The Ghostly Tale Continues
Other letters from Josephine continue the story of James' haunted home and introduce their strange bookseller friend, A. Wiggins, and his even stranger sister.
At the foot of a precipitous cobblestone street there is a delightful book shop which I shall haunt for the rest of my life, Josephine writes. It may have been here since the city began I don't know how many centuries ago, and is crammed with many a dusty volume of forgotten lore.
A dingy sign over the door proclaims "A. Wiggins, Prop." and equally ancient lettering on the only window advertises
The door opens with a soft tinkling of bells hanging above it, admitting one to another world.
A. Wiggins is a small, bent, astigmatic gnome dressed in ancient pantaloons, grimy cuffs showing below the sleeves of his bottle-green, wide-skirted coat. Around his neck is a silk scarf (he has the quinsy these raw days) and unbelievable square spectacles are pushed up on his balding head with its long, lank fringe of grizzled hair.
His brow is high and intelligent, his eyes black and bright, but he has a queer way of peering up at one with his head cocked to one side. His large nose is a heritage from some Roman Conqueror, and his mouth is full of yellowed snaggle teeth above a pointed chin sporting a wispy goatee. When he smiles his mouth is a grotesque crooked slash in the wizened parchment of his face.
On shelves, tables, and stacked on the floor all around this odd little man lie the largest collection of books I have ever seen. At the front of the shop are new books, stationery, and a rental library presided over by A. Wiggins' Sister in a rusty black gown topped by a disreputable wooly sweater. A stiletto-sharp pencil pierces her dyed-red hair and her mouth is pursed as tho she was sucking on a lemon.
Beyond in the stygian stacks lit only by an occasional bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, lie treasures. Since James introduced me to A. Wiggins and Sister I have been accepted in my own right and may peruse at my leisure, flashlight (here known as a torch) in hand for there are corners to which no light penetrates and from which one may draw long sought volumes or unheard-of but irresistable tomes.
The shop is large, but, being so over-crowded, seems almost claustrophobic. I was there at teatime one memorable day and was invited to join the odd pair in that refreshment. Far back in an obscure corner we climbed a winding stair, its treads edged with books, to the apartment above.
After a most excellent meal (strong China tea, boiled eggs, sausages, bread and butter with honey or bitter orange marmalade, saffron and seed cakes) during which both A. Wiggins and Sister took a drop of flavoring in their tea from a brown glass bottle, I was afforded a great honor. Next to the parlour where we ate was a largish room lined with locked shelves. A small fire glowed in the grate, reflecting in the gleaming bright fender and striking a glow from the exquisite Chippendale desk which centered the room. The whole apartment was scrupulously clean, I might add, and the dishes from which we had eaten were the finest bone china, very old, I am sure.
I was ceremoniously seated while A. Wiggins removed a ring of keys from some cavernous pocket and proceeded to unlock the shelves. Well, talk about first editions! I held in my hands a magnificent illuminated Book of Hours from some forgotten monastery, a Shakespeare folio, a manuscript of Keats, first editions of Browning, Kate Greenaway, Stevenson, an "Alice in Wonderland" signed by both Lewis Carroll and John Tenniell. I lost track finally. The small, odd, wonderful man stood rubbing his dry palms together and chuckling at my amazement and pleasure.
"A.Wiggins knows a good book when he sees one. A.Wiggins knows and his father knew before him. You know too, Miss. A.Wiggins can tell. You are welcome here anytime. You appreciate A.Wiggins books, you and young Jamie Wagoner. You're a pair, you are. Yes sir, a pair is what you are."
This he uttered in his curiously rich, pleasant voice which contrasts sharply with his bizarre appearance.
It was some time after our marriage that James and I experienced the greatest adventure we ever had at the bookshop. It was an ordinary English day, gray skies, pelting rain, and nasty winds that crept up on one driving cold, wet draughts down one's neck. James had invited me to come along with him to the book shop and I accepted for its proprietor and his sister fascinated me.
Wiggins scuttled to meet us as we entered. His rusty clothes and fringe of sparse grey hairs seemed more wildly unkempt than ever. He did not have his usual smile for me but fixed James with blazing eyes.
"Jamie, you've been long enough coming. Sister said you'd be here. She has THE POWER, Jamie. I've never seen it so strong."
And he turned the key in the lock, flipping the 'open' sign to 'closed' before he hurried us toward the back of the shop and the winding stair to the apartment. That Wiggins had neglected to greet me was an indication of the depth of his agitation.
"The devil she has! Why didn't you let me know, Wiggs?"
That James' haunt-hunting instincts were aroused was evident as we followed our strange friend between the towering stacks and up the booklined crooked staircase to the living quarters.
