This festive story is set two years after the events of The Mechanical Maestro, and is a taster of the characters you'll meet in the next book in the series (although the events of Book 2 take place prior to this story).
The snow was so deep that it completely covered Molly’s boots as she trudged through the woodland. Colonel Copperton marched easily beside her. (The gold-skinned mechanical soldier was built to withstand extreme temperatures.) He carried a shovel in his gloved left hand.
‘How much further, Miss Molly?’ A break in the bare trees showed that they were almost at the meadow.
‘Not much. We need a bare patch of ground.’ Molly was holding a fir sapling in her hands, preventing her from fastening her cloak. She had underestimated the cold, which was relentlessly gnawing at her exposed fingers.
‘Why a patch of bare ground, Miss Molly?’
‘So the fir tree won’t steal nutrients from any of the already established trees. Ah, here will do.’
They came to a stop in the middle of the meadow. A few spindly twigs poked through the thick white sheet spread over the ground. Only the birds’ feet had made an impression in the snow’s surface. The Colonel dug through the snow until the white became tainted with brown. Molly packed soil around the infant tree, then reached for the corked vial of green liquid on her leather belt.
‘Get ready to retreat,’ she warned. Molly tipped the vial upside down over the sapling then ran a few metres away to where the Colonel was now standing. She heard something creaking behind her. When she turned around, a fully-grown tree had sprouted, and was still growing. It stopped when it was around ten feet.
‘Perfect. It’ll be a shame to chop it down but I did promise my brother. Colonel? If you will?’
‘Of course, Miss Molly.’ He drew his sword and approached the tree. The blade almost cut cleanly through the thick trunk, but it took a little bit of sawing to finish the job. Molly watched in awe as it began to topple. The Colonel caught it before it hit the ground. They bundled it in lengths of rope and the Colonel dragged it behind him as they returned home. Both were covered in sticky sap and stray pine needles.
‘It seems a peculiar thing to do each year, cutting down trees to put in one’s house and cover in ornaments. Do most people do this?’ asked Colonel Copperton.
‘They do. It’s only really been a popular tradition for the last ten years or so. We can’t have our ball without one at any rate.’ Molly tried picking a pine needle from her wild hair but only managed to smear more sap into it.
‘It is rather generous of the masters to open their door to the townsfolk, since the old hall burnt to the ground.’
‘Very generous.’ Molly tried to suppress a smile. ‘But the people of Holtbury must have their annual Christmas ball. We’d best hurry back. There won’t be much light left with it being the Solstice tonight.’
‘Of course, Miss Molly.’
Ravenfeld Hall appeared before them, its roof dusted in snow. The house was a gothic masterpiece, with battlements and turrets in abundance. The gargoyles even moved, thanks to a little ingenuity on her brothers’ part. The family had moved into their ancestral home two years ago, after their mother’s estranged, childless brother had died and named George as his heir.
Arthur was lingering in the south hall doorway when Molly and the Colonel returned. The family’s landscape gardener had been forced to spend the night since the roads were impassable for ice and snow, although Arthur spent half his time at Ravenfeld Hall anyhow so it made little odds.
‘About to send a search party out for us?’ Molly asked him.
‘Well, it is starting to grow dark.’
‘Oh, stop it, Arthur. The Colonel is protection enough for me.’
‘Where shall I put the tree, Miss Molly?’ boomed the Colonel’s voice from behind her.
‘In the ballroom, please, Colonel. Then tell my brother it’s arrived.’
Once the Colonel had dragged the tree away, Arthur took a step closer to Molly and lightly kissed her on the mouth. He tried to take her hand and quickly found his hand had become glued to hers.
‘Sap,’ she explained.
‘Ah. Of course.’ He managed to tug himself free. ‘What’s that down your dress?’
‘Flour. I’ve spent all this morning baking cakes and other treats for tonight’s supper.’
‘You do smell quite delicious, like cinnamon and nutmeg.’ He pretended to nibble her neck, until she laughingly fended him off.
‘Douglas managed to swipe a couple of sugar plums when my back was turned. He’s a bugger for pinching things like that.’
‘So you’ve said.’ Arthur laughed.
‘Are you sure you won’t join us tonight?’ asked Molly.
Arthur shook his dark blond head.
‘I’d feel like I was intruding.’
‘Come off it. What’s the real reason?’
‘I can’t dance and I will know nobody. I can’t ask you to devote your attention to me throughout the entire evening.’
‘You know one or two people. I’m sure Douglas wouldn’t mind keeping you company for a while, and the Bates family would like to know you.’
‘But there’s still the problem that I can’t dance, especially since you can dance. You told me how your mother forced you to have lessons. You must be a good dancer if you were able to teach Douglas in preparation for tonight. I’d look like a fool beside you.’
‘Would a dance with me not tempt you to come?’ She tried to sound flirtatious, although she meant it more in jest.
‘Not even that.’ He smiled apologetically, looking rather boyish. ‘You’re cross with me now, aren’t you?’
‘What do you expect? You’re the only person who I care to dance with, and you’re acting silly.’
‘I’d just feel foolish. It’s better I don’t go, it’ll save a lot of bother. I’ll be fine in my own company for the evening.’ He began to make his way up the grand oak staircase.
