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When Father Higgins disappears, Johnny Dixon and Professor Childermass discover disturbing clues which lead them to England and an encounter with a long-dead knight.
"But is he ever going to come back, professor?" asked Johnny. "Will they let him?"
Professor Childermass shrugged. "I hope so," he said glumly. "But it's his bishop's decision. Father Higgins is a priest, and he has to go wherever the church sends him. Johnny, would you hand me my nine iron? I'm going to have to chip onto the green."
It was a chilly May morning in the early nineteen fifties. Professor Childermass and his young friend Johnny Dixon were out on the Duston Heights golf course. The professor was hacking away furiously at the ball and was not doing very well. He was a short, cranky-looking man with wild, white hair, in his early seventies. His nose looked like an overripe strawberry, and on it a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles was perched crookedly. Though he had a rotten temper, the professor was really very kind underneath. Johnny Dixon, who was short and blond and shy and about thirteen years old, also wore glasses. Today he was lugging a heavy, old leather bag full of golf clubs. Johnny didn't play golf, but he enjoyed the professor's company, so he had volunteered to come along and be his caddy for the morning. As they walked around the course, Johnny and the professor talked about the problems that Father Higgins had been having lately.
Father Thomas Higgins was a friend of Johnny and the professor too. Until recently he had been the pastor of St. Michael's Catholic church in Duston Heights, a town in eastern Massachusetts. But in March Father Higgins had gotten transferred to Rocks Village, a tiny town on the Merrimack River. He was now the pastor of Holy Angels church, which had a congregation of only about two dozen people. The professor said that Father Higgins was miserable—he felt that the people in Rocks Village didn't like him. But the professor and Johnny knew Father Higgins was the kindest and gentlest of men, and they cared for him a lot. They both missed his friendship and guitar playing, as well as his delightful stories. If they could have waved a magic wand and brought him back to St. Michael's church, they would have. But they couldn't. They could only talk and worry and wonder how he was.
As Johnny watched, the professor lunged awkwardly at the ball. He hit it high into the air and it landed on the green, but instead of staying there, it rolled off the far edge and landed in a sand trap. For a moment the professor glared at the empty green. Then he sighed, dug his hand into his pants pocket, and pulled out another ball. With a flick of his hand he spun the ball onto the green, and it rolled a few feet from the cup.
"Everyone's entitled to a little cheating now and then," he muttered as they walked toward the green. "Otherwise one might smash his clubs into kindling wood and then have to buy a new set."
Johnny smiled wanly and nodded as the professor stepped up to the ball and began lining up his putt. In the middle of his fussing, the old man looked up suddenly. "By the way," he said slyly, "did Higgy tell you that he thinks there's a ghost in the house he's living in?"
Johnny's mouth dropped open. "No," he said in a stunned voice. "I talked to him on the phone the other day, but he didn't say anything about that."
The professor picked up the golf ball and studied it. "He probably didn't want to frighten you," he added thoughtfully. "It's an odd story, and I really don't know what to make of it, but ... well, I think the whole thing ought to be looked into." After a short pause the professor went into a pitcher's windup and heaved the golf ball into a distant clump of bushes. "Come on," he said, grabbing Johnny by the arm. "I've had enough of this idiotic game! I'll buy you a bottle of soda at the clubhouse, and then we can talk some more. How does that sound?"
With a relieved sigh, Johnny said that it sounded fine.
At the clubhouse Johnny guzzled orange soda while the professor talked about the ghost Father Higgins had seen one night. It was a young girl, and she was walking along one of the side aisles of the church. She started up the steps to the organ loft, but then she vanished. Father Higgins claimed he felt her presence at other times both in the church and at home. And he began to get odd notes scrawled on old yellowed scraps of paper.
Johnny put down his soda bottle and stared at the professor. "Notes? Do you mean they came in the mail?"
The professor shook his head impatiently. "No, no, no! I don't mean that at all! He found the notes tacked to doorposts and lying on his desk or on his, bureau. One of them was stuck into his big red missal, the book he reads the Mass prayers from. They were all written in Palmer-method handwriting, which is a very fancy style that is often taught in Catholic schools."
Johnny hunched forward in his seat. "What did the notes say?"
The professor shook his head. "Oh, all sorts of silly things. One of them said Half a moon is bad—a full moon might be worse—or is it? Make something of that if you can! Another one said Remember the funeral of King Charles the First. None of the notes seemed to have any connection with any of the others, and yet Father Higgins seems to think they're important. He's saved them all, believe it or not."
Johnny frowned and took a sip of soda. "Do you think the notes mean anything, professor?" he asked. "I mean, could they be part of a riddle or something like that?"
