A thin ghost and others, p.1
A Thin Ghost and Others, p.1M. R. James
A THIN GHOST AND OTHERS
MONTAGUE RHODES JAMES, LITT.D.
Provost Of Eton CollegeAuthor of "Ghost Stories of an Antiquary," "More Ghost Stories," etc.
New YorkLongmans, Green & Co.London: Edward Arnold1920(All rights reserved)
Two of these stories, the third and fourth, have appeared in print inthe _Cambridge Review_, and I wish to thank the proprietor forpermitting me to republish them here.
I have had my doubts about the wisdom of publishing a third set oftales; sequels are, not only proverbially but actually, very hazardousthings. However, the tales make no pretence but to amuse, and myfriends have not seldom asked for the publication. So not a great dealis risked, perhaps, and perhaps also some one's Christmas may be thecheerfuller for a storybook which, I think, only once mentions thewar.
THE RESIDENCE AT WHITMINSTER 1
THE DIARY OF MR. POYNTER 49
AN EPISODE OF CATHEDRAL HISTORY 73
THE STORY OF A DISAPPEARANCE AND AN APPEARANCE 107
TWO DOCTORS 135
THE RESIDENCE AT WHITMINSTER
A Thin Ghost and Others
THE RESIDENCE AT WHITMINSTER
Dr. Ashton--Thomas Ashton, Doctor of Divinity--sat in his study,habited in a dressing-gown, and with a silk cap on his shavenhead--his wig being for the time taken off and placed on its block ona side table. He was a man of some fifty-five years, strongly made, ofa sanguine complexion, an angry eye, and a long upper lip. Face andeye were lighted up at the moment when I picture him by the level rayof an afternoon sun that shone in upon him through a tall sash window,giving on the west. The room into which it shone was also tall, linedwith book-cases, and, where the wall showed between them, panelled. Onthe table near the doctor's elbow was a green cloth, and upon it whathe would have called a silver standish--a tray with inkstands--quillpens, a calf-bound book or two, some papers, a churchwarden pipe andbrass tobacco-box, a flask cased in plaited straw, and a liqueurglass. The year was 1730, the month December, the hour somewhat pastthree in the afternoon.
I have described in these lines pretty much all that a superficialobserver would have noted when he looked into the room. What met Dr.Ashton's eye when he looked out of it, sitting in his leatherarm-chair? Little more than the tops of the shrubs and fruit-trees ofhis garden could be seen from that point, but the red brick wall of itwas visible in almost all the length of its western side. In themiddle of that was a gate--a double gate of rather elaborate ironscroll-work, which allowed something of a view beyond. Through it hecould see that the ground sloped away almost at once to a bottom,along which a stream must run, and rose steeply from it on the otherside, up to a field that was park-like in character, and thicklystudded with oaks, now, of course, leafless. They did not stand sothick together but that some glimpse of sky and horizon could be seenbetween their stems. The sky was now golden and the horizon, a horizonof distant woods, it seemed, was purple.
But all that Dr. Ashton could find to say, after contemplating thisprospect for many minutes, was: "Abominable!"
A listener would have been aware, immediately upon this, of the soundof footsteps coming somewhat hurriedly in the direction of the study:by the resonance he could have told that they were traversing a muchlarger room. Dr. Ashton turned round in his chair as the door opened,and looked expectant. The incomer was a lady--a stout lady in thedress of the time: though I have made some attempt at indicating thedoctor's costume, I will not enterprise that of his wife--for it wasMrs. Ashton who now entered. She had an anxious, even a sorelydistracted, look, and it was in a very disturbed voice that she almostwhispered to Dr. Ashton, putting her head close to his, "He's in avery sad way, love, worse, I'm afraid." "Tt--tt, is he really?" and heleaned back and looked in her face. She nodded. Two solemn bells, highup, and not far away, rang out the half-hour at this moment. Mrs.Ashton started. "Oh, do you think you can give order that the minsterclock be stopped chiming to-night? 'Tis just over his chamber, andwill keep him from sleeping, and to sleep is the only chance for him,that's certain." "Why, to be sure, if there were need, real need, itcould be done, but not upon any light occasion. This Frank, now, doyou assure me that his recovery stands upon it?" said Dr. Ashton: hisvoice was loud and rather hard. "I do verily believe it," said hiswife. "Then, if it must be, bid Molly run across to Simpkins and sayon my authority that he is to stop the clock chimes at sunset:and--yes--she is after that to say to my lord Saul that I wish to seehim presently in this room." Mrs. Ashton hurried off.
Before any other visitor enters, it will be well to explain thesituation.
