Thank you to those who provided entries to the literary competition. We have had three entries which will be published in the Advisor over the next three Thursdays. Each of our published authors will receive a bottle of wine as thanks for their efforts. In this edition a piece from Proprietor Colin Langeveld
A fiction by C.P. Langeveld
“I suppose. Herr Longfield, that in your country and upon nights such as these, the telling of ghost stories is the order of the day, or to put it in better words;’the order of the night.” Von Smiesher gave a good hearted guffaw, as he vigorously stuffed tobacco into his large meerschaum pipe.
I was in Austria at the Schloss Gabelhofen in nearby Speelber-Zelteg a district of Styria. It was my chosen lodgings, while attending a gathering for those who illustrate books, magazines and pamphlets, where I was to give a reading of my latest monograph; ‘George Cruikshank. His Pen, His Inks and Political Impact.’
And here, in early December, I was seated, with five fellow guests gathered in front of a large fireplace. Flickering flames threw shadows that danced and cavorted impishly among the oak panelled walls and heavy, black oak rafters.
“Ah, but the British are not the only ones with a tale of the supernatural “, exclaimed Van de Hoek, a thin, balding Belgian, ” I can tell you of a close friend of mine who was put up in an old house for the night. He had been reading in bed, and feeling sleep approaching, he reached over to extinguish the light that stood at his bedside and in the process, his spectacles slipped from his fingers. Fumbling in the dark, he reached down to retrieve them and to his horror, the spectacles were placed into his hand from something beneath the bed”.
“Exactement!”, protested Joubert, a rather touchy Frenchman standing with his back to the fire, “the tales of apparitions in chains walking the grounds of the Place de Bastille abound, for was it not there that the infamous prison once stood, n’est-ce pas?”
Taking a long draught of brandy and soda, Johansson, a stocky Dane spoke up, “My father once told me of a time when he stayed with his elderly aunt who lived beside a graveyard. He was disturbed during the night by heavy footsteps climbing the staircase followed, by a loud thumping on the door of his bedroom. My father did not open the door, as some sixth sense warned him against so.
As he stepped from the bedroom on the following morning, he was confronted by a trail of evil smelling, maggot infested soil that led all the way down the staircase”.
“Ach, come now, gentlemen, this is all very well,” protested the German, “but there can be no doubt, the English are the folk who have the edge when it comes to a good ghost story. Let us take the excellent M.R. James, Elizabeth Gaskell, E.F. Benson and the prolific Mr Algernon Blackwood. And to be entirely candid, sirs, the tales heard this night, have been second hand. So come now Herr Longfield, show us how it should be done, show us – ‘The British Way'”.
I relit my pipe which had gone out and after tentatively puffing at it, I replied,.
“Have any of you ever seen a ghost?”
I was met with blank stares that I took to be negative answers. It wasn’t a flippant enquiry if one was to be serious on that particular subject.
“As far as I am concerned, ‘ghosts’ come in three categories – the first I will call ‘the magnetic replay’, this is where a scene is replayed, time after time at the same time and location and without change, the spectres never acknowledge those who see them. These appearances seem to take place where strong emotions are concerned, strong enough to be imbedded in the surroundings, the stones, the flooring, indeed, the very ether itself. This is typical of the example put forward by Monsieur Joubert
The second are not ghosts of the dead, but ‘beings’ or ‘spirits’ that have existed since the beginning of time. Some evil, such as demons, succubi, cacodemons, incubi et al, and then those of a more gentle, humorous nature, better known as poltergeists. This fits into the category as given by Meinheer Van de Hoek.
Finally we have Herr Johansson’s account. This can only be a troubled, a lost soul, returning from the dead to rectify some unfinished business.
I leave you to judge into which file you would put mine.
But before I begin, it is essential that I furnish you with a brief history of the establishment where it occurred.
The Athenaeum is a gentlemen’s club situated in the heart of Liverpool. Founded in 1791, demolished in 1924 and rebuilt in its present location. Many notables of the city can be found among its members (called proprietors). During his visit to the city in 1821, the author Washington Irving described the club in his ‘The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent’, thus:
‘One of the first places to which a stranger is taken in Liverpool is the Athenaeum. It is established on a liberal and judicious plan; it contains a good library, and spacious reading-room, and is the great literary resort of the place. Go there at what hour you may, you are sure to find it filled with grave-looking personages, deeply absorbed in the study of newspapers.’
The story I’m about to relate took place two years after the opening.
It was on one of those mild, sunny days, in late September in which we delight, that I sat, comfortably ensconced in a particular high backed chair by the fireplace in the splendid library of the club, occasionally pondering the history of the two atlas globes that grace its hearth.
As is my custom, I spend thirty minutes reading one of its wonderfully diverse collections, my back to the window that offers a view of The Bluecoat Chambers below. I had not long been thus settled when my attention was diverted to the sound of someone entering the room. Now, this is not unusual, as there are occasions when proprietors come to research, or merely borrow books. If they happen to notice me, there is a brief acknowledgement, a nod or a friendly smile, before they move on to whatever business they are about.
