A Ghost Story by David Macfie
Gavin Roxleigh stared at the portraits of his ancestors and noted a large space at the end of one wall. A quick intake of breath signaled his realization that the space awaited his own portrait.
Gavin was standing in the gallery of Roxleigh Manor, the ancestral home of his family since Richard Roxleigh was made Earl, for services to the realm, and gifted the manor house and the lands around it, as his fiefdom. He’d been far removed from the family until he’d received a summons to return. The message was blunt and to the point. The old Earl had died, in mysterious circumstances, and left no offspring. As the closest living relative to the hereditary line, he was now the fourteenth Earl of Roxleigh. He must report to the family lawyer, forthwith, to take up the position.
He’d checked it all out before responding. It turned out that the inheritance was sizable, the manor in a good state of repair and the holdings significant. He’d made the decision to return and start a new life. In truth, he wasn’t giving up much. He was twenty four, with a good job but not a great one. He was unattached, living in a rented apartment and tired of the hustle in New York, where he’d lived since childhood. And, three years ago, his parents had both died in a car accident. He quickly tidied his affairs and used the plane ticked he’d been sent.
He’d arrived in Taunton in Somerset, England, two days ago. Paul Digby, the Lawyer who’d sent the message, was in his sixties but robust and energetic. He’d explained everything, taken sample signatures to arrange access to all bank accounts and handed over a fat document, which contained a complete briefing on all aspects of the Earldom. Finally, he’d handed over a credit card in Gavin’s name, and ensured that the back was signed in his presence. He’d given directions to the manor house, passed over a thousand pounds in contingency money and phoned for a taxi. Gavin had time to ask only one question.
“How did the old Earl die?”
Paul had paused and scrutinized Gavin with a piercing gaze, before answering.
“He was found, at seven fifteen in the morning, lying, face down, in a field not far from the Manor house. The autopsy found he’d been dead for six to eight hours, had died of a seizure, but could determine no illness or other reasons for the heart attack. The only clue was that his face was frozen in an expression of abject shock and terror.”
Gavin had left the lawyer wondering what he had let himself in for.
Since arriving at the manor, Gavin had been introduced to the staff in the house and then settled down to study all the material he’d been given. The butler, Hobson, seemed to take a liking to him, particularly when Gavin asked to see all records of the family and its affairs. He found that three of the other Earls had also died under strange circumstances.
He quizzed Hobson.
“There’s a curse on the family, sir,” replied the old retainer, solemnly. “I was hired by the old Earl’s father. He told me the first Earl murdered one of his farmers, who died in front of his family, with his curse ringing in their ears. The wife was unusual in that she could read and write. She recorded the words her husband had screamed with his dying breath.”
Hobson had rummaged in the tomes that littered Gavin’s new desk. He finally pulled one out and flipped the pages until he found what he was looking for. He placed the book in front of Gavin and pointed.
“I curse you and yours for all time,” Gavin read. “Whenever the road to my farm is covered with leaves the color of blood, I will rise and take the life of the Earl. You will be first.”
Gavin had asked Hobson to fetch him coffee, while he studied further.
On his return, Hobson volunteered some information.
“There were blood-red leaves all over that road the morning the old Earl was found. They come from the great copper beech next to the gate to that field. They go that color in autumn, just before they fall and the wind has to be just right for them to settle on the road. They were there when the farmer was killed too. You’ll see when you read on.”
Gavin studied all he could find on the murder and the curse. He found that the peculiar circumstances had accompanied all the other strange deaths including that of the first Earl.
Gavin visited the tree. It was mid-autumn and he was chilled to find that the tree had plenty of leaves still to shed. Now he was in the gallery and he could hear the wind blowing outside. With a feeling of trepidation, he decided he needed to face this curse. He got a jacket and made for the road. The moon was full and, at the gate to the field, he saw the branches of the beech thrashing like the arms of a demented soul. He also saw the leaves swirling in the air and over the road, making little blood-red tornadoes. He walked slowly through the gate, closing it carefully behind. In the distance he noticed an eerie glow. It moved closer until he could see a figure in the glow. His heart started to race as his anxiety increased, but he was determined not to give way. Panting with fear he stood his ground as the specter approached. Now he could see it was dressed like the pictures of farmers of old that he’d found it the records. It got to within a meter then stopped.
“You are the new Earl of Roxleigh and tonight you die.”
The frightful words came out of the air with no movement of the ghost’s lips. Gavin tensed but didn’t waver.
“How do you plan to kill me when you have no substance?” he replied grimly.
“I have my ways, but you seem different from the others,” observed the specter.
“It is in my mind that this curse has achieved all that you wanted from it. You have killed four to your one. And I believe that you may be weary of your task. I think you might wish to now rest in peace.”
“You are right, I am weary. But you will not get away so easily. My descendants still work on this farm. I will go to my rest once I am satisfied that you have made reparation. Otherwise we will meet again.”
“I agree. Tell me your name and I will find your family.”
“I am called Henry Titchmarsh. I will be forever thankful if you live up to your fine words.”
The glow faded and Gavin returned to the house. He rang for Hobson.
“I have just met the ghost of the murdered farmer. Do you know the Titchmarshes?”
Hobson looked at him in awe.
“What do plan to do, sir?” he asked in a quavering voice.
“I plan to make reparation for a horrific crime.”
A huge grin spread over Hobson’s face.
“That would be well done sir,” he replied. “In that case, I do know the Titchmarshes. I will take you to them tomorrow.”
A few nights later, Gavin woke to a familiar spectral glow. The voice was unforgettable.
“Thank you sir,” it said with a hint of respect. “Now that my family own the farm, I am satisfied that they are safe and secure. It makes me content. I will rest now.”
And the glow faded away.