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Inheritance

a novelette
by Paul McAuley

There was no doubt about it: he was lost.

Richard Tolley tossed the map onto the back seat, levered himself out of the rented Volkswagen, and walked back to the T-junction and looked at the signpost. Sure enough, the fingerboard pointing in the direction from which he'd just come indicated that South Heyston was a mile away, and Upper Heyston three miles. According to his Ordnance Survey map, Steeple Heyston was situated between these two villages, but he'd now driven through both villages from east to west and back again, and had seen no trace of it. He knew there wasn't much left of the place, but there was a church clearly marked on the map, and a river and a railroad. How had he missed it?

He'd parked the car in front of a gate in the hedgerow, so that he wouldn't block the narrow country road. He leaned against the gate now, a tall, bear-like man in a white Burberry raincoat he'd purchased in London two days ago, twisting his signet ring around and around the middle finger of his right hand as he wondered if he should give up the search and try to find his way back to Oxford. The car, cooling, ticked behind him. A fine rain only slightly heavier than a mist hazed the cold air, the kind of rain the English called a mizzle. That quaint way with words they had, like calling an elevator a lift, or fall autumn, or the way the peppy red Volkswagen was badged as a Golf rather than a Rabbit. Like, but not like. The way the fields, vividly green even in the middle of December, were subtly different from the New Hampshire pastures of his childhood. Softer, nature's rawness blurred by centuries of human history. Three in the afternoon, and it was already growing dark. He would try again tomorrow, Tolley decided, and was about to get back in the car when he saw two figures leave the cover of a clump of leafless trees in the far corner of the field. Their dog, a black-and-white collie, raced across the field ahead of them and wriggled under the gate and barked at Tolley, who held his hands out of reach of its sharp white teeth and murmured, "Good boy, good boy," afraid that it would jump up and muddy his brand new Burberry.

One of the walkers, a man, whistled sharply, but the collie didn't stop barking at Tolley until the man clambered over the stile and clipped a lead to its collar. He was in his sixties, small and wiry and sharp-featured. A flat cap was pulled low over his springy white hair. An expensive camera was slung over the shoulder of his Norfolk jacket and a walking stick with a heavy carved head was tucked under his arm. "Sorry about that," he said. "He's young and excitable, but he rarely takes a bite from strangers."

"Maybe you can help me," Tolley said. "I guess I'm a little lost."

"Ask away," the man said, as he turned to help the woman -- Tolley assumed she was his wife -- over the stile. She was a short plump woman with glossy black hair bound back in a girlish ponytail. Heavy amber earrings, silver rings on every finger of her hands and the magenta silk scarf that peeked above the top button of her fur-collared coat gave her an exotic, gypsyish air.

Tolley said, "I was looking for a place called Steeple Heyston. You know it?"

"You must have missed the turn," the man said. "It's about two miles back, past South Heyston. There's a wood, and a sharp bend in the road. Steeple Heyston's off to the left of that bend, down a rough track."

"I think I remember the sharp bend."

"The track isn't signposted. No one lives there any more, you see."

"Isn't there an old manor house, something like that? That's what I've come to see - my family on my father's side used to live there. Tolley. The name mean anything to you?"

The man and the woman shared a look.

The man said, "There's a bit of the old manor house still standing."

The woman said, "You're American, aren't you? We have a son over there, in Boston."

"Harvard University," her husband said.

"He's a professor in the Medical School," the woman said.

Tolley told them that he'd heard of Harvard, but he was from New York. The man introduced himself as Gerald Beaumont, a retired mining engineer, introduced his wife, Marjorie, and the dog, Sam. Marjorie Beaumont studied Tolley for a moment, her gaze unnervingly direct, and said that he was some sort of academic himself.

"I work in a picture library," Tolley said, slightly unnerved.

"Give her another minute," her husband said, with a fond twinkle, "and she'll tell you your age, how long you've been married, and how many children you have."

"Actually, I'm divorced. Or rather, I'm getting divorced. That's kind of why I'm on holiday, to get away from all that, and take a look at the place my folks came from."

And to spend as much of his money as possible in one glorious jamboree before Rachel and her lawyer got their hands on it. How she'd started the divorce, she'd phoned him at work one day, after the latest in a series of rows about money, and told him not to come home. Which he'd done straight away, of course, to find she'd changed the locks on their apartment -- strictly speaking it was her apartment, but they'd been living there as man and wife for two years. He'd hammered on the door; she'd called the police; two days later a process server had handed Tolley divorce papers and a court order forbidding him to go within five hundred yards of his soon-to-be-ex-wife. That's when Tolley, who'd been couch surfing in the apartment of an increasingly grumpy workmate, had decided to take the holiday of a lifetime, and go check out his roots, the place in England his family had once owned.

After he'd told the old couple something of this (leaving out the humiliating bits about the rows, being locked out of his own home, the court order), Marjorie Beaumont asked if he knew anything about his family history. Tolley said that all he knew was that they had once owned the manor house at Steeple Heyston and good deal of farmland around it, that his grandfather had sold up and moved to the States in the late nineteenth century.

"I know the manor house burned down around then," Tolley said, "but I don't know much else. I think there was some kind of scandal, but my family's papers have been lost over the years. I'm hoping to look in the local history archives and find out about what would have been my inheritance, if things had turned out different."

Marjorie Beaumont said, "It's a terribly sad place. The saddest place I know."

"Now, Marjorie," Gerald Beaumont said.

"Even people without my gifts know that Steeple Heyston is an unquiet place," his wife said. "Even you think it's haunted, dear."

"I don't know about ghosts," Gerald Beaumont said, "but it is a lonely place with a lot of history. The manor house and the mill burnt down, and before that there was the railway accident, of course."

Tolley said, "There was a railway accident?"

Gerald Beaumont told him that it was a very famous one that had happened over a hundred years ago, that more than forty people had been killed, that some thought it was why Steeple Heyston was haunted.

"He should hear the story properly," his wife said. "Perhaps, when you've visited Steeple Heyston, Mr Tolley, you would like to have tea with us. I can tell you all about it then."

