, a clown, and above all else, a swordsman. His wrist was like iron. His blows thundered and made my blade shiver. At first, it was all I could do just to block them. He cut a web of steel around me, leaving me breathless and barely able to fight him off.

“You call yourself a swordsman?” he demanded. “You are terrible!”

“Yeah,’re still just a clown,” I shot back, being rather winded for witty retorts



Blades clashed again, and this time I began to enjoy a little success. I began to see his rhythm, began to interrupt it with thrusts and cuts of my own, driving him back a few steps.

He riposted and charged. He thrust and cut at me a dozen times, each one narrowly missing puncturing a vital organ or opening a vein. I stumbled, and in desperation let myself go to the ground, catching myself with one hand and thrusting out the blade with the other.

He stopped, his blade clattering to the floor, and stared at the wound in his stomach. I rose and he stumbled back, pulling himself free of the blade, then falling to his knees.

“I am slain,” he said, looking at me. His face was a wonder to behold, even in this grim moment. It held the horror of his death, the wonder that he lost the fight, and the pain of the injury together in a single expression that threatened to tear open my heart. I fell to my own knees beside him.

I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t want—”

“No matter,” he said, his voice a rich whisper, loud enough for my ears alone. “It was foolishness on my part. A dream of greatness never realized. A faint hope that I should be remembered for more than what I was.”

“Let me get you a bandage, or call—”

“No,” he breathed. “It is too late.” A single tear rolled down his cheek and his breathing shuddered. A moment later he rallied himself, raising a hand and reaching for me. I took it in my own. His voice was barely a whisper when he said, “In your writing… please… let me be remembered kindly… Say…” he stopped, drew in a shuddering breath. “Say that this foolish clown met his end… if not nobly… then well.”

“I will say so,” I promised. “I will.”

“Then I… am happy.”

He drew breath one last time, then let it out in a long shuddering sigh that left no doubt that the last of his life was gone; that his soul had fled this earth. A moment later, his body and the swords both faded from sight, leaving me alone in the empty studio.

It was when I discovered the bottle of whiskey had vanished that I realized what really happened.

Richard Tarleton died in 1588. I had not killed him. I had been snookered. He had put on a death scene that would bring tears to a theatre critic just to prove how good he was, then stole my whiskey on his way out.

So tonight, let us drink to the shade of Richard Tarleton, the greatest performer of his age, and let us say of him, “This foolish clown met his end, if not nobly, then well.”

And if anyone sees him, he owes me a bottle!

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