‘Fine, but don’t expect to have a slice of my Christmas cake,’ she called after him. ‘You awkward ass!’
The tree was certainly a grand sight once it had been placed in the ballroom. Pirouette, Wonderwind and Sweeps had offered their services in decorating it, although, without a schema to guide them, the three androids placed all sorts of unorthodox decorations on its branches: even cogwheels threaded with loops of ribbon. The servants were hanging swathes of greenery on the walls, and the chandelier twinkled above.
‘Do you think you might have gone a little too far, Mol?’ asked Douglas as he gazed up at the tree. The Colonel was assisting Pirouette in hanging a decoration on top, extending his legs several feet in order to do so, and holding the bronze ballerina by the waist. (Pirouette looked very angelic in her snow fairy costume.) Wonderwind and Sweeps had lost interest in their task and were swinging from branches or trying to capture a sprig of holly tied to a stick from one another.
‘Well, you said that you wanted a big tree, so you got one.’ His sister shrugged beside him. She’d changed into a green, gold and white tartan ballgown, with holly and ivy entwined in her mousey hair like a wreath. Douglas was wearing a black tailcoat and trousers, with a dark red and green tartan silk waistcoat, and a red necktie. His attire complemented his auburn hair and emerald green eyes.
‘When are the guests arriving?’ said Molly.
‘Within the hour I expect. Will Arthur be joining us?’ He’s welcome to.’
‘He’ll most likely stay holed up in his room all night. More importantly, will George be attending?’
‘If I can coax him downstairs. I’ve made it clear to him that he’s expected to put in an appearance. Will you still have the first dance with me? I think I remember all of the steps, although I’d rather dance first of all with someone who won’t laugh or raise their eyebrows at me if I put a foot wrong.’
‘Of course, why would I break my promise?’
‘Well, there’s only one gentleman you care to dance with after all.’
‘You were both talking rather loudly.’
‘I meant a gentleman who isn’t of my own blood, you know I’d never object to dancing with you.’
‘But it’s perfectly natural that you would prefer to dance with your sweetheart rather than your brother. Anyway, I’d better drag George downstairs.’
‘Good luck.’ Molly drifted into the sitting room to snatch some time to herself, before the entire town’s population descended upon Ravenfeld Hall. Maestro was sitting in the corner of the room playing carols on the pianoforte. The gold buttons on his red coat shone in the light of the roaring fire.
‘Don’t you find it tiresome playing the same simple songs over and over again, Maestro?’ she asked, as she retrieved her copy of A Christmas Carol from the table and flopped onto the sofa.
‘I can’t say I do, Miss Molly. It is seasonal after all.’
‘It was generous of Lord Leyton to relinquish you to us for a week.’
‘He thought I should spend some time with you all.’
‘Sentimental as ever.’ She shook her head. ‘Are you excited to be playing at the ball tonight?’
‘Of course, Miss Molly.’ He seemed about to say more, then he lifted his eyes skyward. ‘The masters are shouting at each other.’
‘What are they saying?’
‘I’m not sure I’d wish to repeat it. There are an awful lot of profanities being used.’
‘I suppose we’ll discover the outcome soon enough.’
Silence elapsed for a minute or two before Maestro looked up.
‘What are you reading, Miss Molly?’
‘Oh? You’re not familiar with A Christmas Carol, Maestro?’
‘I’ve heard of it but I don’t know what it’s about.’
‘It’s about a miserly old man who despises Christmas –’ As she uttered those words, Douglas entered the room looking annoyed, followed by their elder brother. ‘– and who would rather be counting his money than taking part in festivities and spending time with family,’ she finished in a louder voice, looking meaningfully at George.
He stood by the mantlepiece with hunched shoulders and his hands in his pockets. The fire’s light reflected in his glossy black hair. He was dressed appropriately, although he wore black so often that he constantly looked as if he was in mourning.
‘The accounts still need doing, regardless of the time of year,’ he returned. ‘We lost a considerable sum on our most recent commission, since the order was cancelled just as we’d completed it.’
‘Truth be told, I’m glad the reverend’s wife persuaded him not to go ahead with his idea for a mechanical Krampus,’ said Douglas. ‘The reverend might have thought it was “morally instructive”, but I didn’t think frightening the children of his parish out of their wits was a good idea.’
‘At least it was something more interesting than all those orders for moving dolls and horses that we’ve been inundated with recently,’ George grumbled.
‘Where is the Krampus automaton now?’ asked Molly.
‘In the cellar.’
‘Where our cousin had all that crazy occult stuff? You stuck it in there?’
‘Why? Are you superstitious, little sister?’ Douglas teased.
‘No, I just thought it was ironic.’
‘What is a Krampus?’ asked Maestro from his corner.
‘A goat monster who punishes wicked children as Saint Nicholas rewards the good ones,’ Molly explained. ‘He stuffs them in his sack and carries them off to Hell. Or whips them with birch sticks.’
Maestro seemed uncertain how to respond to this.
‘Now listen, George,’ Douglas began. ‘please try to be pleasant before our guests.’
