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The Black Sheep

Charles Bidewell - a solid, phlegmatic man in his fifties - looked through a lattice window of the Ploughman's Inn, across to the distant silhouette of Murcombe Manor: a rambling Jacobean pile whose dramatic presence dominated the surrounding countryside.

‘How are you getting on with your new boss then?’ the landlady enquired, in a casual manner; referring to the new Earl of Murcombe.

Bidewell turned round. ‘I can't say he's my cup of tea, Ethel.’

‘Why, what's the matter with him?’

‘You've yet to see him of course.’ He took a mouthful of his drink, then studied the question further. ‘He treats the place like a hotel. Comes and goes when he likes; whatever the hours. And as for his appearance,’ he narrowed his eyelids and shook his head; ‘well, he looks as though he's been dragged backwards through a hedge. Always seems to have three days of stubble on his chin, and doesn’t look as if he’s had a wash for a week. In fact he doesn’t smell as if he has.’

‘Can’t he use deodorant?’

‘What, that bloke! No. It’d be too much trouble. He couldn’t give a hoot what people think about him.’ He paused. 'Drinks like a fish, as well.’

‘My word, you've got a right one there.’ She adjusted a set of false pearls that lay upon her ample bosom.

Bidewell's eyes darkened. ‘And then of course, there's that retinue of his. A girlfriend who wears leather jackets and jeans. A bawling kid. There's his hippy friend, with his Oriental wife, or mistress. They're a bunch of scruffs you'd walk across to the other side of the street to avoid. I've never seen the like of it.’

It was indeed a shocking breach of form according to Bidewell's conventional standards. On top of all that, there was his Lordship's shady background, prior to taking possession of the estate. He was a University drop-out with a string of drug offences, and a stretch inside. He'd spent the best part of the previous decade out in the Far East, and, according to some press reports, allegedly making a living from such illicit and unsavoury occupations as pimping, drug pushing, and even arms trafficking.

His name was Percy Clarence Manderville. His father, now deceased, was the only brother of the bachelor Earl of Murcombe. When the Earl recently died in a tragic accident, after being thrown from his horse, Percy found himself - being the only off-spring of his father - the heir to the vast property of Murcombe Manor. Being by then perilously short of funds - and with a number of Oriental police forces breathing down his neck, on account of his various misdemeanours - upon hearing the news of his sudden, welcome inheritance, he boarded the first available flight to England. He headed straight for the old, ancestral home, to take possession, as its rightful, hereditary owner; with his retinue, as Bidewell called them, following in tow.

Though the only nephew of the late Earl, there had been precious little contact between the two of them during the Earl's life. A bitter family feud between the two brothers - together with the late Earl regarding young Percy as an out and out bounder and reprobate, and a disgrace to the family name - had meant that their relationship was practically non-existent. (Indeed, the late Earl had contemplated drawing up a new will, disinheriting Percy altogether, and handing his estate to a more distant relation. But he had deferred it, feeling that there was no real urgency in the matter, as he was convinced that he had a good few years in him yet). 

Percy’s father had seldom mentioned his brother at all, except in the most negative and disparaging terms, and had rarely reminisced, in Percy's presence, about his early life at the Manor. Thus in a real sense the new Earl was as much a stranger to his new home, as any passing Japanese or American tourist. Still, he intended to make the most of his sudden windfall. And felt indeed as if he had won the jackpot on the Lottery.

‘He probably thinks we're just a bunch of fuddy-duddies,’ said the smiling landlady, to whom aristocrats' were members of an inviolate species. She poured herself a stiff brandy.

Bidewell grunted his disapproval. ‘I can’t believe how different it is from when the old Earl was alive.’ He took another mouthful of beer. ‘He was one of the old school, Ethel. A real gentleman, who always played by the rules.’ Ethel nodded. ‘You just don’t know where you are with this crowd.’ He shook his head. ‘It’s at times like this, Ethel, that I even begin to question the very principle of aristocracy.’