"If I only had the tape recorder," James mourned. "I've wanted to get her on tape for years. Josephine, you'll have to take down every word. I simply must have a record of this."
Though I had gone haunt-hunting with James several times, I had seldom felt more than a hint of the atmosphere he senses so strongly. Entering the Wiggins parlour, I was struck by a chill air unaffected by the fire glowing in the hearth. Indeed, the winds that had pursued us all down the hill seemed to have followed us indoors.
"James Wagoner is here, Morgan." Wiggins spoke to the apparently empty room. I had never heard Sister's name before and wondered if she were named for Morgan LeFey. Later I decided she must be a direct descendant of that powerful sorceress.
James handed me his pocket-tablets before taking the seat next to the high-backed wing chair that held Morgan Wiggin's tiny figure. Her sharp, bitter features had relaxed into an ageless mask. Two small, claw-like hands lay palms up on the arms of the chair.
"Put your hand on Morgan's, James. That will give her the contact she needs." Wiggs said as he drew up a stool and took his sister's other hand. She shuddered violently as the two men touched her.
"Write, Josie, write every word." James commanded. Then he asked in a different tone,
"Who wishes to speak with James Wagoner?"
Morgan's eyes opened, fixed on nothing in that room or this world. Her face changed, grew heavier, almost masculine, and her voice deepened to a resonant basso. James winced as her hand clamped around his fingers. I was conscious of warmth replacing the miserable cold that had filled the room. My fear vanished even though James appeared to be joining Morgan in her trance. She spoke or at least the words came from her lips.
"I have waited long to speak with you, my son. Do you know me?"
Yes, I know you, Reverend Father." James answered.
"Do you remember when I spoke to you before?"
"It was long ago. I was very small. I was ill. You talked to me. You said one day you would tell me what to do to remove the curse from my house." James sounded like a feverish child now.
"It is time. Go to the cellar in the old wing. Take up the floor-stones next the chimney. Do you understand?" The words were becoming hurried and fainter.
"I understand." James replied.
"Have what you find there blessed and removed to the proper place. Then all will be well." The last words were faint and far away.
Morgan slumped in her chair and would have fallen had her brother not caught her in his arms. James remained suspended between two worlds and I dared not touch him for he had told me never to disturb him in this state. Between us, Wiggins and I got Morgan stretched out on the sofa and applied restoratives.
"She'd been waiting hours for Jamie to come but she'd not let me send. Here, Sister, take a bit more." Wiggs bent above his strange, unlovely sister with all the tenderness of a mother with an ailing babe. James groaned and I hurried to supply him with a drink from Wigg's brown bottle. Shortly thereafter I found myself pouring tea as calmly as though nothing had happened and wondering if it really had.
The next afternoon a party of five descended into the labyrinth that makes up the cellars of the abandoned part of the house. James had summoned the Vicar, Mr Billingham, Sir Charles Henley the police justice, and Bill Wormer, a "local" who could swing a pickaxe and be sufficiently confused by two or three pints to forget anything he might see. I went along as witness carrying 2 cameras, one loaded with infa-red film.
Careful study of the ancient plans of the old wing had yielded the location of what James judged to be the right chimney. Wormer, his muscles well loosened by several drafts of aged ale, set to work on the paving stones with pick and crowbar. Three slabs proved to be loose in their beds but it took the combined efforts of all four men to heave them aside.
I stood ready, camera in hand as James turned the lantern beam into what proved to be a burial crypt forgotten since the monks were driven from the Abbey in the time of Henry VIII. I took several pictures, aiming blindly at the hole for, in spite of the light shed by the electric lantern, we could see little. James took pictures with infa-red film before any of them descended through the opening.
Mr Billingham began the ritual for exorcism but after a moment James stopped him, suggesting prayers for the repose of the soul instead. James had that strange look on his face again and the vicar quickly turned the pages of his prayer book to the requisite prayers.
There was little to remove in the brass-bound box James had ready. A few shreds of cloth, a strand of hair, a few bones, a scattering of dust, and a rusty shard of metal that could have been a knife blade. In the far corner lay a gold ring with a crest well known to Sir Charles and James. That was put aside and returned to the present head of the family. Whether or not he believed the story of its discovery, we do not know. He accepted the ring saying he knew what to do with it.
Two days after the ring had been returned and the box with its contents properly interred in the church yard, James and I opened the locked wing and once more approached the door to the abandoned schoolroom. For the first time in his life James could step into that room without being beset by mindless terror.
We do not know what secret tragedy had held that room in a mysterious icy grip for so many years. We only know the grip is loosened and the house is free, haunted now only by the Cavalier in the Long Gallery and the Lady in Blue in the Maze.
Though this is the conclusion of the tale of the haunted schoolroom, James and Josephine had another ghost story to tell. You'll find it in the next Ghostly Tale.