Christmas 2016, Ghost stories..., Short story - Horror

A Ghost of Christmas Past

Reward
£100 Guineas for information leading to the whereabouts of Lady Sophia Foster
Fears grow for missing girl as parents offer a substantial reward for any information that leads to news of her whereabouts.

December 1858
I stopped at the doorway to the Grand Ballroom and peered inside. It looked so beautiful with the sparkling chandeliers bathing the room with sharp slivers of light that bounced off the ebony dance floor. The women were all dressed in their finest silks, which at this Christmas-time meant deep jewel tones of garnet, green and gold. The men looked dark and mysterious, dressed in their evening suits of black and dark blue.

I looked down at my new silk dress, delivered only this afternoon. It was a bright blood-red, crimson silk with a tight-laced bodice that accentuated my curves. The neckline was much lower than I was used to wearing, but it made my neck seem long and swanlike. Somehow I appeared taller. I had piled my long hair up and fastened it with a jewelled comb.

I certainly felt I looked my best, but I just wished I knew who had invited me.

The dress had arrived this afternoon with a note inviting me to attend the ball, along with an apology for sending the gown. The writer had seen it in a shop window and had been inspired to send it to me. The note had been signed X.

My mother would definitely not approve. Indeed she would be positively shocked that I had accepted such a personal gift from someone I had not even met and decidedly angry that I had accepted an invitation from them. I could hear her voice in my head: ‘Young Ladies of Good Breeding would never deign to behave in such a way. What would people say?’

But I was tired of the restrictions that society placed on me. I wanted to have some fun, and what harm could I come to in a Grand Ballroom with fellow members of my class? Other girls my age were earning their own living, working as governesses, ladies’ companions or in some of the new business offices around town. What harm would it do for me to have a little fun? So, with the help of my maid, Mary, I had got dressed, secretly, after Mother retired for night with a convenient headache. I climbed down the backstairs to the servants’ entrance where I hailed a cab in the street, another thing a Young Lady of Good Breeding would never do.

And here I was, intrigued about who had invited me and excited to be here alone, even more so because it was a masked ball. My eyes were hidden behind a red and gold lace mask, as was the current fashion for women, whilst the men wore larger disguises of full-face masks.

“Ahem.” I heard a discreet cough behind me and turned to see a tall man leaning down towards me. “May I?” he asked, in a deep rich voice that made me think of chocolate and silk, as he offered me his arm.

I stared up into his face: it was covered with a white porcelain mask that obscured almost all his features. “The dress looks well on you. I am glad you allowed me the liberty of sending it to you,” he went on.

I continued to stare at him, lost for a moment in trying to recognise him. His voice wasn’t familiar and he was considerably taller and broader than any of the men I was acquainted with. I stood as tall as I could, almost on tiptoe, trying to look into his seemingly bottomless blue eyes. “Th-th-thank you,” I stuttered. “I am very pleased to be here.” I sounded ridiculous and childlike – what would he think?

I looked down and realised I had taken his arm. We had moved through the entrance to the Grand Ballroom and now stood at the edge of the busy dance floor. He leant down once more and whispered in my ear, “Shall we?”

Before I knew it, I was being swept away in his strong arms. Around and around we whirled, and I felt like I was flying as the waltz went on and on. I was pressed tightly against his solid chest and, several times, I felt my feet leave the floor as we moved together as one. Round and round, side to side, on and on until I was quite breathless and the room had taken on a dream-like quality.

The surrounding dancers seemed to make a path for us, inclining their heads in deference as we wove between them. Some of the nearest couples seemed to be guiding us along an unseen path – a brush against us here led to a gap being created there, as we were led along the dance floor from one end to the other.

Suddenly we came to a stop, and I felt a wave of dizziness rise over me as the other dancers seemed to recede into the background. He leant forward and, once again, I heard his deep rich voice in my ear. “Some air?”

I nodded and allowed myself to be led out to a balcony where the cool night air seemed to surround us. I felt his arms encircle me from behind as I grabbed the wrought iron of the balcony to steady myself. For a while we stood in companionable silence and I tried desperately to calm my reeling senses, to clear the fog from my head.

His hands were moving in slow, steady circles at my waist, much as you might try to calm a skittish horse. I half-turned towards him in sudden shock as I felt the hard shape of his mask and the soft lips beneath place a kiss on my exposed neck.

