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The Advent Visitor by C.J Faraday

" I will give you my soul, if you will teach me learning and wisdom"

Dr Christina J Faraday has a talent for writing fiction and her short ghost story set at St John's College, The Advent Visitor, has been published in a literary magazine. Here the St John's alumna shares her macabre tale...

'Quis est ille qui venit?'

It was to be my first Christmas vacation in college. As soon as term ended, practically overnight the library emptied and the dining hall was deserted. In the long black evenings the windows – recently bright with the hundred cheerful lights of late-working students – stared dumbly into the empty courts.

I relieved the monotony of my solitary trips to the library with attendance at chapel. Sundays were my favourite, marking the weeks with the progression of Advent. I liked the theme of anticipation that infused the season. I too was waiting: for the start of the next term, the return of my friends, the end of the silence. It wasn’t all bad – I enjoyed the peace of college in those weeks when almost everyone, except the night porter, the chaplain and a handful of life fellows, had gone home. In a way I liked having the place to myself, but it was lonely.

It was a couple of weeks into the vacation, and I was now used to seeing the same four or five familiar faces around college and in the stalls opposite mine in the chapel. The life fellows never took much notice of me, except one, Professor John Fanshawe, an ancient scholar of seventeenth-century literature. We would exchange nods when we met in the courts, raising our eyes just enough to recognise each other through the flurries of snow which fell often that December but never settled.

On the second Sunday of Advent, as I was leaving Evensong, I overheard hushed voices in the ante-chapel. Fanshawe had hurried down from his stall as soon as the service ended, and now grasped the chaplain’s arm, looking at him intently. The chaplain was saying something – I caught the words ‘--forgives those who truly repent’. But the professor wasn’t satisfied: ‘But are there things he can’t forgive?’ he asked urgently. Before the chaplain could answer, Fanshawe saw me approaching and turned to leave.

I didn’t dwell on what I’d overheard. My work was going badly, and that was all I could think about. Finally my brain stalled completely, and I decided to take a walk by the river to clear my head. The trees were completely bare now, and an icy fog hung low over the water. As I walked a huddled form took shape in front of me. The outline grew stronger as I approached, and I saw that it was Professor Fanshawe. He had stopped next to a willow tree, and was staring into the water.

“Good afternoon,” I said, while I was still a few feet away.

The professor started from his reverie, and turned to look at me.

“Ah, good afternoon. Are you also taking a stroll? Would you care to join me?”

I fell into step beside him. We didn’t talk much, exchanged a word here or there about the college. He asked me how my work was going.

“I’m meant to be writing a book about witchcraft – or devil worship, really – and church law. But I’m a bit stuck,” I confessed.

“A walk can often help with that, you made a good decision coming out,” he said.

I nodded. We found ourselves wandering along the back road, towards the old church on the outskirts of the city. The churchyard, long since disused, contained the earthly remains of many a distinguished scholar, and I sometimes thought about the erudite conversations taking place under that quiet earth.

Today in the gloom the place had a sorrowful, neglected air. The tombstones slanted at precarious angles, and ivy and lichen had reclaimed the names of their owners. We threaded ourselves between the graves, walking in parallel lines. The professor stopped and rested his hand on a stone which faced in my direction. I read the name.

‘Professor John Fanshawe’

I caught my breath, and looked at the man who stood quietly by the tombstone. Was he... He couldn’t be...

“My father’s grave,” the professor’s voice brought me back to earth. My readings on necromancy were getting to me.

“He was a scholar too – of physics, not literature. He was a true scientist: he dealt in facts. It was my mother’s idea to bury him in a churchyard: he couldn’t stand religion, or superstition of any kind.” My companion hesitated, “I’m afraid I was a disappointment to him.”

I wanted to ask what he meant, but didn’t feel I could probe. He said nothing else. We walked back to college in silence, until finally we found ourselves at the foot of his staircase.

“I enjoyed our walk,” he said as he climbed the stairs, “I hope your work picks up.”

I thanked him and returned to my set. It was getting dark now, a rare glimpse of moon visible through a chink in the clouds, and snow was starting to fall again.

That night I lay awake listening to the sound of snowflakes hissing in the grate. Around midnight I thought I heard footsteps on the staircase. They seemed to pause on the second landing, before receding again into the night.

