“Come on, Mervyn, if the lad ever needed to speak to us it’s now.”
“Despard, you know I’ve never been comfortable around young children.”
“He’s not that young, he turned nine last month! And out of our family, you and I have had the closest to his experiences.”
“Why me and not Francis? His brother was more like...”
“He’s on his way as well. Now come along .”
Connor Murgatroyd was seated in one of the wide spiral staircases of Castle Ruddigore, head lolled back against the wall, hands idly tracing patterns on the stone floor, only vaguely aware of the two sepulchral voices carrying a conversation in the gallery below. He had been home alone for several days now, with only the ghosts of his twenty-seven ancestors for company, as his only living uncle was away on business, and his parents had been working with the Aurors at the Ministry of Magic, attempting to track down his older brother Jacob, who had recently disappeared without a trace. Rumors of Jacob's involvement in increasingly esoteric organizations had began to swirl through the Wizarding World, and Connor had no idea how to make sense of it all. In the past seven days, Connor had not brushed his hair, only changed his socks twice, and had somehow clogged the kitchen drain such that it would only allow water out of the sink if he sang sea shanties to it, and even then, it was slow. He had successfully baked several batches of scones, which were currently his sole sustenance, other than some bruised apples in the pantry. His aunt Ysabel had brought him a tureen of soup, enchanted to stay warm and to replenish itself when he emptied it, but it had celery in it. So he had mostly taken his mind off his brother’s disappearance by alternately baking and reading, hoping that some sensible news would come soon. Now, though, he stared into the middle distance, his mother’s old copy of The Fellowship of the Ring lying forgotten on the stair next to him. He missed his brother, he missed his parents, and he missed having something to do.
Maybe they’ll be back tonight, and Jacob will be with them, and everything will be ok again. Connor sighed. He had held that thought every day for the past week, but signs of Jacob hadn’t been found, and none of the Aurors had showed particular interest in talking to the younger Murgatroyd brother after confirming the details of their last correspondence, a birthday card that was currently serving as a bookmark, tucked about a third of the way through Fellowship.
The stairs creaked a bit and two figures appeared, both partially transparent and glowing very slightly blue. Connor looked up. His ancestors, the Baronets of Ruddigore, had exploded with gossip and speculation when they learned about the disappearance of one of their currently living family members, and had mostly left the quiet younger boy to his reading. “Hello Uncle Despard, Uncle Mervyn,” he greeted them, head still listlessly leaning against the stony wall.
The two ghosts made a surprising pair. Sir Mervyn was short in stature, with long, curly hair that frizzed around his wild-eyed face. He wore a pair of green-tinted goggles and a long buttoned coat that was stained with various chemical substances. A small black bat clung to his sleeve, jostling as he walked with a slight stoop.
Sir Despard, on the other hand, was tall, straight-backed, and thin, in a gray tail-coat that fanned out at the back, smart black boots, a well-groomed moustache, with a stylish silk top-hat perched atop his neatly combed hair. He was hovering several paces in front of Sir Mervyn as the two of them approached Connor. Sir Despard became slightly more corporeal as he walked, and was able to sit on the step beside Connor without floating through it or the walls, though he still retained his washed-out coloration and foggy eyes.
“We, well, I thought perhaps we ought to should speak with you, my child,” Despard began. Mervyn still stood hesitantly a few steps below them.
A third ghost drifted through the wall a few steps above Connor, dressed in a dark tunic with a ruffled collar over bicolored tights. “I apologize for my lateness, Despard, but I’m glad you found the boy.”
“Thank you for joining us, Francis. Connor, will you accompany us down to the gallery?. This stairwell has always been a bit drafty, and will be more so with us three foggy folks here.”
Connor nodded and wordlessly followed the three ghosts down to the portrait gallery, where a number of his other ancestors were active at this late hour, though several others had retired to their picture-frames. A pot of tea and plate of cheese sandwiches had been placed on the side of an oversized orange armchair, which Despard guided Connor to sit in, while the others willed themselves solid enough to perch on the ornately carved wooden chairs surrounding the small tea-table.
“Eat, now, there’s a good lad,” Sir Francis prompted, and Connor obeyed. They had somehow remembered to use his favorite brown mustard in the sandwiches, and he had soon devoured the whole plate.
Sir Despard picked up an empty mug and surveyed Connor over the rim. “You really are starting to resemble your father, you know. And your grandfather, though he took after my wife more so than me.”
“He’s still got the Murgatroyd eyes, though,” Sir Francis pointed out. “Looks a great deal like my son Conrad, in my opinion. Appropriate, I suppose, given that they nearly share a name.
Connor gazed across the room at the currently motionless portrait of his ancestor Sir Conrad Murgatroyd, who was holding up a flask and gazing at it through thick-rimmed glasses. He could see a similarity in their facial shapes, now that Francis mentioned it. Sir Conrad also shared Connor’s wavy brown hair that tended to stick up in the back.
“We’re not here to tell him who he looks like,” Sir Mervyn grumbled, idly feeding crumbs of bread to the bats that were fluttering around his head. “We’re here to tell him… well, what are we telling him?”
“Stories,” said Sir Francis.
“You’ve told me quite a lot of stories about your lives-” Connor began.
“Yes, but this time we’ve all had a shared experience, that is, the experience of an elder brother who disappeared under mysterious circumstances.”
“Not so mysterious to me ,” Mervyn said, “I helped Roderick disappear. He didn’t want to be Baronet, and I did. Seemed an obvious solution.”
"Would have worked better if you hadn't died young," Roderick grumbled from where he and a few other ghosts were circled at the other end of the gallery.
“Well, Francis and I, at least, shared your experience,” Despard corrected himself.
Connor chewed his lip and regarded them. “I think I remember your story, Uncle Despard- it was Uncle Ruthven who ran away to become a farmer, right?”
“Yes, faked his death and stayed in the village for twenty years, so when my uncle, Sir Roderick, died childless, the title passed to me. I served as a Bad Baronet of Ruddigore for ten years, before discovering Ruthven was alive.”
“Tracked me down on my wedding day, no less” Sir Ruthven added, gliding over to them and giving Despard a playful shove to the shoulder.
“And what came of it? You disinherited your only son and died at the age of fifty-two, so that title was passed back to me and my children.”
“I broke the curse!” Ruthven argued.
“You found a loophole in the curse,” Despard corrected him. “While a Baronet of Ruddigore may live without committing a crime every day--”
“A dull change if you ask me,” Sir Mervyn added, and a number of ghosts throughout the hall murmured in agreement.
“ While our descendents no longer need to commit a daily crime, and while magic has returned to the family line--”
“Only because you married a witch,” Sir Jasper interrupted from across the hall.
“No, I suspect our current research is correct, and you lot were all Squibs,” Sir Louis argued.
“ I had some lovers tell me I was magical in bed,” Sir Benjamin added, entirely unprompted. The hall burst into argument, with some ghosts chuckling outright at the lewd remark, a few others others rushing to scold Sir Benjamin back into his picture-frame, and the rest debating the presence or absence of magical blood since the time of the first Baronet, Sir Rupert. Connor hid his face behind his teacup so that his ancestors could not see him giggling at their antics.
“MAY I TELL THE BOY OUR STORY OR NOT?” Sir Despard roared, drawing himself to his full height and then some- he was the tallest of the family as it was, and the top-hat he wore, as well as the fact that he was now levitating several inches off the ground, added to his gravitas. The ghosts quieted and most moved back to their leisurely pursuits, though a few drifted over to where Connor sat with Despard, Mervyn, and Francis.
“It is true that our family no longer needs to commit a crime every day, as was the terms of the original curse, though you must admit something changed when you did that, Ruthven.”
Despard looked meaningfully at the portrait of Ruthven’s son, Thomas, a proud pirate captain, currently dozing over his maps. “A Murgatroyd no longer needs to hold the title of Baronet to have his picture appear in the gallery upon his death, nor to be able to step down from that frame and observe the goings-on of our descendants.”
