Christmas Ghost Story: The Looking-Glass: Part 3

Image from witchesofwalthamabbey.co.uk

Image from witchesofwalthamabbey.co.uk

This is the final part of a Christmas ghost story. For part 1 and two, start your trail here.

Semi consciousness is a strange state. Whilst sight has shut down, hearing can be acute; and all the while, the unconscious part of the mind is spinning fantastical explanations for what it hears.

So though she was slightly feverish, Ursula was dimly aware that the man had called an ambulance, taking care of her car whilst the paramedic had checked her out, calling the last number on her mobile to alert Ruth, and bringing her to be tucked up in the bed of the room in the farmhouse whilst they tried to locate a next of kin.

And she was aware of vague dread when they placed her effects nearby the bed, and with them, a darker presence: the mirror.

She listened to Ruth talking in low voices to the paramedic. They had called Ursula’s mother, using the contacts on her phone. She was driving down from Lancashire, and expected to be in Cornwall early that evening. And then the door shut, and muted the earthly murmurs, leaving a vacant silence for the unearthly ones to begin.

And they rose quickly, murmuring through her half-dreams. Her mind responded by recreating, in grotesque parody, the pyrotechnics she had seen in its reflection as it sat on the seat of her car. Figures swirled, dissipated and converged into new ones. Their faces would form for an instant, and she would see the embodiment of the sounds which haunted her: faces which belonged in mediaeval depictions of demons, dread creatures whose faces were sketched in malevolence. They would reach out, and hands would grasp towards her and she would find herself running but getting nowhere, or rooted to the spot, unable to move even in her self-created dream world. And then they would dissipate into the obsidian ether.

All through the night, there on the edge of the moor, sleeping within walls which had stood for six centuries,  Ruth heard voices and saw visions, restless and occasionally delirious. And gradually, one voice was getting stronger.

And she dreamt. A man, dressed in Elizabethan clothes, towered over her. He had a black skull cap which fitted his head closely, and a white beard.

Her tongue, in sleep, or waking, or both, was stuck to the roof of her mouth, her lips as dry as dust.

His eyes were sad. He spoke, though his voice would become indistinct at intervals, and his words were desiccated, like the grave.

“You hear them, don’t you?” he rasped, the sound fading in and out. “Listen. Listen to the secrets of the altering of the corruption of nature, into perfection…….the knowledge of metals, the giving and bestowing of wisdom, science, true philosophy, and true understanding…”

On and on he rambled, making half- sense, an iron will shrouded in time and the dusty language of long ago.

Ursula dipped in and out of consciousness. She had no idea when the dream ended and the man left. And after an eternity, the light of the dawn began to creep through the window, and the mirror was silenced.

The daylight calmed her, and woke her fully.

****

There was a knock on the door, and Ruth entered with a mug of tea. She sat on the edge of the bed and took her guest’s hand.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. “You’re not to worry about a thing. Your mother is on her way down, and Mr Lander, the Curator of the museum, is coming over to sort everything out. He was quite excited.”

She waited for a second. “Is everything all right? The museum said you left in good spirits – was it very worrying breaking down in the lanes? They can be unnerving with all the wind and shadows.”

Ursula shook her head. She could not look at Ruth.

“Was it,” Ruth ventured, “the stone?”

Ursula started. “What do you know about that mirror?” she cried, her voice louder than it should have been. “Have you heard it?”

Ruth shook her head. “No. I haven’t ever given any credence to the stories, but there are a few: about witches and enchanters in my family who could conjure up the dead using its reflection. I grew up calling it the whisper-stone, as generations before me did. It never bothered me; I just thought it was pretty. Maybe the old man they stole it from, back in the time of Elizabeth – maybe he really was a wizard.”

They talked some more.  And the strange events of the night before receded like the waves on a Cornish seashore at low tide.

****

“We have news of your stone!” Mr Lander positively effervesced with excitement. His spectacles were lop-sided and his hair awry,  but his hypothesis was ripe with possibilities.