In the morning I met with a gruesome sight. Spots of red trailed from the bottom of my staircase to the middle of the court, and last night’s snow, thick on the lawn, had been whipped into a frenzy. From a feather-strewn pool of red and pink the prints of a fox led away towards the bridge. I was surprised I hadn’t heard the struggle: I thought I had been awake all night. I averted my eyes and turned toward the library with a shudder.

My days in the library continued to be unproductive. The third Sunday of Advent came and went, and I exchanged a friendly nod with Professor Fanshawe across the stalls, but otherwise I saw no-one except my books. Day after day I tried to make sense of my sources, but the words swam before my eyes, playing tricks with their size and depth on the page. I felt distracted and far away, as though floating high above the library, the college, the town. Too much quiet can have that effect on me. Bleary with eye-strain, finally I decided to venture out of the college for an evening, seek out dinner in a local pub – preferably one with a fire – in the hope that the chatter of December revellers would shake me down from my eyrie.

As I crossed the court on my way into town, I bumped into Professor Fanshawe again. He was carrying a book, and as he approached I read the title: Divination, Witchcraft and Canon Law. We stopped to speak.

“That looks like something I ought to read,” I said, gesturing towards the book.

Fanshawe looked troubled. He took a small step back and glanced around as if looking for an escape route. “I—I’m sorry. I don’t lend my books,” he said shortly.

I was taken aback by this sudden frost on our conversation, “oh – of course. That’s ok – I didn’t mean that. I just thought it looked interesting.”

Fanshawe nodded, but I could see he was still troubled. “I’d best be going,” he said, and set off again across the court.

I felt puzzled – we’d been getting along so well. I knew I’d just been trying to make conversation, but somehow it felt like my fault, that the professor was for some reason annoyed with me. I shook my head and hurried into town.

Dinner in the pub only compounded my misery. Sitting alone amidst the light and noise made me feel more dislocated than ever. I returned to college having sunk further into gloom; here at least I found some sympathy from the dark and silent buildings, the blind, staring windows.

When I got to my room I found a note wedged under my door.

“Sorry for my gruffness earlier,” read the scrawl, “come for a drink in my set, after chapel on Sunday?”

I felt a little better, and not totally alone in this strange place. I would go, of course. And I wouldn’t ask to borrow any books.

Gargoyle figure

Sunday came with a dry wind, that howled at the stained glass windows all through Evensong, drowning out the Confession and the Collect and making the candles gutter. After the service I followed Fanshawe into the antechapel, where he deposited his optional college surplice, and out into the biting air of the evening. We fought our way to his set, large and welcoming, a freshly-made fire bubbling in the grate (I supposed the more senior fellows could persuade the college staff to light one for them). Books, of course, lined the room from floor to ceiling, and as I sank into the spacious armchair a sense of calm washed over me for the first time in many weeks.

“Sherry?” Offered Fanshawe, and poured us each a generous glass.

We sat in opposite chairs, next to the fire; apart from a solitary lamp in the corner it was the only source of light in the room. The flames picked out his features as he spoke about his research and the college’s history, and I listened in a sleepy haze.

“You said you work on the black arts,” he said suddenly, leaning forward in his chair, “I have a story to tell you. It concerns the College, back in the seventeenth century.”

I tried to sit up in the armchair but immediately sank back into the cushions. He was looking into the fire, as if he could read the story he was telling amidst the flames.

“It was a winter just like this one: sudden, early snow, and shortly before Christmas a great storm. Howling gales, chunks of tree in the river. A young scholar, Ashbourner they called him, was staying over Christmas, and he was filled with dread over an upcoming disputation – you know the kind, an oral examination – for his degree. In his despair he went to the library, looking for guidance, and came across a very strange book. Full of arcane diagrams, it promised its reader learning and wisdom. Apparently this Ashbourner took it to his room, and followed its instructions. I don’t know exactly what it would have involved – you could probably say better than I – but candles, chalk on the ground, incantations, that sort of thing. But – nothing happened.”

The professor paused, and took a sip from his glass.

“So Ashbourner ventured out, right out into the storm, more desperate than ever. He hadn’t gone much further than the bridge when he was met by a well-dressed man, in the robes of a Master of Arts. The man asked Ashbourner why he was unhappy, and the scholar told him everything, and in particular that he couldn’t understand his books. The man offered to help him, and as they walked clarified everything he had been finding difficult. Then the man put forward two new questions: first, whether God was omnipotent, and second, whether God was Good, or simply an absence of evil. They talked about these matters for a while, and then the man offered Ashbourner the chance to study with him. He invited him to Padua, where he was a professor, to study at the ancient university there. Ashbourner willingly accepted, binding himself with the promise: I will give you my soul, if you will teach me learning and wisdom.”