‘I wish you hadn’t offered to host the ball here,’ he replied, his frown deepening.
‘It was an act of charity on your part, since Holtbury lost use of its town hall.’ Molly smiled, craning her neck to face Douglas. ‘But when are you going to tell the townsfolk that the two of you were responsible for burning it to the ground?’
‘God willing, I shall take the secret to my grave,’ he replied. George and Douglas had been flying home two weeks ago when something had become dislodged from the airship and fallen to the ground…right over the town hall. But no one was hurt and the flames were soon extinguished.
‘I hear something,’ Maestro declared. ‘Carriages. The guests have arrived.’
‘Already?’ Molly shut her book and sprang to her feet. ‘You’d better get ready, Maestro.’
He bowed and swiftly exited the room. George was the only one who seemed to be in no hurry, and Douglas had to practically drag him out of the room.
The entire town’s population did indeed seem to descend upon Ravenfeld Hall. Tradespeople rubbed shoulders with wealthy businessmen. One and all were greeted by the masters of the house with the same cordiality (or at least with cordiality by one of the masters). Miss Fairweather, the vicar’s eldest daughter, was amongst the guests streaming into the ballroom. She wore a modest muslin dress as white as snow. Her fair hair was curled and adorned with white ribbons. She looked a perfect angel. But her blue eyes were reserved for one man in the room.
‘She’s spotted you,’ Douglas remarked to his brother.
‘I feared as much. The next time I see a fainting woman in the middle of the road, I’ll have the sense to not come to her aid.’ For this was the root of the girl’s infatuation, inspired by George’s gallantry; he had seen Miss Fairweather about to swoon one hot summer day, overcome by the heat, then he’d caught her and escorted her to her front door. George sometimes could not help doing good despite himself.
‘You’ll want to disappear into the card room until supper then?’ asked Douglas, as the flow of guests began to ebb.
‘I will.’ And that was precisely what George immediately did. The ballroom was suffused with golden light and lively chatter, soon accompanied by the most irresistible music as the dancing commenced. Douglas had little trouble securing a partner for the second dance, and led the baker’s daughter onto the floor. Molly watched from her corner to see that he’d remembered her lessons. He seemed unsure of himself to begin with, but after a couple of steps he got into the flow of the waltz. She nodded approvingly. But who was that stocky young man staring at her from across the room? Molly wondered. She thought she’d seen him in town before. Molly soon forgot about him and decided to find a partner, since Arthur was determined to behave like a fool and she wanted to dance.
Amid the mirth and merriment of the occasion came a sound, deep within the bowels of the house. It was the sound of the cellar door being smashed, followed by a low growl and the clanking of chains.
Colonel Copperton listened to the echo of his footsteps as he patrolled the corridors. All of the androids were to be confined to their rooms and he was ensuring all obeyed. There were a handful who could be trusted to join the party but, as Master Douglas had said, they’d have to have admitted them all to make it fair. The Colonel had reached the top storey and found nothing amiss. Ahead of him was an open door, which he thought was peculiar. No one usually occupied that room. He stuck his head around the doorframe and saw its occupant sitting on a chair before a dressing table. Pirouette had her hands over her ears.
‘What is the matter, Miss Pirouette?’
‘That music Maestro is playing. I’m trying to escape it.’
‘It annoys you?’
‘Hardly! Just catching a note of it makes me wild to join the dancers! I simply can’t help myself. Oh, that time in Paris when he played for my troupe…’ She seemed lost in a memory, but then suddenly blinked rapidly. ‘Where’s Wonderwind? ‘I haven’t seen him around and he’s not normally this quiet when something interesting is happening. He wasn’t in his room earlier.’
‘I’ve seen nothing of him since the guests arrived. I can only assume the scoundrel is somewhere he shouldn’t be. We had better search for him.’
The two of them were surveying the south hall from the landing above to make sure no guests were present, when Pirouette spied something.
The Colonel leapt to the ground floor on extended legs and Pirouette leapt lightly after him. On the tiled floor was a sprig of holly on a stick: the makeshift staff Wonderwind had constructed earlier. Beside it was a scrap of brown fur. Pirouette picked up both items and examined them.
‘Where could this have come from?’
‘A guest’s furs, perhaps?’
‘Maybe, but surely even Wonderwind would be so bold as to –’
A door on their left creaked and both were instantly on their guard.
Maestro gently pushed the door open.
‘I heard your voices and wondered if something was amiss.’
‘Shouldn’t you be upstairs in the ballroom, leading the orchestra?’ asked Pirouette.
‘The guests are in the dining hall. I was just about to return to my room for something.’
‘Have you seen or heard anything of Wonderwind?’
‘Nothing since earlier this evening. Why do you ask, Pirouette?’
‘He’s missing and we can’t think where he’s gone.’
‘Wait,’ said the Colonel sharply, turning to Maestro. ‘Do you hear that too?’
Maestro strained to hear. ‘Yes, it sounds like the clanking of chains.’
‘Krampus!’ exclaimed Pirouette. ‘It drags its chains wherever it goes.’
‘You think it has awoken and taken Wonderwind?’
