* The Chess Players, a picture which hangs at Chirk Castle.
Llanblogger is delighted to bring you this special story for Christmas
“I say, you will stop a while and play a game before you go, won’t you?”
When she heard the unexpected invitation Sarah turned round to see where it had come from.But there didn’t seem to be anyone else in the room.
It was a pretty marvellous room, with a very high ceiling, big, old fashioned furniture and creaky wooden floorboards. But, apart from her, it was most definitely quite empty.When looking around Chirk Castle it’s the room you enter after going into the Saloon, itself a wonderfully big space filled with all sorts of squashy armchairs, paintings, a big welcoming fireplace and even, in the far corner, a grand piano which sometimes someone plays just to add to the homely atmosphere.
On the day Sarah was there the Saloon had only quite recently been opened to the public to show how the family which once occupied the old castle actually lived many years before.The rest of the castle, which someone told Sarah had been built in medieval times, was a bit grisly and wasn’t really very homely at all.
Okay, it was quite interesting to see because of all those suits of armour and the dank, scary dungeon in the cellar but you couldn’t exactly call those cold stone walls and flagged floors terribly cosy.Sarah liked history and so did her grandparents but then they would like it, she thought cheekily, because they were part of it, weren’t they!
What she loved about history weren’t boring old suits of armour, swords and muskets but tales about lovely princesses finding their princes and then marrying them to live happily ever after.But then she would, wouldn’t she, because she was 12 years old, so it obviously all that stuff came with the territory.
But Grandad and Granny were nice old things and if they wanted to drag her along with them to Chirk Castle well that was okay with her.After all, Grandad often said that if he kept forking out all that money each year for their National Trust subs they might as well get their money’s worth by visiting Chirk, which was just around the corner from where they lived in Llangollen, as often as they could.
Sarah, who was staying with them for a couple of days at the start of her Christmas holiday from school, had gone along with them to Chirk as she always did.And it was Christmas-time and the old castle looked a bit brighter than it usually did because of all the big colourful banners fluttering outside on this cold and rainy afternoon and all that holly and stuff which had been prettily arranged on top of the fireplaces and sideboards in the big rooms inside.
Sarah had just wandered into the room after the Saloon and she was enjoying the loud clattery noise her boots were making on the wooden floor as she tried to catch up with the old folk who had gone on ahead as they usually did.Then came that voice – a young girl’s voice and quite posh, too – and Sarah was left wondering who had spoken as she was definitely alone in the room.
Actually, she didn’t much like the experience and it sent a bit of a shiver through her body.The best thing to do was hurry up a bit and to try and find her wandering grandparents.
Then it came again.“Hello, little girl, I say. Yes, I’m talking to you. Would you care to come and play with us before you leave?
“You see my sister and I are playing chess. But we’ve been playing for simply ages and I’m getting awfully bored because …” and the voice lowered to a stage whisper, “she’s not terribly good at it and I’m looking for a much worthier opponent.”Sarah knew that there wasn’t another person in the room and the voice was too loud and clear to be coming from an adjacent room, so it must be coming from somewhere close at hand.
But where?“I know,” thought Sarah to herself, “it’ll be coming from someone hiding behind one of those big sideboards in the corner of the room for a joke. Yes, that’s it.”
So she ran to the nearest, biggest wooden sideboard and looked very closely at it.And it was quite clear that nobody could be hiding behind it as it was far too close to the wall for anyone to fit in.
Was it someone hiding behind the old brown leather armchair on the other side of the room perhaps?Her boots clattered more urgently on the polished floorboards and she almost tripped over one of the nicks between the boards as she dashed over to have a look behind it.
But there was no-one there and Sarah was now getting more frightened and just wanted to dash out of this room as fast as she could and find Grandad and Granny.
“I say, little girl, don’t be frightened. Er, it’s me speaking to you and I’m up here,” said the disembodied voice again.
“I am ecktually up here … in the painting, do you see? Look, up here!”
Sarah was looking only at the door but, in her peripheral vision, she could see a big painting on the wall to her left.
But all she wanted to do was ignore the spooky voice and get out of that room as quickly as her legs would carry her.
She knew the painting was there, of course, because she’s seen it loads of times before when she’d been visiting the castle with her grandparents.
When she thought about it, it was quite a nice painting and she quite liked it.The colours were a bit faded as it must have been very old but she recalled that it showed two young girls, probably of about her own age, sitting on a mat on the floor concentrating on playing some sort of game.