“The man was the Devil, then?”

“Summoned by Ashbourner’s spells: so it would seem. In any case, when the scholar returned to his room, he grew afraid. The next day his gown was found in the river. The boy was never heard of again.”

“Perhaps he was in Padua,” I said, wryly.

The fire crackled between us.

“I found his name, you know,” he said finally, “in the college records, buttery accounts, that sort of thing. Some of the books in the library belonged to him.”

“Did you find out what really happened?” I asked.

“He’s quite traceable, until Christmas 1646, and then–“ the professor made a gesture with his hand, like letting go of a balloon, “--nothing. He just vanishes.”

“How strange,” I said, and finished my sherry.

We listened to the clock on the mantelpiece chime 11pm. It was late – we had been talking for hours. But as the chimes died away I noticed the professor seemed to grow tense. He drew back into his chair, like a long, slow flinch.

Old door

Then there was a knock at the door.

I glanced in its direction, and waited to see if the professor would answer it, but he continued to stare at the fire. He made no motion to get up.

I started up myself, thinking perhaps it was my job, as the junior partner in the conversation. But as I began to move the professor looked at me, wide-eyed.

“Don’t answer it!” he said, urgently.

I looked at him, confused. “But it’s late – they must want something. It could be important.”

“Don’t answer it,” he said again. “There’s no-one there.”

I started to laugh but a sharp look stopped me.

“Stay, won’t you?” he said, suddenly small in the large armchair, “just a few more minutes.”

“But the door, professor?”

“It won’t happen again, tonight,” he said, with an air of certainty I couldn’t answer.

Eventually, at a quarter to midnight, the professor seemed content to let me go.

“Come again?” he said, as I left, “Thursday?”

Thursday was Christmas Eve, but I had no other plans.

“Yes, I’d be happy to,” I said, and turned away down the staircase.

Over the next few days my work finally seemed to be making sense again. It was as if Professor Fanshawe’s story had broken the spell over me. Or perhaps I was Ashbourner, and Fanshawe the mysterious Master of Arts who appeared in my hour of need... The college was deadly quiet now. The porters had been given the week off. It seemed as though Fanshawe and I were the only people in the college, save the Chaplain, who I wouldn’t see until Christmas morning.

The days slipped by easily enough, and seemingly without any warning at all it was Thursday. I had received another note, inviting me to come at 8pm. When I arrived, the outer of the two doors was open, showing that the Professor was at home to visitors. I knocked.

“It’s open,” he called from inside, and then, as I entered, “let’s sport the oak, we don’t want to be disturbed.”

I closed the outer door as instructed.

Our conversation was the usual mixture of research and college matters. He seemed genuinely pleased that my work was going well again. The wind, which had not dipped since Sunday, whistled down the chimney as we drank our port. Emboldened by the alcohol inside us and the privacy of the gloom, our talk became more conspiratorial.

“I didn’t tell you how I came to know so much about Ashbourner, did I?” said Fanshawe, his eyes half-closed.

“No, please do,” I said, sensing another story.

“You see, I wasn’t so dissimilar from him in my youth,” he said slyly, taking another sip of port. “Always looking for the easy way out – feckless, if you want the truth.”

“Come now Professor,” I said, “you expect me to believe that!”

“Well, it wasn’t just me – there were two of us actually. I had a friend, Alexander. But we all called him Oakeshott. We went everywhere together, and never to the library. Except, that is, on one occasion. Oakeshott was out of town, it was the start of the Christmas vacation, and I was starting to worry about my studies. So I went to have a rummage in the Old Library, see what I could see. And I found this book; a book of spells.”

“Like the one Ashbourner found?” I smiled, enjoying this new convergence of fiction and reality.

The professor didn’t answer.

“I took it back to my rooms and studied it. I learned a lot, about the black arts. I had this idea that I could use it to jazz up some boring essay on church law or something. But I didn’t try any of it out, you know, I was too frightened. When Oakeshott came back, he found the book and wheedled it out of me, everything I’d been reading. I was reluctant to tell him at first, I thought he might laugh at me. But he was interested – much more than I had anticipated. He asked if he could borrow the book.

