Court 3: A Ghost Story (à la M.R.James)

Among the towns of Jutland, Viborg justly holds a high place. It is the seat of a bishopric, has a handsome although almost entirely new cathedral, a lake of great beauty, and a charming botanical garden.

Viborg Cathedral

Viborg Cathedral

The sun was setting as my cousin, Mr. John Anderson, whose experiences I have to tell you of now, walked up to the door of the Golden Lion hotel one cold Winter’s afternoon just over a year ago. He was delighted with the old-fashioned appearance of the place which, he was soon to learn, was one of the few buildings in the old town not to have been damaged or destroyed in the great fire of 1726. He was researching the Church history of Denmark and it had come to his knowledge that in the Rigsarkiv of Viborg were papers saved from the fire which related to the last days of Roman Catholicism in the country. He proposed, therefore, to spend two or three weeks in examining and copying these, hoping that the Golden Lion would be able to provide him with a room of sufficient size to serve alike as a bedroom and a study.

Upon entering the building, he explained his wishes to the landlord and, after inspecting several rooms, chose one on the first floor which looked onto the street. The pretty view, he reasoned, would more than compensate him for the additional amount of noise. What he did not know at the time, was what he was about to experience.

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On the day after his arrival, my cousin immersed himself in the Rigsarkiv library. He was, as one might expect in Denmark, kindly received and access to to all that he wished to see was made as easy for him as possible by the Archivist of Viborg, Herr Scavenius. The documents laid before him were far more numerous and interesting that he had anticipated. Besides official papers, there was a large bundle of correspondence relating to Bishop Jörgen Friis, the last Roman Catholic to hold the see. In these there cropped up many amusing and what are commonly called ‘intimate’ details of private life and individual character. There was, for example, much talk of a house owned by the Bishop in the town, but not occupied by him. The behaviour of its tenant, a Magister Nicolas Francken, was apparently somewhat of a scandal and a godsend to the Protestant opposition. He was a disgrace, they wrote, to the town; he practiced secret and wicked arts and had sold his soul to the Devil. The Bishop met these reproaches boldly, protesting his own abhorrence of all such dark arts, and challenging his opponents to bring the matter before the ‘proper court’; in other words, the spiritual court. My cousin had not much time to do more than glance at the next letter (from the Protestant leader, Rasmus Nielsen) before the library was closed for the day.

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As it was still relatively early, my cousin decided to explore the streets around the Rigsarkiv. Many of the buildings appeared to be relatively new, but he was delighted to stumble upon many which bore some of the architectural characteristics of the Golden Lion. He was also pleased to see that the medieval layout of the old town’s streets had been preserved and so determined to indulge himself in aimless wandering around the area. As the light began to fade, he found himself in a narrow passage-way near the cathedral looking at a brass plate fixed to the wall of a modern red-brick building; it bore the legend ‘Viborg Squashklub.’ Being a keen player, he entered the building and enquired as to the possibility of obtaining a visiting membership for the duration of his stay. The steward on duty was pleased to make the necessary arrangements and even offered to find some suitable opponents for my cousin to play. A tour of the modest yet well-maintained facilities – including two courts and a gentlemen’s changing room – followed, after which the steward agreed to contact him at his hotel with details of suitable court times and opponents. Satisfied with his day’s efforts, my cousin returned to the Golden Lion for his evening meal.

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The following morning brought word from the steward that he had located an opponent for my cousin who was available to play at seven o’clock that evening. My cousin sent a reply thanking him and agreeing to the match, before breakfasting and setting out for the Rigsarkiv library. On arriving at the library, he signed the visitor’s book and almost at once encountered Herr Scavenius, who had retrieved more papers for his attention. The Arkivist looked forward with great pleasure to seeing the publication in which my cousin was intending to summarise their contents, and expressed a long-held interest in identifying the house occupied by Bishop Friis’s notorious tenant almost four hundred years previously. “It is a great puzzle to me where it can have stood,” he explained. “We have the greater part of the collection of street plans from old Viborg here in the Arkiv, but the document which contained a list of town property is missing.” My cousin told him that he would endeavour to find the list and continued with his research before retiring to the Golden Lion for refreshment. In the evening, much to his satisfaction, he prevailed in his match at the Viborg Squashklub (against an accountant) before returning to his hotel and his bed.

