Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Undercollege, Part 9: Revisitation

Originally posted on Facebook Notes, 14th June 2008

The door of the Combination Room swung gently open to reveal two figures. One, short and stout in a dark suit and bowler hat, bore an old-fashioned oil lamp in one hand. The other, clad in a dull brown greatcoat, was taller and broad-shouldered, his cropped black hair greying at the temples and framing a face that could have been chiselled from stone. While the first man's pinkish eyes were constantly darting from side to side in fear, the second's icy gaze was fixed into middle distance, and he appeared almost bored.

"Are you sure that's everything, Mr. Meldreth?" the stout man asked.

"Yes. Just pass me the lamp," came the curt response. "I'll hand the key back at the lodge when I'm finished."

With shaking hands, the stout man transferred the room's only source of light to Meldreth, but seemed initially reluctant to leave. "You don't want something to drink? I mean, it's the least we can do, after what you did for us. If you'd like a coffee - or something stronger - I can ask the catering staff to..."

"Oh, Heavens, no," Meldreth interrupted. "There's no need to bring them into this. Go back to your rounds. If I find myself in need of anything, I'll be sure to let you know." His blue eyes landed on the bowler-hatted man in a manner that could only be construed as a dismissal.

Fortunately, the man didn't need to be told twice. With a muttered "Thank you, sir," he shuffled out of the room and down the corridor, slamming the door rather hastily behind him. What sort of business is this for a porter to be involved in? This college hasn't been the same since '97, despite what they say.

Depositing the lamp and the key on a table, Meldreth placed his hands in his pockets and made his way between the heavy wooden tables to the room's bay window. When he was sure that the porter had departed and was out of earshot, he spoke, in a voice that was calm and authoritative. "Dawes."

Only little light filtered in from the Fellows' Garden behind the glass. It combined with the yellow lamp to reveal a dark, austere oak-panelled chamber. The only decoration upon the walls was a framed printout of a news article by the window where Meldreth stood, the paper yellowing slightly.

Peterhouse, the oldest of the Cambridge colleges, is hoping to make a local spectre a ghost of Christmas past by summoning an exorcist to banish the spirit and return campus life to normal...'

There was no response to Meldreth's call. He spoke again, more insistently this time. "Dawes."

Once again, nothing. The man in the greatcoat expelled air between his teeth and moved nonchalantly from his position at the window, seating himself on the end of one of the long benches by the broad stone fireplace. The third time he spoke, impatience seeped into his voice. "Dawes, dammit, it's me. Show yourself!"

This time a tapping started, soft and regular, seeming to come from behind the panels of the walls. It could have been water pipes, perhaps, or rodents. A few beats in, a gentle whistling began to emerge from the hearth. Meldreth simply shook his head. "I don't have time for games at the moment, Dawes. You and I need to talk."

The whistling from the flue crystallised into a sort of sigh, and at the same time an inchoate shape began to form by the fireplace. Superficially it resembled a long, bulbous cigar resting on its end, about one-and-a-half metres in height, but shifting within the cigar-like cocoon of ectoplasm a slightly built human figure could be made out if one looked carefully enough. Its facial features were completely imperceptible, but its clothes were not: it was dressed in a coat, waistcoat and breeches, with a wide, pilgrim-like collar on its shirt. Around its neck a length of bell rope was tied. One mournful hand held a wide-brimmed hat, which it waved loosely to add emphasis to its words as it spoke. "Meldreth. You're no fun at all."

Meldreth pulled his own coat more tightly around him against the sudden cold and glanced up at the spectre. "You've been a good little ghost, haven't you, Dawes? As quiet as a mouse. Quieter, in fact. Barely a squeak out of you for the past nine years." Standing, he drew a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and, producing a match, lit one, placing it to his lips.

"Nine years is not a long time to wait," the apparition called Dawes responded, "when one has been dead for over two hundred."

"Although," Meldreth continued, "I did hear reports of some terrorised female conference guests back in 2004."

"They deserved it," Dawes returned, petulantly. "They were sipping the College's best brandy and peddling some nonsense about feminist literary Marxism."

The dark-haired man laughed abruptly, blowing a cloud of tarry smoke through Dawes's incorporeal form. "You know as well as I do that that's not the point. We had an agreement, Francis. Back in 1997, we struck a deal."

"The terms of which were entirely dictated by you."

"Because I was the one holding all the cards." The steel had returned to Meldreth's voice. "The SCR called me in to exorcise you. To send you to Oblivion. But I was lenient. I told you I'd let you keep your foothold in this plane of existence, as long as you promised not to trouble anyone. I knew all along you wouldn't keep that promise. You know, I could still dispatch you to the hereafter..."

Abruptly the spectre turned away, sweeping around the room's perimeter. Wherever it passed, the knocking against the panelling grew in intensity. "You want something from me, Meldreth. What is it that you want?"

"Information," the only living man in the room replied. "The truth," he added. "You lied to me the last time we spoke. You didn't hang yourself because of Barnes's election as Master. There was more to it than that."

There was hurt in the disembodied voice when it answered. "You do me a disservice!" the ghost hissed. "Although..." The rattling subsided momentarily as the spirit seemed to consider something. "It must be said that Barnes was merely what tipped me over the edge. The second of what I considered to be two great failures of my time in office."

"Go on," Meldreth urged. "Tell me about the first, and I might consider postponing your banishment for another few years."

The room had returned to near silence now, the background noise subsiding as the spectre floated back to Meldreth. "I was the Bursar of this college," it began. "My highest duty was to protect and preserve the material well-being of the college, just as the Dean was to protect its spiritual well-being. When I was inducted into this office, my predecessor informed me what the role truly entailed. An item of great importance was kept in the College treasury. It was referred to as a Seal. Of all the possessions of this college, I was told, it was the single most valuable and important. I was to guard it with my life."

"I've never seen any great need for a distinction between physical and spiritual, myself," Meldreth mused. He'd been leaning against a wall and listening, arms folded across his sturdy chest. "But this is no time for metaphysical debate. Tell me what happened to the Seal."

"A man came to this College in 1785," the ghost replied after a short pause. "A scholar, from Hungary - a philologist. Highly recommended as a true Enlightenment thinker. His name was János Vörösszemű." Dawes's non-existent tongue stumbled over the foreign sounds. "I struck up a friendship with him; we had much in common. Curse the day!" The panels began to resonate with the sound of tapping again, but it quietened down almost as soon as it began. "One night he wished to view a manuscript stored in the treasury, one which he had seen before but which I had always retrieved for him. I had a meeting scheduled with the Master, to discuss his legacy, and so I did what I have otherwise never done before or since: I lent Janós my master keys." He sighed, a creaking in the floorboards. "The next morning, he was gone, and so was the Seal. We never saw nor heard from him again."

Meldreth remained silent, a distant look on his craggy face.

"For years we were the closest of friends," Dawes persisted. "His betrayal hurt me deeply - even more deeply than the shock I felt when I realised I had failed in my first duty to the College. Still, it has been many years." The floorboards creaked again. "Many, many years. If the Seal were found, and returned to the College, then maybe... maybe... I could find my rest." The spirit of the old classicist sounded wistful now, almost repentant.

Meldreth broke his reverie. "That will never happen," he responded. "If I'm right, the Seal was destroyed centuries ago, as soon as your Hungarian friend obtained it. I'm sorry, Dawes." He didn't sound it. "Perhaps only I can bring you peace now. But I want you to look at this." From a pocket of his voluminous coat he produced a compact camcorder, flicking it open and switching on the screen.

The bursar's ghost floated round his back to view it over his shoulder. The screen showed a large circular desk and glass turnstile on the left, dimly lit, and a revolving door on the right. "I don't recognise it."

Meldreth raised an eyebrow. "It's the foyer of the University Library. You don't get out much, do you?" When no response was forthcoming, he continued. "Watch carefully."

A blonde-haired woman burst onto the screen. Wearing a black gown and clutching something under her arm, she scrambled over the turnstile and ran to a smaller door next to the revolving door. Pushing it open, she disappeared into the night.

"That door was locked," Meldreth commented. "The security footage both from the inside and the outside shows that no one had touched it since the man on the evening shift finished his round and left. Yet it simply swung open on her touch."

"And what elucidation do you expect me to provide?" returned the ghost.

Meldreth shook his head. "Keep watching." A man now appeared on the screen. Tall, slender and gaunt, he was crisply dressed in evening wear. He vaulted the turnstile in one bound, and was rapidly making his way across the floor to the exit when Meldreth paused the tape. "Look at him. Take a good look." He slowly manipulated the screen to zoom in on this man's face: his narrow, sharp moustache, his stern jaw, and above all the crimson irises of his eyes.

Dawes's own inchoate eyes widened, if such a thing were possible. "That's him," the ghost breathed. "That's János. And he looks not a day older. How...?"

Meldreth didn't respond immediately, and when he did he spoke carefully and kept his voice neutral. "It seems that you're not the only two-hundred-year-old being in Cambridge, Dawes."

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