The Christmas Party – Gillian St. Kevern

A light dusting of snow fell overnight, rare for Market Weighton. It transformed the country lane into a scene from a Christmas card, making the green of the hedges stand out, and putting the skeletal tree limbs into greater relief. Or was that years of accumulated grime? Micah made a half-hearted attempt to wipe the window, but there was not much he could do against decades of neglect. The scene beyond the window remained hazy, and Micah remained inside, alone in the empty house. Another Christmas. They were inevitable, yet the weight of the house’s silence, heavier now than at other times of the year, always caught him unawares. The sight of a labourer trudging down the lane, a few branches of spruce tucked under his arm, or a gaggle of village maids skipping past, their arms laden with holly and mistletoe gathered from the woods, cut deep. Micah glanced behind himself to the holly, dry and brittle on the mantelpiece. How many decades now since the house had last seen a Christmas? It had been his favourite time of the year. Now, seeing a pair of sweethearts heading into the woods with a saw sent him plummeting into despair. Micah returned his gaze to the window, only to receive a shock. A girl stood in the lane, staring at him. He blinked, too surprised to do anything but stare back. The girl—woman, Micah corrected himself. Although youthful, she wore her chestnut hair in artful curls rather than schoolgirl plaits, a sure sign she had left the schoolroom for society—studied the house.

She wore a coat over her dress, a mink collar around her neck, and her hands were plunged into a matching fur muff. Her hat was a work of art, grey hat band set off by an ostrich feather. Micah’s interest in fashion was nominal, but even he knew this ensemble was better suited to the streets of Paris than Market Weighton. On closer inspection, he was not sure she stared at him. She weighed the house, her expression speculative. What on earth was this apparition doing in the village? And why did she stare so at the house? Whatever the woman saw seemed to please her. Her mouth curved in a smile and she nodded, marching up to the gate in a businesslike way. Micah backed away from the window. Had she seen him? Hopefully, the grimy windows were as much a barrier to within as without. There was a sharp knock at the door.

After an interval, the knock repeated and the door handle rattled. A determined young woman. What business did she have with the house? Surely it was obvious from the neglected appearance that the house was empty. Silence. Micah listened, but he did not hear the telltale screech of the gate’s hinges. Was she still there? Perhaps she’d left the gate ajar and had already departed. After all, there was nothing in the house or garden to interest a fashionable young lady. A tapping at the window. Micah looked up. The woman stood there, her eyes fixed on him.

She smiled and tapped again on the glass. No question about it. She’d definitely seen him. Micah lurched over to the window. His fingers trembled as he unhooked the latch. How would he explain his presence in the house? “You must be the caretaker,” said the young lady. “I’m here to see the house. Would you let me in? I went to the landlord’s office, and they told me they’d lost the key. Can you believe that? Lost the key indeed! I’m sure if I was a gentleman they would have produced it instantly. Then they had the gall to tell me it was unoccupied.

” She jutted out her chin. “But I mean to rent this house regardless of what they say—so if you’d let me in, I’d be much obliged.” “Of course,” Micah said faintly. “One moment.” The lady flashed a smile at him. Her pearly teeth dazzled and her eyes sparkled. “Thank you so much. You are a dear.” She turned, skirts rustling as she made her way to the front door. Micah closed the window, re-latching it as though dazed.

Why had he agreed to let her into the house? Once she realised the house had no caretaker, she would report him to the landlord and he would surely be removed— Micah bit his lip. If she realised the house had no caretaker… He took a deep breath, opening the door. “This is most unusual. Visitors are generally required to give notice.” His voice sounded rusty from disuse. “I suppose you thought I had no business here, and that was why you pretended not to hear me knocking.” The young lady bustled in, looking about her with keen interest. “I do not blame you. I would have done the same. There is nothing I detest more than people who foist themselves upon you uninvited.

Still, no harm, no foul as Harry says.” She held out her hands, still encased in the fur muff to Micah. “I believe that is a football reference. Sport is the only thing that Harry can talk on—though most of what he says is unintelligible to me.” She paused. Waiting for him to remove her muff. Micah swallowed. “There is no fire, the house as cold inside as it is out. I suggest you keep your coat on.” “Goodness!” She watched her breath mist on the air.

“If anything, I think it is colder inside. How peculiar—although I suppose that is all for the best. It adds to the atmosphere, you know.” Her gaze roved across the hall, taking in the remaining furniture, the light fixtures, the grime and layers of dust. Micah followed her gaze. “The house has been much neglected. No one has lived here for decades.” “All the better for me. Although I suppose I will have to do something about the dust. Millicent and Candice would object to their hems getting dirty, and Julian is even worse.

” A shadow fell over her face, her jaw tightening. “Do you have cousins?” “Ah—” “I cannot recommend them. I only have the one and Julian is a complete ingrate, caring nothing for all the happy hours we shared together as children.” She huffed, her mouth forming a pout. “I blame the universities. Sending boys away to have their egos stroked and their heads stuffed full of obscure references to Greek philosophers and then congratulating them for it. George—that’s my older brother—was insufferable even before he went to University, but now he is an absolute bore, and it’s absolutely ruined Julian. He’s so full of himself. Far too superior to spend any time with his cousins. I mean to change that—and I really do think this house is perfect.

Is this the drawing room?” Without waiting for Micah’s response, she walked into the room he’d vacated. Micah massaged his temples. He must shake off this stupefaction and think! If the lady rented the house, it would all be over for him. He took a deep breath, and, steeling his shoulders, followed her into the drawing room. She gazed at the withered spruce leaves with what seemed like genuine delight. “Why, this is splendid! Just like the story says.” Micah stared at her. “You know the house’s history?” And she still visited? She turned a vivacious smile on him. “You mean, do I know about the ghost? I do— and she is the reason I am here.” Micah raised an eyebrow.

“She is?” The lady continued. “Julian is so superior! Hanging out with his snobbish society chums, and always too busy to tell me what he’s up to. Some secret society—childish nonsense, if you ask me! But no one does.” Her smile drooped. For a moment, she looked young—young, and very alone. “No one ever asks what I want. I have to do it all myself.” Micah’s brow furrowed. Unbidden and unwanted, an answering tinge of sympathy stirred in his chest. This fashion plate’s glamorous lifestyle was worlds different from his own isolated existence, but he caught a note of his own loneliness.

“So you’re in Market Weighton?” Her face lit up. “Precisely. Julian might not pay attention to me, but I’m sure he’ll pay attention to a ghost.” Micah swallowed a sick sensation in his gut. The sheer vibrancy of the smile she turned on him for expressing mild interest said much about the young lady’s situation. “I do not have the pleasure of this Julian’s acquaintance, but if it is necessary to produce a ghost to gain his attention, is his attention worth having?” She turned a placid gaze on him. “It’s a matter of principle. I mean to prove to him that he is not so superior as he thinks—and that he underestimates me at his own peril.” She raised her chin, her lips tightening. “I am going to give Julian a Christmas he will never forget.

” Dread washed over Micah in a massive wave. Forget the fact they stood in a haunted house. The young woman before him was terrifying. “How do you propose to do that?” She smiled sweetly. “I’m going to scare his exquisitely tailored trousers off him. You’ll help me, of course?”

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