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Over the following three days, my cousin continued with his research being, for the most part, alone in the Rigsarkiv library, sometimes to a late hour. Occasionally, he would leave the building to seek refreshment before returning to his labours, concentrated at a desk and two tables regularly replenished with documents by the Arkivist, whom he rarely encountered in the flesh. Occasionally, he would be joined in the library by other researchers, often sensing their presence as they moved amongst the labyrinthine arrangement of shelves rather than catching sight of them. On occasion, he would glimpse an indistinct figure or even just the hem of a cloak as it crossed a corridor between the shelves; at other times, he would notice the presence of an item of clothing, perhaps a scarf or a hat, hanging from the coat-stand by the library door. But the concentration he brought to his research frequently saw him lose track of time until he was obliged to accede to the audible demands of his stomach.

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On the morning of his sixth day in Viborg, a second communication arrived at the Golden Lion from the Squashklub steward, requesting my cousin’s presence that evening to play another opponent. As before, my cousin took part in a highly-enjoyable contest, this time with a physician whose stamina and accuracy rewarded him with the victory. The following day being Sunday, the Rigsarkiv was closed and my cousin took the opportunity to explore the shores of the lake before spending the afternoon and evening resting at his hotel.

Two more days in the Rigsarkiv library followed before another invitation from the steward was delivered to the Golden Lion. On his third visit to the club, however, a most unusual incident occurred. Having left the court and accompanied his opponent to the changing room, my cousin realised that he had left his towel (with which he habitually used to mop his brow between games) at the front of the court. He quickly re-traced his steps and, as he entered the corridor leading to the courts, noticed that it appeared to be longer than he had previously imagined. The far end of the corridor was shrouded in darkness although he could discern a door some distance beyond that of Court 2 on which he had just played. He retrieved his towel and, on leaving the court, determined to inspect the distant door which, he soon discovered, bore the number ‘3’. Unusually, the door was closed although it appeared to be unoccupied. No sounds, either of play or conversation, emanated from the court, nor could he see any light under the door or through the peep-hole. Although he thought this unusual, he did not investigate further and returned to the changing room, later asking his opponent whether he had ever played on Court 3. However, the reaction of his opponent left him in no doubt that his question was regarded certainly as being mischievous and possibly as disrespectful, and the two men parted without further conversation. The steward being absent from his post, my cousin was unable either to relate his experience or make further enquiries, and so returned to his hotel and his supper.

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It was several days before my cousin received another invitation to play at the Viborg Squashklub. By this time, he had forgotten the circumstances of his last visit, his attention being focussed entirely on his research at the Rigsarkiv. In the evening, he again attended the club where the steward introduced him to his opponent, a lawyer visiting Viborg from Malmö. On this occasion, he and his opponent were particularly well-matched, the score being 2-2 in games when their court time expired. The two men readily agreed to conclude their match two evenings hence and gathered their belongings in preparation for exiting the court. However, their attention was suddenly drawn to a loud and unsettling sound. It was the sound of a man laughing in a manner which could leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was either exceedingly drunk or raving mad. It was a high, thin voice which seemed dry, as if from long disuse. On and on it went, sailing to a surprising height before descending with a despairing moan, like a winter wind in a hollow chimney. Where the horrible sound was coming from, they could not tell, yet my cousin felt that, had he been alone, he would certainly have fled for refuge and assistance.

Instead, the two men left the court determined to discover the source of the sound. They began to discuss a course of action, but my cousin sensed that something had changed in the corridor in which they were standing. Looking over the shoulder of his companion towards the far end of the corridor, he could see a thin sliver of light shining from beneath the door to a court which he knew not to exist. He bade his companion accompany him to the door which, as before, he discovered to bear the number ‘3’. Emanating from behind it, they could hear the sound of laughter.

