The Leper Chapel: A Cambridge ghost story for Christmas Eve
Written by Christopher Pressler exclusively for the Cambridge Independent
When they entered the chapel they were breathless. All who leave return.
Winter had taken its toll. If they had not decided to take the long way around the city, Cambridge might have taken them again. A Siberian wind flew through medieval streets without consent. It sprinted across the frozen grass of college courts and whipped people in the market. It harnessed cold air as chargers are harnessed.
The run had drawn them out from The Leper Chapel and down the long monotony of Newmarket Road, along Maids Causeway and out onto the white cattle-barren breadth of Midsummer Common. They left the snow unmarked as they crossed, lovers once now only longing.
Beyond the common and without rest, they rushed over Jesus Green and, soundless, along the boardwalk to Magdalene, firing memories of those who began this festival of lights. They had met her once and sought to meet again. The world is full of chance. Most of us sing in the darkness.
Her name was Mary. On this night they had been told that running around the city might bring her back to them. They had been told this many years ago. On one occasion she had come to them beside a low candle and said that she would always be with them. They remember her as kind and warm, her own breath clear as power.
They are not from our time, Forthwind the man and Enndolynn the woman. They run through time as dolphins swim the ocean, sleek and steel. It is their agreement with The Leper Chapel and with the one who came to comfort them there.
And so they ran on over the bridge and along the Backs, the great spine of Cambridge. Darting back and forth across the river they rippled its centre, where for centuries horses had trudged. Common beasts were barred from university ground and so, hooves constantly soaked, they pulled the barges from a mud-shelf just below the surface. Its shallowness lies unfrozen, a line between the ice banks.
The horses are gone now and so are the bargemen, all bones below the soil of this singing city: a mortal chorale.
Forthwind urges his companion forward as he has always done and she responds with the love she has always held. They run now across the lightning-struck bows of Lamass Land, Sheep's Green and Coe Fen and follow the Upper Cam to Trumpington. They pour their annual release into gaining height and soar over the red-lit cranes of Addenbrooke's.
A few of those lying within its bleached walls catch sight of two shapes, hand in hand now flying over their beds. For a reason that they will only grasp at their own last breath, they feel suddenly calm. Forthwind and Enndolynn leave hope in their wake. Their flight has been mistaken for that of angels.
They come lower now and become runners again, along Perne Road. In many houses they see coloured lights and child-touched trees. All are waiting for tomorrow. Christmas Eve is a night of miracles.
And home, The Leper Chapel, sits in its unutterably altered setting, once a hospital of sorts itself where no one ever left alive. Forthwind remembers well the night, this night that took him and Enndolynn into their other world. It was hard to breathe through the pain and then she came to them and both ceased.
When they entered the chapel they were breathless.
'Are you tired?' said Forthwind. 'This year was harder than before was it not?'
Enndolynn replied: 'No my darling, but it is getting more difficult. Cambridge grows larger by the year.'
'Indeed,' said Forthwind, by force of habit brushing down his tunic. 'The city is growing beyond our reach. Soon we may not be able to protect it.'
'We need her to return,' said Enndolynn.
'Everyone does,' Forthwind said gently.
They took their places at one of the Romanesque windows. Places that had been provided to them in past centuries. They knew they were not alone, although most others in The Leper Chapel could not run and fly as they did. Most other people in Cambridge could not imagine their future here, but here it is.
There was once a man who loved and lived like all others. Cambridge was a fine place in which to perform both and Cambridge at Christmas has always been made of the unseen and unforeseen. 1789 was no exception and Francis Dawes thought that this year was to be superior.
Dawes had been forced into making a demeaning decision and suffered terribly from the disdain and contempt of those around him. Dawes was not unaware of his danger. He was a man who survived by will. An intelligent and kind person, he made decisions in good faith. On that occasion he had trusted people would act like him and they hadn't.
Dawes worked at Peterhouse and had considerable authority. He was bursar and so controlled the college's funds and many of its other activities. 1789 had seen the appointment of a new master and Dawes had arranged the process. He had led the Peterhouse delegation to the Bishop of Ely's palace in order to recommend an appointment and the plan had been met with wrath.
Dawes lived in times when bishops ruled much of the life of the university and the Bishop of Ely more than any other. The Church was omnipotent and few wished to do anything other than prostrate themselves before it. In that year, Europe lay in turmoil. France was at risk of collapse and Britain looked on in fear. Cambridge as ever lay at the heart of the country's privileged life and so was felt to be at notable risk.
The only fear of the ruling minority is the mob.
