It was possible that Thomas Barrow had drank a bit more eggnog than he should have. The occasion wasn't that frequent, after all, not even at Downton Abbey — at least not for the servants.
It was also possible that Mrs. Patmore had easily seen right through him. Or else would she have handed him a tray of meat pies, allowing him to stuff them in his mouth just in time so that Mr. Carson couldn't notice that the underbutler was speaking a little less clearly than usual?
And it was not only possible, but almost certain that Carson was completely unaware that Thomas was basically drunk, otherwise the butler wouldn't have sent him upstairs to check if everything was alright before they retired.
It wasn't even his fault, thought Thomas, as he stumbled up the stairs. It was Mr. Carson who had allowed the staff to have this little celebration on Christmas Eve, after the preparations for the upstairs Christmas had gone very smoothly and there had been quite a few scraps left over from the annual meeting with the tenant farmers. And it was Carson who, for reasons known only to him, for the first time ever let the underbutler take responsibility for distributing the eggnog to the rest of the Downton staff. Thomas had been meticulous in his new responsibilities, making sure that neither of the footmen, hall boys and other junior servants drank more than was appropriate. As a result, once everyone had had their portions, there had been quite a lot of the eggnog left at the bottom, and since he hadn't wanted to hear any biting remarks from Carson about his underestimation, Thomas had simply had to get rid of the evidence, hadn't he?
Which was why it was definitely Mr. Carson's fault that he now had to ignore the ringing in his ears and the dizziness and spend at least fifteen minutes upstairs for the butler to be satisfied with the length of the inspection. Fortunately, the Crawleys had already gone to their beds, gathering their strength for the beginning holidays, and Thomas had managed to grab a few more meat pies from Mrs. Patmore's tray before he left. Of course, if Carson had seen him dare to eat upstairs, he would most certainly have had a heart attack. In fact, even Thomas himself would probably get at least palpitations as soon as he sobered up and had to make sure the maids cleaned all the crumbs in the morning. But now the alcohol was oh-so wonderfully buzzing in his ears, and the underbutler simply didn't care.
As he passed the clock he had wound so many times in his career, he unintentionally glanced at the hands and noticed that it was almost midnight. Midnight, the witching hour, the hour of ghosts. He smirked. What a pity Daisy wasn't here to appreciate this remark… The sudden vision of the terrified scullery maid made Thomas chuckle to himself, but laughter died in his throat as something moved nearby.
He held his breath for a moment, but then released it and laughed even louder, realizing that he had been frightened by his own reflection in the mirror. He shook his head in amusement, then grimaced as the world spun around him. So he stood still for a moment longer and took another bite of the pie, as if he hoped it would sober him up, although in truth it was starting to make him feel rather sick.
The clock began to strike midnight, and Thomas decided it was finally time to leave his spot by the mirror. He'd been upstairs long enough already, so he headed back to the hall. As he neared the door to the servants' section of the house, he caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. At first he just shrugged and chuckled again, but when he realized there were no mirrors on the staircase, his heart skipped a beat. He immediately turned on his heel and came face to face with… a ghost?
The white figure flounced down the stairs, making a weird whimpering noise. Thomas blinked frantically as he tried to focus, which was still not an easy thing to do due to all the alcohol in his veins. He wasn't even sure if the ghost was really moving in such a dizzying way or if it was just his head. The apparition, however, was definitely real — perhaps Thomas could have been hallucinating a bit in his state, but he had never been hearing voices in his head so far, no matter how drunk, and the moans and whimpers of the approaching being were getting louder and louder.
Thomas stood, as if enchanted, his meat pie forgotten in his hand, his heart pounding so loud it felt as if his skull was about to burst. Meanwhile, the apparition stopped on the landing in front of him and fixed its intense gaze on the terrified underbutler.
In fact, it was quite small for a ghost of one of the Crawleys. Unless it was a child's soul, that is, which would perhaps explain the whimpering sounds. The creature's face had a rather strange shape, though, and its body seemed completely wrong as well, even aside from the fact that in his state of intoxication, Thomas could see four legs instead of two. However, four legs he could explain, but why did he suddenly begin to notice something akin to a tail as well?
At that moment, the ghost stuck its long pink tongue out and jumped down towards him, clearly more interested in the pie than in the panicked underbutler holding it. And then Thomas finally had a revelation.
"Isis! Good girl!" he exclaimed happily, then immediately scolded himself with a loud 'shhh!', reminding himself that it would not be best for him if someone discovered him here in this state.
Meanwhile, the clock finally struck for the twelfth time and went silent, and Thomas felt as if someone took the spell off him at last.
"Forget it! I won't share," he laughed maliciously, then stuck out his tongue at the dog in return and ostentatiously raised the remaining pie to his mouth.
He was just about to take a bite, when suddenly he froze dumbfounded once again.
Even on the next morning, completely sober, he could have sworn that in that moment he had heard Isis respond in a brazen and perfectly human voice:
"You will share. Unless you want his lordship to find out who kidnapped me and locked me in a shed on that winter night. Ah, and in case you wanted to know, my favorite spot to be scratched is behind my left ear."
"That beast is fat enough even without your help, Barrow!"
Thomas let go of Isis' ear and sprang to his feet, nearly knocking over the bowl full of meat.
"Lady Mary?" he stammered out, still surprised and slightly ashamed to be caught like that.
In response, Mary Crawley sent him a tiny, slightly mean smile.
"I didn't know you were a dog lover, Barrow," she mocked.
Thomas, already back to his perfectly composed usual self, bowed his head with respect.
"It's Christmas Eve, my lady. Stranger miracles have happened at Downton Abbey during the holiday season."
A/N The idea for this story comes from a once popular Christmas superstition in Poland which says that on Christmas Eve, exactly at midnight, animals gain temporary ability to speak in a human voice and talk to their owners, so if you don't treat them well, on that night you might hear what they really think about you.