The last 24 hours had not see the Royal Cornwall Museum idle. They had been talking with the great and the good at, among other places, the British Museum, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. And they had a name, and a most interesting piece of speculation.

John Dee.

“A fascinating character,” Mr Lander told Ursula, “and a leading light in the academic circles of his day. One of the first men to be part of Trinity College at Cambridge. He had a finger in many pies, Miss Chauncey, as you may well already know. Mathematics and geometry, history, navigation, travel and discovery, all were strengths of his, and he made strides for civilization in many of these disciplines: but his overriding passion seemed to be for alchemy and the occult.

“He had mirrors made of obsidian – a volcanic glass which could be highly polished to produce a reflection – and was convinced that it was possible to summon angels and write down their edicts.

“But he only ever managed to see something in the mirror once in his life. He was forced to rely on a series of self-professed mediums to see and relay what the angels said: Barnabas Saul in December 1581, and then when he was discredited, a Mr Talbot. Who turned out not to be Mr Talbot at all, but a man called Edward Kelley.  Still, Dee faithfully wrote what the angels are purported to have said, and their words were later published. They are still revered by occultists today.

“It was a source of pain and frustration to him that despite all his great achievements, he could not access angels through the obsidian mirror, and he took that searing regret to his grave.

“He was based in Mortlake for most of his major work, but travelled for six years on the continent. He left his books with his brother for safekeeping when he and his family packed up to go on their travels; but while he was away, someone stole the vast majority of the collection, leaving Dee bereft.

“No-one knows who took his things. Though there are many theories. And no-one knows where they ended their days.

‘That was four hundred years ago. I am here today to look at your collections. There is a suspicion in the back of my mind that this could be where Dee’s books ended up.”

“When did he live?” asked Ursula, paling.

“Born 1527, died 1609,” the curator said.

“Do you have a picture of him?” she enquired. Mr Lander brought one out, and there was a man in a black skull cap, Elizabethan ruff, and cloak, black long-sleeved robe without buttons or adornment.

Her blood ran cold.

He was the man who had towered over her in her dream.

Had John Dee visited her alongside the voices? A man who had never been able to hear those creatures who were hounding her? He had died poor, sad and embittered because he was never able to channel what she had, literally , stumbled across unawares.

His last medium had been Bartholomew Hickman. And then, no medium for 400 years.

It was impossible, and preposterous, and fanciful. But a realization began to dawn on Ursula.

John Dee was looking for another medium; but from the wrong side of the grave.

 ***

She must meet with him. On her terms; and end this thing.

It had already been agreed that Ursula would stay a final night with Ruth, and her mother would drive her to the family home in Lancashire the next day for a couple of days’ rest.

But she would stay one more night. How could it be any worse than the night before? Ursula did not, had never believed in ghosts. And yet she came to this new place, in search of a new life, and disembodied voices and the forms of long-dead men were all about her. The dark brought only dread, and it was time to turn and face it head-on.

The curator had returned delighted to Truro with a set of books which, he was convinced, would help him prove his theory. Ursula’s mother arrived, and hugged her, and listened politely to the nonsense her daughter seemed to talk, concluding that Ursula definitely needed another night to settle her nerves.

About four in the afternoon, as the darkness fell once again, Ruth came into the room.

She sat down beside Ursula and laid her hand on the mirror.

“Shall I take it away?” she asked. “You need a settled night’s sleep, and if that thing spends the night whispering terrors at you you’ll end up worse than now.”

But Ursula stayed her hand. “No – no, thank you, Ruth. Leave it here. It and I have some unfinished business.”

Her host seemed to understand. At any rate, did not touch it when she left the room.

Ursula was exhausted. Simple, uninterrupted sleep seemed a distant memory. Her eyes felt so heavy that, even with the mirror so close, she was unable to resist the urge to close her eyes; and drifted, finally, into a deep, dreamless slumber.

 ***

And woke.

It seemed to her no time had passed, yet she had the conviction it was, yet again, early morning. Her eyes closed, she noted with a weary acquiescence that the voices were there once again.