“Sir, I . . . ” was as far as I got before his lips met mine, feeling strange and unnatural half-hidden behind his porcelain mask. I pulled away from him and stepped to one side but, before I could say anything, he grabbed my hand with his white-gloved fingers.

“Please forgive me, I seem to have forgotten myself. I can only apologise and ask you to excuse my familiarity. All I can say is that I was carried away by your beauty.” He gazed at me and I realised that his eyes were much darker than the deep blue I had thought they were, much darker, almost black. I shuddered and took another step away from him, so that my arms became outstretched as he continued to hold my hand.

I felt the urge to run, to get away from him, but the longer I looked into his eyes the further that feeling retreated. I found myself taking a step – and then another step – closer to him until I was once more inside the circle of his embrace. Again I heard his voice in my ear, making the moment seem even more intimate. “Now you have forgiven me, I have another gift for you.” He reached in to a pocket with one of his white-gloved hands and pulled out a fine gold chain from which was suspended a single garnet, like a teardrop of blood.

“I can’t possibly accept such a gift, especially from someone I don’t know,” I gasped in surprise.

“At least try it on for me, so that I may see how it looks on you,” he replied. Before I knew it, I felt his strong hands at the back of my neck and the gold chain slithered into place, the teardrop hanging heavily on my chest.

I turned towards him once more. “Sir, I really must insist that I take my leave. I have had a lovely evening, but I think it is time for me to go.”

“Really?’ he asked.

I took a step sideways, intending to return to the ballroom, and felt the weight of the heavy teardrop lift as the fine chain began to tighten around my throat. As I reached behind my neck, my fingers met his smooth gloved hands and I realised he was pulling on the chain. I gasped and tried to grab it but I couldn’t get enough purchase to loosen its dangerous grip, which was now restricting my breathing far more than my corset ever could.

If I couldn’t loosen the chain I might faint or, worse, be unable to breathe at all. Terror and panic began to claw at my stomach as I realised how precarious my position was. No-one but my maid knew I had left the house tonight, and she didn’t know exactly where I was going. The other dancers seemed so far away and I was in no fit state to scream for help.

Slowly and carefully my air supply was being cut off and I had no option but to hope he was just trying to frighten me. In one last effort to pull away from him I gripped the wrought iron of the balcony and stepped as far as I could to one side. “I don’t think so. You will be joining us,” was all he said, and I realised with mounting horror that his voice was not in my ear at all. It was inside my mind and I must have imagined it all along.

I was finding it really hard to breathe now, my vision blurring and a curtain of blackness slowing drifting into my view. I changed tack and pushed my desperate hands towards his face, clawing and scrabbling at his mask. If I was going to give in, I wanted to see the face of the man who had done this to me.

In my panic my fingers scraped against the white porcelain of his mask, pulling and scratching at it, until they caught an edge and managed to knock it sideways. It was then that terror really took hold of me as I looked into the empty face of the man who had danced with me – there was nothing there at all, just empty blackness. I opened my mouth to try to scream once more, but it was too late. Darkness closed over me, and I knew no more.

December 1859
I stopped at the doorway to the Grand Ballroom and peered inside. It looked so beautiful with the sparkling chandeliers bathing the room with sharp slivers of light that bounced off the ebony dance floor. The women were all dressed in their finest silks, which at this Christmas-time meant deep jewel tones of garnet, green and gold. The men looked dark and mysterious, dressed in their evening suits of black and dark blue.

I looked down at my new silk dress, delivered only this afternoon. It was a bright blood-red, crimson silk with a tight-laced bodice that accentuated my curves. The neckline was much lower than I was used to wearing, but it made my neck seem long and swanlike. Somehow I appeared taller. I had piled my long hair up and fastened it with a jewelled comb.

I certainly felt I looked my best and I was just waiting for the man who had invited me.

“Ahem.” I heard a discreet cough behind me and turned to see a tall man leaning down towards me. “May I?” he asked, in a deep rich voice that made me think of chocolate and silk, as he offered me his arm.

I stared up into his face: it was covered with a white porcelain mask that obscured almost all his features. “The dress looks well on you. I am glad you allowed me the liberty of sending it to you,” he went on. I looked in to his deep blue eyes, and smiled.

I looked down and realised I had taken his arm. We had moved through the entrance to the Grand Ballroom and now stood at the edge of the busy dance floor. He leant down once more and whispered in my ear, “Shall we?”

Before I knew it, I was being swept away in his strong arms to take our place amongst the other dancers for another year . . .

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