The professor laughed. "Riddle diddle!" he said scornfully. "If you want to know what I think, there's some practical joker on the loose, and he is trying to make life miserable for poor old Higgy! As for that ghost, I think she was conjured up by loneliness and the heebie-jeebies. You know what a nervous man Higgy is, don't you? And he's really unhappy about his new job. I think he's seeing things that aren't there. It really bothers me." The professor frowned and bit his lip. "I worry about him a lot these days," he went on, "and I wish there were a way to get him back here to St. Michael's, where he belongs. But I can't do that, sooo ..."
The professor paused and lit a cigarette. Johnny always hated it when the professor left him hanging. "So what are you going to do?" asked Johnny at last.
"I'm going to visit him," the professor said calmly. "It's not as if he lived on the dark side of the moon— he's only about ten miles away. I would have gone long before this, but I had the feeling that he didn't want company. At any rate, that was the impression I got from talking to him on the phone. Lately, however, he has seemed more open, so I'm going to charge on out there. I want to find out how he is, and I want to see if I can make any sense of this blithering nonsense about notes and ghosts. Would you care to come with me?"
Johnny nodded eagerly, and so it was decided. Next Saturday they would drive down to Rocks Village and try to cheer up Father Higgins.
It was a drizzly, chilly evening as they arrived in Rocks Village, a tiny cluster of picturesque eighteenth-century houses near a seventy-year-old iron bridge. Next to the small white church stood an ugly old stone house with a rotting wooden porch. This was where Father Higgins lived. As he and the professor trotted up the mossy sidewalk, Johnny felt sorry for Father Higgins, who had to live in this damp and desolate place. They mounted the steps, and the professor pushed the doorbell button. Soon the oak door swung open, and there stood Father Higgins. He was big and burly, with a grizzled, square jaw and bushy eyebrows. Father Higgins was wearing his black clerical outfit, but he had taken off the stiff white collar. To Johnny he looked pale and worn, and there were dark circles under his eyes. But when he saw his friends, Father Higgins smiled broadly and stepped out onto the porch to shake hands with them.
"It's great to see you two!" he boomed happily. "Great and fine and terrific! Come on in and make yourselves comfortable."
The professor and Johnny followed Father Higgins down a dark hallway and into the study. It was a cozy, old-fashioned room, with dark woodwork and bookcases built into the walls. A bright fire burned in the brick fireplace, and the firelight danced over two brown leather-covered armchairs and Father Higgins's huge mahogany desk. Two bronze floor lamps lit the room—they looked as if they would be hard to lift.
"Well, here we all are!" said Father Higgins a bit nervously. He walked to the mantel and took down a cut-glass decanter. Carefully he poured two glasses of sherry, for the professor and himself, and then he went out to the kitchen. He came back with a bottle of Coke for Johnny and a tall glass full of ice. When they were all settled, Father Higgins sipped his sherry and gazed thoughtfully into the fire. He seemed to be waiting for somebody to speak.
"Have you had any more problems with this ... uh ... ghost business?" asked the professor at last.
Father Higgins gave his friend a look. "I know what you think, Rod," he growled. "You think I need a psychiatrist or a long rest. Well, I don't believe that I'm seeing things—I really, truly don't. The other night I woke up to find the girl standing by my bed!"
"Oh my gosh!" exclaimed Johnny, clapping his hands to his face. "Father, what did you do?"
Father Higgins grimaced and picked up an empty briar pipe that lay on his smoking stand. He toyed with it as he talked.
"I was never so frightened in all my life," he said slowly, "but somehow I managed to control myself. Then I remembered the old legend that ghosts sometimes want to tell you or show you something. Sure enough, the girl seemed to be motioning to me as she backed away toward the door. So I got up and followed. She led me out the front door of the house and down a path that takes you to the side door of the church. It was a dark, moonless night, but somehow I was able to see the girl—a gray glow hovered about her. She climbed the steps to the organ loft. There's nothing up there but an old broken pipe organ and some folding chairs and a lot of dust and cobwebs. The girl motioned toward the dark space behind the organ, and she smiled strangely. Then she vanished."
The professor sat staring at Father Higgins with his mouth open. "Well?" he said irritably. "You're not going to keep us in suspense, are you? Surely there's more to your story."
Father Higgins gave his friend an odd look. "I wish it all had ended there—I really do. But as it happens, I found something lying in the dust behind the organ. It was a small, flat package wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine. The twine was rotting, and from the layer of dust on the package, it looked as if it had been lying there for a long time. A very long time. At any rate, I picked the thing up and took it back to my study. Would you care to see what I found?"
The professor glowered at Father Higgins. "Show us, Higgy, or I'll poison your sherry and let the air out of the tires on your car."