‘It must have thought he was a naughty child,’ reasoned Colonel Copperton. ‘and it might be creeping about the house at this very moment looking for more victims.’
‘We should inform the masters at once!’
‘No. We cannot allow any disruption to befall the ball. This is a rescue mission. Miss Pirouette, fetch Sweeps.’
‘Whatever for, Colonel? It might go for him next.’
Comprehension dawned on her face. ‘You mean to use him as bait?’
‘Yes, although no actual harm will come to him. Besides, he should be eager to help rescue his friend.’
‘I suppose that’s true. Alright.’ Pirouette nodded.
‘I can come too, if I might be of assistance?’ ventured Maestro.
‘Appreciate the offer, old boy, but you are a civilian. Best stay here and keep the guests entertained.’ The Colonel strode away.
Pirouette laid a hand on Maestro’s shoulder. ‘What the Colonel meant is that you need to make sure nobody knows what’s going on so there isn’t a panic. I know you can manage that.’
‘Of course, Pirouette.’
She smiled at him, then pattered upstairs. Maestro remained in the hall a moment, telling himself that he should not be so surprised at having been delegated such an unadventurous role.
The little chimney sweep automaton was placed in the drawing room on the ground floor and commanded to make a mess. He scampered up and down the chimney and left soot everywhere. He rummaged through the books and scattered them on the floor. He turned over chairs and tore the corner of the curtain for good measure.
‘I hope this works, Colonel or we’re going to be in an unimaginable amount of trouble,’ whispered Pirouette, as they watched Sweeps from outside through the large window.
‘It will. You’ll see, Miss Pirouette. Wait, I think the monster’s coming.’
Pirouette soon heard the ringing of bells and clanking of chains, and she shut the window. Sweeps glanced at them, but the Colonel gestured to him to hold his post and turn back around. The drawing room door handle jerked up and down, then the door flung inwards with a bang. There stood the monster. It had shaggy brown fur, a goat’s head, long horns, glowing red eyes, and fangs. A long tongue lolled out of its mouth. In one clawed hand it brandished birch twigs and in the other a sack. Sweeps looked about to bolt, but Krampus ceased him by his brush and stuffed him in the sack. Pirouette almost sprang from their hiding place to rescue him, but the Colonel placed a hand on her shoulder. When the monster had left the room, they opened the window and slipped into the drawing room. Their pursuit was cautious and slow as the creature slunk along the corridor leading to the servants’ quarters. It walked with a heavy-footed gait. The sack slung over its shoulder wriggled and the monster let out a fierce roar to bid his captive to be still. Pirouette was just hoping that they were not prolonging Sweep’s ordeal in vain, and that the monster would lead them to Wonderwind.
‘It must be returning to its lair. But we can get there first.’ The Colonel dived into the servants’ lift, sweeping Pirouette along with him, and pulled the lever marked CELLAR. ‘I wonder that Krampus did not think to use this.’ With a slight bump, they sailed down. When the doors drew back, they were met with darkness. The Colonel struck a match. The light was just strong enough to distinguish a moving shape in the middle of the cellar. They realised that the figure was suspended upside down from the ceiling, bound by a length of chain.
‘Wonderwind!’ Pirouette rushed to where the little acrobat was. His eyes widened on seeing them. His mouth was gagged.
‘Hang on, boy. Miss Pirouette, keep hold of him.’ The Colonel drew his sword and swiftly cut the chain. Pirouette caught Wonderwind as he fell.
‘Colonel!’ he exclaimed as she untied the sash around his mouth. ‘Pirouette!’
‘You are quite alright, boy. What happened?’
‘That Krampus creature bundled me in his sack and then strung me up. I gave him a good fight first though, I even tore some of his fur out! He said that he would drag me down to Hell. I tried shouting but he gagged me.’
‘The monster has captured Sweeps but we will give it quite the surprise – there are three of us and one of it after all.’
‘Too right Colonel—’ Wonderwind was prevented from finishing his sentence when a length of chain wrapped around his arm and he found himself being dragged across the room. Krampus was standing in the entrance to the lift.
‘Who dares interfere with my work?’ he asked in a deep, growling voice that declared he was no simple beast. He possessed intelligence. He’d likely been aware that they were stalking him and waited until they’d entered the lift, before doing likewise to surprise them.
‘We are here to rescue our two young friends who you unjustly captured,’ declared the Colonel.
‘They must be punished for their sins.’ Krampus reeled in his catch. Wonderwind flailed his arms to no avail.
‘They like to make mischief, it is true, but they mean no harm.’
‘They are disobedient and wilful. They must face punishment like all sinful children.’
‘It is my duty to keep them in line.’
‘You have done a poor job so far. Allow me to take over.’
‘Not a chance.’ The Colonel raised his sword but Krampus tightened his hold around Wonderwind’s neck.
‘Not unless you want me to crush your little friend. I suggest you drop your weapon.’
The Colonel considered this and complied. Krampus swiftly deposited Wonderwind in his sack. He took a step back into the lift and chortled as the doors closed over his frightful form.
‘Not good,’ said Pirouette.
‘The chase is not over yet.’
‘But where do you think Krampus is going?’
‘Wherever naughty children are.’
