Paula R C Readman
Leaping Legend (Badger Beers)
I felt no warmth as I lay huddled under my trench coat against the bitter cold wind, wanting nothing more than to return home. The weather seemed on change as the strength of the wind grew enough to sweep the clouds away.
I turned my aching head towards the heavens. The night sky revealed its magnificence to me in a multitude of stars that I could almost reach out and touch.
Though I had my sleeping comrades-in-arms close by, I felt alone. I scanned the array of galaxies, focusing on the constellations, hunting for the twins, Pollux and Caster. On finding them together for all eternity, a tear slipped down my cheek as thoughts of my older brother, by two minutes, Osbert filled my mind. On seeing Gemini rising, I longed to be back at his side in the landscape of our birth where we drew our first breath together.
As the night wore on, I grew as restless as the wind with its constant complaining. It shook and rattled everything in its path as it raced across the land. I closed my eyes find it hard not to inhale the stench of death. I wondered what the wind had to complain about when it had such freedom to go wherever it pleased.
When the time came for my leaving, it was as unexpected as my arrival. Exhausted by the battle in a foreign land that was not mine, I was glad to be going home, and travelled by whatever means was available to me as I made my way across Europe.
I was relieved to be back on English soil, though I knew my journey was only just beginning. I took the first available train heading out of London, and found myself in the compartment with a white-haired old gentleman, dressed in tweeds, who sat nodding asleep. Careful not to disturb him, I took the window seat.
Weary, not just from the journey I had made, but worn out from the fear of facing my father after his reaction to my leaving. As strange as it may seem to others after the terrors I had faced when I heard the sounds of dying men’s screams in the name of freedom, I should fear facing my father far more.
I closed my eyes briefly, rested my head against the cold glass. The rattling of the train as it gathered speed made me recall the angry words my father and I had exchanged.
“Then go, my son, fight your battle in the Balkans if you must, but remember; for whom the gods love dies young.”
With that, he turned and walked away. I couldn’t understand why he was against my going. We were young men who were about to stand and fight for freedom.
In the end, he would not listen to me, or I to my brother’s plead. To prove them all wrong, I followed my friends into hell.
As the train raced towards my destination, I watched the city fade from view until tiredness washed over me. On closing my eyes, I found myself back among the horrors, as the sounds of my friends’ laughter became the screams of reality as one by one they lost their lives.
Suddenly, drawn away from my nightmare, I woke to find someone tapping on my shoulder. The gentleman seated opposite was using his walking stick to get my attention. I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand, and apologised for my dreams disturbing his peace.
His soft sympathetic brown eyes held mine as he shook his head, “Fear not lad, it’s I who disturbs you, but only to let you know we’ve reached your destination.”
I straightened up and said, “Sorry, but . . . how did you know?”
He smiled kindly. “There’s no mystery, young sir. I overheard you at the ticket office.”
I shook my head, a little puzzled. I tried to recall buying a ticket, but found only a blur of half-evoked thoughts and feelings in my exhausted mind. I dismissed it concerned only with my father’s reaction on seeing my return.
My journey home was quicker than I had expected. Instead of arriving early the next morning, it was late afternoon when I alighted at our rural station. I found it quite deserted apart from the old stationmaster, whom I was sure had retired many years ago.
He seemed to study me for a moment, a stranger standing so forlorn on his platform. Then his face brightened, “Goodness me, is it really you, young Charles Ratcliffe. My, haven’t you grown.”
“War changes you, sir. A boy doesn’t remain for long on a battlefield.”
His watery eyes narrowed in bewilderment, “A battlefield?”
“Yes, the Balkan wars, sir.”
With a slow nod, his eyes met mine, “Your father will be right pleased to have you home. It will spare him the not knowing what had become of you.”
I smiled politely, “It may’ve spared him, but many others have been robbed of good men who have died for what they believed in.”
He lowered his cap and said, “Too true, young sir.” After a nervous hesitation, he asked, “I’m sorry there isn’t anyone here to meet you, were you expected today?”
I glanced at the station clock and was puzzled to see it had stopped at two o’clock.
“Are you all right, young Charles?”
I turned and smiled an apology, “Just a little weary, I guess. My return was unexpected, giving me no time to let them know. ”
He smiled kindly, “May I wish you, God’s speed as you make your final journey homeward.”
I left the station on foot. After an hour, I paused to take in the view. Everything was exactly as I remembered it. Far below, a cluster of sandstone buildings gathered beside an old stone bridge. The fertile land deep within a valley had for generations been home to my ancestors who had lived and worked the lands all around.
“Your final journey homewards,” I muttered, echoing the station master’s words. Suddenly the sunlight caught the water’s surface making it sparkle so brightly it dazzled me, blinding me briefly as the sound of rooks and crows filled the air.
Being the youngest of three sons neither the Jacobean hall, nor its land would be mine to inherit. Generations ago, things might have been different; my brothers may have fallen foul of childhood illnesses, a death on some distance battlefield or even an irate husband as befallen some of my predecessors.
I wondered for a moment whether my family had received my last letter, telling them that I was well after receiving their shocking news about the death of my oldest brother, Robert.
It had shocked me to the core. I couldn’t have believed it was possible for him to die in such a peaceful and beautiful place? To add to my misery I’d been unable to return home to attend his funeral, yet days later I find myself travelling home.
As the cawing of the circling rooks and crows bring me out of my reverie, I know if I am to reach home before the sunset, I must make haste.
For too long I’d been away from the rich English soil and now all I wanted was to feel it under my fingernails instead of blood and burning flesh.
