~ A Christmas Ghost Story ~
Christmas Eve, 1853
Lottie settled into an armchair by the fire. Staring out of the window, she sighed. It was bleak. Cold and miserable. Her parents had decided on a last minute grand tour around Europe, leaving her alone with Mildred, the elderly maid. Mildred had been with the family, all of Lottie’s life. Her father had once said that she was so attached to the house, she was part of it. There was no way they could get rid of her, so Mildred was welcomed to their family.
Mildred was lovely, but she wasn’t the best company for a young woman in her twenties. Another summer season had come and gone. Still, Lottie remained on her proverbial shelf, unwanted and unmarried. Not that she cared. She’d be perfectly happy to spend her time alone, reading or writing nature poetry.
The snow fell thick and fast outside. Lottie shivered, scraping her chair closer to the fire, wrapping her blanket around her shoulders. “Mildred!” She called, rubbing her arms, “Mildred please could I have a cup of tea?”
Mildred shuffled into the room, her hunched figure creating a gargantuan shadow across the door. In her wrinkled hand, she clutched a small candle, the flame wearily flickering on the wick. Who would’ve thought such a small glow of light could create such a vast darkness?
“Sorry, I couldn’t hear Miss Lottie. Did you say cup of mead?” She croaked.
Lottie took one look at the old woman and was filled with guilt. “Never mind Mildred. You go on to bed. I’ll – I’ll be all right down here.”
“I – I don’t think that’s a good idea Miss Lottie.” Mildred said, her eyes wide. “What if he returns tonight?”
“Who?” Lottie asked in amusement, “Father? He’s in Italy with Mama – “
“No. No not your father.” Mildred’s eyes darted to the window, then back to Lottie. “Master…”
“Master?” Lottie leaned closer, saying slowly, “Mildred, the master isn’t here.”
“No. The other one.” Mildred whispered.
A tiny chill rippled through the room. The candle shook.
Lottie frowned, “Mildred you’re really not making any sense.” Gently she rose, approaching the old woman, “You’ve been preparing food for us all day. And there really is no need. It’s just the two of us for Christmas and I’m more than happy to help. Now, you run off to bed and I’ll lock up downstairs.”
“But Miss Lottie – “
Mildred bobbed her head, shuffling out the door. The dark shadow she’d cast, dipped under the door and left with her.
Lottie was now alone.
She settled back in her seat, by the fire and continued with her book. She was so engrossed in the story about love and war, she didn’t hear the startled chime of midnight.
“Merry Christmas.” She muttered, closing her book and placing it neatly on the mantlepiece. She ran her fingers along the elegant frames, lining the shelf. A pang of loneliness pinched her heart. This would be the first Christmas without them.
She drifted toward the window, staring into the abyss. Flakes swirled to the ground, resting atop the thick blanket of snow.
There in the distance, she saw it. A tall figure striding up the hill, towards the house. By the way he walked and from his rigid posture, Lottie supposed that it must be a man.
“Mildred.” Lottie called out, her voice trembling a bit, in fear.
The man staggered up the stairs, approaching the door. Lottie was torn. She didn’t want to leave the poor man out there in the cold. But then she also didn’t want to invite a stranger into her home.
Her web of indecision quickly halted, as she heard three sharp taps on the door. Lottie couldn’t explain it, but somehow she was gliding to the door and already unlocking it. Mildred called out from the top of the staircase, “Miss Lottie be careful!”
The door flung open.
There, swaying on the doorstep, was a handsome young man, dressed in a scarlet soldier’s jacket. He was peppered with snow flakes, his shivering hands clutching a cap. On the side of his face, a jagged scar ran from his eye to his jaw. It still glistened with fresh blood.
“Good gracious.” Lottie breathed.
“My love. I’ve – I’ve come home.” The man stuttered, through chattering teeth.
“Sorry, I – I don’t know you.” Lottie said, still stunned. “You’ve come to the wrong house. But, please come inside and I’ll get that wound cleaned up for you.”
She ushered the startled young man inside her home. He turned to her, confused. “This – this is my home.”
“Mildred!” Lottie called, “I have a – clearly delirious young man here. He needs patching up. Please can I have some boiled water and a cloth.”
Mildred hovered at the top of the staircase. She was silent.
“Mildred…” The man whispered, more to himself.
Lottie led him into the living room. His eyes widened as he absorbed his surroundings, “I’m back for Christmas. But, this isn’t my home.” He muttered.
“No, it isn’t.” Lottie led him to the chair, by the fire.
He eased himself down, “I – I’m not sure…”
“It’s all right.” Lottie reassured, “I just need to clean that wound.”
As Mildred hadn’t made an appearance, Lottie boiled the water and fetched the cloth herself. She carefully carried the pot into the living room, to find the man standing by the fire. His hands clasped behind his back.
She cleared her throat, announcing her presence. He spun round, “Oh. Thought you’d left.”
He sat back down in the chair, staring at her. “Alice, my love.” He said, quite intensely. “Alice, I’m home. For Christmas, like I promised.”
Lottie shook her head, feeling the blush creep up her neck. “No Alice here. I’m Lottie. Well, Charlotte. But you can call me Lottie.”
“Alice, why do you look at me like you don’t know me?” He asked, laughing. “I’m home for Christmas! I told you – “
Mildred stood by the door, gazing upon the man in shock.
The man slowly rose to his feet, “Mildred? How – how is that you? You’ve become so old.”
“Do you two know each other?” Lottie asked, her eyes flicking from one to the other. “And Mildred, why are you calling him Master?”
Mildred didn’t move. She was rigid from fear. “Lottie, move away from the man. Come toward me.”
Lottie edged away from – William. He looked hurt, “No. I’m not dangerous.”
“This is William Harley. His family lived in this house before your father bought it. He – he went off to war. And was never seen again. We were told he had died.”
William shook his head vigorously, “No! I promised Alice I’ll be home for Christmas and I am.”
“Who’s Alice?” Lottie whispered, now clutching Mildred’ frail arm. “He keeps talking to me as if I’m her.”
“Alice was his sweetheart, they were engaged to be married once he returned.” Mildred said, her eyes still fixed on William. “But he never did. He promised he’d be home for Christmas but – “
“Died, before he could make that promise.” Lottie finished, softly.
“Every year, I wait.” Mildred said, her voice weak, “William was always a man of his word. He told all of us, he’ll be home for Christmas. But – but he never came.” A tear leaked from her eye. “Our dear boy, never came.”
“But I’m here now.” William said, a smile playing upon his lips. He took a step toward Lottie, who backed into the door. “I’m not going Alice. Not till you come with me. And if you refuse, I’ll come back again. And again. Every Christmas. Until you come with me. Forever.”
Helplessly, Lottie turned to Mildred. “We should’ve gone to Europe!”