Dr. Ashton was the holder, among other preferments, of a prebend inthe rich collegiate church of Whitminster, one of the foundationswhich, though not a cathedral, survived dissolution and reformation,and retained its constitution and endowments for a hundred years afterthe time of which I write. The great church, the residences of thedean and the two prebendaries, the choir and its appurtenances, wereall intact and in working order. A dean who flourished soon after 1500had been a great builder, and had erected a spacious quadrangle of redbrick adjoining the church for the residence of the officials. Some ofthese persons were no longer required: their offices had dwindleddown to mere titles, borne by clergy or lawyers in the town andneighbourhood; and so the houses that had been meant to accommodateeight or ten people were now shared among three, the dean and the twoprebendaries. Dr. Ashton's included what had been the common parlourand the dining-hall of the whole body. It occupied a whole side of thecourt, and at one end had a private door into the minster. The otherend, as we have seen, looked out over the country.
So much for the house. As for the inmates, Dr. Ashton was a wealthyman and childless, and he had adopted, or rather undertaken to bringup, the orphan son of his wife's sister. Frank Sydall was the lad'sname: he had been a good many months in the house. Then one day came aletter from an Irish peer, the Earl of Kildonan (who had known Dr.Ashton at college), putting it to the doctor whether he would considertaking into his family the Viscount Saul, the Earl's heir, and actingin some sort as his tutor. Lord Kildonan was shortly to take up a postin the Lisbon Embassy, and the boy was unfit to make the voyage: "notthat he is sickly," the Earl wrote, "though you'll find him whimsical,or of late I've thought him so, and to confirm this, 'twas onlyto-day his old nurse came expressly to tell me he was possess'd: butlet that pass; I'll warrant you can find a spell to make all straight.Your arm was stout enough in old days, and I give you plenaryauthority to use it as you see fit. The truth is, he has here no boysof his age or quality to consort with, and is given to moping about inour raths and graveyards: and he brings home romances that fright myservants out of their wits. So there are you and your ladyforewarned." It was perhaps with half an eye open to the possibilityof an Irish bishopric (at which another sentence in the Earl's letterseemed to hint) that Dr. Ashton accepted the charge of my LordViscount Saul and of the 200 guineas a year that were to come withhim.
So he came, one night in September. When he got out of the chaise thatbrought him, he went first and spoke to the postboy and gave him somemoney, and patted the neck of his horse. Whether he made some movementthat scared it or not, there was very nearly a nasty accident, for thebeast started violently, and the postilion being unready was thrownand lost his fee, as he found afterwards, and the chaise lost somepaint on the gateposts, and the wheel went over the man's foot who wastaking out the bag
Frank Sydall was a younger boy, perhaps of eleven or twelve, but LordSaul did not for that reject his company. Frank was able to teach himvarious games he had not known in Ireland, and he was apt at learningthem; apt, too, at his books, though he had had little or no regularteaching at home. It was not long before he was making a shift topuzzle out the inscriptions on the tombs in the minster, and he wouldoften put a question to the doctor about the old books in the librarythat required some thought to answer. It is to be supposed that hemade himself very agreeable to the servants, for within ten days ofhis coming they were almost falling over each other in their effortsto oblige him. At the same time, Mrs. Ashton was rather put to it tofind new maidservants; for there were several changes, and some of thefamilies in the town from which she had been accustomed to draw seemedto have no one available. She was forced to go further afield than wasusual.
These generalities I gather from the doctor's notes in his diary andfrom letters. They are generalities, and we should like, in view ofwhat has to be told, something sharper and more detailed. We get it inentries which begin late in the year, and, I think, were posted up alltogether after the final incident; but they cover so few days in allthat there is no need to doubt that the writer could remember thecourse of things accurately.
