Christmas at Stone Gate

Christmas at Stone Gate

Following is a Christmas-time excerpt from the mystery and family saga, THE BELVEDERE AT STONE GATE.


After Riona’s death, when the governess, Alexis, arrived in 1928, she brought one more heavy heart into a house that was already steeped in gloom. Being a stranger, she kept her unhappiness to herself, and the rest of us were too entombed in our own misery to either notice or concern ourselves with hers.

In Decembers past, Riona would instruct Luc to erect a large evergreen tree in the living room on the first day of the month. Then, on the first evening that everybody was free, she would assemble the entire household to trim the tree. The fireplace would be blazing, and heated, spicy apple cider would be set out on the sideboard. Even Seanna came for the occasion because Riona cheerfully, but firmly, would accept no excuses.

In short order, the tree would be trimmed and the house, as well, decorated festively throughout. Riona’s guileless excitement over the holiday season was contagious. When Mom and I went back to our cottage we found the comparative bareness intolerable and had to rush about putting up our own decorations.

This year, as usual, the countryside was graced for the season with several feet of snow, but there would be no tree, no decorations at Stone Gate. The subject was not discussed but the decision was reached through a silent, general consensus.

Into this cheerless climate, Alexis tried to carry out the work for which she had been hired. She reached out to Jonathan from the depths of her own unhappiness and also attempted to appease the sullen young girl who critically watched her every move.

Fortunately for Alexis, I had to attend school, leaving her free most days to work alone with Jonathan. On weekends, Alexis was officially off duty while Liam took over with the assistance of the Mallorys. Down the road from Stone Gate was the Mallory dairy farm. Although there was always lots of work to be done on the farm, the Mallory family was large enough that they could spare at least one child. Mr. and Mrs. Mallory had nine children, including two sets of twins, and for several years there was always one or another Mallory teenager to watch over Jonathan on weekends.

On the second Saturday of December, I went as usual to visit Jonathan in the morning. Tim Mallory was the family designate of the day and was supervising Jonathan’s dressing routine. I tried to act disinterested that it was Tim, especially since he always acted bored around me, but I was secretly pleased. Tim was fifteen and handsome. Moreover, I thought him very clever.

“Hi, Jonathan,” I greeted my cousin. “Hi, Tim,” I added nonchalantly.

Neither seemed excited by my presence. Jonathan glanced at me briefly, and Tim muttered an unenthusiastic “Hi.”

I sat on the floor and began to fit puzzle pieces together. Juno waddled over and nudged my arm for a pat. I complied and she wagged her tail, swaying her fat rear quarters in the process. The door opened and Alexis entered the room. “Good morning. I thought I’d find you here,” she said to me. “Would you like to go into town with me?”

“Are you doing Christmas shopping?”

“Some. Luc and Suzanne are taking the Essex to Orchis Bay for the day and I thought that you and I could look around at the stores and stop somewhere for lunch.”

“Okay.” Suddenly I remembered Seanna. “Oh! Mother said something about shopping last night. I’ll have to go over and ask her.”

In the end, we all crowded into the Essex and went shopping together. On this bright December day, we started out in Coltsfoot and ended up in Orchis Bay for the city’s larger selection. Seanna and Alexis got on well together, perhaps bonded by their mutual escape from failed marriages. We browsed through stores, helping each other decide on gifts for the residents of Stone Gate, and sometimes separating by design to select gifts for one another.

We returned home tired but definitely happier than any of us had been for some time. Alexis went to her room and Seanna and I headed for our cottage. In an effort to maintain the mood, we hung a sprig of holly from the mantel and wrapped our presents. After a bedtime snack of biscuits and hot chocolate, I kissed my mother good night and went to bed content.

That night I wakened from my sleep with a feeling of undefined urgency. I got up and peered into the night through my bedroom window. Everything seemed perfectly still. Then I looked towards the main house. There was a light in the belvedere! Who could be in it? Who had a key besides me and Uncle Liam?

Come to the belvedere.

I felt irresistibly pulled to leave my room. I would wake up Seanna and have her accompany me. I opened her door and called to her gently.

Come alone, Claire. Please come alone.

My mother turned over in her sleep. I called to her again.

“What is it, Claire?” she mumbled sleepily.

“There’s a light on in the belvedere.”

“Must be Liam. Go back to bed.”

Reluctantly, I returned to my room.

Come to the belvedere.

Quietly I donned winter gear over my nightdress, pulled boots over bare feet and tiptoed from the cottage. I stood on the lawn looking upward at the belvedere. A figure was sitting at Riona’s desk. I moved cautiously towards the house. At the pantry door, I felt under the mat for the emergency key. I let myself in quietly, crept slowly up the back stairs and along the upstairs hall. The door leading up to the belvedere was ajar. I hesitated.

Come up, Claire.

For some reason, I was not in the least frightened, but felt a strange serenity. I smiled and climbed upward.

There was no one in the belvedere.

THE BELVEDERE AT STONE GATE is available in paperback: