The Gift

The Gift

I have told you of Sir Thomas Elkin Mosse and his fairy wife. After his passing his lands were split between a number of cousins and this story concerns a descendent of one of these branches of the family, one Henry Elkin.

Henry is a poor name for a passionate man, but Henry Elkin was determined to be passionate. He inherited his portion of the former Mosse estate when he was still a young man of twenty-six. This was in the eighteen-thirties when Romanticism was washing across the land and Henry took it up with enthusiasm. He married for love, so he thought, a beautiful girl of only seventeen who was as willing to give herself up to passion as was Henry. Her name was Letitia, and she was unafraid to wear her hair loose and a little wild. There is a portrait of her still hanging in Old Elkin Hall even today. She is standing on a hillside with an idealised landscape behind her and her hair flowing loose in the wind. How slender she is, how fragile. The wind might blow her away like the seeds from a dandelion clock.

So it proved. They had been married less than a year when Letitia died of a fever. Henry was distraught. As she lay in her coffin he placed into her hands a valuable family heirloom; a large gold cross studded with very fine emeralds and pearls, a jewel that had been in the family for at least two hundred years. Letitia was laid to rest in the family vault, her hands clasped around this precious jewel. A fine gesture of love.

Henry went to pieces, as a passionate Romantic ought. He began to drink. He neglected the estate. Worst of all, he began to gamble.

After a couple of years, he began to find this conduct very tiring. He also noticed that he was in financial peril.

His gambling had been satisfactorily unsuccessful, but now that he no longer felt the need to demonstrate the turmoil of his tortured soul, he began to think more fondly of money, and to cast about for some way to restore his fortune, without which he would not be able to get another wife, and he did have his eye on a particular lady.

There was one obvious solution, which gradually grew into the only solution in his mind.

He took a manservant and, for good measure and respectability, the reluctant vicar of his parish, and opened the family vault.

The vicar prayed and the servant opened the coffin. Due to the good construction of the vault repelling the damp, the body of Letitia had mummified rather than rotted and she lay, somewhat wizened, surrounded by the mass of her lovely hair, still clasping the cross.

Neither the servant nor the vicar would do what was required, so Henry was forced to retrieve the cross himself.

Letitia’s hands had dried, the tendons shrinking so that she had a firm grasp on the cross, and Henry had to use some force to take it from her. There was a loud snap as her fingers broke. Henry felt sick, but did not show it. The vicar prayed louder and the manservant winced and backed away. The cross came loose into Henry’s hands, and he had the coffin and the vault resealed.

But something followed him out of there.

Henry Elkin sent the jewelled cross to a respectable auctioneers in London where it was listed as ‘Property of a Gentleman’ and sold for a large sum — more than enough to clear his debts and restore the estate to comfortable profitability.

He was at breakfast, contemplating the letter which brought him this satisfactory news, when he heard a most uncomfortably familiar snapping sound.

‘What was that?’ he asked.

The butler, the only other person present in the room, had not heard anything at all. Henry shrugged and put the incident to the back of his mind, though he had seen, as the snap sounded, the vision of Letitia’s delicate mummified fingers breaking as he took back the symbol of his devotion from them.

Henry invested his money wisely and rebuilt his estate. He asked the suitable young lady to marry him and she said yes, but she was momentarily disconcerted by his flinch and look of alarm at her answer. It was nothing, he said, just a momentary twinge of pain from an old injury. He knew she would not have heard the snapping sound.

Each time a blessing happened to him, Henry heard that sound and saw that vision. When his wife told him that she was with child, when that child was safely born, whenever his wife said she loved him, when news of a good investment, or any other happy event occurred — snap, and he saw broken bones and flakes of dried flesh falling onto the bodice of a once-lovely gown.

His wife noticed the coincidence of these convulsions of pain and the delivery of good news. She became wary of telling him anything positive. His estate manager and butler also noticed. Gradually, all those around him withdrew from telling him good things, and thus the blight spread from him to them, all joy marred by a sound that only he could hear.

The trouble intensified until, if Henry so much as smiled, the noise sounded in his ears and the vision flooded his mind. He removed the family to London for a spell, but the trouble followed him.

He tried to discover who had bought the cross, but had no luck. Finally, his wife confronted him and forced him to explain the source of his affliction. Convinced that it was the result of a bad conscience, she commissioned a replacement cross, not as costly as the original, but quite as pretty. When it was ready, she persuaded her husband that he should open the family vault and place the facsimile into his first wife’s hands.

As Henry, his wife, the vicar and a manservant approached the vault, Henry cried out and fell to his knees, hands over his ears. He heard issuing from the family tomb the continuous sound of snapping dry bones, which did not cease, even when they took him back to the Hall.

For three days he suffered this constant torment, and at the end of the third, he evaded his watchers and hanged himself from an oak tree in the garden.

As he lay in his coffin, his wife laid the facsimile cross in his hands. She thought she saw a dark shadow as she turned away, something drifting into the coffin with her husband, and she heard a faint dry snapping sound.

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