Peterhouse, already hundreds of years old, was preparing for Christmas in the manner befitting a small, but prodigious institution. Halls were decked and scholars traipsed through rehearsal snow to Evensong as certain of their knowledge of the world as ever.
Dawes' mistake had been to allow the election of a fool as master. The fellows rounded on him as dogs do a carcass. He had been highly regarded to that point as a distinguished classicist and talented bureaucrat. College life was enhanced by his work and he himself drew pleasure from it.
The day it happened was long remembered.
Francis Dawes awoke to another Christmas Eve. Peyton, his bedder who looked after his rooms and lit his fires had finished his task silently. A good fire crackled in the hearth and tea and bread awaited him on the desk in his study.
Dawes was a man of habit. He carefully pulled on a heavy dressing gown intended to drag on the ground and so protect from the cold. He took one of the many books down from his shelves ?and opened it without the usual anticipation.
He poured tea, black and thick into a thin white vessel. The first sip startled his mouth and triggered a realisation that he had awoken as unhappily as he had retired the previous night. Sleep had brought no improvement in his mood.
There was a knock on the heavy door of his rooms. 'Come in,' he said.
'Sir,' said Peyton, 'is there anything further you require? Given the day shall I draw you a bath?'
'Peyton, you are a marvel,' said Dawes. 'I am in need of one but cannot rise to the task myself.'
'Consider it done, sir,' said Peyton, who withdrew. The sound of water from the copper jugs filling the small bath was a relaxant to Dawes. He drifted into thought and considered the discussion from the night before.
There had been a great deal of wine. The new master was gregarious and unpopular, a combination that had only led to awkwardness and disagreement. Heated remarks were, unusually for high table, not especially reserved and once the master had retired to bed, the fellows had turned on Dawes.
'You are responsible for this cataclysm,' sneered one and another said: 'Dawes, you have brought the college into disrepute.'
Dawes had attempted to defend himself, 'I do not feel that many options lay before us,' he said. 'Neither candidate would have met with unanimous approval.'
'Indeed,' said another, 'but to have only achieved unanimous disapproval must be regarded as an even greater failure.'
'Quite so,' said another.
'Well, I did try and warn my learned friends,' said Dawes, 'that the process of appointing a new master is fraught with risk.'
'You did not warn us adequately,' said one of the more dangerous fellows, hidden behind flickering candelabra. 'You promised and did not deliver.'
'But how could I deliver without your support?' said Dawes, 'and that support itself was promised was it not?'
'It was,' a number of them said at once, 'but only on the condition that there would be no outcry.'
'The response was never in my control,' said Dawes, now sensing that his colleagues had fully turned on him. 'I was never in a position to guarantee a smooth transition. I mean, if you had yourselves been honest with me and said that you had concerns then perhaps we might have paused, reflected indeed and considered a different way forward.'
'Ah,' said a fellow pointedly, 'so you admit your error?'
'If by error,' said Dawes, 'you mean my sincere intention to secure a future for Peterhouse, then I have no option but to acknowledge such loyalty.'
The table fell silent for a moment. All that could be heard was the sound of the kitchen staff clearing the hall and preparing for the morning. The room smelt strongly of wax and rarely washed cloth. The men themselves, though eminent, were unaware of their odour.
They had planned this game, this roll of the dice. A decision so unpopular, even though it had ultimately been their own, could never be allowed to rest on them. They had to point the finger. They had to construct a culprit.
Dawes knew, as he sat in his rooms this next morning, that he had been accused by liars and deserted by cowards.
'Your bath is ready, sir,' said Peyton. 'Do you wish me to attend to you, or shall I leave you alone?'
'I am already alone, my good man,' said Dawes.
Forthwind held Enndolynn's body in his arms. They had been placed in this hospital, The Leper Chapel, almost 20 years ago. They knew that the disease would take as long to finish carving their bodies. Their consolations had been each other, as most people here were alone.
Leprosy was regarded by the church as a righteous illness. Those afflicted were fortunate in being given the opportunity to live in purgatory and ascend directly to heaven. Forthwind had long known that this was not their future.
His own body could barely hold hers. 'Where are we going?' said Enndolynn, weakly.
'We are about to fly, my sweet,' replied Forthwind. 'I cannot be certain, but if the mother of the chapel is correct then we will never be parted.'
A cleric walked across the straw-strewn floor of the chapel and stood over them. 'It is Christmas Eve, my children,' he said, 'and we are preparing for Midnight Mass. Are you able to join us?'
'We will have to sit here,' said Forthwind. 'It is no longer possible for us to move.'
'Very well,' said the cleric. 'I will be sure to speak clearly.' He bent down and formed the crucifix over each of their foreheads. 'I will give you provision for your journey through the Viaticum,' he said, continuing, 'May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life.'