"I don't want to put you to any trouble," Tolley said. He was amused and charmed: the Beaumonts were like two eccentric supporting characters from that Agatha Christie detective show Rachel used to watch on Masterpiece Theatre.

"He doesn't want to be bothered with these old stories," Gerald Beaumont said.

"It concerns his family," Marjorie Beaumont said firmly, "and it's no trouble, is it, Gerald?"

"Of course not," her husband said, with fond patience, and told Tolley that they lived in South Heyston. "Glebe Cottage, two doors down from the pub. You can't miss it. Come and see us when you've done at Steeple Heyston, and we'll tell you what we know."

He repeated his directions to Steeple Heyston, and his wife told Tolley that he shouldn't stay there too long because it would be dark soon. They watched as Tolley fitted himself into his rental car and awkwardly turned it in the narrow road, grinding gears because he wasn't used to the stick shift, and then the Beaumonts and their dog were dwindling between the hedgerows in the rear-view mirror.

Tolley found the turning and steered the car, its springs complaining, down a rough, unsurfaced track that ended in a small turnaround with trees on one side and an unkempt hedge on the other. He switched off the motor and clambered out into the unnerving stillness of the unpopulated countryside. There was a farm gate half-buried in the hedge, held shut by a loop of orange twine. Beyond was a wide, rough meadow was backstopped by a steep railway embankment, with a line of bare trees on one side and a small river on the other. As Tolley unhooked the gate and stepped through, a train drove out of the misty gloom, the lights of its passenger cars like a string of yellow beads, dragging a dull roar behind as it dwindled toward away.

There had once been a narrow road or street here; there were grassy humps on either side where houses and cottages had once stood, although not a stone showed now. Tolley followed its line toward the trees and realized, as he wandered beneath them, that here were the ruins of the manor house his family had once owned.

The moment was curiously disappointing; perhaps it was because there was hardly anything left of the place. A low hummock, narrow and straight, was all that remained of a wall; a huge brier patch might have once been a rose garden; ragged shoulders of red brick fell away either side of a tall cluster of octagonal chimneys.

Tolley used his pocket Olympus to take a few photographs in the doubtful light; as he framed the last, he noticed the small church that stood a few hundred yards beyond the ruins, its square tower not much higher than the railway embankment behind it. The hedge around its graveyard had grown tall and wild; long briers trailed from it like unkempt hair. Tolley found an iron gate, saw headstones standing in waist-high grass obviously untrimmed since spring, saw a bramble bush that had rooted in the shoulders of a headless stone angel. Yet the gravel path was free of weeds, and a hand-sized hole in one of the stained-glass windows had been patched with hardboard, suggesting that although its congregation had long since deserted it, or lay under the long grass, someone still cared for the place.

It was growing dark, the sun a bloody smear in clouds low over cold fields where mist was beginning to gather. Too dark, Tolley thought, to examine the inscriptions on gravestones or look in the church for relics of his family. He walked back through the overgrown ruins of the manor house and in the last of the light crossed the hummocky meadow to the little river. Where it passed beneath a steel railway bridge, the water dropped in a glassy rush over the step of a weir; on the far bank were the remains of a big, square building that had to be the mill Tolley's family had once owned. As Tolley framed in his camera's viewfinder a broken wall that stood amongst a clump of leafless trees, he thought for a moment that someone was lurking in the shadows there, a man with an oddly shaped head. Or no, he seemed to be wearing a top hat.

A freight train trundled around the curve and crossed the bridge with a hollow roar, sounding a two-note horn. Tolley glanced up, then took his photograph. The figure, if that's what it had been, was gone.

He had another bad moment when he got back to the car, and saw what he thought was a face peeking up at him from the back seat: but it was only the map, lying where he'd tossed it. All that talk about ghosts had evidently primed his jet-lagged imagination, he thought, as he drove the scant mile to South Heyston. There was a tumbledown farm, a string of pebble-dash council houses, and then a cluster of picturesque stone cottages around a tiny village green, a church steeple poking against the evening sky behind them. Glebe Cottage was next to the churchyard. Gerald Beaumont shook Tolley's hand at the front door and ushered him into what he called the lounge, turning down, but not quite muting, the sound of big colour television that was showing some old B-movie. During the strange conversation that followed, the television flickered and mumbled in its corner like some idiot child.

Seated in an overstuffed armchair, Tolley felt like a fledgling cuckoo as the Beaumonts fluttered about, plying him with hot, milky tea and cookies and small, buttery cakes. He learned that Gerald Beaumont had worked in the Yorkshire coalmines, but had taken early retirement when many of them were closed down in the aftermath of a big strike. The Beaumonts had moved to Oxford to be near their only child and his family when he had been working at the University, but then their son had become another statistic in the Brain Drain, and had moved to America. Tolley guessed that they were lonely, like a lot of retired folk who move from where they have lived and worked; it was as if they, not their son, were exiles in a foreign land.

When Marjorie Beaumont asked him about his impression of Steeple Heyston, Tolley told her that he hadn't seen all that much, it had gotten dark too quickly. He had forgotten until that moment the glimpse he'd had of that shadowy figure -- perhaps it had been nothing more than a figment of his imagination, conjured out of twilight and Marjorie Beaumont's talk of ghosts, but now he felt a shiver, an undeniable frisson. He said, "I guess I'll have to come back tomorrow. I want to take a look at that church, and take some photographs, too."

Gerald Beaumont said, "It's a good place for photography, all right. Let me show you a few I took of the place."

"He won't want to look at your snaps," Marjorie Beaumont said, as her husband rooted in the cupboard under the glass-fronted bookcase that held an Encyclopaedia Britannica and what looked like a complete run of Reader's Digest condensed novels.

"He can tell me himself if he isn't interested," Gerald Beaumont said, and pulled out a spiral-bound album and passed it to Tolley, saying that he would appreciate a professional opinion.

Tolley wiped his buttery fingers on his sweater before he took the album -- he'd eaten all of the little cakes, and most of the cookies (no, they called them biscuits here) -- saying, "I work in a photographic library, but I'm no photographer."