On a Friday morning it was that a fox, or perhaps a cat, made awaywith Mrs. Ashton's most prized black cockerel, a bird without a singlewhite feather on its body. Her husband had told her often enough thatit would make a suitable sacrifice to AEsculapius; that had discomfitedher much, and now she would hardly be consoled. The boys lookedeverywhere for traces of it: Lord Saul brought in a few feathers,which seemed to have been partially burnt on the garden rubbish-heap.It was on the same day that Dr. Ashton, looking out of an upperwindow, saw the two boys playing in the corner of the garden at a gamehe did not understand. Frank was looking earnestly at something in thepalm of his hand. Saul stood behind him and seemed to be listening.After some minutes he very gently laid his hand on Frank's head, andalmost instantly thereupon, Frank suddenly dropped whatever it wasthat he was holding, clapped his hands to his eyes, and sank down onthe grass. Saul, whose face expressed great anger, hastily picked theobject up, of which it could only be seen that it was glittering, putit in his pocket, and turned away, leaving Frank huddled up on thegrass. Dr. Ashton rapped on the window to attract their attention, andSaul looked up as if in alarm, and then springing to Frank, pulled himup by the arm and led him away. When they came in to dinner, Saulexplained that they had been acting a part of the tragedy ofRadamistus, in which the heroine reads the future fate of her father'skingdom by means of a glass ball held in her hand, and is overcome bythe terrible events she has seen. During this explanation Frank saidnothing, only looked rather bewilderedly at Saul. He must, Mrs. Ashtonthought, have contracted a chill from the wet of the grass, for thatevening he was certainly feverish and disordered; and the disorder wasof the mind as well as the body, for he seemed to have something hewished to say to Mrs. Ashton, only a press of household affairsprevented her from paying attention to him; and when she went,according to her habit, to see that the light in the boys' chamber hadbeen taken away, and to bid them good-night, he seemed to be sleeping,though his face was unnaturally flushed, to her thinking: Lord Saul,however, was pale and quiet, and smiling in his slumber.
Next morning it happened that Dr. Ashton was occupied in church andother business, and unable to take the boys' lessons. He therefore setthem tasks to be written and brought to him. Three times, if notoftener, Frank knocked at the study door, and each time the doctorchanced to be engaged with some visitor, and sent the boy off ratherroughly, which he later regretted. Two clergymen were at dinner thisday, and both remarked--being fathers of families--that the lad seemedsickening for a fever, in which they were too near the truth, and ithad been better if he had been put to bed forthwith: for a couple ofhours later in the afternoon he came running into the house, cryingout in a way that was really terrifying, and rushing to Mrs. Ashton,clung about her, begging her to protect him, and saying, "Keep themoff! keep them off!" without intermission. And it was now evident thatsome sickness had taken strong hold of him. He was therefore got tobed in another chamber from that in which he commonly lay, and thephysician brought to him: who pronounced the disorder to be grave andaffecting the lad's brain, and prognosticated a fatal end to it ifstrict quiet were not observed, and those sedative remedies used whichhe should prescribe.
We are now come by another way to the point we had reached before. Theminster clock has been stopped from striking, and Lord Saul is on thethreshold of the study.
"What account can you give of this poor lad's state?" was Dr. Ashton'sfirst question. "Why, sir, little more than you know already, I fancy.I must blame myself, though, for giving him a fright yesterday when wewere acting that foolish play you saw. I fear I made him take it moreto heart than I meant." "How so?" "Well, by telling him foolish talesI had picked up in Ireland of what we call the second sight.""_Second_ sight! What kind of sight might that be?" "Why, you know ourignorant people pretend that some are able to foresee what is tocome--sometimes in a glass, or in the air, maybe, and at Kildonan wehad an old woman that pretended to such a power. And I daresay Icoloured the matter more highly than I should: but I never dreamedFrank would take it so near as he did." "You were wrong, my lord, verywrong, in meddling with such superstitious matters at all, and youshould have considered whose house you were in, and how littlebecoming such actions are to my character and person or to your own:but pray how came it that you, acting, as you say, a play, should fallupon anything that could so alarm Frank?" "That is what I can hardlytell, sir: he passed all in a moment from rant about battles andlovers and Cleodora and Antigenes to something I could not follow atall, and then dropped down as you saw." "Yes: was that at the momentwhen you laid your hand on the top of his head?" Lord Saul gave aquick look at his questioner--quick and spiteful--and for the firsttime seemed unready with an answer. "About that time it may havebeen," he said. "I have tried to recollect myself, but I am not sure.There was, at any rate, no significance in what I did then." "Ah!"said Dr. Ashton, "well, my lord, I should do wrong were I not to tellyou that this fright of my poor nephew may have very ill consequencesto him. The doctor speaks very despondingly of his state." Lord Saulpressed his hands together and looked earnestly upon Dr. Ashton. "I amwilling to believe you had no bad intention, as assuredly you couldhave no reason to bear the poor boy malice: but I cannot wholly freeyou from blame in the affair." As he spoke, the hurrying steps wereheard again, and Mrs. Ashton came quickly into the room, carrying acandle, for the evening had by this time closed in. She was greatlyagitated. "O come!" she cried, "come directly. I'm sure he is going.""Going? Frank? Is it possible? Already?" With some such incoherentwords the doctor caught up a book of prayers from the table and ranout after his wife. Lord Saul stopped for a moment where he was.Molly, the maid, saw him bend over and put both hands to his face. Ifit were the last words she had to speak, she said afterwards, he wasstriving to keep back a fit of laughing. Then he went out softly,following the others.