When one is terrorized by the audible, it is a great seven-league stride to acknowledging what must be seen. Ursula’s whole being urged her to hide, hide until it was over, let the blanket take the strain, and not look until morning.

But that would resolve nothing. Open her eyes she must.

What shape does a spectre take? In every story they are different; but amongst the most terrifying must be those who stand over a human being whilst they sleep.

There was a form looming over the bed. A blacker part of the blackness. No sound of breathing, but an intensity which confirmed He was there, in his long black robe.

No lecture to oneself during the daytime can prepare one for something as unnatural as this. Ursula had imagined assailing the ghost, talking reason with it, confronting it, banishing it.

But she could do none of these. She was struck dumb; she could not speak. It stood there. And she knew it was yearning.

A light was growing. She could not place it and then, she realized that the candlestick on the bedside table had a candle in it, and that it was burning palely, shedding a flickering luminescence across the room.

A ghost-candle.

And now she could see him properly, in that outlandish dress. He was not censorious now; just sad. And still, the hubbub flowed from the flickering firmament of the obsidian mirror.

The man did not speak. He gestured to the table and Ursula realized there were new objects on it: a pile of parchment and a quill pen.

The spectre gazed at her, and began, imperceptibly, to fade away. And suddenly, irrationally, despite the great excesses of fear she had experienced in the last days, she wanted him to stay. She longed to ask him what his hearts desire had been, what it had been like to chase angels all those years. To learn about the men he trusted to look into the mirror, and why he had chosen a woman to look at it for him now.

But he was drifting back into the candelight until he, and it, were one and the same.

She knew what to do.

Reaching out to the pen, she expected her hand to pass right through it. It must be a ghost-pen, after all.

But it seemed substantial enough. She picked it up, dipped it in the ink, and listened. And now, the voices were intelligible. She listened: listened to the secrets of the altering of the corruption of nature, into perfection. To the knowledge of metals, the giving and bestowing of wisdom, science, true philosophy, and true understanding.

And she wrote it all down, the ghost-pen scratching on the ghost-parchment for all the world as if she was writing a letter to a beloved.

The clocks in the house struck five. The voices had told her all they needed to. She put the pen down carefully, sank back into the bed, and dreamed of the afterlife.

 ***

 The streets of Truro were packed with people on their way to work, and Ursula was one of them. Butterflies in her stomach, she walked through the door of the Royal Cornwall Museum, ready for her first day of work.

 She had started out early from Ruth’s house, now a lodger rather than an overnight guest. The two women had become firm friends since the day Ursula woke up to find the parchment and pen were gone, and the candlestick empty, and the obsidian mirror had fallen finally silent.

Ursula had got to know the staff well over the weeks that followed, and she, they and Ruth uncovered a new surprise every day: Dr Dee’s lost library had indeed, it seemed, found its way down to a den of thieves in Cornwall and waited four hundred years to be discovered. The find had made The Times and all the other papers, and Ursula’s story – what she would tell the press of it – was celebrated.

Her career as an archivist was assured.

The museum staff had finished up when her need to return to Reading and conclude business at her old post necessitated her absence from Cornwall.

“Ah, Ursula!” Mr Landers smiled broadly when she walked into his room. “Wonderful to have you with us permanently at last! It has been quite a roller coaster ride, has it not, uncovering Dr Dee’s library?”

Ursula grinned. “It has. I think Dr Dee would be extremely pleased with us.”

The archivist picked up a ziplock bag. “And the best is yet to come,” he said. “We think we may have found a set of writings by the man himself.

Ursula looked, disbelieving. She had seen that paper, that pen, before. Bathed in pale candelight.

“Ink, paper and pen are dated at about 1590 or thereabouts,” the Curator told her, oblivious to her pallor.   “It seems Dr Dee found himself another medium. We found this locked in a wooden chest buried beneath a trap  with the most wonderful locking system. All evidence is consistent with it being unopened for 400 years.”