‘Heaven forfend, Mr Bidewell.’

‘Let's just hope that his son's made of sounder stuff. If the place lasts long enough for him to inherit it?’ He finished off his drink and placed the empty glass on the counter before the Landlady. ‘Put another pint in there will you, Ethel.’

‘Will that be all, M'lord?’ said the butler, Melchett, as he delivered the tea and muffins, along with an ironed newspaper for his Lordship to scrutinise.

‘Now that you mention it, Melchett, there is something I've been meaning to raise with you.’

‘Indeed.’

‘I want to have a new bedroom prepared, in the East Wing. I've noticed you get a better view of the grounds from that end of the house.’

At that unexpected request the colour seemed to drain from Melchett's mask-like face and alarm was evident in his eyes.

‘Anything wrong?’

‘I'm afraid, your Lordship that such a request is quite out of the question. No one is allowed to stop overnight in the East Wing. Before midnight we lock all access doors to that wing. They aren't opened again till morning. That has always been the case as long as I’ve been here. And well before.’

The new Earl of Murcombe stared with incredulity at the sober, diminutive figure of the butler. ‘Are you quite serious about this, Melchett?’

‘Indeed I am, sir.’

Sat nearby, Reginald Rigby - the louche, slovenly dressed companion of his Lordship; with a pony tail and scraggy beard - also looked on with curious bemusement; those intriguing comments having distracted him from the game of patience he had been playing with a deck of cards.

‘Weird!’

Melchett glanced briefly at Rigby with barely suppressed contempt, before turning back to Lord Manderville. The whole crew he heartily detested; and in particular the new Earl of Murcombe Manor. He could have been, like his late Uncle, a presentable looking man, if he put his mind to it. Instead, to Melchett, he seemed like a down-and-out; with his long, greasy hair, unshaven chin, his crumpled trousers, torn, denim jacket, and the confusing collection of rings in his ears. While the rest of them, Mandeville’s blonde girlfriend, Reginald Rigby and his Filipino wife, were hardly more congenial to the Butler’s rigorous, conservative tastes. But, his was not to reason why.

‘Perhaps I should have explained the situation earlier to you, your Lordship. There are, how should I put it; disturbances and manifestations, of a particularly paranormal nature, which are known to occur, after midnight and before dawn, on that very wing of the Manor.’

‘You mean we have a haunted house here?’ exclaimed Manderville.

‘Only on the East Wing, your Lordship. And only after midnight.’

‘A ghost,’ said Rigby. ‘I don’t know if I like the sound of that?’

‘Has nobody ever stopped there after midnight?’ asked the Earl.

'One rather foolish journalist persuaded his late Lordship, against his better judgment, to allow him to stay the night on the East Wing, over fifteen years ago.'

‘Yeah. And what happened?’

‘He died of a heart attack.’

The Earl and Rigby looked at each other for a second.

‘And have you any idea what, or who, could be the cause of this haunting?’ asked the Earl.

‘We believe, indeed, we are convinced, that it is an early ancestor of yours, your Lordship.’

The next day Lord Manderville raised the subject with the estate manager, Charles Bidewell: the last person one would suspect of harbouring casual supernatural beliefs.

‘Oh, it's absolutely true; there’s no doubt about it,’ came the astonishing reply. ‘The East Wing is haunted. Has been for generations past. No one in their right mind would spend a night there beyond midnight. I can vouch for that,’ and then with a note of disdain which he couldn’t entirely censor from his voice, ‘your Lordship.’

‘Melchett says it's the ghost of some early ancestor of mine?’

‘Yes, it is indeed.’

‘Which one?’

‘It's undoubtedly the ghost of the Seventh Earl. He's been seen through the windows of the upper gallery on several, clear, moon-lit nights. After the witching hour of course.’

‘The Seventh Earl!’ his Lordship muttered, as if to himself. ‘Ah yes. My old man did mention him a time or two, as I recall.’

