Reprinted for three weeks online by kind permission of the estate of John Wall (Sarban) as represented by Ray Russell. Published in Ringstones and Other Curious Stories in 1951. All rights reserved.
Tartarus Press currently offers the following titles by Sarban:
Ringstones (as a physical hardback and an ebook):
The Doll Maker (as a physical hardback and an ebook):
The Sound of His Horn (as an ebook only):
I will tell you a Christmas story. I will tell it as Alexander Andreievitch Masseyev told it me in his little house outside the walls of Jedda years ago one hot, damp Christmas Eve.
It was the custom among the few English people in Jedda in those days to make up a carol-singing party on Christmas Eve. For a week before, the three or four of us who had voices they were not ashamed of, and the one or two who had neither voice nor shame, practised to the accompaniment of an old piano in the one British mercantile house in the place: an instrument whose vocal cords had not stood the excessive humidity of that climate any better than those of some of the singers. Then, on Christmas Eve, the party gathered at our house where we dined and, with a lingering memory of Yule-tide mummers in England, arrayed ourselves in such bits of fancy dress or comic finery as we could lay our hands on; made false whiskers out of cotton-wool or a wisp of tow, blackened our faces, reddened our noses with lipstick supplied by the Vice-Consul’s wife, put our jackets on inside-out and sprinkled over our shoulders “frost” out of a little packet bought by someone ages ago at home and kept by some miracle of sentimental pertinacity through years of exile on that desert shore.
I am no singer, but I always had a part in these proceedings. It was to carry the lantern.
Our Sudanese house-boys served us with more admiration than amusement on their faces, and the little knot of our Arab neighbours, who always gathered about our door to watch us set out, whatever the occasion, gave not the slightest sign of recognising anything more comic than usual in our appearance. We made our round of the European houses in our Ford station-wagon; I holding my lantern on its pole outside the vehicle and only by luck avoiding shattering it against the wall as the First Secretary cut the corners of the narrow lanes. Fortunately, except for our neighbours, who never seemed to go to bed at all (or, at least, didn’t go to bed to sleep), the True-Believers of Jedda kept early hours, and by nine or ten at night the dark sandy lanes were deserted but for pariah dogs and families of goats settled with weary wheezings to doze the still, close night away. Poor Jedda goats! whose pasture and byre were the odorous alleys; pathetic mothers of frustrated offspring, with those brassieres which seemed at first sight such an astonishing refinement of Grundyism, but which turned out to be merely an economic safeguard—girdles not of chastity but husbandry; with your frugal diet of old newspapers and ends of straw rope, to whom the finding of an unwanted (or unguarded) panama hat was like a breakfast of ’Id ul Futr; how many a curse and kick in the ribs have you earned from a night-ambling Frank for couching in that precise pit of darkness where the feeble rays of one paraffin lamp expire and those of the next are not yet born!
From the façades of the crazy, coral-built houses that hem the lanes project roshans—bow-windows of decaying wooden lattice-work— and on the plastered tops of these bow-windows the moonlight falls so clear and white this Christmas Eve that to the after-dinner eye it seems that snow has fallen.
This story ran on Weirdfictionreview.com from December 2011 through early February 2012. Many thanks to the author for permission to run the story for that period. This excerpt has been retained for archiving purposes.