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A Christmas Caroler

Kim Antieau

“Nonsense, Benjamin,” I said. “I do not believe in ghosts. I do not care how many ignorant people claim to have seen one.”

“I would hardly call Adam Carroll ignorant, Charles,” Benjamin said. He leaned against the mantel as he warmed a glass of brandy in his right hand. If I were a polite guest, I would have asked who Adam Carroll was. Instead, I stretched my legs until my feet nearly touched the fire.

Outside, another Pacific storm was beating against Seattle’s shores. I could almost hear the ships moaning in Puget Sound as the wind lashed their sides and pulled at the moorings. As far as I was concerned, this was not a proper way for a civilized person to spend Christmas Eve. Although I had spent thirty Christmases on this earth in a variety of places, this particular place seemed the most loathsome. I had tolerated too much rain, too much greenery, and too much secret laughter between my sister and her childhood friend, Benjamin Jerome’s wife. I longed for a true New England Christmas, away from this western wasteland. We had taken the buggy out the day before for a Christmas ride and had to turn back minutes later in order to keep from drowning in this foul weather.

“Carroll is an old and respected name in Seattle,” Benjamin said. “I met him when I was quite young. By accident, really. I got caught out in another Christmas storm, similar to this one, actually.”

I heard laughter coming from the drawing room. The door opened and my sister Gwendolyn leaned her head inside.

“Would you gentlemen like to play bridge?” she asked.

“No, darling, much as I enjoy the company of you two beautiful women, Benjamin is in the middle of a fascinating story,” I said. “You two run along.”

“As you wish,” she said. “Good evening, Benjamin.”

“Good evening, Gwendolyn,” Benjamin said. He smiled when the door shut. “I thought you weren’t interested in my tall tales.”

“I am even less interested in bridge,” I said. “Please continue.”

“I had been on my way to a Christmas celebration and I got lost. Finally, I reached an old mansion sitting up on a hill in what seemed the middle of nowhere, though I was definitely in Seattle,” he said. “I pounded on the huge wooden doors until an old servant opened them and beckoned me inside. I was concerned about my horse, but the man assured me someone would take care of it. He led me down a long dark hallway to a large room lit only by a roaring fire. The flames threw strange contorted shadows on the white sheeted furniture. Only the area near the fire appeared to be in use. Three chairs and a tea table ware arranged near the fire. I was shaking from the cold. I had been out in the storm for hours, after all, riding up and down long rutted drives and roads that led nowhere. The servant took me to a wing-backed chair closest to the fire. I sat down gratefully. I was so tired and cold and wet that I let the poor man pull off my boots.

“‘I will get you something to eat,’ the servant said. I didn’t answer. I leaned back in the chair and closed my eyes. I was barely a man, you must understand, hardly versed in the ways and etiquette of the world, especially the ways of the Pacific Northwest. It seemed like such a different world from the one to which I was accustomed, after a child’s lifetime in Boston. I was left alone in this huge room, not certain what to do. After a time I stopped shivering and began to notice my surroundings. My eyes had adjusted to the lighting, and I now saw that the walls were lined with books. I was in a library. I had never seen one quite so massive in anyone’s home before. Outside, the storm was growing worse. Occasionally the wind reached such proportions that it shook the house. The windows rattled so violently that I was certain they would break. Yet, just as I thought the glass would burst, the wind lessened slightly and the windows remained secure.

“Finally, the old servant returned with a tray which he put on the tea cart near my chair. Steam rose from chowder, fresh bread, and a pot of tea.

“‘You have been so kind,’ I said. ‘I would like to thank the master of the house as well.’ I reached for the bread and dunked it into the chowder like a farmer because I was so famished after my ordeal.

“The servant laughed quietly. I looked over at him, truly seeing him for the first time. He was not as old as I had thought, merely somewhat frail and bent over. His hair was long and white. His skin was pale and smooth and appeared fairly untouched by the seasons. His blue eyes twinkled. Ah, you laugh now, Charles, yet I will say it again: His eyes did twinkle. Although his dress was sloppy, I could now see that he was no servant. I quickly rose to my feet and held out my hand.

“‘I am sorry, sir,’ I said. ‘I am Benjamin Jerome at your service, sir.’

“He shook my hand and waved to me to be seated. ‘I am Adam Carroll, sole owner of this old house. I am also sole resident of this house on this night. Even the servants are gone. Now you eat and rest. I will check on your mare again.’

“‘Oh, please,’ I said, starting to rise again. ‘I cannot allow you to wait on me.’

“‘Nonsense, son,’ he said. ‘My calling is to wait.’

“Then he was gone, swallowed by the shadows, or so it seemed at the time. I began eating. The chowder was the finest I had ever eaten, the bread the freshest. After I finished eating, I felt more like myself. I lounged in the chair and drank the tea. It was a very strong brew, the way only the English or the dead can drink it. Mr. Carroll was gone for a long while, and I was anxious for him to return. The winds had quieted. I put on my boots, now dry and almost brittle. I would need to oil them when I got home. I am revealing these minute details to you for a purpose. You must understand that I was fully conscious during the events which followed. As I was examining my boots, I slowly became aware that I was humming a Christmas carol, and I was not humming it alone. I straightened up.

