It was an early afternoon in October when Jim Brooke stopped at Edgehill on his way homefrom a meeting in Stratford-upon-Avon. The autumn sun was still quite warm and bright but giving a strange yellowish tint to the surroundings. He gazed over the fields stretching away towards Kineton taking in the scene. Jim had been here twice before. The first time had been a family visit when he was young with his parents and his sister. His father, who had an interest in military history, had explained how the battle had unfolded and the small part played by two family forebears. The second occasion had been a school visit with his sixth-form History class. He recalled he’d explained to his students how two of his ancestors, step-brothers Cecil and Francis, had fought against each other on opposite sides at Edgehill with Cecil being killed.
“Brothers fighting on opposite sides?” one of his pupils had sounded puzzled.
“Why yes, it was quite common,” Jim had replied. “My father’s ancestor, Digby Brooke, was the MP for Abingdon and a Royalist; he had two sons. Cecil was the eldest but it appeared his mother had died when he was about three. Digby then remarried and he and his second wife had Francis. I don’t know the reason but the family seems to have fallen out and Cecil seemingly took against his father and the rest of the family because he joined the Parliamentarians whilst Francis was loyal to the family and was a Royalist like the rest of them. We still have very old portraits of the three of them, though Cecil’s is of him alone; Digby, Francis and his mother were painted together.”
Jim advanced in a northerly direction across the field down towards Kineton and towards the area where the main battle had been fought, not sure what he was looking for, but impelled by the memories of the earlier visits when he had felt drawn by some mysterious attraction towards a particular corner of the battlefield. After about a mile or so, by the spot in question, he began to feel tired and sat down under a tree for a brief rest and started to drift off to sleep. Very soon, he was accompanied by ghostly images of Civil War soldiers seeming to rise up from their resting places in the ground, battling around him, their bloodthirsty cries punctuated by the screams of vicious injury and the moans of the dying. One particular scene stuck in hi mind, that of a Roundhead fighting off two Royalists only to look round to be run through by a third Cavalier soldier who collapsed to his knees staring up at and seemingly beseeching his attacker. This unpleasant reverie was interrupted by a chill blast of air – wind it was not and from where Jim didn’t know – at which the ghostly figures faded back into the ground except for the one on his knees dying who seemed to observe Jim with an evil stare before it too faded.
“Hello, who’s there?” Jim started glancing around. “Is there anyone there?”
But now nothing. The agricultural landscape lay empty and still before him with no breeze or sign of any human being. Jim put the chill down to the fact the sun was beginning to go down losing some of its heat. Feeling a little shaken, he got up, dusted himself down and made his way back to the car. Throughout the return walk, he sensed some kind of presence shadowing him very closely, almost on his shoulder, but although it was still light he could not see anything or, for that matter anybody else, in the fields despite frequent nervous glances over his shoulder and desperate pirouettes to try and find the source of his malaise.
He got in the car and started home to Northampton, all the while glancing in his rear view mirror as inexplicably he felt some sort of brooding presence along with him in the vehicle, a feeling that got worse as the day ended and night settled over the countryside. Back home he hurried in and shut the front to be greeted by a message from his wife to say she had gone out to a WI meeting and that there was some supper in the fridge. Jim turned the heating on as he felt cold and drew the curtains, not so much against the dark as against some nagging feeling that he was being closely watched in the house but from where he was not sure.
Unusually for him he ate supper on a tray in front of the television, needing comfort in the deathly quiet of the house. Even the normal gurgling of the central heating seemed to be unusually stilled although Jim had turned it up in order to combat the chill that had settled. Having finished his meal, he put the tray on the table in front of him and, feeling too weary to read the newspaper, tried to pay attention to the television. Although it provided some distraction he was now beginning to feel that he definitely was not alone and whatever the presence was it was decidedly inside the house with him. In an increasing state of anxiety, he began to hunt ever more feverishly around the house, looking under cushions, in cupboards, under the beds, in drawers. Eventually, feeling totally worn, he collapsed on the sofa and after a minute or so started to drift off into a trance like state.
As Jim lay there he felt himself back at the battle at Edgehill and the vision of the soldier he had seen at the end of his earlier dream reappeared, but this time more clearly. Jim gazed at it recognising a Parliamentarian uniform. Removing its helmet the figure advanced until it was staring over him and Jim began to feel an icy cold and a sense a revolting stench. He shivered with fear and revulsion at the stench.
“Why, sire,” the figure enquired, “you feel cold eh? Perhaps you feel the coldness of the grave around you and the smell of death. May I invite you to share it after you have felt the physical pain of my wounds and the mental pain of my life.”
Straightening up, the figure revealed a deep wound just below his heart, the blood still seemingly oozing through the shredded clothing.