Large eight-by-ten prints, black-and-white, one to a page. The church stark against a wintry sky. Gravestones leaning this way and that, all sunlight and shadow. The brambly angel Tolley had noticed, shot from an acute angle, the sun making a halo behind it. Grassy hummocks defined by their shadows. Dead weeds bent before a lichenous stone. The ruined chimney standing stark amongst leafless trees. The ruined chimney rising out of a cloud of wild roses.

Tolley was impressed, and told Gerald Beaumont that he had definitely captured the atmosphere of the place.

"There are some things photographs can't capture," Marjorie Beaumont said. A lavender cardigan was draped over her shoulders like a matador's cape, pinned at her neck by a big Victorian brooch. The paste jewel flickered in the light of the fire that burned in the brick fireplace. "I expect you saw the railway that runs past. That's the old Oxford-to-Birmingham line, and it was about a hundred years ago that the tragedy happened."

"A hundred and six," Gerald Beaumont said.

His wife ignored him. "There was a passenger train on its way to Birmingham, and a goods train going towards Oxford. One of the wagons of the goods train jumped the tracks and pulled others across the line, and the passenger train couldn't stop in time, and crashed into them. They said that you could hear the shriek of its brakes in Oxford, that the sparks from its wheels set fire to three miles of the embankment. More than forty people died, but it's said that many of them would have been saved if the squire -- I suppose he'd be your great-grandfather, Mr Tolley -- if he hadn't stopped the villagers of Steeple Heyston from helping the injured."

"He hated the railway with a passion," Gerald Beaumont said. "He'd lost a lot of money fighting and losing a legal battle against the Act of Parliament that gave it the right of way across his land. When the other passengers carried the injured away from the wreck, he told his tenants that anyone who lifted a hand to help would lose their livelihood and their home. 'Let them use their blasted railway to save themselves,' he's supposed to have said. Anyhow, it was more than two hours before a relief train arrived, and by that time many had died who might otherwise have survived."

"There's a monument to them in a corner of the churchyard, raised by public subscription," Marjorie Beaumont said. "The squire tried to prevent that, too, but the diocese council overruled him. Two bodies, a man and a woman, were never identified, and they're buried in the churchyard. They say you can see them on the anniversary of the accident, walking along the railway line, as if they're looking for something they've lost or left behind."

Tolley smiled. "Have you ever seen these ghosts?"

Marjorie Beaumont shook her head. "I wouldn't go near Steeple Heyston on that night or on any other, for that matter. Even on a hot summer's day, it's a sad, lonely place."

Gerald Beaumont said, "I'm not given to believing in ghosts and such myself, but it's true that Marjorie fainted there once, and she's never gone back."

"It's the woman, I expect," Marjorie Beaumont said softly, as if to herself. "Their ghosts are stronger."

Gerald Beaumont pretended to ignore this, saying quickly, "You didn't know about this story, Mr Tolley?"

"Please, call me Dick. No, not a thing. My grandfather never said a word about what happened to the manor house. That he came from Steeple Heyston, I know only because my father saved grandpappy's naturalization papers. That's about all he left the family, apart from this signet ring," Tolley said, showing off the gold ring with the family crest incised into its flat surface.

His grandfather had been rich - he'd owned a large house on the Upper West Side of New York, and had never needed to work - but had squandered most of his fortune on bad business deals, and what was left had been lost in the Wall Street Crash. After the war, Tolley's father had built up a real estate business from scratch, but he'd blown every cent on horses and poker, and shot himself as his creditors were closing in. All Tolley had inherited had been the signet ring, a few family papers, and a careless attitude toward money; most of his arguments with Rachel had been about money.

"Ten years after the accident," Gerald Beaumont said, "there was a fire in the manor house. The mill burned down at the same time. The manor house and the mill were the only reasons the village existed. They weren't rebuilt, and the people in the village drifted away."

"I guess that was when my family came to the States," Tolley said.

Marjorie Beaumont got to her feet. "I'll make another pot of tea. You'll have a cup before you go."

"Traffic's bad this time of night," Gerald Beaumont said as he carefully filed away his photograph album. "If you wait thirty minutes the worst of the rush hour will be over."

"I appreciate it. I'm still not used to driving on the wrong side of the road, and your traffic circles scare me silly."

The collie, which all the while had been dozing under the murmuring television, scrambled up, looked at the door of the lounge and made a low noise that was half-whimper, half-growl. Then there was the sound of crockery smashing. Gerald Beaumont hurried out, and Tolley followed.

Marjorie Beaumont was standing in the middle of the small, brightly-lit kitchen, one hand pressed against her throat. Her husband asked what the matter was, and she pointed at the window. Her hand trembled. Backed by night, the two letters traced in an ornamental script on the steamy glass, a linked O and R, were clearly visible.

"I saw it happen," Marjorie Beaumont said in a small voice. Her lavender cardigan had slipped from her shoulders and lay on the floor. Her husband put an arm around her, and she added, "I didn't ever think it would come here. I'm sorry, Mr Tolley, but I think you ought to go."

Driving back to Oxford, the headlights of homeward-bound commuters flashing by on what still seemed like the wrong side of the road, Tolley began to think that the Beaumonts had set him up: Marjorie Beaumont had told him her ghost story, given herself an excuse to go out of the room and write those the two letters in the steam on the kitchen window, and then deliberately dropped a cup and given that Oscar-winning performance. Maybe they were a couple of crazies who liked to put on a little act for strangers; maybe it was to prepare him for an offer, in exchange for a fat fee, to exorcise the place, or to conjure up the ghosts of his ancestors. In any case, Tolley resolved to have nothing more to do with them.

