This is part two of a ghost story which began yesterday on Christmas Eve – you can find the first part here – and continues, concluding tomorrow.
Silence. Blessed quiet. No voices. And daylight.
The insubstantial light of a watery Cornish dawn was creeping through the window, and the room had assumed a solid, respectable normality.
Ever since man began walking this earth, the day has banished night terrors. Light makes them foolish and they slink away, only to return with great sharp fangs of fear with the dark’s return.
Everything was ordinary, and Ruth would have an explanation, and Ursula must turn her mind to readying herself for her interview.
There was a solid knock on the door. At Ursula’s word Ruth opened it, with a mug of tea.
“It’s seven o’clock, Miss Chauncey, and I thought you’d like a hot drink to start the day. I trust you slept well?”
Ursula took the tea and stared into it. People once used tea leaves to tell fortunes, didn’t they?
“The party who arrived in the night kept me up for a bit, “ she said truthfully. “How many of them were there?”
The silence which followed was a fraction longer than it ought to be. The host recovered her poise. With care, she said: “We have had no-one else arrive in the night.”
The daylight made it possible for Ursula to ask. “Then who were those people?”
Ruth looked at her implacably. “You and I are the only people in the farmhouse, Miss Chauncey. Though we do have a large party arriving on Wednesday.” She smiled and the memory of the voices seemed suddenly distant.
“Now: I shall have breakfast waiting downstairs for you at 7:30 and I am drawing a hot bath as we speak.” She turned to go.
Ursula put down her tea, and glanced at the side table, where the artefacts of the night before still lay. “Thank you so much. Oh, and I wanted to ask you. This beautiful stone disc. It is quite lovely. Can you tell me what stone it is made of? I love old artefacts.”
Again, that too-long pause. “It is made of obsidian,” her hostess answered.
Obsidian. The word was as beautiful as this object, which had a bewitching smooth tactile quality about it. “It is really quite lovely,” she murmured, and her fingers were reflected as they trailed across its surface. She noticed it was not a perfect circle: rather, it had a small protrusion with a hole drilled through it, presumably for hanging. “Is it just decorative?”
Ruth shook her head. “Oh no, it’s a mirror. From Mexico originally, I believe, though it’s been here a good many years now.”
A good many years. In Cornwall, that was code for centuries. Interlopers – new things – took a while to be accepted: sometimes a whole lifetime. That was a thought, Ursula mused, if she ended up getting the job and moving down. She would always be an outlander.
And so was this beautiful thing. It seemed, somehow, forlorn, something of such astounding beauty stuck on a bedside table in a farmhouse on the most distant peninsula of the British Isles.
She looked up to see Ruth regarding her a little strangely. “I’ve been meaning, “ the older woman said, “to clear these old things out. I have a tendency to hoard, and I’m not getting any younger. But I think they’re quite valuable. When I was growing up here as a little girl they used to tell me fairy stories. They used to say that stone was brought down here from London after a raid on the library of a magician. I never believed the tales, but it’s a thing of beauty all right. And a bit strange.” She hesitated. “This is an imposition; but did you say you were headed for the Courteney Library? Isn’t that next to the Royal Cornwall Museum?”
Ursula nodded uncertainly.
“I know we’ve only just met, but I’m alone and I’m tied to the farm. I don’t get away, and I’ve no complaints about that. But there are things in this house – hundreds of old books, things from long ago – which everyone should have access to, and I would love someone from the museum to come and take the things of historical value, and put them there so schoolchildren and ordinary folk can benefit.”
She stopped, considering, and then gazed directly at Ursula. “Would you tell them what I have here? Put in a request for them to come down and catalogue anything of interest?”
Ursula’s mind was in a whirl. If the old prayer book was anything to go by there could be considerable historical treasures here. To arrive at a well-respected library with news of an undiscovered source of ancient books: that would be something.
Ruth was watching her. “You could take the stone to show them. Something tells me that would persuade them the stuff in this house was worth looking at.”
“This is extraordinary.” Joanna Pentaverett, Cornwall’s Finds Liaison Officer turned the stone disc over and over in her hand. “The last time I saw one of these, it was behind glass in the British Museum. This is an obsidian mirror.”
The interview had gone well. Ursula’s interviewers had retired to make a decision.
Joanna summoned a curator, a tall bespectacled academic who made Ursula feel instantly at home.