“See the sword wound inflicted on me by my very own brother; killed by my own brother. Consigned to a cold unmarked grave alone with my bitter memories….”
“Why, you’re Cecil Brooke aren’t you? I recognise you now from the family portraits my parents still have.” I mouthed in horror. “You mean, you were killed by Francis? Was that what I saw in my dream on the battlefield?”
“Aye,” the figure spat out, “killed by my step-brother with no shred of mercy or compassion and defamed and abused as he killed me, his eyes gloating. And before that cast out by my family. You know the brief story I think as you are a historian, I believe, and you teach the young about the War against the tyrant Charles Stewart. But you know nothing of the suffering inflicted on me in the Brooke family. You talk glibly of portraits. The one of me is just of me as well you know. ‘Tis the portrait of that coward Francis that is the family portrait – Francis with Sir Digby and that whore of a second wife.”
“But hold on, why call her a whore” I struggled, “why did you take against your step-mother? What did she do?”
“You think you are descended from Sir Digby through Francis. Well, sad to say you’re all bastards as my father was no father to Francis but only ask – if you could now – Lawson, the family coachman. You might hear a different story. So, James Brooke, you and your ancestors and any heirs of yours be no Brookes at all. Bastards all. Descendants of a mere coachman. But still Lawson, though he was driven out of the family home, fought at Cropredy Bridge for the cursed King and got his just desserts – run through by a fellow comrade and now he rots with Satan along with my father and his descendants.”
“You had no heirs?” Jim asked to try and quell his nerves, beginning to struggle free of the trance he was in, not knowing if this was imaginary for for deadly real.
“I had an heir – a daughter – of a lovely gal, in London but she died of the pox along with her mother when she were but three years old,” he answered, his apparent mask slipping and his rage turning briefly to sadness.
“But why, I hear you ask in your deepest thoughts – yes, I read them now – did I fight for Essex and Parliament? Well, when I suspected my step-mother’s infamy, my father drove me out of the family home without the slightest share of what might have been justly mine so as to stop any breath of scandal,” Cecil paused. “So Francis took the family honours and I could see it in his eyes when he gored me.”
“So, perhaps it is time for you, cursed descendant of Francis to come lie with me in the cold of the tomb. God knows, I’ve been willing you and your forebears back to Edgehill for the last three hundred and fifty years and finally you came and you have yet no offspring so the curse can stop with you and I can lie avenged in eternal peace.”
Jim was now struggling out of the trance, sensing the danger he was in and decided to fight back. The grey figure was still in front of him advancing menacingly drawing a sword but Jim dodged the first two ghostly cuts. In desperation, Jim seized the poker that hung with other tools in front of the fireplace and fought back feeling it odd that such a seemingly ghostly sword should ring so true against the poker. After a minute or so of dodging Cecil’s sword Jim saw an opportunity and struck at his opponent’s head felling him to the floor. Then seeing Cecil’s sword lying beside the prostrate body, he seized it and plunged it as deep as he could into Cecil’s chest sweating with the effort of piercing the leather jerkin.”
“Go to your grave Cecil Brooke with my apologies and sorrows. But do not ever return,” Jim hissed through gritted teeth.
And with a noiseless heart rending scream heard only to Jim, the figure of Cecil vanished along with the sword.
Jim fell asleep exhausted and awoke about an hour later being gently shaken by Mary his wife.
“Are you alright, darling? You look quite ill. And what’s the poker doing in your lap?”
“Not really.” Jim replied. “You won’t believe this…. but I’ve had a fight with a ghost. On the way home from the meeting, I stopped and visited the battle site at Edgehill and something followed me. Then it materialised here in front of me. The ghost of my ancestor Cecil Brooke…. The one who was killed at the battle.”
Jim then proceeded to tell the story in detail after which his wife said gently, “Well your father always thought there was something rather fascinating but evil about Edgehill and I understand your grandfather felt that too. I suppose that’s why your father only went there with a family group, never alone.”
“Anyway, looks like the Brookes are all bastards, then,” sighed Jim. “ But what worries me now is that I not only felt sheer relief when the ghost departed but I wonder if I felt some of emotion, the glee, the ghost said Francis seemed to show when he killed Cedric. Perhaps Francis must have known he was extinguishing the one life that could challenge his inheritance; even greedily grasping at it. Have I inherited any of that greed?”
“Don’t worry, it’s over,” Mary said. “We’re never likely to be as wealthy as Sir Digby or Francis and you don’t strike me as a greedy murderer…. fortunately.”
She kissed Jim on his forehead and whispered, “Let’s have a wee dram to settle down then go to bed and try and put it in the past. You look shattered. The curse, if that’s what it was, has I think gone now for good.”