“‘Hello,’ I called. The humming ceased. I shrugged away my discomfiture. I had heard the wind coming through a broken pane of glass, that was all. I sat down again to await my host. The sound began again, softly at first, and then louder: It was a little girl’s voice. I sprang to my feet and looked behind me. There was a sudden flurry—how else can I explain it? As if snow had fallen in that spot for a moment and then disappeared. I was suddenly bitterly cold. I moved closer to the fire and wondered where Mr. Carroll was. Perhaps I had imagined him, also. Had I wandered into the house in a delirium?

“No, I shook my head decisively. It was all real. There was the teacart, the empty bowl, the teacup with tealeaves stuck to the bottom, promoting some destiny I was unable to discern.

“Mr. Carroll returned suddenly. First, I saw shadow, and then I saw Carroll. ‘I apologize for being gone for such a long while,’ he said. ‘The horses were most upset by the wind. I cannot imagine why. They have lived with it all of their lives.’ He warmed his hands in front of the fire. ‘Are you comfortable and rested?’

“‘Yes, certainly,’ I said. ‘But I have strained the bounds of neighborly hospitality long enough. Perhaps I should be on my way.’

“‘I know spending Christmas Eve with an old man in an even older house is not very exciting for a young man such as yourself,’ he said, ‘but going abroad again tonight would be much too dangerous. Please, spend the night. You can join your friends in the morning.’

“‘Thank you kindly, Mr. Carroll,’ I told him.

“As we sat before the fire, we talked briefly about the weather. Then I became bold and said to him, ‘I hope you won’t think me rude, sir, but I cannot help wondering why a man as well-respected and well-known as yourself should be alone on Christmas.’

“He laughed. ‘I am not alone. You are with me!’ He pulled out his pipe, tapped it on the chair, and then began filling it from his pouch. ‘This is the way I have spent each Christmas Eve for the past ten years.’

“‘May I inquire why?’

“‘I am waiting,’ he said. He lit the pipe and drew on it several times before smoke rose from it. ‘I have been waiting for my sister, Maureen.’ He paused and looked at me. ‘She has been dead these forty years.’

“Remember, Charles, I was aware of Adam Carroll’s reputation; I was ready to listen objectively to whatever he had to say.

“‘The last Christmas our entire family spent in this house was forty years ago,’ he continued. ‘My mother, father, Maureen, who was then ten years old; Daniel, my older brother; myself, I was twenty; and Patrick, who was only a few years younger than myself.

“‘We were having a gay holiday. A great deal of eating and singing and carrying on. I am afraid that Maureen was rather ignored in our family of males. She was young and somewhat frail. She wanted to tag along with her older brothers, but we were more interested in other things, much as you are at your young age. Quite a few young people from the area had gathered in this library to go caroling. Maureen was here, too. She kept singing this particular carol, trying to get the words right. I remember Patrick teasing her about it, saying she was a little idiot because she could not get the words right. Mother hushed him. We were stupid, loathsome boys. You just don’t think when you are that age. I laughed at Maureen with the others. Finally, we were ready to leave. Maureen wanted to go with us. We said no and promised to listen to her carol later. She was deeply disappointed. We went out to the wagons. Just as we were about to leave, Maureen came running out of the house calling to us to wait. She startled the horses. Daniel could not get control of them. They reared and ran ahead, mad, the way horses sometimes get, and they ran her down. She died in my arms, on the muddy ground, whispering something I could not understand.’

“He was silent for a moment, gazing into the fire.

“‘How awful,’ I blurted.

“‘Yes, Mother was grief-stricken. She died months later of some unknown ailment. My father hung on until the next Christmas, then he died, but not before he gathered us all around his bedside and told us we were a cursed family. Maureen had visited him, he said, and death had changed her. She cursed the entire family. We were more devastated by this news, I believe, than we were by his death.

“‘Daniel and Patrick were determined to forget everything my father had said. A relatively peaceful year passed. We had a party here on Christmas. In the middle of the night, I heard a scream. I ran out of my room to find several people gathered around the prone figure of a young woman at the bottom of the stairs. She said someone had pushed her, a young girl. There were no young girls at the party. My brothers were convinced now that my father was right: Maureen was haunting us.

“‘Patrick went away to college, and I became involved with a woman I would someday marry, Jane Reilly. Daniel began drinking and gambling heavily. He stayed in this house alone the next Christmas Eve. I was at a party at Jane’s, but I did try to get back here afterward. I had to turn back because of the weather. When I finally got home, I found Daniel, dead, stabbed through the heart in that very chair where you now sit. He left a note: She was here. There was an investigation and it was determined that Daniel had owed a great deal of money to some very shady characters. One of they had come to collect. They never arrested anyone.