Sir Mervyn nodded, producing an abacus and idly clacking the beads back and forth. “If my calculations are correct, that is.”
“If they weren’t, why would I be here?” asked Connor’s grandfather Louis. “I died three years ago, and never occupied the position.”
“And neither did my son, even though I disinherited him to save him from the curse on our line,” Ruthven added. “I suspect, Mervyn, that your calculations are indeed correct.”
“None of you have occupied the position at all, according to this young man’s clever fallacy,” the creaky voice of their patriach, Sir Rupert was barely audible from across the hall, as he pointed an accusatory finger at Sir Ruthven. Sir Rupert, as the eldest member of the family, still legally held the title of Baronet of Ruddigore, although the acting responsibilities of that office currently fell on the oldest living descendent, Connor’s uncle Richard. Rupert was largely content with this arrangement, which is to say he was content to constantly complain about it.
“I’ve occupied plenty of positions,” Sir Benjamin piped up again, “Some of my lovers called me Bendy Ben, because--” A rush of ghosts went to shut him up again, while Connor innocently took a bite of sandwich, pretending he hadn't understood the innuendo.
Sir Mervyn clacked a few more beads on his abacus, then nodded to Connor. “Your father isn’t convinced, but the math checks out. Your brother is missing, but not dead. If he were dead, he’d be here again.”
“Something I wish I’d known when I was alive,” Sir Francis said, and Sir Despard nodded sympathetically. “My elder brother Herman booked passage on a sailing ship to Venice when he was Baronet. When his ship went down, he was never found. As he was presumed dead, I had to take on the mantle of Baronet, and its attendant curse. I always wondered why Herman’s portrait never came to life, though the other ancestors’ did. I thought perhaps he refused to come out of his portrait just to spite me. Turns out, he spent twenty years alive .”
Sir Herman shrugged. “What can I say? Island life suited me. Shame about the bad shellfish that did me in.”
Sir Francis glared, but did not argue with his brother.
“I never thought twice about Ruthven’s ghost not appearing,” Despard said, “As he faked his death while Uncle Roderick was still Baronet, and only held the title afterwards, when I found out he was alive.”
Connor nodded. “When his friend the sailor told you who he was. I remember that story.”
Ruthven shook his head sadly. “Ruined my wedding, he did.”
“You married the girl just two weeks later,” Despard reminded him, and Ruthven gave a low chuckle.
“It is strange,” Sir Mervyn mused, “Just how many of us had to take up the mantle on the very day of our wedding. Never could prove it had to do with the curse, of course, but an odd pattern nonetheless.”
Mervyn’s brother Sir Roderick joined them, ruefully shaking his head. “You picked a terrible time to die, Mervyn. If you’d have waited one day, I should not have been a lifelong bachelor.”
“From my reference frame, I did die much later than the day you were to marry Dame Hannah. I died in the twenty-third century! How was I too keep track of when exactly my Evil Time Machine would return my body?”
Sir Mervyn looked fondly at the broken-down piece of machinery at the far end of the corridor. “If anyone could re-discover the secrets of Evil Time Travel, it’s your brother Jacob,” he mused, “I do hope that’s what he’s doing now.” Connor gave a slight smile, remembering the long days Jacob spent tinkering with machinery, including Sir Mervyn’s inventions that had fallen into disrepair during the intervening century.
Despard rose and placed a hand on Connor’s shoulder. Though the ghost was currently semi-corporeal, and the hand stayed firmly on Connor’s shoulder, instead of passing straight through the flesh, Despard’s hand still felt icy enough for Connor to feel it through the thick cloth of his shirt. Connor shivered, but didn’t pull away. “Regardless of where Jacob has gone or why, you are not unique in your position, at least not in this family.”
Francis nodded, “It happened to the three of us, and will likely happen again in the future.”
“Yes Connor, you are a Murgatroyd. Not only that, you’re a Murgatroyd with magic. Unusual things will happen in your life,” Sir Mervyn added.
“Unusual to outsiders, perhaps,” Sir Despard mused, “But no matter what happens to Jacob, you won’t be alone among the Murgatroyds, for our brothers did the same.”