“I said yes, and we agreed he would return it on Christmas Eve, before he went home. After that I didn’t see him for ages. We had exams coming up in January, and neither of us had done a jot of work for them. I sometimes walked past his window and I could see him pacing and gesticulating, as if talking to someone else in the room, just out of sight. One evening he saw me looking, and quickly closed his curtains. This went on for days, then finally it was Christmas Eve. I knew Oakeshott was going home, so I went to his room and knocked – but there was no answer. I looked everywhere, all our usual haunts, but he was nowhere to be found. Actually I was rather annoyed – I wanted the book back. Something about it intrigued me... but it was no good.

“That night I was lying awake in bed, fuming about Oakeshott and wondering what could have happened, when there was a knock at my door. I went to open it, and-”

I leaned forward in my chair, “yes, professor?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“There was nobody there.”

We sat in silence for a few minutes. The professor seemed to be gathering himself for what he had to say next.

“They found him – or rather, his coat, in the river, about a mile downstream, a week later.”

I sat back in my chair; just like Ashbourner, I thought.

“His family had been expecting him, but he never arrived home. They said he must have fallen into the river in the dark, found himself unable to climb out,” he paused. “But there was unrest in the college after it happened. One of the older fellows took me aside and asked me if I knew about ‘Ashbourner’s book’. I pretended not to, but my name was on the library slip. No further mention was made of it, but when I tried to find out who Ashbourner was nobody would tell me. It was only by digging around in the archives many years later that I discovered what he meant.”

“You mean – it was the same book?” I asked.

“I don’t know for sure – it was never found either. But I think it must have been,” he paused, “and every Sunday in Advent, every year since then, there has been a knock at my door. But when I open it, there is never anyone there”.

Silence again, and then the chimes. One, two, three... I counted to eleven.

Knock, knock.

We waited in silence. Neither of us moved.

Knock, knock.

Still we waited. Minutes, five, ten, twenty passed, but we sat there motionless.

Finally, as the clock chimed half past eleven, I rose to go.

“Goodnight, Professor,” I said. He had sunk back into his chair, exhausted by his story.

“Do you think—” the professor started, then fell silent.

“Professor?”

He turned towards me. “Do you think—I mean to say, you’re religious. Do you think God forgives?”

I realised then that it wasn’t fear that afflicted the professor, that made him cower in his chair when the knock came. It was guilt.

“But you couldn’t have known he would use the book in that way,” I said.

“I should have known,” he said, sadly.

I left the professor by the fire and opened his door. No-one there, as he had predicted. But in the dim light from the room I thought I could see an evaporating footprint on the stair.

The next morning I rose early for the Christmas service. The wind had stopped, the clouds were a light but threatening grey. Yet I was surprised to find, when I looked towards his usual stall, that Fanshawe was not in attendance that morning. After the service the chaplain came towards me with a platitudinous smile.

“Sad,” he intoned, “but not untimely.”

I asked what he meant.

“Professor Fanshawe’s absence – I saw you noted it too. I’m afraid to say he died yesterday, but he went peacefully enough.”

I started, “Yesterday?”

“Yes, I went to see him shortly before... He was in bed.”

“But—what time yesterday?” I asked, my heart thudding.

“In the afternoon, around sundown. This morning I looked in again, all peaceful and secure. Except-,” he paused, glancing towards the altar, “it’s an odd thing. This morning there was a book on his table, I could have sworn it wasn’t there when I left him, last night. And after all, he couldn’t have—but perhaps I just didn’t notice. My mind was on other things.”

“A book?” I encouraged him.

“Yes, from the college library. It was,” he hesitated, choosing his words carefully, “about dark things. I was worried he might have been more troubled than I realised.” He crossed himself, “but he died at peace. I think he has known that the end was close for some time now. Did you have a chance to say goodbye?”

I muttered something and left. I had to get out of the oppressive gloom of the chapel and into the fresh air. The news had unsettled me deeply.

During the service snow had started to fall again, not settling now, but melting as soon as it touched the cobbles. On the path ahead of me the flakes seemed to transform themselves, for a moment, into a familiar, huddled shape, but dissolved again in an instant.

Interview with Dr Christina J Faraday: Is it worse to sell your soul to the devil or fail your exams? A spine-chilling tale at St John’s finds out

Published 17/05/20

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