The innkeeper brought the toddy to the pale, young gentleman at the fireside table. “Here you go, sir; on the house. You’ve had quite a shock, I expect.”
He turned to go back to his station behind the bar but the young gentleman called him back.
“Please!” His eyes were wide and, despite his proximity to the fire, his face was white. “Stay.” He gestured urgently to a chair. The innkeeper accepted. He said he supposed he could spare five minutes afore the suppertime rush; it would be good to take the weight off his feet.
The young man’s eyes searched the innkeeper’s face as though trying to decipher it. “Tell me,” he said in desperation, “What happened in my room?”
The innkeeper breathed out through his nose. “Well, by all accounts – but I’m not saying I sets any store by it, mind – they reckon that room be haunted.”
“Oh? By whom?”
“I don’t rightly know, sir. As I say, I don’t go in for all that kind of thing. Things that go bump in the night, sir. But they do say as how something terrible took place in that room. Afore my time, of course. I’m talking about a hundred year ago or more.”
“Please!” the young man cried. “Just tell me!”
“Well, sir,” the innkeeper glanced around to see if anyone else was listening. Apart from Old Jacob perched on his usual stool at the bar across the room, the inn was empty. “Like I say, it was a long time ago…
“It was their wedding night. Happy young couple, they was – but then that’s often the way with newlyweds who think they’ve found their happy-ever-after, but of course in time the rot sets in and love’s young dream is burst like a bubble, sir – only in this case, it didn’t get the chance, sir. These two never lived to be old and miserable and sick of the sight of one another, sir. Cut off, they was, in their prime.
“A man got in through the window. And while the couple was sleeping – exhausted, I should think they was – he cut their throats, jumped out the window and run off.
“Now, the landlord at the time, he was under strict instructions not to disturb the happy couple and he wouldn’t have gone up there, sir, if it weren’t for something dripping on his head, while he stood behind the bar, sir, right where I stands every night. Well, he puts his hand to his brow and when he looks at his fingers, they’s covered in blood. Right above the bar is the bridal suite, you see, so he dashes up the stairs and that’s when he finds them. Horrible sight it was, sir. Blood everywhere. He had to burn everything and get new paint and new furniture and everything.
“Turns out the murderer was a jealous lover, sir, but not of the bride – oh, no! Turns out him and the groom were entangled in some kind of tryst and the groom only married the girl for her money. His lover thought he’d betrayed him and so he done away with the pair of them.
“All this come out when a body was found in the gameskeeper’s shack in the woods. You see, when the murderer jumped out the window, he cut his foot and it got infected. He went to the woods to lie low and it got worse and worse, and as he lay dying he wrote a deathbed confession, see. Oh, terrible business all round, if you asks me.
“Now, sir, I see you’ve let your toddy go cold. Never mind; I’ll get you another.”
The innkeeper shuffled back to the bar, leaving the young gentleman staring into the flames.
“Another year already!” said Old Jacob. “Come round quick, don’t they?”
“They surely do, Jacob.” The innkeeper poured the cold toddy away. “But I don’t mind telling the tale. If it helps keep the peace in my pub. They don’t remember, you see; the dead. And that poor bridegroom don’t seem to understand but I tells the story and he goes away. He’ll be back, mind, same time next year.”
He poured himself and Jacob a shot of whisky. They turned to the fireplace and raised their glasses to toast the empty chair.