If you had a closer look at it, which she once had out of sheer boredom on one of her many trips around the castle’s staterooms, you could work out that the girls were playing whatever it was on the floor of the Saloon, the room she’d just been in.But she didn’t know and had never much cared about whom the girls were or what they were doing.
Now, it seemed, one of those girls was speaking to her … from the picture!Sarah forced herself to look to her left.
Thankfully, nothing happened and the painting appeared just as lifeless as it always did.Sarah thought she must have been hearing things, or that maybe somebody was having a laugh with her.
Well, if they were, it certainly wasn’t very funny because it was too creepy and had made her feel very scared.She decided to ignore the voice and get out of that horrible room.
As she headed for the door she risked one last glance towards the painting and was immediately sorry that she had.Because as she looked at it, one of the girls – the one sitting on the left of the picture – began to speak.
And she actually did speak because Sarah could see her lips, and in fact, her whole face moving as the words came out.“I’m so sorry, my dear, if I’ve frightened you by speaking to you. But, as I said earlier, I’m so frightfully bored that I simply had to say something to you.
“You see, my little sister here is ebsolutely useless at chess and couldn’t give me a decent game if she tried. Which she never does, of course.“She just wants to get it over as soon as possible each and every time we play and, well, we may as well not bother at all, do you see?”
Sarah did see. At least she looked on, in fascination, as the girl’s lips kept moving but was so terrified by what she was seeing that she was taking hardly any notice of what was being said to her.One part of Sarah wanted to run out of the room but, strangely, the other part of her wanted to stay and listen.
“Er, perhaps if you’d be kind enough to get up here and join us, we could play a game together and my sister could toddle off and do something else which she might find more interesting,” mouthed the girl in the painting from which vantage point she looked down directly at Sarah standing a few feet in front of her.Crazy as all this was, Sarah was enthralled by what seemed to be happening and when she had pulled herself together a little decided to speak back to the girl up there.
“I’m sorry,” she said looking upwards, “I didn’t think people in paintings could talk, so I’m a bit shocked to hear you.”“Oh, thet’s quite alright,” said the painting girl, “I fully realise it must be a bit of a shock but I wouldn’t have said anything if I hadn’t been so awfully bored with this game.
“And, ecktually, you do look quite intelligent and as though you could play a proper game of chess if you tried.”Sarah was still feeling extremely uneasy about the proceedings but thought it was only polite to respond to the painting girl, who was blonde, quite pretty, polite and very well spoken. Much better spoken than Sarah, she thought.
In fact, the girl was so well spoken that she sounded like she was playing a part in one of those TV costume dramas which she loved watching because of all their gorgeous ladies’ costumes, if not the boring plots.“Er, hello, I’m sorry, no,” said Sarah to the girl, “no, I can’t play chess, although one of my friends at school did try to teach me once.”
Sarah was about to add that she had quickly given up all hopes of ever trying to learn chess because it was such a boring thing to do.But the girl was being so nice and friendly – even if she was speaking from an old painting – that Sarah decided she didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
“I can actually play draughts, though. Er, if that’s any good?” she added as a helpful after-thought.“Oh no, not draughts, my dear. Not draughts for that would too, too plebeian, as Daddy would have it,” replied the painting girl.
“Oh well, I suppose there is absolutely no alternative but to play on with my sister and face dying of utter boredom from the sheer tedium of it all.”“I’m very sorry,” Sarah responded, “if I could play chess I’d certainly help you out and play a game with you.
“Maybe I could come back one day when I’ve learned. I could ask my friend at school if she’d try and teach me again. And this time I’d do my best to concentrate a bit more.”“Yes, that’s extremely nice of you. I’m always here, so any time you’d care to come back and give me a decent game you’d be so awfully welcome, you know,” said the painting girl.
“By the way, my dear, what’s your name? Mine’s Margaret and my little sister’s name is Rosemary.“Most of the time it’s terribly interesting living in a castle but sometimes, you know, it can become a teeny bit boring.
“By the way, my dear, I know you come here quite a lot with some elderly people in tow because I’ve seen you frequently and always think what a charming young lady you appear to be. So whenever you fancy a decent game of chess, you know …“Oh, before you desh off, what did you say your name was?”
Sarah was just about to tell her when she heard her Granny calling her and decided that it was time she caught up with the old folks to see the rest of the castle for what must be the millionth time.But maybe this time it had been a little different.
* The painting referred to here is entitled The Chess Players and is by Sir John Lavery (1929). It shows the Hon. Margaret and the Hon. Rosemary Scott-Ellis, daughters of the 8th Baron Howard de Waldon whose family once occupied Chirk Castle.