Mrs. Ashton was sadly right in her forecast. I have no inclination toimagine the last scene in detail. What Dr. Ashton records is, or maybe taken to be, important to the story. They asked Frank if he wouldlike to see his companion, Lord Saul, once again. The boy was quitecollected, it appears, in these moments. "No," he said, "I do not wantto see him; but you should tell him I am afraid he will be very cold.""What do you mean, my dear?" said Mrs. Ashton. "Only that;" saidFrank, "but say to him besides that I am free of them now
Not many minutes after, he was gone. Both the Ashtons were grieved,she naturally most; but the doctor, though not an emotional man, feltthe pathos of the early death: and, besides, there was the growingsuspicion that all had not been told him by Saul, and that there wassomething here which was out of his beaten track. When he left thechamber of death, it was to walk across the quadrangle of theresidence to the sexton's house. A passing bell, the greatest of theminster bells, must be rung, a grave must be dug in the minster yard,and there was now no need to silence the chiming of the minster clock.As he came slowly back in the dark, he thought he must see Lord Saulagain. That matter of the black cockerel--trifling as it mightseem--would have to be cleared up. It might be merely a fancy of thesick boy, but if not, was there not a witch-trial he had read, inwhich some grim little rite of sacrifice had played a part? Yes, hemust see Saul.
I rather guess these thoughts of his than find written authority forthem. That there was another interview is certain: certain also thatSaul would (or, as he said, could) throw no light on Frank's words:though the message, or some part of it, appeared to affect himhorribly. But there is no record of the talk in detail. It is onlysaid that Saul sat all that evening in the study, and when he bidgood-night, which he did most reluctantly, asked for the doctor'sprayers.
The month of January was near its end when Lord Kildonan, in theEmbassy at Lisbon, received a letter that for once gravely disturbedthat vain man and neglectful father. Saul was dead. The scene atFrank's burial had been very distressing. The day was awful inblackness and wind: the bearers, staggering blindly along under theflapping black pall, found it a hard job, when they emerged from theporch of the minster, to make their way to the grave. Mrs. Ashton wasin her room--women did not then go to their kinsfolk's funerals--butSaul was there, draped in the mourning cloak of the time, and his facewas white and fixed as that of one dead, except when, as was noticedthree or four times, he suddenly turned his head to the left andlooked over his shoulder. It was then alive with a terrible expressionof listening fear. No one saw him go away: and no one could find himthat evening. All night the gale buffeted the high windows of thechurch, and howled over the upland and roared through the woodland. Itwas useless to search in the open: no voice of shouting or cry forhelp could possibly be heard. All that Dr. Ashton could do was to warnthe people about the college, and the town constables, and to sit up,on the alert for any news, and this he did. News came early nextmorning, brought by the sexton, whose business it was to open thechurch for early prayers at seven, and who sent the maid rushingupstairs with wild eyes and flying hair to summon her master. The twomen dashed across to the south door of the minster, there to find LordSaul clinging desperately to the great ring of the door, his head sunkbetween his shoulders, his stockings in rags, his shoes gone, his legstorn and bloody.
This was what had to be told to Lord Kildonan, and this really endsthe first part of the story. The tomb of Frank Sydall and of the LordViscount Saul, only child and heir to William Earl of Kildonan, isone: a stone altar tomb in Whitminster churchyard.
Dr. Ashton lived on for over thirty years in his prebendal house, I donot know how quietly, but without visible disturbance. His successorpreferred a house he already owned in the town, and left that of thesenior prebendary vacant. Between them these two men saw theeighteenth century out and the nineteenth in; for Mr. Hindes, thesuccessor of Ashton, became prebendary at nine-and-twenty and died atnine-and-eighty. So that it was not till 1823 or 1824 that any onesucceeded to the post who intended to make the house his home. The manwho did was Dr. Henry Oldys, whose name may be known to some of myreaders as that of the author of a row of volumes labelled _Oldys'sWorks_, which occupy a place that must be honoured, since it is sorarely touched, upon the shelves of many a substantial library.
Dr. Oldys, his niece, and his servants took some months to transferfurniture and books from his Dorsetshire parsonage to the quadrangleof Whitminster, and to get everything into place. But eventually thework was done, and the house (which, though untenanted, had alwaysbeen kept sound and weather-tight) woke up, and like Monte Cristo'smansion at Auteuil, lived, sang, and bloomed once more. On a certainmorning in June it looked especially fair, as Dr. Oldys strolled inhis garden before breakfast and gazed over the red roof at the minstertower with its four gold vanes, backed by a very blue sky, and verywhite little clouds.