First thing the next morning, he found an express photographic developer that promised to process his film in three hours, then walked through a modern shopping arcade to the town's library and spent a couple of hours browsing in the local history section. He read several accounts of the railway accident, all more or less confirming Marjorie Beaumont's confabulation, and found a book on lost villages that gave a good precis of the history of Steeple Heyston. It was mentioned in the Domesday Book and had been a thriving agricultural village until the sixteenth century, when it had been badly hit by the plague. Tolley's ancestors had confiscated much of the surrounding land by shrewd use of the enclosure acts, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, Steeple Heyston had been no more than a hamlet of some forty souls, dependent upon its wool mill. Then there had been the two fires Gerald Beaumont had mentioned, arson suspected but no one arrested, and after that a swift decline. The last cottage had been demolished a few years after the Second World War, although it seemed that the church was still occasionally used.

Tolley couldn't find any mention of ghosts, or of why his grandfather had quit the ancestral home. He'd have to check the archives of the local newspaper, and the county records, he thought, and pocketed his notes and went out to look for some lunch. Away from the old buildings of the university, Oxford was much like any other English market town. Laden shoppers moved past long lines waiting for double-decked buses. Street performers strummed guitars or juggled in shop doorways. At the Carfax crossroads, a Salvation Army band was playing carols beneath a huge plastic Santa Claus strung high in the cold air. Tolley found a McDonald's and hungrily devoured a double cheeseburger with all the trimmings and washed it down with a strawberry milkshake. Looking through the plate-glass window toward the tower of Christ Church, poised like a spaceship beyond the gloomy stone pile of the town hall, he decided that he'd done enough work for one day. He spent the rest of the afternoon checking off the minor colleges he'd missed the first time around, then fought his way through the crowds to the photographic shop.

After the assistant handed him the envelope, Tolley opened it straight away. There were the half dozen snaps he'd taken before leaving London, several of Oxford, including the picture of the four-poster bed in his hotel room that he intended to mail to his soon-to-be-ex-wife, but none of Steeple Heyston. One of the strips of developed film was cloudily blotched. Tolley showed it to the shop assistant, a teenager with streaks bleached into her hair. "It looks like you've made some kind of mistake processing this."

"I dunno, it's all done by computers and stuff. Maybe your camera's broke."

"Let me speak to your manager."

"She won't be in until the day after tomorrow," the girl said, adding, as if it explained everything, "It's Christmas, see."

After a supper of steak and kidney pie and several pints of bitter in a public house, Tolley returned to his hotel, intending to make an early night of it. As soon as he opened the door, a dense smell of burning, thick as molasses, hit him. There was no smoke, no sign of any kind of fire, but his case and its contents, mostly underwear, lay on the floor and the quilt and sheets had been pulled from the four-poster bed. His first thought was that the room had been burgled, but his passport and plane ticket were sitting on the night table, next to his Walkman and pile of CDs. And then he noticed the carpet under the window. Scraped into the pile were the letters O and R, linked with the same flourish as the letters in the steam on the Beaumonts' kitchen window.

Gerald Beaumont looked genuinely surprised when he opened the door and found Tolley on his doorstep. Tolley gave the man his best smile, said, "I want some pictures of Steeple Heyston to show the folks back home, but my camera has broken and it can't be repaired here. I was passing by, and remembered your wonderful photographs, and wondered if you'd mind giving me a little help . . . ?"

He'd worked up this plan over a couple of double Scotches in the hotel bar last night. Either the Beaumonts were hounding him for some crazy reason, had bribed the photographic shop to ruin his film, had gained access to his hotel room and burnt some kind of stink bomb in the wastebin and tracing the interlinked letters in the carpet with the heel of a shoe, all of which was more or less completely unbelievable, or there was something to the story about the ghosts of victims of an old railway accident. He didn't believe that, either, but he wanted to return to Steeple Heyston in daylight to look around the church and satisfy himself that the figure he thought he'd seen was nothing more than a trick of shadows and twilight, and it seemed to him that the best way to find out if the Beaumonts really were trying to work some trick or scam on him was to take one or both of them to Steeple Heyston, see if they rose to the bait.

He said, "I'll pay whatever it costs, of course."

"I'd be delighted," Gerald Beaumont said.

Behind him, Marjorie Beaumont came out of the lounge and said, "Surely you're not thinking of going back to Steeple Heyston, Mr Tolley? You've already disturbed something that's best left alone."

"Stuff and nonsense," Gerald Beaumont said amiably, and winked at Tolley. "She still isn't over her little shock."

"If that had anything to do with me," Tolley said disingenuously, "you must let me know how I can make it up to you."

"We invited you here in the first place," Marjorie Beaumont said stiffly. "I suppose that it isn't your fault that you brought an unexpected guest with you."

As he drove away from the cottage, Tolley said to Gerald Beaumont, "I hope I haven't upset your wife."

"It doesn't take much sometimes. Last time she went to Steeple Heyston, a couple of years ago it was, she fainted dead away. She's always been sensitive to what she calls atmospheres."

Tolley saw an opportunity to plant his baited hook. "When I was at Steeple Heyston, I saw what looked like a man, standing in what I guess were the ruins of the old mill. At the time, I thought it was just a trick of the light, but now I'm not so sure. Maybe it was a ghost. If this place was somehow responding to me, could your wife do anything about it?"

"She's sensitive to atmospheres," Gerald Beaumont said, "and that's all there is to it. She isn't a medium, she doesn't channel spirits or any of that nonsense."

"You invited me to your home in the first place, Mr Beaumont, and told me your ghost story. It was never my intention to upset your wife."

"Aye, well, like Marjorie said, it wasn't your fault. But if I may speak plainly, Mr Tolley, I don't want her upset again. If you're looking for some mumbo-jumbo exorcism, I'm sure there are plenty of people who'll be more than happy to take your money, but don't think of asking Marjorie. If that's the only reason you came back to see us, you can let me out right now. I can easily walk home from here."

"I really do want some good photographs of the place," Tolley said.

Gerald Beaumont smiled. "And I'm sure you could take them yourself, but our story has made you nervous of going there alone, and I'm a daft old man who's easily flattered into helping you."

Tolley smiled too, disarmed by the man's direct manner, and admitted, "Something like that."

