[I presently have scant time for any new writing, but to prevent a neglected fire from going out altogether, let us stoke the embers with this partial retelling of an old Edinburgh tale. I took the original facts from Charles W Cameron’s Curiosities of Old Edinburgh (1975).]
Sir James Stanfield had been a jolly old squire from the Restoration; the sort who you always picture in breeches with a periwig and a blazing scarlet face. Yet at home his mighty pig-face became a sad, grey ham. When left alone, or with his wife, he would age in a huge step and sink into truculent melancholy. And this melancholy was so thick and firm that the wine would just scratch uselessly at the surface without leaving a mark.
The squire had dreamed of a proud, fine son and however errant the reality, the dream could never be completely dispelled. Whenever the squire encountered his only son Philip, perhaps in a corridor or under the eaves of his home at Newmills, he could not prevent himself from also imagining some spectre of the splendid military figure that Philip might have been. He would always sense this spectre standing silently to attention beside or behind the woeful original, like a bodyguard minding an effete princeling.
Philip was a wild, pathetic fellow with only a scrap for a brain. He constantly needed money and he could never account for the vast sums which he had been given. The squire finally disinherited him. He would provide a living for Philip if he ever took to the kirk, but the idea of any community welcoming Philip to their manse was bleakly comical.
One morning the squire was found dead, floating in a pond at Newmills. Philip had been back at the estate again, pestering his father for money and there was a story amongst the townspeople that the squire had found his bureau broken open and some small coins taken. The squire had done nothing to conceal his melancholy in recent years, and it was evident to the townspeople that this latest disappointment had been too bitter to swallow.
There was considerable distaste amongst the townspeople when their conceited minister had the squire buried outside the kirkyard. Neither the squire’s widow nor his daft son had expressed any unhappiness, or even apparent interest in this humiliation, and the talk was soon roaming at large like a wolf. Philip was still hanging about the estate, even though he was no longer the heir and lawyers were now searching the kingdom for the maiden niece who stood to inherit Newmills. If nobody kept a close eye on Philip, he was bound to scarper with the plate and silver.
Within a week the rumours were so extravagant and unpleasant that the minister decided to invite two surgeons from Edinburgh to reassure the townspeople that the squire had not been murdered. Sir James’ corpse was disinterred and transported to Morham Kirk. Philip made a sheepish appearance during this proceeding and he watched the surgeons undress and examine his father’s body, oblivious to the townspeople’s growing outrage. It was not pleasant to see him leering over his father’s body and smirking to himself.
“He was strangled,” reported the first of the surgeons. “You can see from this mark here on his neck.”
The second shook his head firmly. “All that mark proves is that there is a mark on his neck. I’d still say from his visage that he was drowned.”
The townspeople were hardly gratified to have the matter only half settled and an awful black sound, someway between a growl and a groan, arose from their midst. The minister quickly promised to carry the latest inconclusive intelligence to the magistrate, hoping that this would pacify the townspeople. “Let’s get the body back in the coffin,” he snapped.
James Row, a passing merchant from Edinburgh who had stopped to witness the examination, took hold of the squire’s arm and indicated to Philip to take the other. Yet as soon as Philip touched his father’s body, it emitted a distinct sigh. Most of the townspeople scambled back in panic. A bubble of blood formed slowly on the squire’s blue lips and then popped. Those surrounding Philip could plainly see that little spots had hit his hand. He raised his palm and stared at it stupidly.
The superstition was deeper and more profoundly true than any surgeon’s witterings. There was a nightmarish few minutes when Philip was ripped out of his own life and dragged across the street to the coaching inn, where the magistrate was hastily robing and slapping on his wig. Philip looked as forlorn and astonished as a songbird half shredded by a cat’s paws. The magistrate blustered, but he had little else to do than bellow “guilty!” Philip was hanged less than thirty minutes later, with spots of his father’s blood still on his hand.
[Previously on Tychy: “A Midsummer Romance.” Ed.]