"Mary," he said, as he seated himself at the breakfast table and laiddown something hard and shiny on the cloth, "here's a find which theboy made just now. You'll be sharper than I if you can guess what it'smeant for." It was a round and perfectly smooth tablet--as much as aninch thick--of what seemed clear glass. "It is rather attractive atall events," said Mary: she was a fair woman, with light hair andlarge eyes, rather a devotee of literature. "Yes," said her uncle, "Ithought you'd be pleased with it. I presume it came from the house: itturned up in the rubbish-heap in the corner." "I'm not sure that I dolike it, after all," said Mary, some minutes later. "Why in the worldnot, my dear?" "I don't know, I'm sure. Perhaps it's only fancy.""Yes, only fancy and romance, of course. What's that book, now--thename of that book, I mean, that you had your head in all yesterday?""_The Talisman_, Uncle. Oh, if this should turn out to be a talisman,how enchanting it would be!" "Yes, _The Talisman_: ah, well, you'rewelcome to it, whatever it is: I must be off about my business. Is allwell in the house? Does it suit you? Any complaints from the servants'hall?" "No, indeed, nothing could be more charming. The only _soupcon_of a complaint besides the lock of the linen closet, which I told youof, is that Mrs. Maple says she cannot get rid of the sawflies out ofthat room you pass through at the other end of the hall. By the way,are you sure you like your bedroom? It is a long way off from any oneelse, you know." "Like it? To be sure I do; the further off from you,my dear, the better. There, don't think it necessary to beat me:accept my apologies. But what are sawflies? will they eat my coats? Ifnot, they may have the room to themselves for what I care. We are notlikely to be using it." "No, of course not. Well, what she callssawflies are those reddish things like a daddy-longlegs, butsmaller, and there are a great many of them perching about thatroom, certainly. I don't like them, but I don't fancy they aremischievous." "There seem to be several things you don't like thisfine morning," said her uncle, as he closed the door. Miss Oldysremained in her chair looking at the tablet, which she was holding inthe palm of her hand. The smile that had been on her face faded slowlyfrom it and gave place to an expression of curiosity and almoststrained attention. Her reverie was broken by the entrance of Mrs.Maple, and her invariable opening, "Oh, Miss, could I speak to you aminute?"
A letter from Miss Oldys to a friend in Lichfield, begun a day or twobefore, is the next source for this story. It is not devoid of tracesof the influence of that leader of female thought in her day, MissAnna Seward, known to some as the Swan of Lichfield.
"My sweetest Emily will be rejoiced to hear that we are at length--mybeloved uncle and myself--settled in the house that now calls usmaster--nay, master and mistress--as in past ages it has called somany others. Here we taste a mingling of modern elegance and hoaryantiquity, such as has never ere now graced life for either of us. Thetown, small as it is, affords us some reflection, pale indeed, butveritable, of the sweets of polite intercourse: the adjacent countrynumbers amid the occupants of its scattered mansions some whose polishis annually refreshed by contact with metropolitan splendour, andothers whose robust and homely geniality is, at times, and by way ofcontrast, not less cheering and acceptable. Tired of the parlours anddrawing-rooms of our friends, we have ready to hand a refuge from theclash of wits or the small talk of the day amid the solemn beauties ofour venerable minster, whose silvern chimes daily 'knoll us toprayer,' and in the shady walks of whose tranquil graveyard we musewith softened heart, and ever and anon with moistened eye, upon thememorials of the young, the beautiful,
Here there is an abrupt break both in the writing and the style.