‘You’ll find an informative chapter on him, your Lordship, in a history of the house written by a local antiquarian, the Reverend Foxglove. There's an old 1eather bound edition in the Manor's library.’

‘Is there now.’ He nodded his head. ‘Thanks for letting me know. I'll certainly give it a perusal. It sounds as if he was a bit of a character?’

‘Oh yes; he was straight out of the rogues’ gallery. You should find him quite interesting.’

He made a beeline for the library, had an assistant find him the said volume, took it over to a table, by a window, and turned to the relevant chapter, which went under the appropriate title: ‘The Black Sheep’. He read on. The Seventh Earl had lived in the Eighteenth Century. On inheriting the Manor from his father, he embarked on a life of debauchery and dissipation, remarkable even for those profligate times. He ran through such hoards of money on the gaming tables of London that he almost bankrupted his estate, and was forced to sell priceless paintings and treasures - some of them ending up as far away as Catherine the Great's Hermitage in St. Petersburgh - in order to salvage his perilous position.

Aside from this he was known for his whoring, drunkenness and truculent behaviour. He thought of no one except himself. He cheated and lied to his associates, as a matter of course; badly treated his underlings - took frightful liberties with his younger female servants; and was a very byword for scandal. Yet there were even darker skeletons rattling in his closet. He had killed a man in a duel; brought about through his adamant refusal to pay off a gambling debt. There were stories of arcane, satanic rituals, and membership of the notorious Hell-Fire Club. And there was speculation that he may even have poisoned his first wife. A rumour that was only strengthened, when, after the briefest interval of grieving, he went on to marry his mistress. Even his own aristocratic caste all but washed their hands of him; and when his life of excess and debauchery caught up with him, and he died of a sudden seizure in his fifties, there were precious few mourners. Rather, a sense of heart-felt relief.

Instead of being appalled by that sorry story of a rake's undoing, the new Earl rather warmed to that distant ancestor - as if he felt the presence of a kindred spirit from across the centuries. There were two illustrations of the wicked Earl. One, as a handsome young Georgian beau, dressed in all his finery - the other; a grotesque, pock-marked, prematurely aged roué, bearing all the marks of his depravity on his bloated countenance, like the portrait of Dorian Grey.

That same afternoon he came across a full-length portrait of the nefarious Earl, in a hallway of the East Wing. It was of the younger, more attractive creature.

He took the book out of the library and gave it to his girlfriend, Elaine. ‘Just have a read of that chapter on the black sheep.’

Elaine was a tall, attractive, ebullient blonde, whose lively, colourful clothing could almost be described as psychedelic. She was a former university student, who had dropped out of a Sociology course in the second year and went back packing with some girlfriends to the Far East. And it was three years ago when Mandeville first met her, while she was working as a lap dancer in a seedy bar in Hong Kong.

She read the chapter, then shook her head and smiled at Percy.

‘What a monster.’

‘At least he had a bit of life in him. Which is more than my uncle ever had.’ He took the book from her hand. ‘There's a rather striking portrait of him hanging in the East Wing, if you'd care to have a look at it, Elaine?’

‘Sure.’

They walked over and stood before the painting.

‘Wasn't a bad looking chap was he; before his life caught up with him?’ She looked at the present Earl and grinned slyly. ‘In fact he looks rather like you, Percy.’

‘Is that an insult or a compliment?’

‘Take it any way you like.’ She paused. ‘Yes, if you ignore the wig and the fancy costume, there is a definite resemblance.’

‘Well, we are related,’ he smiled.

‘D'you believe the story about the ghost, Percy?’

He shook his head. ‘No. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a sceptic when it comes to matters like that. It seems to me like a useful marketing gimmick to keep the coach-parties coming. After all, most of these old houses seem to have a convenient ghost or two knocking about. In fact you get the impression that if they didn’t have one, they’d have to make one up. Indeed, I intend to show up this story for the fake I believe it to be.’