The curator was very exited. “Obsidian mirrors originated in Mexico,” he told her. “What it’s doing here I can’t imagine. They have been used in connection with the occult, I believe, and this is one of the earliest: I’d say it was late sixteenth century. Extraordinary.”
He fingered it lovingly. The tactile quality of the mirror was seductive to all, it seemed, not just Ursula.
The door opened, and the woman who had headed the interview team entered. “Ursula, I wonder if we might have a word?” she asked.
They repaired to a small side room. The woman smiled warmly. “We’d like to offer you the post,” she said. “Are you happy to accept it?”
Ursula couldn’t speak. A lifetime with old books had just begun. She nodded, and waited for her voice to find her. Eventually it emerged. “I would love to, “ she said. “Thank you so much.”
They returned to the main room where several people had stepped in to take a look at the mirror. The announcement of the Museum’s newest member of staff met with hearty congratulations and welcomes.
The curator stepped forward. “I wonder if- in the light of your joining us – we could ask a substantial favour,” he said. “We are short staffed: would you mind staying at Mrs Dee’s B&B for a few nights longer to liaise for the museum?”
How could she refuse? The twinge of unease which surfaced at having to spend the night there was countered by the avalanche of elation at her new post. They had asked this one thing. She needed to carry it through.
It was getting dark by the time she got back into her little car and headed back out of Truro towards the great purple spine of the moor. She could not find Bleak on the Satnav, but it was well signposted from the A 30. It would not take long to get back to Ruth, whom she had phoned with the news.
“I’ll put a nice casserole on, and some jacket potatoes, “ her hostess had said. “It’ll be waiting for you when you get back. You’ve had a long day.”
She turned off the main road into the blackness. Unlike the night before it was clear, and the stars lit the spectacular black of a Cornish night. Ten minutes, thought Ursula, and I’ll be there.
That was, until the engine sputtered, and the Peugeot began first to kangaroo wildly, and then to lose power rapidly. Oh no, Ursula thought, not now, not here….
The car died. Ursula had just enough time to pull it into a field gateway, off the road, before it gave up the ghost. She picked up her phone, and called the recovery people. They would not be long, they assured her. Just half an hour. Someone would be out from Truro directly. She was to hold on.
Ursula called Ruth. It was not the end of the world: someone was coming. She had time to sit and think. The car radio would not work; nor would the lights. She sat in darkness, beneath the stars, and hugged the memory of the day’s events to her.
Until the whispers began.
Indistinguishable, they were, but urgent, and not one person but several, rising to murmurs in this silence. There were no birds, no traffic sounds, to interrupt the words. One could not ignore them or explain them away.
Ursula’s mind raced, her heart hammering. She flung open the door of the car and scanned the tall hedgerows and surrounding fields. Perhaps there were revelers on their way home. Perhaps a farmer had people out looking for poachers. Perhaps…
But the sound was coming, unmistakably, from inside the car. There were several people whom she could not see holding a conversation in a small Peugeot. It would be bizarre if it were not so terrifying. Perhaps she was hearing voices.
Suddenly outside that car seemed infinitely preferable to inside it. She began to run and then she thought, stricken: the mirror. I can’t leave the mirror in the car.
She must go back, just once, and collect the obsidian mirror from the front passenger seat.
She steeled herself for what must be done, and retraced her steps slowly, She talked to herself as she went, for what better way was there to drown the noise of spectral voices? Steady, she told herself. There is nothing to hurt you. It’s just noise. Sound and fury, signifying nothing. Steady.
And finally, she was at the door, and staring down at the mirror with leaden realization.
The voices were coming from the mirror.
And not only that: there were things moving inside it.
Not distinct things, not anything you could define; rather, forms which moved and jostled, a firmament which would occasionally settle into something like a figure.
And Ursula was imprisoned within her own body. She could not move for fear. She had taken this thing and driven it out into the middle of nowhere, and now the things inside were dancing some crazy dance and every now and then someone or something would settle in the foreground of the disc and gaze out, looking for…
For Ursula. They were looking for her.
A blinding light appeared from the road. Already frozen in terror, Ursula stared stricken at it. Had they got out? Were they coming?
“Hello, Ma’am, it’s the AA. Now what seems to be the problem with your car?”
AA men have their uses. At the sound of his homely shout, they stopped, abruptly.
The mirror glimmered faintly, and then the images in it faded to nothing.
Ursula’s legs failed her, and she crashed to the ground.