I move slowly and soundlessly towards the source of the light ahead of me. The faint scratching sound becomes a little more discernable… I recognise the sound, it is so familiar… what is it? As I get closer, I can make out a small, narrow stone archway in the wall. The light is coming from beyond. There must be another room. I switch off my torch so as not to bring attention to my presence; the element of surprise may be useful. Unconsciously, my grip on the torch alters and I move carefully to the mouth of the archway. Peeking through, I can see that there is, indeed, another room. It is illuminated by several candles, which are placed on… blimey. This really is a Crypt. This second room is larger than the one I entered. Wider, deeper and, I don’t mind admitting, a little spookier. Why spookier? I don’t know, it must be the tombs. There are about twelve stone tombs, all beautifully ornate, lined like sleeping sentries throughout the room.
Mesmerised, I walk through the archway and into the sepulchre. It is actually quite beautiful in the candlelight, the warm glow on the carved stone giving the feeling of being in a rather macabre sculpture gallery. Hang on, that’s a point – the candles. Who lit the candles? There can be very few people in Old College who have the key to the trapdoor. The little scratchy sound that led me in here has stopped. Whatever is in here, knows I’m in here too. My heart is in my mouth. Only one thing for it.
“Hello?” I venture.
“Hello, Deputy Head Porter” I nearly jump clean out of my own skin at the measured, not entirely friendly reply that is delivered in rich, clipped tones. My torch flicks on and I scan the room wildly.
“Who’s there?!” I reply, trying to keep my voice steady. My torchlight falls on a figure, hunched in a battered old chair between two of the tombs. As the harsh, battery-operated beam falls upon my unseen companion, the figure raises a hand to deflect it as it unfurls itself from the chair and stands up. It is a tall, thin, immaculately dressed man with carefully coiffured white hair. I let the beam of my torch drop to the floor. It is The Master of College.
“Deputy Head Porter, this is indeed a surprise.”
“Yes, your Lordship, this is a surprise.” The Master is both a Professor and a Lord of the Realm. This is impressive, even by Old College standards.
“Won’t you join me? I am just doing some sudoko puzzles.” Pen on paper! That was the sound!
“At this late hour, Sir? In here?”
“The hour is actually rather early, I feel” The Master replies, kindly. And I suppose he is right; we are at that rather confusing point in time that could be either very late at night or very early in the morning, depending on your point of view.
The Master returns to his worn old chair between the tombs and gestures to a less inviting wooden stool, abandoned near the archway. I pull up the stool and join him between the tombs. In the candlelight, The Master is a striking man. He is aged and withered, but his eyes are sharp and alive and as clear as night. A fierce intelligence sizzles behind them, and it is not simply the academic intelligence of one who has stuffed their head with books for years, but a genuine, frightening, brilliance. The delicately lined skin on his face clings to his skull with grim determination. The passage of time has not completely hidden the fact that this was once a very powerful, handsome face.
“What brings you here at this hour, Deputy Head Porter?” The Master’s words are spoken beautifully, but with an underlying air of razor wire.
“…. Security patrols?” I offer, feebly. “How…?”
“There is a passageway from The Lodge that allows me access to The Crypt,” The Master replies, anticipating my question. Of course. I remember from The Guided Tour that The Master’s Lodge has secret passageways to almost all of Old College. The Master continues “Back from the days when The Old Masters where interred here after their deaths.” It is they who occupy the tombs that surround us.
“But what are you doing down here, Sir?” I ask.
“I told you. Sudoku. It is peaceful here. I am never disturbed. Until now.”
“But isn’t it a little… spooky?” I ignore his last two words deliberately.
“Spooky? Deputy Head Porter, I am a man of science! I do not get… spooked”
He is a Professor of Economics, but maybe that is a type of science. I feel it is not my place to point this out, nor to pursue it further. And, actually, the dead bodies aside, it isn’t that spooky. It is, in fact, rather beautiful down here. A thought strikes me.
“Your Lordship, I share your pragmatic view. But in a place as ancient as Old College, surely there must be some ghost stories from over the years? If such a thing were to be true, could Old College be haunted?”
The faintest of smiles appears on his thin lips and he waves an elegant, spindly hand dismissively.
“Oh, you would think so, wouldn’t you? But no. Old College seems to be completely without ghost stories. Do you find that strange?”
I must admit that I do. You would think, at some point in the last six hundred years, there would have been someone with an over active imagination and prone to mystical dramatics. Particularly when you consider the amount of drink consumed on the premises, by students and Fellows alike.
“It is a little odd, Sir.”
“But then, I believe ghosts, if there are such things, only appear following violent or unexplained deaths.” I am not qualified to confirm or deny The Master’s theory, so merely shrug. “I understand there needs to be some trauma surrounding the death. Nothing of that ilk has happened at Old College.”
“But people must die here, surely” I ask, reasonably.
“Oh, certainly!” The Master replies. “It is not unusual at all for elderly Fellows to pass away here. Occasionally students, but it has been very rare. But Fellows… I remember dear old Dr D. Fellow of English, as I recall.”
“He died in Old College?”
“Yes, in his chair by the fire in the Senior Combination Room. It was nearly a full twenty-four hours before anyone realised he was dead. The latter part of his career was spent asleep in that chair and it was only when he failed to turn up for lunch the following day that we realised something was wrong.”
“He doesn’t come back for hauntings, then?”
“Not that I am aware. His passing was like his life. Very peaceful. He probably doesn’t even realise he has died.” This last statement is unnervingly devoid of humour.
“It does seem strange there have been no ghostly sightings at all” the disappointment in my voice is barely concealed.
“Yes, well, perhaps” replies The Master. Then, “Although… there was something, when The Porters’ Lodge was rebuilt. The ground…”
“When was The Porters’ Lodge rebuilt?” I ask, surprised. I didn’t know this.
“Oh, many years ago, when I was an undergraduate” The Master’s eyes, for the briefest of moments, mist over and a darkness seems to fall upon him. “When the ground was dug for the new foundations… it was…” The Master seems to catch himself and simply shakes his head. I am intrigued.
“What about the ground? Was there something there?”
“It… was just very old ground, that’s all. Very… old ground.”
An uneasy silence falls between us.
“Deputy Head Porter, you must get about your business,” The Master’s voice cuts through the musty air of The Crypt. “Daylight will soon be upon us.”
“Yes Sir. Thank you for your time.”
I leave The Crypt the way I came in and head to the Maintenance sheds to find something to repair the vandalised carpet in The Library. What was in the ground beneath The Porters’ Lodge, I wonder? Something The Master does not deem communicable with a College servant, such as myself. A chill wriggles its way up my spine, and I feel it has little to do with the cold morning air. Old College obviously has a few skeletons in its closet. Skeletons? Hmm. I make a mental note to be more perceptive of the darker side of Old College in future. My tired mind is racing and I feel that I will not be sleeping very easily when I finally make it to my bed.