As he completed his words, Forthwind felt a last breath leave Enndolynn. It was as though she had simply disappeared. 'I can't bear it,' he said, turning to ?the cleric.
'You will not have to for long, my son,' replied the cleric. 'On this day of miracles you will both become free.' The cleric saw Forthwind release Enndolynn's body as his own collapsed. The cleric saw his work was done. The cleric did not see what had really happened.
Almost immediately, it seemed to them, they stood transfixed by each other's bodies. The scarring had gone. The slow violence enacted upon their flesh had been reversed. It was a well-known fact that leprosy pulls apart the cartilage in the nose, forcing it to fall back as though putty pressed flat. Forthwind and Enndolynn rubbed their noses together as reuniting albatross do their beaks.
They had form.
It was not a touch they recognised. As they placed their hands into each other's hands they felt the presence of the other as a current rather than an object. It was as though their bodies, once bound by water, had at last been made air. Electricity passed through them differently now but still it moved.
They looked around them. The Leper Chapel was familiar. They could see the kindly cleric who had cared for them for so many years performing the Midnight Mass. They could feel no ground. They could smell no smell. They could see thousands more like them.
They had not known that The Leper Chapel was full, from floor to rafters with those who had gone before them. They could not have known that on this night, Christmas Eve, all who have lived and died in Cambridge come here to listen to the sacred words no matter their background. Even those orating do not know that although they bring comfort, their words are not the whole story.
Forthwind and Enndolynn looked out of their Romanesque window. All around the chapel they stood, a couple of inches from the ground, in solemn whispering throngs. As far as they could see, out into the fields and down to the river. Along the water to the town they stood, for this one night, this night of miracles.
Francis Dawes heaved himself from his bath. He felt tired. It was unusual in that he prided himself on his conviviality and resolve. Dawes was known about Peterhouse as a good scholar and an even better monitor of funds, accurate and trustworthy. It was strange to sense that he had lost the faith of his colleagues when it was in fact they who had forced him into this position.
Peyton came back into the room. 'Sir, the Fellows are ready to meet with you as arranged,' he announced.
'I do not recall any such arrangement,' said Dawes.
'Perhaps the wine last night was too strong, sir,' said Peyton with s slight grin.
'This is not a laughing matter, Peyton,' said Dawes. 'I do not feel that such a meeting will be to my benefit.'
'Why so, sir?' asked Peyton.
'That is for me to discover, Peyton,' replied Dawes. 'The Fellows are angry with me even though it is their own doing.'
'You mean the appointment of the Master?' asked Peyton.
'Indeed so,' said Dawes, 'he is going to bring my downfall. I can sense it. There is little more dangerous than a scholarly pack, especially one that is attempting to conceal its true guilt.'
'How will the Fellows manage to do that, sir?' said Peyton, surely they can't all hide?'
'They will succeed if they can present the problem as being created by me,' said Dawes, 'and there will be nothing I can do to halt the fall of the axe if it comes.'
Peyton laid out the Bursar's clothes for the day ahead. As was common, most of the attire was black, save for a white lace collar. Dawes dressed quickly as, even with some heat from the fire, his rooms were intensely cold in winter. This was already a markedly icy winter. As Dawes pulled on his long undergarments and high socks he looked out of his window and across the court. The college rested in a deep covering of snow and he pulled back from the window to avoid clouding the glass with his breath.
Dawes drew a pair of black silk breeches up his legs and closed them with a small clasp at the waist. He then sat down upon doing so felt suddenly faint. He considered it to be the effect of the previous night's wine but knew in his heart this was not the case. He was filled with terror.
In the light of the fire he watched his hands shaking as he slipped on a pair of black shoes. He used to say they were so black it was as if he could see into the night sky. He stood. The feeling had not left him. Fear had overtaken his mind as if warning him of an unavoidable future, but one only just ahead. Dawes pulled on his long coat over the high-collared shirt and adjusted his cuffs. He lifted a black hat, wide-brimmed and encircled with a black silk band, and placed it on his head.
As Dawes went to open the door he suddenly felt a presence beside him, or more truthfully the sense of two others. This feeling was different. It greeted his fear and calmed it. It was as though he could see a fire and walk towards it, into it indeed and although conscious of its danger, he was somehow assured that he could not burn.
Dawes went down the staircase from his rooms to the stone archway that led out to the court. He took a deep breath and lamented doing so as the cold penetrated his nostrils and fell like sheet ice through his chest. Recovering his breath he stepped out into the snow. If he had turned around he would have seen two figures, transparent over the stairs, smiling slightly. Holding hands.
