A mystery – or a Christmas ghost story?
No-one is going to scare Hester away from her beloved Moon House, but someone is having a very good attempt. Who should she be more afraid of – the ghost who leaves her dead roses or her handsome neighbour Guy who had stolen her heart and who she can never allow herself to love?
December 4th 1814
The inhabitants of Winterbourne St Swithin prided themselves upon their village. It was no mere rural backwater, no sleepy hamlet full of rustics and yeomen whose social hierarchy was topped off by a red-faced squire and whose amenities consisted of the church and a tavern or two.
Theirs, they boasted, was a bustling community straddling the post road to Aylesbury with a glimpse over the meadows to the waters of the new canal ordered by the crazy old Duke of Bridgewater, up in his mansion on the Chiltern crest. There was the Bird in Hand, a large coaching inn, to serve the stage and the mail and the carriages of the gentry going to and from London and Oxford. There was the fine Winterbourne Hall with the Nugents to preside over local society and half a dozen gentry houses in the vicinity to fill the pews of the grey stone church with the living, and the marble monuments with the dead.
And there was even a shop, a superior emporium selling haberdashery and lengths of cloth, the London and Oxford papers a day late and snuff, tea and Hungary water
The life of the village centered around the church, the Bird in Hand and the Green, the grassy heart of the community with its duck pond, decaying stocks, venerable oak tree and ring of houses and half-timbered cottages.
On a raw, damp Thursday morning three respectable housewives made their way around the Green, deep in discussion of new and fascinating intelligence. It seemed there was no doubt that the gentleman who had taken the Old Manor – the one architectural blot upon the village centre – was none other than an earl.
‘Or, as it might be, a duke,’ Mrs Thorne hazarded hopefully, lifting her skirts to negotiate a puddle. ‘Whichever, ’tis a fine thing for Winterbourne. He’ll bring down all his society friends, you mark my words, and he’ll be hiring on staff and wanting eggs and milk and bacon.’
‘If he wanted his society friends what’s he doing in Winterbourne in December?’ her bosom enemy Widow Clare enquired tartly. ‘The nobs are all off visiting, or at their big country houses. What’s an earl doing hiring that old barn of a place? Outrunning his creditors, that’s what. I tell you, ladies, it’ll be cash on the nail for any eggs that household wants to buy from my hens!’
‘Oh, and nobody’s seen him,’ Mrs Johnson squeaked, her eyes popping at the thought of an earl in the village, even one fallen on hard times. ‘I’ve seen his butler, mind – I thought it was his lordship himself for a minute, so grand and starched up he was – talking to poor Bill Willett. “I will trouble you, my man, to remember that only the freshest milk and cream is fit for his lordship’s table and that cream is only fit for the cat.” And have you seen the horses?’
The other ladies nodded. Not only had they seen them arrive three days ago but had been bored to death at dinner by their husbands and sons carrying on about the splendour of his lordship’s stable. But, to everyone’s chagrin, it seemed that his lordship had driven himself down from London and had managed to arrive at the one moment of the day when not a single curious eye was focused on the Green, but instead was watching the spectacle of the Mail sweeping through.
‘He’ll have to come out sooner or later,’ Mrs Thorne prophesied comfortably. ‘Even if the bailiffs are after him.’
She broke off as a gig turned off the main road and was driven at a spanking pace around the far side of the Green. It was a modest but somewhat rakish vehicle – the sort that a sporting curate might favour, perhaps – drawn by a neat Welsh cob.
The ladies stared as best they could from the shelter of bonnets and hoods as the gig turned through the gates of the pretty little house that faced the red brick facade of the Old Manor.
‘Well, did you see that?’ the Widow demanded unnecessarily. ‘That was driven by a female!’
‘With a groom at her side,’ Mrs Thorne added. ‘And she’s gone into the Moon House.’
‘Then the rumours are true,’ Mrs Johnson concluded, quite unashamedly craning her neck now. But the vehicle and its occupants had vanished through the gate posts and the house had resumed its air of empty neglect. ‘Sir Edward did sell it before he died. But who is she?’
Fascinated, the three continued on their way to the end of the Green, but the high wall of the Old Manor defeated their avid stares on one side and the dirt-streaked, empty windows of the opposite house stared blankly back at them from the other.
With infinite slowness, another ivy tendril curled out to cover even deeper the carved crescent moon that crowned the front door of the little house, a single star caught in its horns.