Gerald Beaumont said, "Miners are as superstitious as sailors, and like it or not, I suppose a bit of that rubbed off on me. I don't believe in ghosts, but some places do have an atmosphere to them. Down in the mines, there are galleries you didn't like to be alone in, old workings with a funny feel to them. Maybe places can be affected by things that have happened in them, if you follow me. That would be your ghosts, you see. That would be what Marjorie picks up."

Tolley thought of the initials scrawled in the steam on the kitchen window of the Beaumont's cottage, in the carpet in his room. It wasn't a feeling, a sense of place, that had done that. And if it hadn't been anything to do with the Beaumonts . . .

Frost lay in the hollows of the rough meadow at Steeple Heyston; a light mist floated above the river. Tolley felt a little frisson of anticipation when he saw the stub of wall amongst the scrubby trees on the far bank, but in the cold flat daylight it seemed quite ordinary. He asked Gerald Beaumont to take a couple of photographs of it, waiting patiently as the older man fitted the appropriate lens to his battered old Cannon and fussed with a handheld light meter. The frost made the contours of the ground easy to read; Tolley could make out the long strips of an ancient field system beyond the ruins of the mill. Everything was quiet and still, the solitude emphasised when a long goods train trundled past.

"It's always a lonely place," Gerald Beaumont remarked, echoing Tolley's thoughts. "But it's not as bleak as this in summer. There are wild flowers all over the place, boats on the river . . . People will punt all the way up from Oxford to picnic here."

They walked across the meadow to the line of trees and the scattered remnants of the manor house. Gerald Beaumont leaned on his walking stick every other step (he had a touch of arthritis, he said, because of the damp weather) and labouriously took several photographs while Tolley huddled inside his Burberry and stamped his frozen feet. In the churchyard, Gerald Beaumont showed Tolley the stone pyramid that commemorated the railway accident, led him under a dark green yew where two gravestones stood apart from the others, their brief inscriptions blotted by lichen.

"Those are the buggers that are causing the trouble, according to local legend. Doesn't look like much by daylight, does it?"

"Your wife said something about a woman," Tolley said.

"There's a man and a woman buried here. Two strangers who were killed in the accident, who were buried here because no one could identify them, no one would claim their bodies. And that's all there is to it, Mr Tolley."

While Gerald Beaumont photographed from every angle the pyramidal memorial, Tolley tried the door of the little church. The iron handle was so stiff he thought for a moment the place was locked; then it gave, and the door creaked open.

It was colder inside the church than outside. Tolley shivered inside his Burberry, taking in the pews either side of the aisle, the plain pulpit and the draped altar beyond. Tablets were set in the rough stone walls. One listed the names of those killed in the Great War, another mentioned a Victorian incumbent of the parish, the next was marked with the same crest that was incised in Tolley's signet ring and memorialised Alfred Tolley, squire of this parish, and his wife Evangeline, both dead in the same year, 1886. The year the manor house and the paper mill had burned down. There were other memorials to members of Tolley's family amongst the uneven flagstones of the floor; as he studied them, he thought he heard the door creak open and said, "How about a few photos of these, Mr Beaumont?"

There was no reply. Tolley looked around, saw that he was alone, the door was closed, heard a distant, drawn-out metallic screech, smelt the same, gritty, sulphurous stench he'd encountered in his hotel room, suddenly so thick he couldn't catch his breath. His first step turned into a stagger, and then he ran, wrenching the door open, bursting out into the bleak daylight. Gerald Beaumont was squatting on his heels near the gate in the hedgerow, preparing to photograph a headstone. Tolley walked up to him and said, as casually as he could manage, "Did you hear something just then?"

Click. Gerald Beaumont looked up from his camera, asked what he meant.

"I don't know. Like . . . no, forget it. Maybe we should quit. It's so cold I can't feel my feet."

Tolley's hands were shaking. He couldn't stop them shaking, and jammed them into the pockets of his Burberry. He thought of a tape recorder, a hidden speaker. . . .

Gerald Beaumont said, "Did you see the memorials to your family in the church? I've a good flash attachment, I could take some nice pictures of them if you want."

The last thing Tolley wanted to do was to go back inside the church. "It was good of you to come all the way out here," he said, "but I have a touch of jet-lag. I should get back to my hotel, catch up on my sleep."

As he and Gerald Beaumont walked through the line of trees and crossed the wide space of rough grass beyond, Tolley felt that something huge and implacable looming behind him, as in one of those horrible dreams from which you wake bathed in cold sweat. It was all he could do not to break into a run, and as he drove off, he startled Gerald Beaumont by popping the clutch and spinning the wheels of the Volkswagen, as if he were a teenager again, burning rubber in the drive of his girlfriend's house.

As they drove back to South Heyston, Tolley thanked Gerald Beaumont for his trouble, refused the ritual offer of a cup of tea, and said that he'd better head straight back for Oxford.

"You'd better give me your address, Mr Tolley. I'll make some contact prints and send them to you, and you can choose which ones you'd like done properly."

"That's very kind, Mr Beaumont, but if you give me the film, I can get it developed in town. I'll pay you for it, of course."

"You don't owe me anything, Mr Tolley. It's only a roll of film. I'll just pop in my darkroom and unload it. Are you sure you won't come in and have a cup of tea? Marjorie baked another batch of those butter cakes you liked so much the last time."

"If it's all the same, I think I should head straight back." Tolley felt a little calmer now. He'd take the film and take off, he thought, and never come back.

When Tolley pulled up outside the cottage, the collie dog was barking behind the gate to its small front garden. Gerald Beaumont climbed out of the car, calling to it, then suddenly pushed through the gate and gimped quickly up the path to where his wife sat on the step of the front door, knelt beside her and put his arm around her shoulders. Tolley climbed out, walked slowly toward them, dread thumping in his heart, hardly noticing the dog that danced about in a frenzy of excitement.

Marjorie Beaumont's glossy black hair was tumbled around her face. Her hands were covered in what look like drying blood and there were white handprints on her black slacks and cardigan. She looked up at Tolley through her shroud of hair and said, "I saw him."

Gerald Beaumont, his face stiff and pinched, "Let it lie, Mr Tolley. Let it lie and leave us be."