‘The town!’ Pirouette shrieked. ‘All the children’s parents will be at the ball and there will only be their nurse-maids watching them.’
‘Precisely. But we have the advantage in that we know the shortest way out of the house. Hurry.’
George was bored of repeatedly beating every man in the card room. The entire evening was predicable, unproductive and tedious. He was scanning the cards in his hand without much concentration, when a shadow was cast across them.
He glanced up to find his brother standing over him.
‘You should ask Miss Fairweather to dance, George.’
‘Why should I?’
‘Because the poor girl is sat over there looking in your direction every other second.’
‘I don’t mean to encourage an affection that is entirely one-sided.’
‘But she looks so miserable. It is only one dance.’
‘People will talk.’
‘Since when did you care for public opinion?’
‘It’ll create expectation, and inevitably disappointment on her part. I’m sure someone else will ask her.’
‘She wants to dance with you.’
George briefly scanned the room and caught sight of the girl. There was no denying how forlorn she looked: her head bowed, her hands in her lap. Every other young woman had a partner.
‘Very well,’ he sighed. ‘but you are to blame if there are repercussions.’
‘I whole-heartedly accept any and all blame.’ Douglas smiled gleefully, not masking his triumph as he watched his brother vacate his seat and make his way towards Miss Fairweather. This was as much an experiment as it was an act of goodwill, and he sat down to observe George’s behaviour. Miss Fairweather was fanning herself listlessly and seemed wrapped in her own melancholy reflections, when George appeared by her side.
‘Would you care to dance?’
The girl looked at him with startled and wondrous eyes.
‘Mr Abernathy,’ she almost gasped. Miss Fairweather seemed unconscious of her own actions as George lifted her from her seat by her gloved hand, and led her to the ballroom floor. She blushed deeply. He pretended not to notice. The dance had just begun but they joined in seamlessly. The music was gently romantic and dominated by the piano, whose notes fell softly like snowdrops. Douglas was mildly shocked on seeing that his brother was a more than satisfactory dancer. He had probably observed enough to know how to conduct himself. He was doing a better job of it than Douglas had with any of his partners, as much as he was reluctant to admit the fact. Miss Fairweather was elegant and graceful. Douglas overheard mutters from some of the older ladies that the couple were well suited to each other and danced beautifully. Douglas agreed, their synchrony was perfect.
‘You dance well, Miss Fairweather,’ remarked George conversationally, knowing it would appear odd to remain silent throughout the entire dance.
‘Thank you, Mr Abernathy. I must confess that I feel rather clumsy beside you, you dance so marvellously.’ Miss Fairweather’s expression was radiant, and she seemed to have forgotten her embarrassment as she glided across the ballroom floor with the man she loved. The dance was probably over too soon for her and not soon enough for her partner, who presently entrusted her to the care of another young man.
George can dance! Molly watched her brother return to the card room. He’ll set tongues wagging dancing with Miss Fairweather. Molly was quite happy to sit down and have a drink of punch, having now danced three times: once with Douglas and twice with the young man who said he was a bank clerk. He seemed too good-humoured and lively for such a droll occupation. Molly had enjoyed having a chance to dance and be without a care. She compared the ball to the one she had attended at Lord Leyton’s house. This was far more informal and palatable to her. But that stocky young man had been hovering about her all night. Molly’s dance partner identified him as Mr Dudley, the bank manager’s son. She avoided Mr Dudley the best she could. He’d planted himself across the table from her at supper. When he asked her to dance, she’d flatly refused him. Molly had been chatting with Betsey, whilst the housemaid was idle and free to enjoy herself, but she was aware of the young man’s attention all the while. She heard him laughing with his friends and the words “She’s good sport!” burst from him. Betsey scowled at him on Molly’s behalf.
‘What does he think you are? A race horse?’ She slurped her punch.
‘Just ignore him, Betsey. He’s probably had too much of this.’ Molly tapped her empty glass meaningfully and Betsey giggled. At that moment Mr and Mrs Bates bustled up to them. Both husband and wife were as plump as plum puddings.
‘You two girls having a good time?’ enquired Mrs Bates.
‘Yes, Mrs Bates,’ answered Molly.
‘Yes, mama,’ answered Betsey.
Guffaws erupted from the crowd of rowdy young men behind them.
‘How have your partners been? You had many, Betsey?’
‘You know I’m working, mama.’
‘But Miss Molly’s let you have a generous break, I hope?’ Mr Bates grinned.
‘Of course, Mr Bates.’ Molly smiled. ‘I wouldn’t like Betsey missing the ball. And I know she’s had at least one partner.’
Betsey hit her friend’s arm. ‘Only Charlie! My brother hardly counts.’
‘You’ll have to get her a proper partner, Miss Molly.’ Mr Bates winked. ‘That Christmas cake of yours was superb, by the way.’
‘Thank you, Mr Bates.’ Molly was pleased that there wasn’t a morsel of it left.
The current dance came to an end with applause, and Mr Bates hooked his wife’s arm. ‘Come on, my girl! We’re not too old to miss a dance.’ They hurried to the floor as the orchestra were preparing to resume playing.