“‘I moved out and married Jane. We lived in a house her parents had built for us. Patrick returned from college and moved into this house. We invited him to live with us, but he wanted to stay here. Jane and I planned a lavish Christmas Eve party that year. We invited my brother, of course. He was the only family I had left! When he didn’t show up, I rode over to the house. It was early morning by that time. He was in this room, my younger brother, his hair white, his cloudy blue eyes opened wide in terror. The doctor said he died of some kind of horrible fright. I buried him and closed up the house. For the next twenty years, I worked hard to forget about Maureen, to forget what had happened to my family.

“‘Then, ten years ago, I decided I had been a coward long enough. If we had truly been responsible for little Maureen’s death, then she had a right to exact vengeance. So every Christmas, I return to this place, alone, and I wait for Maureen. This is the tenth Christmas and she has not come yet.’ He sighed deeply.

“I hesitated and then I said quietly, ‘Sir, she was here.’


“‘When you went out to take care of my horse, I heard someone singing, a young girl, I thought. Then I saw something, a kind of ghost of a shadow.’ I laughed awkwardly. ‘Sorry, sir, I don’t mean to be flippant.’

“Carroll was silent. He looked stricken. The fire turned the tears in his eyes red. ‘I have missed her once again,’ he said mournfully.

“I was puzzled. I thought he would be relieved to have missed her. When his brothers had seen her, they had died. Carroll had been courting death for ten years. Now he was to survive one more year.

“‘I want her to rest in peace,’ he replied to my unasked question.

“The storm suddenly increased in intensity. We both looked toward the far window, which was rattling the most. When we turned back, the fire had almost died out. I sat up straight in my chair. I was cold; my bones ached. I was terrified! I did not want to meet this monstrous sister. I saw a flurry between our chairs, a whirlwind of snow, of particles trying to take shape, until they barely suggested the outline of a young girl. Carroll clutched his chest. ‘Maureen,’ he whispered.

“She began to sing. Her voice was lovely, high-pitched, slightly off-key, singing with all the enthusiasm of a ten-year-old girl. My fear evaporated as she sang the first verse and then the second. She sang each word and note carefully. Then she finished. She floated before us, silently, like a puff of smoke about to be blown away.

“‘I remembered all the words,’ she said. ‘I knew I could do it.’

“Carroll reached out a hand to the girl.

“‘I only wanted you to hear that I finally got all the words,” she said. She seemed to smile. ‘That was all, brother dearest. Live in peace.”

“The wind shook the house. Maureen disappeared as the flames in the fire leapt up the chimney. Adam Carroll wept silently. After a time, he came over to me and shook my hand.

“‘Thank you, son,’ he said. ‘It has been a most enlightening evening. Now I think we should retire.’ He took me upstairs to a bedroom, and I spent a peaceful night.

“We remained friends until he died a few years ago. On his deathbed, he took my hand, squeezed it, and admonished me to always be kind to my sisters. By that time, I had fallen in love with and married his granddaughter, Merry. We moved into this house and have lived here happily for five years.” Benjamin stretched out his arms, his tale completed.

“And Maureen? Does she finally rest in peace?” I asked.

“Benjamin.” Merry came into the room. “Are you telling that ridiculous ghost story again? Charles, you mustn’t pay any attention to him. He has made it all up. Every word. He and my grandfather loved to tell tall tales. Was it the brother haunting the sisters this year or little Maureen haunting her brothers? Ben, really!”

Benjamin smiled. Gwendolyn came in and bent over to kiss my cheek. “It’s because my brother has been such a bore about the weather,” Gwen said. “Christmas makes him tiresome.”

I stood up. “Well, sir,” I said, “it was indeed a fine story.”

“It was a long story!” Merry said. “The children are going to be up very early, and we haven’t even gone to sleep yet.”

“All right, love,” he said. “Let us retire.”

“I think I shall stay up for a while,” I said. “Good night all.”

“In the morning then,” Benjamin said.

“Good night, brother,” Gwendolyn said.

They left me alone behind closed doors. I listened to their muffled voices as they climbed the stairs to bed. I sat in front of the fire and pulled out my pipe. I started to light it when suddenly the fire nearly died and the room became cold. Then I heard the sound of a young girl singing. I was paralyzed with fear. I dropped my pipe and gripped the armrests. I wanted to race out of the room or call for help, but I remembered the dead Carroll brothers, killed by their own guilt and fear. I remained motionless. I listened to the child’s voice, high-pitched and off-key, sing an old Christmas song. Just as she finished the second verse and I was about to turn around, to face the child’s ghost, the library doors flew open.

“Brother?” I started at the sound of my sister’s voice. “What tune were you humming?” she asked.

“Oh, something I heard as a child,” I said. I looked around the room. Little Maureen was nowhere in sight. The fire grew stronger and the room warmer.

“Would you like me to teach you the words?” I asked. I stood and put my arm around her waist.

“You? Charles, you are too impatient. You would have me in tears in minutes.”

“I promise, sister,” I said. “I will be patient and listen until you have every word memorized!”

We left the library together. Before I closed the doors, I leaned my head inside the now cozy room.

“Merry Christmas, Maureen,” I whispered.


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