He crossed the court slowly. The snow was deeper than he had expected and he was not in suitable footwear. He went to the Combination Room where he knew he would be expected to meet with the Fellows. He opened the door and looked around the room. They all turned to him but without welcome. He was already an outcast.
'We'll make this swift,' said one Fellow, 'Dawes you stand outside us. You have brought this fool into the Mastership and we accuse you and you alone of bringing Peterhouse into disrepute.'
Dawes stood before them and removed his hat. He decided not to respond. He had in fact already determined his answer.
'Have you nothing to say, sir?' asked another. Dawes replied with silence. He knew they could no longer injure him. He moved one foot and then the other in order to change his position. He would not be viewed as pitiable.
'Very well,' said the first Fellow. Please gather your belongings and leave this college by the end of light today. I admit Christmas Eve is not an ideal day upon which to throw a man into the street but we have no alternative. You must be gone and be seen to be gone.'
Dawes turned and left the Combination Room. He knew that this was an injustice. He hoped that others might one day discover the truth. He no longer cared for himself. He knew what had to be his rejoinder.
The world is full of chance. Most of us sing in the darkness.
Dawes returned to his rooms. He placed his hat on a low table and pulled an armchair close to the fire. He knew he could not burn. In his mind he felt betrayed by the dismissal and stabbed by the prejudice that lay behind it. He had been an easy target for the Fellows. They knew he could not fight back against their concord. It would have been an effort with no gain.
He had been forced to publicly accept blame for the actions of others and such a position left him without hope of regaining his position of rank. He had lost friends; such as they might be described and had gained notoriety. There was no one in which to confide his plan. He would wait a few hours and then act.
Cambridge lay that Christmas Eve in its mist. The colleges stood like the lions that would come in time, stone cold, whitened by snow-light. The town was silent save for muffled bells on the hour and choirs preparing for Evensong. A new fall that afternoon cleaned footprints and covered the accumulation of men. It was as though the town was preparing itself for death.
Dawes placed his hands on the arms of his chair and pushed himself up. He stood, naturally afraid but again indistinctly aware that he would not in his final act be alone.
He did not yet know that this is the ordinary manner of things.
Dawes returned the hat to his head and loosened his lace collar. He took the familiar journey down the staircase to the court and across to the now empty Combination Room. Behind one of the oak panels he knew were kept the bell ropes. A gentle push of one side opened the carved door and there hung his answer to the intolerable unfairness of the world. He made his decision.
Strung from a fitting his neck cracked and his body wept out his miracle.
Forthwind and Enndolynn walked towards the figure, then reached out and took his hands. 'It is time to come with us,' they said, 'you have been here ?long enough.'
Two butlers stood in the Combination Room. They had come to prepare the room for Christmas Eve drinks. They could see what can rarely be seen. A figure in a wide-brimmed hat moved across the room before them. They sensed it knew its destination.
Dawes followed those who had come for him.
Out they flew. Another Christmas Eve lay below them. Another Cambridge covered in new lights and vehicles moving without horses. Time transfigured. Forthwind took the lead and brought them over the marketplace, along the river to Newmarket Road. Famous streets named for the ancient fair of food at Stourbridge Common slipped behind them; Mercer, Oyster and Garlic Rows.
The three travellers came to The Leper Chapel. 'Welcome home,' said Enndolynn to Dawes. They moved as mist moves under doors.
'I do not know why I am here,' said Dawes.
From the corner of the chapel a woman moved to greet them. 'Francis, you are free of life,' she said. 'My name is Mary and I have given my name to this place.'
Dawes looked around The Leper Chapel. He could feel no ground. He could smell no smell. He could see thousands more like him. Remember those who have taken flight. This is a night of miracles. All who leave return.
About the author
Christopher Pressler was born in Belfast and read modern history at Queen's University.
He is a graduate of the MA creative writing programme at Nottingham Trent University and of Sheffield University and now works in Dublin and Cambridge. In addition to writing he has held the position of university librarian at three universities and is now the university librarian and director of the Irish Modern Archives Research Centre at Dublin City University.
His doctoral research is concerned with Ireland's international affairs at the United Nations in the mid-twentieth century.
Christopher is a board member of the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin, the organisation for professional writers in Ireland. His first novel, Canning Circus, is set in Nottingham and explores that city's multi-layered history, mixing magical realism with autobiography. 94 Degrees in the Shade, his second novel, was released in the UK in September and reimagines the early lives of the Cambridge spies.
Christopher is currently working on two further novels, The Liberties, a story of modern Ireland on the world stage, and What We Are, We Remain, a portrayal of Benjamin Britten.