"Orlando Richards," Marjorie Beaumont said, and turned into her husband's embrace and began to sob.

It was past two o'clock when Tolley arrived back in Oxford. He left the Volkswagen in the hotel's car park, found a public house in nearby Broad Street, and bought a cheese roll mummified in cling film and a pint of bitter. He was scared and angry. Something had torn up his hotel room, had let him know its name through Marjorie Beaumont . . . what would it do next? More importantly, why did it have anything to do with him in the first place? He hadn't chosen his ancestors -- why should he be blamed for what one of them did more than a hundred years ago? And besides, Marjorie Beaumont was the one who believed in ghosts, atmospheres, and all the rest of that nonsense. Maybe she'd brought all this upon herself, Tolley thought, knowing that it was uncharitable, maybe she'd woken whatever it was that was persecuting them both. The ghost of a man. O.R. Orlando Richards.

He finished his pint and the cheese roll, which sat in his stomach like a cannonball, found a taxi in outside the rank near the hotel, and asked the driver to take him to the newspaper offices.

"Mail or Times, mate?"

"Whichever is the oldest."

That turned out to be the Oxford Times, which occupied a seedy office block in a seedy industrial estate beyond the railroad station. Tolley's business card got him past the receptionist to a young, friendly reporter, who listened to his story about researching family history, and showed him the cubbyhole where the microfilm reader was kept and introduced him to the secretary in charge of the newspaper's archives.

Finding articles about the train wreck was easy enough because Tolley knew the exact date. The news reports were prolix and soberly sensational, and those about the train wreck took up most of the next day's edition of the newspaper, but Tolley quickly spotted a reference to the body of an unknown gentleman burnt alive in the first carriage of the wrecked passenger train, a silver snuff box bearing the initials O.R. the only surviving form of identification. The police had 'believed him to be a man of some thirty years, some five feet six inches in height and of average build,' and asked anyone who might know who he was to report in person to the coroner's court in Oxford, or their nearest police station. Further down there was a briefer mention of an unknown woman, no more than twenty years old, who had died like several others at the scene of the tragedy, her purse 'containing no more than the stub for a Third-Class Railway Ticket from London to Birmingham, and eighteen pence in small coins.'

Tolley had to scan a whole year's worth of microfilmed back issues to find the report about the 'Tragic fire at Steeple Heyston' which had killed his great-grandfather and great-grandmother. The first fire had started in the kitchen of the manor house, and when that was burning well and when 'the attention of everyone in the vicinity was occupied upon saving its inhabitants', a second fire had been set in the mill. Tolley followed the story through succeeding editions of then newspaper. There were the death notices of Tolley's great-grandparents, from which Tolley learnt that his great-grandfather had fought and won several cases brought against him by relatives of those who had died in the 'railway tragedy' at Steeple Heyston. A maid claimed that the manor house had been troubled by small fires caused by falling candles, or candles flaring up unexpectedly, or fires collapsing from their grates. More prosaically, a man was arrested for setting the fires, the son of a woman who had died in the train wreck; two days later, he was found hanged in his cell.

Tolley borrowed a phone and a telephone directory. When Gerald Beaumont answered, Tolley started to tell him what he'd found, but Gerald Beaumont said, "I don't want to hear anything more about it, Mr Tolley. Don't you think you've caused enough trouble?"

"It isn't me, it's this dead guy. Orlando Richards. He was killed in the train wreck, he was never properly buried. Maybe he possessed the guy who set those fires, but I don't think so. I don't think he wants revenge. I think he was trying to tell your wife -- "

"I think you should leave Marjorie out of this, Mr Tolley."

"I'm sorry. I forgot to ask how she was."

"Sleeping now. Our GP came round and gave her something to help her sleep."

"Do you know what happened?"

"She thought she glimpsed someone through the kitchen window, but she can't remember anything after that." Gerald Beaumont paused, then said, "She left the kitchen in a bit of a state. Wrote those two letters everywhere in tomato sauce, in flour . . . But I cleaned it all up, and she's resting now, she doesn't want to be disturbed. It's all very well for you -- you can just run away back to America. We have to live with whatever it is you've disturbed."

"Me? I didn't do anything but come here."

"Aye, well," the man said truculently."

"I don't suppose by any chance you're Catholic, or you know someone who is Catholic?"

"I'm Church of England, Mr Tolley, which in this country means you can believe in God and all the rest, or you go to church once a year for the carols, like I do. If you're thinking of arranging an exorcism, or any other kind of mumbo-jumbo, forget about it."

"Orlando Richards was never properly buried, but he made his name known to us. Perhaps all he wants -- "

"Let it lie, Mr Tolley. Maybe, when you're gone, things will calm down," Gerald Beaumont said, and cut the connection.

Tolley decided to change his room, just in case, but the desk clerk politely but firmly told him that it was impossible, the hotel was fully booked.

"Don't tell me," Tolley said. "It's Christmas."

"If you're unhappy here, sir, I could try to book you into another hotel, or perhaps a Bed and Breakfast would suit."

"I guess I'll have to manage," Tolley said.

He had just one more night here, and then he was due to travel to London -- surely he would not be followed there. Maybe Gerald Beaumont was right, maybe things would calm down after he left. If they didn't, well, it was no longer Tolley's problem. He'd tried his best, it wasn't his fault the old guy wouldn't listen.

Tolley ate a solitary dinner in the reassuringly expensive restaurant, treating himself to a bottle of Chablis that cost twice as much as the food, and a glass of fifty-year-old Cognac that cost more than the wine, then moved on to the bar, where he drank several double scotches and smoked a Cuban cigar and fell into conversation with a married couple from Idaho -- she had majored in architectural history, and was in her element, showing Tolley every photograph of Oxford she had taken with her brand new digital camera while her husband grumbled about the six-hour journey from London to Oxford on a train that was unheated and made long unscheduled stops in the middle of nowhere, grumbled about shop assistants who were either surly or obsequious but never helpful, dribbling plumbing, the litter and graffiti in town centres . . . in short, the lack of all the comforts of any truly civilised country. He was the living caricature of a Yank abroad, appalled by his discovery that foreign countries aren't anything at all like the good old US of A, but Tolley cheerfully agreed with everything he said and added a few stories of his own, including the anecdote about his ruined film and a tale about a crazy old couple that grew more and more difficult to tell without mentioning ghosts.