‘Oh yeah.’

‘I'm going to spend a night on the East Wing. And I'll rope in Rigby, for a bit of moral support.’

‘He might not like it?’

‘He has no choice in the matter.’

‘But what will the butler say?’

‘Who's going to tell him?’

‘But you heard what he said? No one’s allowed in the East Wing after midnight.’

‘You know me by now, Elaine. When have I ever followed rules that other people had laid down? Besides; I’m the boss round here. I can do what the hell I like.’ He shook his head as if to shake all the warnings he had heard out of his mind. ‘No; that place isn’t out of bounds as far as I’m concerned.’

‘But what if this one is for real, Percy? What if there is a ghost?’

‘I don’t believe in all that supernatural malarkey. But even if such a thing did exist? Well, so what. From everything I’ve heard ghosts are quite insubstantial creatures. They don’t seem to pack much of a punch. Why should I be concerned about something like that?’ He smiled and waved a dismissive arm. ‘I’ve probably seen worse things on a drug trip.’

An hour later his Lordship chanced upon Rigby in the billiard room, trying to pot a black.

‘Rigby, old son; I’ve got a little adventure lined up for the two of us. Something a bit out of the ordinary.’

‘Yeah,’ muttered Rigby, looking up from the green baize.

‘We’re going to do a spot of ghost-hunting.’

‘Yer don’t say.’

The Earl had a commodious room fixed-up as a study, on the first floor of the East Wing, for his daytime use. He then managed to purloin a key to one of the access doors, to the East Wing, while the butler was temporarily absent from the house, and had a copy made at a key-cutting stall in the market of a nearby town. He returned the original key to where he found it.

He made his plans, fixed a date and waited. At length, the hour came. When all the servants' had retired and the whole house was asleep, and all the Manor's antique clocks had chimed the twelve strokes of midnight, Lord Manderville unlocked the access door with his duplicate key and, together with Rigby slipped into the dread East Wing.

They stealthily made their way up the stairs and along a hallway and came at length to the Earl's private room. The two adventurers had come well prepared for their long night's vigil. In the room, they had a television, together with a DVD player and a number of movie discs. There were several bottles of wine, that had been taken up from the cellars, a bottle of brandy, cans of lager, two packed lunches and a tin of assorted biscuits. Ghost, or no ghost, they were determined to have a comfortable time. Though they kept the sound down, so as not to alert the rest of the house.

‘Just imagine the looks on their faces, Rigby, when they find us here, fast asleep, tomorrow. It’ll certainly have old Melchett in a flap.’

‘It's not them I'm concerned about,’ said Rigby as he poured some wine into a glass.

‘You don’t believe in all that guff about a ghost, d’you?’

‘I don’t know. But all this seems a damn fool idea to me.’ He swallowed a measure of wine. ‘After all, we don’t know what we’re dealing with.’

‘It doesn’t bother me.’

‘But you heard what the butler said. A guy died of a heart attack who tried on the same caper we’re pulling tonight.’

‘If you ask me it was just a coincidence. People do die of heart attacks and seizures. I don’t think it had anything to do with a ghost. You’re taking this far too seriously, Rigby. You want to try and chill out a bit.’

A clock chimed two o’clock. Gusts of wind shook the window panes and rainwater ran down the stained glass.

‘Looks like we could be in for a storm.’

‘Yeah. Just the weather for a ghost,’ reflected Rigby, as he recalled some of the old horror movies he had seen, where thunder storms seemed almost obligatory. He drained off the contents of a brandy glass and then got to his feet. ‘I'm off to the loo.’

‘If you see anything spooky out there, let me know.’

‘If I see anything like that I’ll probably run a mile.’

There was an ominous rumble of thunder and a flash of lightning momentarily illuminated the stained glass of the windows.

‘Though I reckon your imagination can play tricks with you on a night like this,’ Rigby reflected.