Betsey finished her punch. ‘I’d better relieve the kitchen maid. I promised I would help with the plates.’
‘Make sure you’re back soon. You can take the rest of the night off after you’re done with the plates.’
No sooner had Betsey left than Mr Dudley cornered Molly.
‘I see you’re without a partner, miss.’ Molly smelt the drink on his breath.
‘I don’t care to dance. I’m tired.’
‘Oh, don’t be such a bad sport! You can’t be that tired. I’ve seen you standing whilst talking to that maid of yours these last twenty minutes.’
‘Because that doesn’t sound peculiar at all, to be watching a young woman for twenty minutes,’ she retorted sarcastically.
‘You’ve got a bit of spirit in you!’
‘Not as much as what’s inside you, I suspect.’
She tried to walk away but he grabbed her arm. She instinctively dug her nails into his hand until he released her. His playfulness evaporated and he stared at the red marks on his hand in angry disbelief. Molly suddenly began to seriously fear what he’d do, even in the presence of a roomful of people. She reckoned she could fend him off, but it would cause a scene.
‘Excuse me, sir.’ A gentleman put himself between Mr Dudley and Molly. Arthur! Dressed smartly in his evening wear. ‘The lady is spoken for. Sorry to have kept you waiting, Miss Abernathy.’ He winked at her and led her away. Molly cast a glance at Mr Dudley, who was staring at them open-mouthed.
‘You chose your moment,’ she hissed at Arthur.
‘I had a change of heart and decided to see if I’d still be welcome. Just as well as, you seemed to be in a spot of bother.’ He smiled shamelessly to irk her as he guided her into position on the ballroom floor. But she’d sensed his fear for her underneath his confident veneer. The sight of Mr Dudley grabbing her arm had startled him. Were they not in a crowded ballroom, Arthur would have probably punched the young man to the ground.
‘But you said you couldn’t dance well.’
‘I can’t, so you’re going to have to show me the way forward.’
‘Don’t worry. If I can teach Douglas, I can teach you.’
They held their posture as they waited for the orchestra to resume.
‘Don’t I get a thank you for rescuing you?’
‘How about I send you home with a Christmas cake tomorrow?’
The band began to play.
Colonel Copperton and Pirouette charged through the snowy woodland after the monster. They’d been following his footprints in the snow. Krampus had gotten further than they’d anticipated, but he was soon within their sight. The Colonel fired a shot. It missed. The falling snow was making it difficult to see. He fired a second shot, which also missed its target but succeeded in splintering the bark of a nearby tree. The Colonel had to ensure his aim was precise, or else he would hit Sweeps and Wonderwind. He suddenly had an idea.
‘Miss Pirouette, can you get in front of the beast? Just to stall him a moment?’
‘I should be able to, if you give me a boost, Colonel.’
He launched her from his hands. She flew through the air and landed flawlessly on the ground before the monster.
Krampus came to a halt.
‘You cannot hinder me,’ he said.
‘Those children do not deserve to be tortured. They are only young, they will learn to be better behaved as they grow up.’
‘They will learn through pain and suffering. They will serve as a warning to other children who may stray from the path of virtue.’
‘They’re just children!’
‘Sins must be punished, no matter the age of the sinner. And children are full of wickedness.’
There was the soft plop of something falling in the snow. The beast craned his head to see a rip in his sack, which now wafted pathetically in the wind. His two bewildered-looking captives were sitting in the snow. Not far from them, the mechanical soldier had his sword drawn. He extended his arm and plucked the two small androids from Krampus’s reach. The beast snarled at him.
‘Full of wickedness and mischief, perhaps. But they are not evil. They have their virtues.’
‘You will pay for your interference.’ The monster cast aside his instruments of torture. ‘I shall tear off your limbs, I shall sink my teeth and claws into you.’
‘Hardly anything can penetrate my plating. Let’s see how you fight. It’s been a while since I had a worthy opponent.’ The Colonel expected the beast to initiate a lumbering charge at him. But instead Krampus leapt at him like a flash of lightning, and its claws tore into the Colonel’s chest. Pirouette shrieked. When the beast retracted its claws, the Colonel perceived that they were of the same metal as his body. They’d also pierced his boiler and a jet of steaming water was flowing from his side. Damn. Now he couldn’t use his ace. Nor could he fight to the best of his ability. He’d been foolish to underestimate his opponent. This would be a close-combat affair. All of this took only thirty seconds to consider, then he punched Krampus in the face, sending the beast sprawling into the snow. An enemy was vulnerable immediately before and after an attack. The beast quickly recovered and lunged at Colonel Copperton. The Colonel wrestled with him like he was a bear. Krampus thrashed and swiped at him with deadly speed. The Colonel felt himself growing gradually slower, and when the last dregs of water were drained from his boiler, he felt himself stiffen. The beast pinned him to the ground. His red eyes flashed and that horrible tongue made contact with the Colonel’s bald head. The Colonel tried to move his limbs, but the beast was strong.
‘Now you shall face punishment.’ Krampus laughed horribly and widened his jaws, displaying rows of sharp teeth.