"But my dearest Emily, I can no longer write with the care which youdeserve, and in which we both take pleasure. What I have to tell youis wholly foreign to what has gone before. This morning my unclebrought in to breakfast an object which had been found in the garden;it was a glass or crystal tablet of this shape (a little sketch isgiven), which he handed to me, and which, after he left the room,remained on the table by me. I gazed at it, I know not why, for someminutes, till called away by the day's duties; and you will smileincredulously when I say that I seemed to myself to begin to descryreflected in it objects and scenes which were not in the room where Iwas. You will not, however, be surprised that after such an experienceI took the first opportunity to seclude myself in my room with what Inow half believed to be a talisman of mickle might. I was notdisappointed. I assure you, Emily, by that memory which is dearest toboth of us, that what I went through this afternoon transcends thelimits of what I had before deemed credible. In brief, what I saw,seated in my bedroom, in the broad daylight of summer, and lookinginto the crystal depth of that small round tablet, was this. First, aprospect, strange to me, of an enclosure of rough and hillocky grass,with a grey stone ruin in the midst, and a wall of rough stones aboutit. In this stood an old, and very ugly, woman in a red cloak andragged skirt, talking to a boy dressed in the fashion of maybe ahundred years ago. She put something which glittered into his hand,and he something into hers, which I saw to be money, for a single coinfell from her trembling hand into the grass. The scene passed--Ishould have remarked, by the way, that on the rough walls of theenclosure I could distinguish bones, and even a skull, lying in adisorderly fashion. Next, I was looking upon two boys; one the figureof the former vision, the other younger. They were in a plot ofgarden, walled round, and this garden, in spite of the difference inarrangement, and the small size of the trees, I could clearlyrecognize as being that upon which I now look from my window. The boyswere engaged in some curious play, it seemed. Something wassmouldering on the ground. The elder placed his hands upon it, andthen raised them in what I took to be an attitude of prayer: and Isaw, and started at seeing, that on them were deep stains of blood.The sky above was overcast. The same boy now turned his face towardsthe wall of the garden, and beckoned with both his raised hands, andas he did so I was conscious that some moving objects were becomingvisible over the top of the wall--whether heads or other parts of someanimal or human forms I could not tell. Upon the instant the elder boyturned sharply, seized the arm of the younger (who all this time hadbeen poring over what lay on the ground), and both hurried off. I thensaw blood upon the grass, a little pile of bricks, and what I thoughtwere black feathers scattered about. That scene closed, and the nextwas so dark that perhaps the full meaning of it escaped me. But what Iseemed to see was a form, at first crouching low among trees or bushesthat were being threshed by a violent wind, then running very swiftly,and constantly turning a pale face to look behind him, as if he feareda pursuer: and, indeed, pursuers were following hard after him. Theirshapes were but dimly seen, their number--three or four, perhaps,only guessed. I suppose they were on the whole more like dogs thananything else, but dogs such as we have seen they assuredly were not.Could I have closed my eyes to this horror, I would have done so atonce, but I was helpless. The last I saw was the victim dartingbeneath an arch and clutching at some object to which he clung: andthose that were pursuing him overtook him, and I seemed to hear theecho of a cry of despair. It may be that I became unconscious:certainly I had the sensation of awaking to the light of day after aninterval of darkness. Such, in literal truth, Emily, was my vision--Ican call it by no other name--of this afternoon. Tell me, have I notbeen the unwilling witness of some episode of a tragedy connected withthis very house?"
The letter is continued next day. "The tale of yesterday was notcompleted when I laid down my pen. I said nothing of my experiences tomy uncle--you know, yourself, how little his robust common-sense wouldbe prepared to allow of them, and how in his eyes the specific remedywould be a black draught or a glass of port. After a silent evening,then--silent, not sullen--I retired to rest. Judge of my terror,when, not yet in bed, I heard what I can only describe as a distantbellow, and knew it for my uncle's voice, though never in my hearingso exerted before. His sleeping-room is at the further extremity ofthis large house, and to gain access to it one must traverse anantique hall some eighty feet long and a lofty panelled chamber, andtwo unoccupied bedrooms. In the second of these--a room almost devoidof furniture--I found him, in the dark, his candle lying smashed onthe floor. As I ran in, bearing a light, he clasped me in arms thattrembled for the first time since I have known him, thanked God, andhurried me out of the room. He would say nothing of what had alarmedhim. 'To-morrow, to-morrow,' was all I could get from him. A bed washastily improvised for him in the room next to my own. I doubt if hisnight was more restful than mine. I could only get to sleep in thesmall hours, when daylight was already strong, and then my dreams wereof the grimmest--particularly one which stamped itself on my brain,and which I must set down on the chance of dispersing the impressionit has made. It was that I came up to my room with a heavy forebodingof evil oppressing me, and went with a hesitation and reluctance Icould not explain to my chest of drawers. I opened the top drawer, inwhich was nothing but ribbons and handkerchiefs, and then the second,where was as little to alarm, and then, O heavens, the third and last:and there was a mass of linen neatly folded: upon which, as I lookedwith curiosity that began to be tinged with horror, I perceived amovement in it, and a pink hand was thrust out of the folds and beganto grope feebly in the air. I could bear it no more, and rushed fromthe room, clapping the door after me, and strove with all my force tolock it. But the key would not turn in the wards, and from within theroom came a sound of rustling and bumping, drawing nearer and nearerto the door. Why I did not flee down the stairs I know not. Icontinued grasping the handle, and mercifully, as the door was pluckedfrom my hand with an irresistible force, I awoke. You may not thinkthis very alarming, but I assure you it was so to me.
"At breakfast to-day my uncle was very uncommunicative, and I thinkashamed of the fright he had given us; but afterwards he inquired ofme whether Mr. Spearman was still in town, adding that he thought thatwas a young man who had some sense left in his head. I think youknow, my dear Emily, that I am not inclined to disagree with himthere, and also that I was not unlikely to be able to answer hisquestion. To Mr. Spearman he accordingly went, and I have not seen himsince. I must send this strange budget of news to you now, or it mayhave to wait over more than one post."