FINE

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32 thoughts on “Christmas Ghost Story: The Looking-Glass: Part 3

  1. I like your ghost story very much. I was afraid for Ursula, all the way through. I just assumed something horrible would happen to her. She would be sucked into the mirror for eternity. She would be killed by the mirror. She would go mad and be locked up in an asylum. But no, she helped John Dee, who reached across four centuries to impart his knowledge. A win-win for both modern and past. It was a scary story and I’m glad Ursula came out of it with a new job and fame. A great ending.

  2. Excellent conclusion Kate! Leave it to you to write a ghost story with a strong feminist heroine. I loved it! I was also afraid that Ursula would find herself trapped in the mirror for eternity. Glad it ended the way it did.

  3. Great suspense, and a lovely touch at the end.
    You know, Dee must be after something having surfaced rather a lot lately. In your story, and in recent books by Phil Rickman, and in others referring to Bacon. I THOUGHT the mirror rang a bell – er, better to say, gave a reflection!

    1. Col, he was into everything! He moved in court circles, initiated the collection and preservation of old books and manuscripts, helped with the theoretical navigation of the North-West passage, was heavily involved in the debate about the Gregorian calendar, was a leading light in the mathematical world. It is no wonder he turns up so often. He seems to have had something to do with Elias Ashmole. He spent his life building up a stunning library: it must have broken his heart when it was raided and stolen, I think in 1562.

  4. I meant to ask if yo u’d read anything by S.J. Parris, who writes a series of mysteries about a fictional Italian monk (Giordano Bruno) on the run from the Inquisition, who winds up working as a spy for John Dee, the royal astrologer, and Elizabeth I.
    The books are Heresy, Sacrilege, and Prophecy. He always winds up in trouble, believe it or not.

  5. I saved this looking glass story to read all in a sitting, Kate. How pleased I am that I did, for it was a captivating ghost story that help my rapt attention right t the end. You have a gift for story telling, dear friend, and a even bigger gift for a ghost of a tale.

    I hope you had a happy Christmas at Shrewsday Manor, and that apparitions did not keep you all night.

    1. Thank you so much, Penny: I am so pleased you liked it. I have an achilles heel in that I can’t seem to write unhappy endings. I shall have to work on that. We had a really lovely Christmas, and are enjoying being time-rich as Roosevelt 😀

    1. Me too, Andra. You know how these things are; they write themselves. I was all for Dee being a horrid threatening type, but it would not have been true to all the biographies. He was a good, kind man. And extremely handsome by many accounts.

  6. Because of being off-line a couple of days my delay in reading provided an opportunity to read this story in one sitting. It is marvelous, Kate. I love the eerie quality that slowly builds to a final creepy crescendo. You have a real skill for a psychological thriller, and I do admire your talent. Great story telling! I hope Christmas, and now Boxing Day were meaningful and times of family togetherness. If you have a spare moment to scan a tongue-in-cheek New Yorker article about Americans and Boxing Day, you might get a chuckle.

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/shouts/2013/12/boxing-day-in-america-a-guide-for-visitors-from-the-uk-australia-and-canada.html

    Once again, thank you for a delightful read. At least it’s evening here as I read it…best read in the dark, I think. 🙂

    1. I loved the New Yorker piece, Debra 😀 We have a very similar attitude here, though take away pizza companies are not generally open…glad you enjoyed the story. Merry Christmas to you all.

  7. Another brilliant ghost story! John Dee is one of my favorite historical characters, so I was delighted to see him here, and the Mexican obsidian mirror has me rummaging in my research materials! You always stimulate the little grey cells.

    1. If you are ever in London, Elizabeth, you can go and see his obsidian mirror. And some of his angel writings are available online here: http://www.esotericarchives.com/dee/
      Interestingly, the great ghost story writer MR James is responsible for cataloguing his library, which is in reality scattered to the four winds. Well, the four corners of the British Isles, anyway.

  8. Thank you very much for following the blog, I really look forward to reading your posts and happy new year 2014. Gede Prama 🙂

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