‘Don’t get yourself lost, Rigby. I know what you’re like when you’ve been on the booze. And whatever else you’ve been taking.’

‘I think I know my way around this place by now. And as for the booze? Well; there’s no way that I’d be up here stone cold sober.’

‘We’re going to do a bit of exploring when you come back. We’re going to see if there is anything to this ghost business. Though I can’t help feeling that it’s all a con job.’

‘I’ll be back. Don’t worry. Though I still think this is a stupid escapade.’ And with that he staggered off in the general direction of the loo.

Manderville lit a cigar and pulled the ring on a can of lager. He sat back and aimlessly leafed through a magazine, as without, the rain intensified and thunder rumbled in the heavens.

Ten minutes passed, but there was no sight or sound of Rigby. ‘What's keeping him?’ he mumbled to himself as he crushed the empty lager can and threw it in a wastepaper basket. ‘I told him not to get lost.’

Five more minutes passed, and Rigby was still absent.

Rigby couldn’t have left the East Wing; even if he wanted to. Manderville had locked the access door after they had entered the wing. And only he had the key.

‘What a bore,’ he groused; ‘if he's gone and dossed down somewhere and left me here on my own tonight? Didn’t I tell him to go easy on the booze?’ Though he had drunk as much, if not more than his companion had. Despite his bluster and bravado he wasn’t nearly as confident or bullish about that escapade as he had made out; and facing such a challenge on his own wasn’t at all to his taste. He threw aside the magazine.

Another five minutes slipped by and Rigby was as evasive as ever. He reluctantly got to his feet and made his way over to the door. ‘I'll have to blow him out,’ he growled, as he walked along the hallway to the loo. By that time the storm was even more intensive; thunder growled overhead and flashes of lightning illuminated, fitfully, the gloomy apartments of the Manor.

He switched on a hall light, but the bulb exploded, leaving the hallway in darkness. ‘What the hell’s going on?’

He shivered and rubbed his hands together. ‘Crikey; it’s cold round here.’ He sighed to himself, wearily, and shook his head. ‘Rigby was right. This was a damn fool idea.’

He walked, with careful tread, along the hallway, past the portrait of the Seventh Earl, then nearly tripped over something on the floor.

He stooped down and tried to discern what it was. Not able to see with any distinction in the frail and tenuous light, he stretched out his hands to feel the contours of that obstacle. It was a human body that lay, on the floor, before him. Through the sudden brilliance of a lightning flash he saw it was his companion, Rigby. There was no motion in the body. Not the sound of a breath. A second lightning flash revealed that Rigby’s eyes were dilated, and his face contorted into a grimace of terror. He was obviously dead.

Icy fear gripped his body. He looked across at the portrait of the Seventh Earl, then down at the corpse, as thunder roared without. It seemed that the story of the ghost was no mere tourist gimmick after all. There was some presence in the East Wing. And an awesome one at that, judging by the death contortions of his former companion.

‘I've got to get out of here,’ he told himself, as another detonation of lightning lit the hallway, then left it in darkness. He speedily made his way along the gloomy corridor, his hands trembling, sweat beading on his brow. The whole venture now seemed far from the light-hearted jape it was intended to be. And the idea of some fearful ghost of a long dead ancestor emanating from the nether regions seemed a far from incredible prospect. And not one that he relished at all. He was determined to make it beyond the access door before any further nasty surprises were sprung upon him.

He ran down the steps, two and three at a time, in his urgency to fly that detested wing. But halfway down the stairs, he stopped in his tracks. There was something, some shadowy entity, stood before the access door, as if to bar his path to the rest of the Manor. 'What the hell is it!' he asked himself, his voice shaking. Then a bolt of lightning answered his entreaty. In the shaft of light the ghostly presence of a distinct individual became apparent to him. He wore a faded red coat, a three cornered hat and boots with large, metal buckles. There was no question about it; it was the Seventh Earl that stood before him. Darkness fell, and the shadowy entity moved away from the door, with a heavy, measured tread, towards him. Hideous, mirthless laughter, emanated from its lips, as at some strange, perverse, enjoyment.