It was then, as a cloud passed over the sun, briefly darkening the room, that I noticed a tall figure framed in the doorway. He paused for a moment, dressed in what can only be described to be a long overcoat. There is no doubt that he saw me. I was about to greet him with a ‘Hallo!’- but he moved on without a word.
I continued to watch the upright silhouette of the stranger as he gazed into the depth of the room known as the ‘Stacks’ where over 60,000 of our valuable books are kept. But for the faint sound of pedestrians passing below, all was still.
He entered the room, and I continued my reading until it was time to descend the grand, red carpeted elliptical staircase where I was to join my companions in the Newsroom for a pre -luncheon drink.
As I entered the club a week later I was instantly struck by a strained atmosphere in the air which was reflected on the face of young John Bridley in the administration office. I greeted the young man and enquired as to his well being. His answer was unusually glum.
“The news is not good, Mr Longfield, the police have been called in and things are all over the place”.
‘The police John? Has there been a burglary? What has been stolen? The bust of Napoleon?’
‘No, the library has been vandalised, three days on the run with books strewn all over the floor. Thankfully, there has been no noticeable damage. Nevertheless, Mr. Glover, our librarian is very upset, very upset. There has also been great difficulty in keeping the whole affair out of the papers.’
After signing in, I left the lad, sadly shaking his head and made my way up to the library.
How can I describe the ambience which pervades one’s senses as one enters the room, the elegant furnishing, the splendid high ceiling and most of all, the ever present, wonderful, comforting, fragrance of books.
The conversation in the Newsroom was centred on the disturbance in the library. Major Dee would be approaching the committee, with the suggestion that a permanent watch be put on the room, Captain Orbe, late of the Guards and famous for his support of Temperance Societies, was all for having an armed member of the police guarding the entrance. Mr Alec Sandrews, one usually described as a ‘cheerful chappy’ and of optimistic character, was noticeably disturbed.
The lunch that followed was, to say the least, pensive.
There were two more disturbances in the Stacks where books were dislodged and strewn onto the floor, but after a month of inactivity, it was judged to have ceased. The last I heard of the affair was that a book had been taken.
Late November saw me once again seated in the library. It was uncommonly late in the day for my usual visit. Outside, it was raining, darkness had descended and a heavy wind hammered and rattled at the windows.
I looked up from my book to rest my eyes when I saw a familiar figure enter the room and silently make his way to the Stacks. As I continued with my studies, I gradually became aware of changes taking place in the room, drop of temperature, the electric light dimmed; the figures inhabiting the paintings by Edward Halliday appeared to stare balefully at me from their canvases. In short, an atmosphere of intense unease was replacing the peaceful environs of the room.
It was with a mixture of trepidation and discomfort that I hastened to the Stacks to replace my book. Normally not a well lit room, it was now, only with great difficulty that I could make my way to the necessary shelf. As I did so, I heard footsteps pacing the floor above, which is semi-transparent. I looked up, but no one could be seen.
The footsteps continued, I had not seen the stranger leave the library and as there was no sign of him, the only place he could have been must be on the floor above. Puzzled, I ascended the stairs. If anything, the room was colder and darker than the one below. Outside, the wind groaned and shrieked.
How long I stood at the top of the stairs I do not know, and then, out of the gloom, from one of the row of shelves facing me, a sable mist appeared.
I heard the clock chime downstairs and as it did so, the mist drew itself more compactly and before my astounded gaze, it became the figure of a man who slowly approached me.
My brain strove abortively with the problem. An instant later, I had no doubt that it was the stranger, only now I had more time to study him.
What I had thought to be a long overcoat proved to be a frock coat as worn by Victorian gentlemen. This one displayed signs of wear and tear covered in places by a fine, grey dust. The collar and cravat too was in the fashion of our fathers, but the face gentlemen, the face. How may I best describe it other than it was that of a dead man! With eyes sunk deeply into the skull – like head and strands of long, dry hair sprouting from the top of it, the mouth fixed in a permanent rictus, he stood before me, a figure of pure horror. He had a book clutched close to his chest
He came to a halt about four feet from me, who, I will confess, was rooted to the spot with pure fear. The head stared straight at me and I could not look away. There was no avoiding the black gaze of those bony sockets. It was like looking into an empty grave.
Removing the book from his chest, the figure’s long thin arm reached up to place it with those which lined the shelf.
Then he spoke. I started back in dismay.
The voice was faint, a mere croak, dry as if unused for many years, like the sound of the withered leaves of autumn as they whisper to each other in the street.
‘I now return your book sir, I have found that for which I have long searched. I have found my true resting place at last. It lays below’.
With that, he seemed to sink into the floor and at the same time slowly fade from sight. Recovering, I withdrew the book. It contained a history of the streets of Liverpool. A particular place was marked with a smear of mud. It told of the demolition of St Peter’s Church in 1919 that once stood on this very place. It also told of how the bodies were removed and placed elsewhere.
One can only assume that the poor fellow had been searching for his original place of burial and it was the only place his spirit could find peace.
I believe he has found his peace, for I have not seen him since. And yet, sometimes, when I venture into the Stacks again, I still catch the sense of a smell which is not the ancient aroma of good books, but something else, as if the breath of the grave has not quite gone from the place.”