‘No!’ Pirouette brought her steel leg down on the monster’s head, smashing half his left horn off. But Krampus was hardly stunned and grabbed her leg, flinging her to the ground like a child does with a doll. He resumed his laugher.
The Colonel looked at Pirouette. She was lying in the snow, although she was moving. How could he have let this happen to her?
Wonderwind and Sweeps tried to pounce on Krampus, but he swatted them away. Colonel Copperton had never felt this helpless before.
The sound of a child’s voice broke out from amongst the trees. It had a haunting resonance.
On hearing it, the beast seemed to forget about his prey, slackening his hold on the Colonel and drifting towards the sound’s source.
‘No!’ Pirouette cried in vain, as she struggled to her feet. ‘Leave the child alone, you brute!’
The four androids followed the monster, and soon saw his target. On the hilltop stood Maestro, armed with his violin. He drew his bow across the strings again, mimicking a child’s cry. That’s it, he thought as the monster drew closer to him. A little further away from them.
The Colonel and Pirouette watched with disbelief, before the former was roused to action. He shot out his arm and ragged Krampus by the chains, dragging him towards him. He then administered a blow to the beast’s head which sent him toppling to the ground, now completely immobile. There was a crack in Krampus’s skull that showed a glint of metal. Wonderwind and Sweeps continued to punch and kick the beast until Pirouette bid them to stop.
‘Good show, old chap!’ cried the Colonel, as Maestro descended the slope. He almost skidded on his way down to them.
‘Maestro! You genius!’ Pirouette ran to him and kissed his cheek.
‘Quite clever, fooling him like that,’ remarked the Colonel.
‘Well, it was a flash of inspiration really,’ Maestro muttered, as Pirouette released him. ‘We had better hurry back. I excused myself on the pretence of having to retrieve my key and that must have been fifteen minutes or so ago.’
‘You go on ahead of us. We’ll see to it that this monster is returned to where he should be.’
Maestro nodded and quickly sprinted back through the trees, stopping momentarily to touch his cheek, before hurrying on his way again.
The Colonel dragged the goat creature behind him by the chains, leaving a deep trench in the snow. Pirouette walked alongside him while Sweeps and Wonderwind ran ahead like excited terriers. Colonel Copperton was moodily silent, or so Pirouette thought.
‘Jealous, Colonel?’ Pirouette smiled.
‘I don’t know what you mean, Miss Pirouette.’
‘That you didn’t get a kiss as well as Maestro?’
‘I promise you, I feel no jealousy. I’m incapable of such a sentiment.’
‘Oh, I’m not entirely sure.’ She giggled.
The lights from Ravenfeld Hall danced and flickered. Music drifted into the night air.
Colonel Copperton hauled the great beast into the hallway.
‘Now all we have to do is get him to the cellar without anyone noticing.‘
‘Um, Colonel?’ Pirouette pointed to the staircase. They had a witness. She was unsure whether the fact that it was Master Douglas made the situation better or worse. He had his arms folded across his chest and looked serious.
‘I’ll let you use the private lift to take the Krampus android back to the cellar, but in return I want a full explanation of what has happened,’ he said.
‘Did Maestro tell you, Master Douglas?’ asked Pirouette.
‘Not knowingly. I thought he was gone for a long time finding his key, and I noticed that parts of his clothing looked wet when he returned…from where he’d been in contact with the snow, I assume?’
Pirouette hung her head. ‘Yes, master. But, he saved us. He honestly did.’
‘I don’t doubt that he did, Pirouette. It looks like you’ve all been very helpful. Now let’s get this brute into the lift. There’s still one or two more dances and I’d rather not miss them. Nor do I want any of you to miss them. You can all enter the ballroom for bestowing this favour on us.’ He smiled and his green eyes brightened. ‘On the condition that Pirouette dances for us all.’
The ballerina gasped. ‘Oh, Master Douglas! Of course I shall!’
Once all the guests were gone and the ballroom was cleared, Molly knocked on Arthur’s door. He looked surprised to see her when he answered.
‘I was just about to change into my nightshirt, you timed your visit well.’
‘Might I come in, seeing as you’re still decent?’ She smiled slyly, her hands behind her back.
He darted a look down each end of the corridor. ‘If anyone sees you—’
‘Oh, hush. If you leave me standing out here someone will certainly see us.’
Arthur widened the door for her to enter his sitting room and swiftly shut it after her.
‘And to what do I owe the pleasure of this late visit?’
She bounced onto the sofa and held out the brown paper parcel she’d been concealing behind her back.
‘I decided not to wait until tomorrow morning in case there wasn’t time.’
Arthur regarded the offered present before he wandered into the bedroom. He presently returned with a flat, square parcel under his arm, and sat beside Molly.
‘You think further ahead than I do. I might have forgotten to give this to you.’
They exchanged presents and mutually contemplated what the contents of their parcel might be.
‘Am I permitted to open this now?’ he asked.
‘It’s out of my hands, you can do as you please.’
‘Although you’re secretly wanting me to open it when you’re not around, aren’t you?’
‘If I were, I would have said so. But I know you can’t stand to see me open this in front of you.’