"The point is," Tolley said, when he realized that he had lost the thread, "people like to think that all Americans are stupid and rich, and I'm neither." He meant it as a joke, but it left him feeling sorry for himself, and led him to talk about the way his family had selfishly squandered its wealth and left him with nothing, and about the way he was making sure that he spent as much as possible on this trip so that all his soon-to-be-ex-wife and her lawyer would get out of him was half of an enormous credit-card bill. His new friends, suddenly restless, declared that they had to turn in because they were headed for Stratford-upon-Avon tomorrow, and Tolley was left alone with the barman, who made a point, after he served one more double scotch, of rattling down the security grill at the other end of the bar.

It was after midnight. The noise of the key turning in the lock of the door to Tolley's room was loud in the deserted corridor, and despite the warm blanket of booze that muffled his thoughts, he had a nasty moment groping for the light switch, remembering an account, surely the world's shortest ghost story, of how someone had awoken with a start and groped for matches to light a candle -- and felt something place them in his hand. The light came on, revealing his suitcase on its stand, the four-poster bed tightly made, one corner turned back and a chocolate wrapped like a gold medallion on the plumped pillow. Even the initials scraped into the carpet pile had been erased when the maid had vacuumed the room.

Tolley looked inside the wardrobe in case a spook was hiding there, checked the lock on the window, dropped his clothes in a heap and crawled into the cool shelter of the bed. Reckless with Dutch courage, he even switched off the light.

He was woken by the shrill ring of the phone beside his bed. He groped for it without turning on the light, pressed the handset to his ear without raising his head from his pillow. Gerald Beaumont's voice said, "Tolley?"

"What's up?" The digital clock in the bedside radio told him that it was half past six in the morning. His teeth and tongue felt as if they had been rubbed in ashes and he knew that he was still drunk, and that he was going to pay for it pretty soon.

"I didn't want to ring you, but there's no one else I can turn to," Gerald Beaumont said. "You're involved. You understand. It's Marjorie. She left."

"Left?"

"Left the cottage. She was sleeping in the spare bedroom. I got up just now, and she isn't there."

Tolley sat up and switched on the bedside lamp. He was wide awake, and his heart was beating quickly and lightly. "Call the police, Mr Beaumont. I'm sure they'll help you find her."

"I know where she's gone, and so do you. And if I have to go to the police for help, I'll have to tell them about you, and Steeple Heyston."

"If that's a threat, Mr Beaumont, it isn't much of one. I'll help look for her, but we need to call the police too."

"No," Gerald Beaumont said firmly. "We don't. She had . . . a problem a few years ago. She thought there was going to be an accident at the mine. She said she saw dead people who told her that one of the drifts was going to collapse. She was very badly affected by it, and she had to be put in a place where she could rest for a little while."

"Jesus."

"That's partly why we came here, to get away from all that. That's why I'm not going to the police, why I'll deal with it myself if I have to."

"And the mine . . . did it collapse?"

"As a matter of fact it did, but it was during the strike and no one was down there at the time. This new thing, it started after you went to Steeple Heyston, Mr Tolley. If something . . . if Marjorie is hurt, do you think it will stop with her? I'm going over there now. I expect to see you."

A small hatchback car was parked in the space at the end of the track to Steeple Heyston, and the gate in the hedge stood open. Tolley left the headlights of his Volkswagen on and climbed out and called to Gerald Beaumont. The darkness swallowed his voice. It was bitterly cold, dawn a curdled grey buried deep in the clouds beyond the railway embankment. He stepped up to the gate, frosty grass crackling under his shoes, and scanned the hummocky meadow where the village had once stood, but there was no sign of anyone. Tolley went back to the car and sounded the horn, went back to the gate and called Gerald Beaumont's name again, and as he reluctantly started across rough ground toward the line of trees around the ruins of the manor house saw something small run out of the darkness there, run straight toward him. He froze, his blood knocking heavily in his chest: but it was only the Beaumonts' collie. It stopped halfway and started to bark, and Tolley went toward it, saying, "Good boy, good boy. Where's your owner? Where is that son of a bitch?"

The dog whined, turned back toward the trees. When it saw that Tolley wasn't following, it started to bark again.

Tolley called Gerald Beaumont's name again, and heard, faint and far off, a harsh squealing, metal on metal. Every hair on the back of his neck rose as a kind of tide of coldness swept up his body. A black figure stood on top of the embankment, small but distinct against the advancing light of dawn. It was still for a moment, then seemed to swoop down the steep slope, moving as swiftly as a gliding bird across the meadow toward the gate, cutting off Tolley's line of retreat was cut off. He turned and ran toward the trees, the dog following at his heels for a few moments, then breaking away. Tolley ran on, breathing hard and hardly daring to look back, nothing in his head but the thudding of his pulse and the blind imperative to flee, flee before the thing was upon him. He ran straight through the clump of trees, blundered through the church gate. Gravel scattered under his flying feet; he slammed against the heavy wooden door, wrenched at the handle.

It gave. Tolley stumbled through the door and slammed it shut, found the iron bolt and pushed it home just as something crashed into the door on the other side. A great wind got up around the church. Something fell with a clatter, and a thick stench of burning began to fill the black air. Tolley found the book of matches he'd taken from the hotel bar, lit one and held it up, saw that the little square of hardboard that had patched the broken window had fallen in, and then a gust of foul air whirled around him and blew out the match. He lit another at once, cupping it in his hand. To be alone in the dark was intolerable.

Whatever was on the other side of the door began to turn the handle back and forth. Tolley retreated, and something struck the back of his knees before toppling to the stone flags. The match stung his fingers and he dropped it and lit another. He'd knocked over a bench. A pile of books that had been stacked on one end lay at his feet. Prayer books. He picked one up; its limp cover fanned like the wings of a dead bird. He knew then what he had to do.