Being unable to see anything through the peep-hole, my cousin knocked on the door with his racket handle. However, there was no response from within and the sound continued as before. He and his companion then attempted to push open the door but it would not yield. Finally, the two climbed the staircase to the viewing gallery intending to see who the occupant or occupants of the court might be. On reaching their destination, however, they at once realised the futility of their action; the gallery looked down upon Courts 1 and 2, both unoccupied, but not upon Court 3. They descended uneasily from the gallery and, on reaching the corridor, noticed that, not only had the laughter stopped, but that the door to Court 3, together with that part of the corridor in which it had been located, had passed out of existence.

Desiring an explanation, they sought out the steward who assured them that the club possessed only two courts. He also denied having heard any previous reports describing experiences similar to their own, adding that he had worked at the club for many years. He returned with them to the corridor where the doors to Courts 1 and 2 stood ajar. Of the door to Court 3, there was no sign.

On returning to his hotel, my cousin retired to his room and gave careful consideration of everything he had had to eat or drink during the previous twenty-four hours. He concluded that nothing he had ingested could account for the nature of his experience at the Viborg Squashklub. If his sight or his brain was failing, he would have plenty of opportunities for ascertaining that fact; if not, then he was evidently being treated to a very interesting experience. In either case, the development of events would, he concluded, be well worth watching.

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The following day in the Rigsarkiv library, my cousin continued his examination of the episcopal correspondence I have already described. To his disappointment, it was incomplete and he could find only one other letter referring to the affair of Magister Nicolas Francken, it being from Bishop Friis to Rasmus Nielsen. The Bishop wrote: “Although we do not assent to your judgement concerning our court, we are prepared to contest your accusations regarding our trusted and well-loved Magister Nicolas Francken against whom you have dared to allege certain false and malicious charges. However, I would advise you that our brother has been suddenly removed from amongst us, it thus being apparent that the subject of your reproaches is now no longer able to defend either himself or his faith.” Search as he might, my cousin could find no sequel to this letter nor any clue as to the cause or manner of the “removal” of the casus belli. He could only suppose that Francken had died suddenly and, as there were only two days between the date of Nielsen’s last letter (when Francken was evidently still alive) and that of the Bishop’s letter, the death must have been completely unexpected.

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On the morning of the following day, my cousin reported his findings to the Arkivist who, while naturally disappointed, was curious as to what had become of Magister Francken. He therefore offered to retrieve whatever death certificates and other church records were held in the Rigsarkiv which might help my cousin determine the date and circumstances of  Francken’s death. My cousin thanked him and continued with his studies, leaving the library after a few hours to take some exercise on what was a clear and bright Winter’s day. On his return to the library, he returned to his place, acknowledging the presence, at another desk, of what he assumed to be a fellow researcher, and briefly glimpsing another figure wearing a black cloak disappear into the shelves. After another afternoon immersed in his studies, he left the deserted library and turned his mind to the evening’s forthcoming match at the Viborg Squashklub.

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Despite his previous experiences at the club, my cousin was in a cheerful mood. He arrived well before the agreed time, changed, and entered Court 2, which he found to be unoccupied. He could hear a match in progress on Court 1 but decided to warm up the ball in advance of his opponent’s arrival. After almost ten minutes, however, he realised that, not only was his opponent late, but the match on Court 1 had ended, there being no sound to be heard. He therefore decided to find out whether his opponent had arrived at the club and, propping his racket against the back wall, stepped outside the court. At that moment, something gave him cause to stop. To his left, he could see that Court 1 was deserted, its door ajar and the lights switched off. To his right, the door to Court 3 stood ajar, light streaming from it into the darkened corridor.