‘No!’ He shook his head in panic. Feeling nauseous with fear, he turned on his heels and ran up the stairway, back into the Wing he had desperately sought escape from. He ran into his room, ransacked a drawer of a bureau to retrieve a torch, and then ran out into the hallway again.

He stood - ashen-faced and visibly quaking - between his dead companion and the portrait of the old Earl. He heard the steady, relentless steps of the approaching creature. There was no way back. In his terror and contrition he promised himself that he would never set foot in that Wing again. Even during the day-time hours.

The question however, was how he would get out of it. Slowly, inexorably, the figure approached. He switched on the torch and shone the cone of its light onto the approaching creature. The light revealed a corpulent form, a bloated and ravaged face, and veined eyes that were fixed on him, with some unfathomable and malign intent. He was even more ghastly and repellent than the unflattering illustration of him in the Reverend Foxglove's book. And there was a lingering smell of corruption about him. The dry, ghoulish chuckle was heard again, issuing from bloodless lips that were pulled into the most hideous, inhuman grimace, revealing worn and blackened teeth.

‘Good of you to keep me company tonight, cousin,’ he informed his terrified descendant. ‘I feel we have so much in common with each other.’ The same heartless laughter followed.

‘Get away from me you filthy creature!’ he screamed at the hideous emanation. But the creature continued its steady advance. He stood, like a quivering jelly, and felt, with each new step his ancestor made towards him, his very sanity giving way. That same terrible fate that had befallen Rigby now seemed about to engulf him.

He ran back to the very end of the Wing. He tore open the curtains of a window, as the steps of his ancestor approached ever closer. A fork of lightning illuminated the trees, grass and hills that lay beyond the manor house. He cast aside his torch, picked up an antique stool and smashed the glass of the window out of its frame. With blind panic, as his ancestor shouted, and spluttered, and raised his arms, he jumped through the jagged opening of the window, cutting his hands and face in the process. Fortunately, some tree branches decelerated his fall: though his head struck a paving stone, and he was knocked out cold.

‘My God, what's been going on here?’ exclaimed Melchett, when he discovered the body the next morning. Manderville was taken to a nearby hospital. As soon as he emerged from his coma he was questioned by the police, concerning the bizarre death of his associate, Rigby. But what he had to say, about the ghost of the Seventh Earl, was greeted with much scepticism, and the death of Rigby was put down to a seizure; with no suspicious circumstances involved.

He returned back to the Manor a few days later. He was an utterly changed man. A sombre, taciturn, and more introspective person altogether. And he was also haunted by guilt, at the terrible death of his companion, that was brought about through his own willful arrogance. He gave up the booze and drugs; shaved and bathed regularly, and dressed in a more conventional manner, to the surprise and satisfaction of Bidewell and Melchett, but to the consternation of Elaine. He saw to it, as a debt of honour, that Rigby's widow was financially secure. She left for London, shortly after his funeral, and the following year she married a restaurateur who she had met at a party.

Elaine, who now found the Earl to be an insufferable bore - and so unlike the wayward and mercurial partner of old - also left, and went to London, taking the child with her. There she began a fresh relationship with a visiting American theatre impresario. Within weeks she had moved, with her new beau, to America, and severed all contact with the Earl.

The Earl - who seemed entirely indifferent to the breakdown of that relationship, and indeed the absence of his son; as if they were all part of a past that was now strange and alien to him - started to read books on mysticism and comparative religion. And though he had previously regarded religion as an organized confidence trick, he became a Catholic. A year after his unwelcome encounter with his ancestor, he renounced all his worldly goods and titles, then joined a Trappist order in Southern France. Where he stayed till the end of his days.

A distant cousin, that the last Earl hardly knew, became the sole inheritor of Murcombe Manor.

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