‘Well, if you wish to, I can’t object—’
‘Which means you do object so I won’t open it until the twenty-fifth.’ Molly put the parcel to one side (she was certain it was a new sketchbook). Arthur sighed and placed his parcel on the arm of the sofa, having to stop it from instantly sliding off by weighting it with his hand. It was a copy of On the Origin of Species, since he’d started reading hers several weeks ago and declared it very interesting, before he returned home and it was pushed to the back of his mind. “I must finish it” was on his lips whenever he spied her copy idling on a table or bookshelf. To give him credit, Arthur almost always finished what he started, no matter how long it took.
‘You know,’ he began, with a slightly crestfallen look in his hazel eyes. ‘I’m rather sorry to be leaving tomorrow.’
‘You’d be welcome to stay if you wished, but I know your father would never forgive you for it.’
‘He would disown me for certain. Besides, it wouldn’t be Christmas without mother fretting about the dinner, and my uncle boring us all with his tall tales.’ He smiled.
‘I can imagine Christmas in the Greenwood household clearly enough.’
‘What about Christmas in the Abernathy household?’
‘Oh, nothing extraordinary. Douglas and I exchange presents in the morning then go for a walk together in the woodland. Church isn’t an obligation, but there’s rather a warm feel to the Christmas day service, with the hymns and everyone in good spirits, so we put in an appearance last year. We drag George out of his room for dinner later in the day.’
‘Like you had to do tonight?’
‘Precisely. There are no parlour games or anything like that in our house. It’s not terribly exciting with only the three of us.’
‘But there is a warmth between the three of you that is absent in some large family gatherings. There are no distant relations to make tiresome conversation with, as there are in my family. The only way to be allowed a brief repose is to stuff your mouth with goose or plum pudding. And parlour games become tiresome after a while.’
‘Well, there wasn’t so much warmth when my mother was still alive. And we had to go to church then.’
‘How terrible.’ The hand that wasn’t protecting Arthur’s parcel found its way around Molly’s waist. She made no attempt to move, if anything she drew closer to him so that they were touching.
‘You’re a very graceful dancer, Molly.’
‘I think Pirouette outshone every lady in the room at the close of the ball. But you weren’t as bad a dancer as you reckoned to be.’ Although her left foot still stung from where he’d trodden on it.
‘I didn’t feel as self-conscious as I usually do at a dance. I wasn’t really aware of what was happening around me, I only thought about you.’ Seeing the beaming smile that lit up her face and the gleam of her emerald eyes, Arthur was suddenly possessed by a strong urge to kiss her. As he succumbed to the desire, his hand slid below her waist. Molly offered no objection. How his kisses still set her alight inside!
‘You are a devil, Mr Greenwood.’ Molly grinned, once he released her.
‘You are more like Hecate than an angel, Miss Abernathy.’
She retrieved her parcel and stood to take her leave.
‘Goodnight.’ He seemed about to say more but changed his mind. Not that it mattered, Molly thought as she closed the door behind her. She could probably guess what it was he wanted to say.
The clock in the sitting room struck one but neither of its occupants took heed. Work was slow at this time of year and they had little to be awake for in the morning.
‘So the Krampus android made its way as far as the woodland before it was apprehended?’ George asked his brother.
‘Yes, thank God the androids stopped it. It was Maestro’s quick-thinking that saved the day.’ Douglas concluded his story with a swig of punch. They were sitting on the sofa with the bottle on the table in front of them. The punch was very weak and they’d already had three glasses each. There was no chance of George sliding back into old habits, so the two of them were allowed the indulgence of being able to sit and drink amicably together.
‘We’ll dismantle it in the morning, or perhaps the afternoon,’ George corrected himself, rubbing his eyes.
‘I know, I feel as though I could sleep for the entire day tomorrow.’ Douglas stretched and felt the muscles in his legs complain. ‘I’ve never danced so much in my life.’ He couldn’t resist a flushed smile, recalling each of the girls he’d danced with. ‘Miss Fairweather was practically walking on air as she left,’ he added.
‘Do you think you’ll call on her family the next time you’re in town?’
‘I thought as much.’ Douglas reached for the bottle. George considered confiscating it from him, although he suspected he was more full of good humour than drink.
‘What of you? Shall you be making a nuisance of yourself to any young woman’s family?’
‘I doubt it, unfortunately. I got the sense that I wasn’t always their preferred choice of partner. Some of them simply wanted to make a boast to their friends at having danced with one of the masters of the house, and they weren’t very subtle about it.’
‘You’ll fair better next time, I’m sure.’
They were both silent a moment, the clock’s ticking filling the air.
‘What I don’t understand…’ George began.
‘Yes?’ Douglas prompted.
‘Is how the Krampus android was activated in the first place.’
‘Perhaps something inside it got knocked because of the vibrations caused by the dancing.’
‘I suppose that was the case, although it’s of little consequence.’ George shrugged.
‘There should be enough punch left for half a glass each before bed.’
‘Don’t start another long toast like you did at supper,’ said George, as Douglas emptied the bottle’s contents into their glasses.
‘Fear not, I’ll keep it short.’ He raised his glass with a smile. ‘Merry Christmas.’
After a moment’s hesitation George raised his own glass. ‘Merry Christmas.’