First, he had to have light.

He took one of the thick candles from the altar and used several matches to get it alight. All the while, the wind howled and keened, and the hammering at the door never let up. Tolley scrabbled through the thin pages of the prayer book until he came to the Service for the Burial of the Dead, and began.

The wind did not die as he read the first psalm, but the banging of the door became staccato and uncertain, and ceased entirely when he reached the middle of the lesson. As he read on, the howl of the wind dropped away to a mumbling moan that seemed at times to break into words. Danger, danger. And as he read, it seemed that he was no longer alone in the church, that a dark shadow occupied the middle of the front pew. He didn't dare to lift his eyes from the page as he read, but the shadow tugged at the corner of his vision, undefined, insubstantial, but definitely there.

And then, his throat dry, Tolley came to the end of the lesson, and realised that he would have to read the last part at the grave. When he hesitated, the wind rose again and the candle flame guttered flat and almost went out. There was nothing for it: the forms had to be gone through.

The shadow melted from the pew as, holding the candle before him, Tolley walked down the aisle and fumbled with the heavy bolt that fastened the door. It slid back. He turned the handle, jerked the door open.

Wind blew in his face, blew the candle flame sideways.

As he walked through the overgrown graveyard to the isolated pair of gravestones beneath the yew, Tolley felt a kind of pressure at his back, but steeled himself not to look around. He faced the two graves and by the light of the candle began to read the final part of the service.

"Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of His great mercy to take unto Himself the soul of Orlando Richards, here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground. . . ."

As he read, the words became more than words: every one a weight that had to be lifted and laid, each a single stone in the solemn edifice he was constructing. He came to the final prayer and, despite his aching throat, read it loudly, triumphantly. After the final amen, he heard, far off in the winter dawn -- for it was dawn now, although still so dark that he could distinguish no colours -- a cock crowing, the traditional end to a night of magic. Tolley blew out the candle and, with the blunt edge of his car key, inscribed the name Orlando Richards on the headstone.

It's over, he thought, as he walked away from the church. I've done my duty, atoned for what my great-grandfather did. As he went through the narrow belt of trees, skirting past the ruined chimney of the manor house, the collie came bounding toward him, barking frantically, dancing around Tolley and running back toward the ruins, turning and barking. Tolley followed it.

"What is it, boy? Quiet now. Where's your master?"

And then he saw Gerald Beaumont.

The man's body was slumped in a tangle of rose-briars at the base of the tall chimney stack. His face was a mess of blood and bone, but Tolley recognised the Norfolk jacket, and the flat cap that lay in stiff weeds beside him.

Tolley turned aside and threw up. As he straightened, wind blew around him out of nowhere, rattling the bare branches of the surrounding trees. Tolley pulled off his signet ring and flung it away and screamed, "Leave me alone!" but the wind gathered itself into a scream and whirled a toppling tower of dead leaves around him. He started to run, the collie chasing at his heels. Wind winnowed frosty tufts of grass, whirled leaves into the shape of a human figure before collapsing and blowing on, always in front of Tolley, who remembered now what Marjorie Beaumont had said about the ghosts of women, that they were stronger than those of men. And their hate was stronger, too, strong enough to last a century even after the object of her hate had fled its first malignant flowering, strong enough to destroy Beaumont, poor bastard, who had only been at the edge of things. The ghost of Orlando Richards had not been the danger after all. He had died in the burning train wreck, and nothing Tolley's great-grandfather had or hadn't done would have saved him. Perhaps he had been trying to warn Tolley and the Beaumonts; perhaps he had somehow restrained the ghost of the woman who had died in the same accident. And now Tolley had laid him to rest.

Panting, Tolley pushed through the gate, saw with dull shock the figure waiting beside his car. For a moment he thought that his heart would stop; then the dog bounded ahead, and he realised that it was Marjorie Beaumont, and he wondered how he could tell her about her husband. But then she spoke, her voice halting and heavy. It was her voice, but Tolley knew at once that she was not using it.

"Here's your inheritance."

The bloody head of the walking stick caught the first light of the sun when she swung it at him.

Afterword
(written for the version of this novelette first republished on this site in 1997; the current version of 'Inheritance' has been revised since then)

'Inheritance' was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1988 and has not been published since; I'm pleased to be able to revive it. It was written while I was living in Oxford, and two things in it are true: the lost village with its ruined mill and burnt-down manor house (although I've changed the name); and the railway accident. Some of the initial ruffles of the haunting were drawn from a local newspaper story; I leave it to the reader to decide which are reported and which invented.

With regard to ghosts, my position is that of Gerald Beaumont. We respond to places, and ghosts spring from our response. And we respond to any place which was once inhabited in a different way to places which have always been wilderness. The latter we say are empty because they have no human history, and it is human history, the traces of the passage of people like us, to which we are most sensitive. Despite its American protagonist (who shares some of my own culture shock: I returned to Oxford after two years in Los Angeles) this is a very English ghost story. It deliberately echoes those of the doyen of English ghost story writers, M R James, although James was a Cambridge man, and would, of course, never have written about Oxford.

Almost every square metre of England is resonant with past lives, but the most peculiarly haunted place I have encountered is a little canyon, Walnut Canyon, in the arid forests near Flagstaff, Arizona. Here, a few miles from the observatory where Lowell believed he saw traces of habitation on the disc of far distant Mars (the ghosts of his imagination have haunted SF writers ever since), there are the remains of Indian dwellings tucked into ledges eroded from softer strata in the steep cliff faces. It is a quiet, peaceful place. Its inhabitants were hunter gatherers, and would not have needed to work hard to find food. Think of them singing to each other, in the blue desert evening, from one side of the winding canyon to the other, harmonising with the echoes of their own voices. If they left behind ghosts, they are content to rest, and watch the sunlight move across the face of the cliffs and the turkey vultures wheel in the high clear air as they wheeled when the ghosts were alive.

But that is another story.


© Paul McAuley 1988, 2007.
This story was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1988.

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