Fearing that the door would again disappear during the time it would take to fetch the steward, he walked towards it, with no little hesitancy. Upon reaching it, he found that, as before, it bore the number ‘3’. He paused, summoned up his courage and then, with his right hand, attempted to push the door further open. It proved to be heavy, however, and he was obliged to lean against it with his shoulder before it swung slowly inwards. To his astonishment, he found himself standing in the vestibule of what appeared to be a medieval library, not unlike that in which he had spent so many hours at the Rigsarkiv. The room was lit by candle-light, its dark wooden floorboards and panelling giving it a melancholy air. In the vestibule stood two large tables bearing what he assumed to be the library’s catalogues, each bound in brown leather. Several desks, each flanked by chairs, bounded the vestibule, their surfaces littered with manuscripts. The chair beside one desk appeared to have been turned sideways to allow its occupant egress. On the surface of the desk, amongst the documents, lay a black, wide-brimmed hat, typical of those he knew to be worn by clergymen in that part of Denmark. Beyond the vestibule stood the library’s shelves, rowed on either side of a central corridor and disappearing into darkness. In the shadows overhead, my cousin could discern the ceiling which was constructed from heavy timbers. With the exception of the vestibule the room was dimly lit, it being impossible for my cousin to ascertain its size.

6JK9_HIt was then that he sensed that there was something wrong with the atmosphere in the room. A musty smell, an unnaturally strong odour of dust, permeated the room emanating, as far as he could tell, from somewhere within the shelves. He took a few steps across the vestibule, his eyes fixed upon the darkened rows stretching away from him. Reaching the first, he strained to hear anything which would give him cause to determine whether he was alone in the room. At first, he could hear nothing but then, as he progressed further along the corridor, he heard first the rustling of pages being turned and then the unmistakable sound of a man at first chuckling and then laughing loudly; laughing in a high, thin voice. He reached the next row, the sounds becoming louder. There was still no sign of whoever now shared the room with him. At the next row, darker now, he stopped. To his left stood a figure – a man – wearing a black cloak, his back towards the spot where my cousin now stood, barely able to draw breath. The man had a bald head, a  head which looked dry and dusty, with white streaks of hair drawn across it. In that moment, the laughter ceased abruptly and the man turned slowly round, letting my cousin see his face. It was perfectly dry, the mouth open, its yellowed teeth grinning, the eyes deep-sunken and sightless. Over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bones, stretched cobwebs – thick, white cobwebs.  

My cousin stepped backwards, colliding with a shelf, staring all the time into the sightless eyes before him. He struggled momentarily to keep his balance, trying to draw in his breath but, in his panic, he felt himself sinking, drowning in an odour of dust and decay, falling towards the open mouth of a tomb. He turned and ran, stumbling along the corridor towards the vestibule, towards the refuge beyond the door, not daring to look behind him, all the while smelling the putrid smell of death and hearing again the laughter of madness echoing in his ears.

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My cousin has no knowledge of how he reached the sanctuary of the steward’s office. The steward, who was fortunately on duty, helped him to to calm himself   before arranging for him to change back into his outdoor clothes and take a cab to his hotel. My cousin did not wish to remain alone at any time whilst he remained at the club, and refused to return to Court 2 to retrieve his racket and towel. After a sleepless night spent barricaded in his room, he checked out of the hotel and caught the earliest possible train to Copenhagen, arriving in London two days later. He subsequently related his experiences to me, by which time a further development had taken place. Some two weeks after his sudden return to England, he received a letter from the Herr Scavenius, asking after his health and communicating the results of his own research. He had found no evidence of the death of Nicolas Francken despite the availability of surprisingly comprehensive records from the period. Neither had he managed to locate the long-lost property list from the same period. However, within the correspondence relating to Bishop Friis but not yet examined by my cousin, he had found a letter from Rasmus Nielsen asking for assistance in tracing the whereabouts of a member of his movement who had disappeared. The individual concerned was a scholar who was engaged in researching the occult and other aspects of Devil worship and the black arts. Some weeks before, the man had been seen entering the house occupied by Magister Nicolas Francken since when he had not been seen. The matter had been referred to the Overkonstabel of Viborg who had questioned  Magister Francken but no trace of the scholar had been found, adding to Nielsen’s suspicions regarding the Bishop’s tenant. The missing man was of English extraction.

His name was John Anderson.

Acknowledgements

This story is based on the short story ‘Number 13’ by M.R.James. It also includes a scene based on a ghostly encounter in a library taken from his story ‘The Tractate Middoth.’