When my father inherited the Radcliffe estate from his indebted father after he had gambled the family fortune away, he made sure his sons knew every aspect of what it took to run such a large estate. I enjoyed my time working alongside the gardeners, gamekeepers, and farm managers. To me, coming home is so much more than just asking for my father’s forgiveness. It was about returning to the place I wanted to be and to raise a family of my own.
On arriving at the front door, I was shocked to find a wreath of laurel pinned to it. The house seemed to be in darkness, though it was still too early for my family to take to their beds. I feared the worst as I reached for the door handle, but to my surprise, it swung open, and it was with a heavy heart, I entered.
The air within was heavily laden with the sweet, sickly smell of lilies. I stood for a moment puzzled by the silence. The huge grandfather clock of my childhood stood silent, yet it was something my father took pride in for its ability at keeping good time.
The only sound in the house I could hear was the black ribbons on the wreath as they fluttered in time with the wind in the trees outside. I heard no sound of my family or the servants.
Where was everyone?
Within the entrance hall, the only light available for me to see by came through the open door as I took in my surroundings. I explored further, and soon found the reason for the darkness someone had closed shutters.
Beyond an ornate screen, I found on the refectory table an open empty coffin with two large silver candlesticks alight surrounded by flowers.
My puzzlement quickly left when I realised they must have received my last letter, and had delayed Robert’s funeral until I had returned home.
On finding no one about, I went to my old familiar childhood bedroom, with its high ceiling, four-poster, and settled down to sleep; hoping that by the morning there would be a simple explanation to everything.
I was startled awake, by what, I knew not. I crossed to the window and lifted the heavy frame. Outside dark clouds raced across the horizon, adding to the sense of unease that crept over me. Threads of a vivid dream clung to me like wasps at a picnic.
In my dream, I saw my family waiting for my arrival, but instead of their smiling faces to welcome their prodigal son back home, they were dressed in their mourning clothes and in receipt of a flimsy coffin from an unfamiliar stationmaster and his guardsman. With frayed nerves, I picked up my lamp and went to search for my brother, Osbert.
I entered his bedroom, a mirror image of my own room. A lofty four-poster dominated the spacious room. Its faded tapestry canopy and curtains were now dusty with age.
Within my lamplight, the particles of dust danced as I moved across the room. My brother lay on his back; his china-blue eyes tightly shut in an unnatural deep sleep, his face, a replica of mine, with its strong nose, full mouth, and pale skin. Although, I felt chilled, sweat dampened my brother’s dark brown hair, plastering it to his fine forehead.
As I reached out to rouse him, his eyes sprung open. Something in the room shifted and I felt my brother’s eyes focused on me briefly, halting me in my action. As Osbert’s eyelids drooped, I felt time detached itself from me as a feeling of dislocation swept over me. I backed away from the bed, my heart lurched sickeningly, caught somewhere between fear and panic.
I descended the stairs in a rush. The lamp I held cast ghostly shadows across the sombre painted faces of my ancestors who stared blankly back at me as if to remind me just how fleeting time is for the living. In the hall, the sickly sweet perfume filled air seemed to choke the life out of me.
Drawn once again to the screen, I ran my fingertips over the family crest and felt an increase in my discomfort as I pushed open the gate to find someone had closed the coffin.
Shock filled my mind. Why hadn’t the noise of their carriages returning so late woken me? Surely, the sound of them closing a heavy oak coffin in such an enclosed space would’ve been enough to wake the dead.
With a heavy heart, I rested my hand upon the smooth wood. All I wanted to do was to resolve the unhappiness I had caused between father, my two brothers, and myself. At least showing my last respects to Robert now may compensate some of my foolishness, in my father's eyes.
“Fear not Charles, you’re not alone.”
On hearing the sound of Osbert’s voice, I turned, surprised that I hadn’t heard him sooner
“Osbert,” I said, as he walked towards me, “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to wake you.” I stepped back and watched as he stood as I had done with his hands resting on the coffin as though to draw comfort from it.
Then he whispered, “I’m so sorry that our last words together were spoken in anguish.”
“Oh, brother it’s not you who should apologise, but I,” I said smiling brightly; glad that we could speak openly, but I was puzzled that he didn’t meet my gaze.
“I must be strong," he continued as though I wasn’t there, “for Father needs me after losing another."
“Another?” I said, puzzled.
“Father blames himself for not being there, when the stake killed Robert outright after the wind had whipped the tarpaulin off the hayrick, and now to lose you,” he sobbed.
“No, I’m here, look,” I stepped towards him, wanting to shake him. Then I noticed a framed photograph draped in black velvet. Along side it, the family bible lay open. I knew the marked verse off by heart.
It was our favourite; understanding the love, the brothers Saul and Jonathan felt that not even death could divide them.
I pulled the cover off the photograph, knowing it was true. Remembering how the stars faded from the sky that night my head had ached so much.
“Please accept our forgiveness, Charles. Death will not part us for long,” Osbert sobbed, crossing to the stairs.
“Wait!” I called after him.
“Do not be afraid,” a voice said. “Though your brother can’t hear you, he senses you’re here.”
I turned to find the white-haired gentleman from the train standing at my side, “Who are you?”
“Fear not, I’m one of the guides sent to help restless spirits find their way home. Your time has come to leave now.”
“So it wasn’t a dream, when I saw my family gathered at the station?”
“No, it wasn’t. Accept your brother’s forgiveness; it will at last set you free, Charles.”
I nodded, feeling the peace I had longed for filling my heart. As my spirit lifted, I knew I would soon be joining Robert and my other ancestors who’d gone before.