Normally Father Higgins would have laughed at a remark like this. But instead he just nodded and got up from his chair. Crossing to his desk, he took a key from his pocket and unlocked the wide, shallow drawer in the middle. Johnny and the professor got up and crowded in next to the priest, one on either side. After a brief pause Father Higgins reached into the drawer and pulled out something that looked like half of a broken green glass plate. Embedded in the glass were four little golden fish, which seemed to be swimming in a green sea. A dirty index card was held to the glass with a piece of red sealing wax, and on it these words were neatly printed:
To raise the dead.CHAPTER 2
In silence Johnny and the two men stared at the broken piece of green glass. For quite a while no one could think of anything to say, but finally the professor harrumphed self-importantly.
"Humph. Humph. God's teeth, Higgy! Is this the prize in the cereal box? It reminds me of a salad plate my Aunt Sally used to own—or rather, I should say, it reminds me of half a salad plate. Where's the rest of it?"
Father Higgins shrugged. "Search me. This was all I found. But you know, Roderick, I don't think this is a salad plate or anything so ordinary. The glass is heavy, and ... well, somehow it seems old. I'll bet it's a piece of stained glass from an old cathedral. Whatever it is, I haven't had a good night's sleep since I found the thing. I keep dreaming that my mother has come to visit me, and that we're sitting up late at night here in the study, talking." Father Higgins sighed. "As you know, Roderick, my mother died several years ago. But I still keep dreaming that she's here. Maybe it's because there are a lot of things I wish I had said to her when she was alive. But I'm getting off the subject: Every night when I've had this dream, I wake up standing here in the study, in the dark. And I have the piece of glass in my hands!"
Johnny gasped. "Wow, Father, that is weird!" He added hesitantly, "Do ... do you sleepwalk a lot?"
Father Higgins shook his head. "No. In fact I've never been a sleepwalker in my entire life—until now. Some piece of devilry is going on, and I'd love to know why!" Frowning, the priest slid the piece of glass back into the drawer and locked it. He pocketed the key and turned to the professor with a questioning look. "Do you think I'm going nuts, Rod?" he asked. "Come on—be honest with me."
The professor took a Balkan Sobranie cigarette from the box in his pocket and lit one. "I'd say you were the victim of some kind of obsession. You found that glass with the note on it, and then you started thinking about your mother. You were quarreling with her at the time she died, weren't you?"
Father Higgins nodded sadly. "Yes. She didn't want me to be a priest—she wanted me to be a lawyer in stead. All right, so I might have had my mother on my mind when I found the piece of glass. But how do you explain the ghost leading me to it?"
The professor smiled patiently. "Higgy, you know as well as I do that people sometimes see things that aren't there. You may have seen a shaft of moonlight, and then your imagination did the rest."
Father Higgins glowered, and the back of his neck started to get red. He poked a hairy finger into the professor's face. "You pompous old crumdum!" he thundered. "Are you telling me that I was scared by a patch of moonlight? Is that what you're trying to say?"
The professor stepped back and looked quickly away. He and Father Higgins were old friends, and he didn't want to start a fight. "Well, uh, Higgy, I didn't exactly say that. What I meant was, er, well ..."
Still frowning, Father Higgins walked quickly back to the desk and jerked open a side drawer. He reached in and pulled out a handful of yellowed slips of paper. With a flourish he spread them out on top of the desk. "All right, you great genius!" he grumbled. "Have a look at these and tell me if they look like moonlight!"
Johnny glanced nervously from the professor to Father Higgins. He had the awful feeling that the two of them were going to get into an argument, right in front of his eyes. And so he was very relieved when the professor burst out laughing. He pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and waved it in the air as a signal of surrender.
"All right, I give up!" he exclaimed, still chuckling. "Higgy, you're the only person in the world who is more cranky and grouchy than I am, but I like you anyway. Let's see these notes that you told me about over the phone."
Johnny and the professor walked to the desk and stooped to examine the mysterious messages. As Father Higgins had said, they were all written in a fancy, flowery handwriting, full of loops and swirls. This is what they said:
The church of the faceless images.
Half a moon is bad—a full moon might be worse—or is it?
Remember the funeral of King Charles the First.
Son of man, shall these bones live?
Drake cake. Bustard custard. Go on....
When Vega is high in the sky.
They must both be destroyed.
You may be wrong about everything.
After squinting owlishly at each note, the professor piled them in a neat little stack in the middle of the desk. Then he folded his arms, heaved a weary sigh, and turned to Father Higgins. "Higgy," he said, slowly, "has it ever occurred to you that you might be the victim of some lunatic practical joker? I mean, you told me that there were people out here who didn't like you very much. Well, isn't it possible that one of them left these nitwitted notes for you?"
Excerpted from The Secret of the Underground Room by John Bellairs. Copyright © 1990 John Bellairs. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted June 5, 2012
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