The reader will not be far out if he guesses that Miss Mary and Mr.Spearman made a match of it not very long after this month of June.Mr. Spearman was a young spark, who had a good property in theneighbourhood of Whitminster, and not unfrequently about this timespent a few days at the "King's Head," ostensibly on business. But hemust have had some leisure, for his diary is copious, especially forthe days of which I am telling the story. It is probable to me that hewrote this episode as fully as he could at the bidding of Miss Mary.
"Uncle Oldys (how I hope I may have the right to call him so beforelong!) called this morning. After throwing out a good many shortremarks on indifferent topics, he said 'I wish, Spearman, you'd listento an odd story and keep a close tongue about it just for a bit, tillI get more light on it.' 'To be sure,' said I, 'you may count on me.''I don't know what to make of it,' he said. 'You know my bedroom. Itis well away from every one else's, and I pass through the great halland two or three other rooms to get to it.' 'Is it at the end next theminster, then?' I asked. 'Yes, it is: well, now, yesterday morning myMary told me that the room next before it was infested with some sortof fly that the housekeeper couldn't get rid of. That may be theexplanation, or it may not. What do you think?' 'Why,' said I, 'you'venot yet told me what has to be explained.' 'True enough, I don'tbelieve I have; but by-the-by, what are these sawflies? Wha
"'For goodness sake finish your story first,' I said. 'I never heardanything like it.' 'Oh,' said he, 'there's no more to tell. Mary ranin with a light, and there was nothing there. I didn't tell her whatwas the matter. I changed my room for last night, and I expect forgood.' 'Have you searched this odd room of yours?' I said. 'What doyou keep in it?' 'We don't use it,' he answered. 'There's an old pressthere, and some little other furniture.' 'And in the press?' said I.'I don't know; I never saw it opened, but I do know that it's locked.''Well, I should have it looked into, and, if you had time, I own tohaving some curiosity to see the place myself.' 'I didn't exactly liketo ask you, but that's rather what I hoped you'd say. Name your timeand I'll take you there.' 'No time like the present,' I said at once,for I saw he would never settle down to anything while this affair wasin suspense. He got up with great alacrity, and looked at me, I amtempted to think, with marked approval. 'Come along,' was all he said,however; and was pretty silent all the way to his house. My Mary (ashe calls her in public, and I in private) was summoned, and weproceeded to the room. The Doctor had gone so far as to tell her thathe had had something of a fright there last night, of what nature hehad not yet divulged; but now he pointed out and described, verybriefly, the incidents of his progress. When we were near theimportant spot, he pulled up, and allowed me to pass on. 'There's theroom,' he said. 'Go in, Spearman, and tell us what you find.' WhateverI might have felt at midnight, noonday I was sure would keep backanything sinister, and I flung the door open with an air and steppedin. It was a well-lighted room, with its large window on the right,though not, I thought, a very airy one. The principal piece offurniture was the gaunt old press of dark wood. There was, too, afour-post bedstead, a mere skeleton which could hide nothing, andthere was a chest of drawers. On the window-sill and the floor near itwere the dead bodies of many hundred sawflies, and one torpid onewhich I had some satisfaction in killing. I tried the door of thepress, but could not open it: the drawers, too, were locked.Somewhere, I was conscious, there was a faint rustling sound, but Icould not locate it, and when I made my report to those outside, Isaid nothing of it. But, I said, clearly the next thing was to seewhat was in those locked receptacles. Uncle Oldys turned to Mary.'Mrs. Maple,' he said, and Mary ran off--no one, I am sure, steps likeher--and soon came back at a soberer pace, with an elderly lady ofdiscreet aspect.
"'Have you the keys of these things, Mrs. Maple?' said Uncle Oldys.His simple words let loose a torrent (not violent, but copious) ofspeech: had she been a shade or two higher in the social scale, Mrs.Maple might have stood as the model for Miss Bates.
"'Oh, Doctor, and Miss, and you too, sir,' she said, acknowledging mypresence with a bend, 'them keys! who was that again that come whenfirst we took over things in this house--a gentleman in business itwas, and I gave him his luncheon in the small parlour on account of usnot having everything as we should like to see it in the largeone--chicken, and apple-pie, and a glass of madeira--dear, dear,you'll say I'm running on, Miss Mary; but I only mention it to bringback my recollection; and there it comes--Gardner, just the same as itdid last week with the artichokes and the text of the sermon. Now thatMr. Gardner, every key I got from him were labelled to itself, andeach and every one was a key of some door or another in this house,and sometimes two; and when I say door, my meaning is door of a room,not like such a press as this is. Yes, Miss Mary, I know full well,and I'm just making it clear to your uncle and you too, sir. But nowthere _was_ a box which this same gentleman he give over into mycharge, and thinking no harm after he was gone I took the liberty,knowing it was your uncle's property, to rattle it: and unless I'mmost surprisingly deceived, in that box there was keys, but what keys,that, Doctor, is known Elsewhere, for open the box, no that I wouldnot do.'
