do homage to thy king

Mr. Tinderford locked the door of his little shop, and looked anxiously at the stars overhead. For three o’clock in the afternoon, it was quite mysteriously dark. The snow of the morning seemed suddenly to have ceased to fall, and the pale snow clouds had rolled back to reveal a clear and mild night.

Glancing across the road, he saw a dark archway that he had inexplicably never noticed before; and approaching it, two men, talking animatedly in the darkness.

“...deuced peculiar thing – the whole town seems deserted – “

“Perhaps the darkness – “

The taller and younger of the two noticed Mr Tinderford, and shouted to him irritably.

“Sir. We want to buy a few provisions – paper, ink, bread, sherry-wine – and find your town unaccountably hostile. Can you recommend an establishment that deigns to open its doors at three in the afternoon?”

Tinderford gaped at them in the gloom. “On Christmas Eve?”

There was a pause. The smaller figure said in a hesitant voice: “Is – is it Christmas then? I – must have lost track.”

“It isn’t Christmas in here,” said the taller man, opaquely. “It’s damned awkward that we should be inconvenienced – sir, are you well?”

“I – I have always gone to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve – ever since I was a child. And we made an ivy wreath – “ He shook his head. “It hardly matters.”

The tall man hesitated. “I expect we could find a church, if you would like - “

“N-no,” said the other man, shaking his head slowly. “No, it – doesn’t matter. As you say – it isn’t Christmas here.”

The two men disappeared through the dark archway, into the deeper shadows. Mr Tinderford had been squinting after them for some minutes, wondering just how a sizable estate had somehow got wedged between the boot-maker’s and the corn-chandler’s, when the younger man came running back through the forbidding gateposts.

“How much for that wreath?” he asked, all of a rush.

“I – “

“That wreath on your door, man,” he said, impatiently, gesturing at the circle of dark, leathery ivy, spattered with blood-red holly berries.. “How much do you want for it?”

“I – “

“Never mind,” said Strange, pushing something into Tinderford’s hand and picking the wreath off its nail. “Merry Christmas to you.”

Mr. Tinderford watched, bemused, as the young man ran into the darkness again. Then he looked down at his hand. Although he had never had cause to see one before, he felt oddly confident that the lump of yellowish metal gleaming dully in the lamp-light was a piece of gold.

He looked up with the beginnings of a disbelieving grin. “And – a Merry Christmas to you too, sir!” he called.