"I wondered that Uncle Oldys remained as quiet as he did under thisaddress. Mary, I knew, was amused by it, and he probably had beentaught by experience that it was useless to break in upon it. At anyrate he did not, but merely said at the end, 'Have you that box handy,Mrs. Maple? If so, you might bring it here.' Mrs. Maple pointed herfinger at him, either in accusation or in gloomy triumph. 'There,' shesaid, 'was I to choose out the very words out of your mouth, Doctor,them would be the ones. And if I've took it to my own rebuke onehalf-a-dozen times, it's been nearer fifty. Laid awake I have in mybed, sat down in my chair I have, the same you and Miss Mary gave methe day I was twenty year in your service, and no person could desirea better--yes, Miss Mary, but it _is_ the truth, and well we know whoit is would have it different if he could. "All very well," says I tomyself, "but pray, when the Doctor calls you to account for that box,what are you going to say?" No, Doctor, if you was some masters I'veheard of and I was some servants I could name, I should have an easytask before me, but things being, humanly speaking, what they are, theone course open to me is just to say to you that without Miss Marycomes to my room and helps me to my recollection, which her wits_may_ manage what's slipped beyon
"'Why, dear Mrs. Maple, why didn't you tell me before that you wantedme to help you to find it?' said my Mary. 'No, never mind telling mewhy it was: let us come at once and look for it.' They hastened offtogether. I could hear Mrs. Maple beginning an explanation which, Idoubt not, lasted into the furthest recesses of the housekeeper'sdepartment. Uncle Oldys and I were left alone. 'A valuable servant,'he said, nodding towards the door. 'Nothing goes wrong under her: thespeeches are seldom over three minutes.' 'How will Miss Oldys manageto make her remember about the box?' I asked.
"'Mary? Oh, she'll make her sit down and ask her about her aunt's lastillness, or who gave her the china dog on the mantel-piece--somethingquite off the point. Then, as Maple says, one thing brings up another,and the right one will come round sooner than you could suppose.There! I believe I hear them coming back already.'
"It was indeed so, and Mrs. Maple was hurrying on ahead of Mary withthe box in her outstretched hand, and a beaming face. 'What was it,'she cried as she drew near, 'what was it as I said, before ever I comeout of Dorsetshire to this place? Not that I'm a Dorset woman myself,nor had need to be. "Safe bind, safe find," and there it was in theplace where I'd put it--what?--two months back, I daresay.' She handedit to Uncle Oldys, and he and I examined it with some interest, sothat I ceased to pay attention to Mrs. Ann Maple for the moment,though I know that she went on to expound exactly where the box hadbeen, and in what way Mary had helped to refresh her memory on thesubject.
"It was an oldish box, tied with pink tape and sealed, and on the lidwas pasted a label inscribed in old ink, 'The Senior Prebendary'sHouse, Whitminster.' On being opened it was found to contain two keysof moderate size, and a paper, on which, in the same hand as thelabel, was 'Keys of the Press and Box of Drawers standing in thedisused Chamber.' Also this: 'The Effects in this Press and Box areheld by me, and to be held by my successors in the Residence, in trustfor the noble Family of Kildonan, if claim be made by any survivor ofit. I having made all the Enquiry possible to myself am of theopinion that that noble House is wholly extinct: the last Earl havingbeen, as is notorious, cast away at sea, and his only Child and Heiredeceas'd in my House (the Papers as to which melancholy Casualty wereby me repos'd in the same Press in this year of our Lord 1753, 21March). I am further of opinion that unless grave discomfort arise,such persons, not being of the Family of Kildonan, as shall becomepossess'd of these keys, will be well advised to leave matters as theyare: which opinion I do not express without weighty and sufficientreason; and am Happy to have my Judgment confirm'd by the otherMembers of this College and Church who are conversant with the Eventsreferr'd to in this Paper. Tho. Ashton, _S.T.P._, _Praeb. senr._ Will.Blake, _S.T.P._, _Decanus_. Hen. Goodman, _S.T.B._, _Praeb. junr._'
"'Ah!' said Uncle Oldys, 'grave discomfort! So he thought there mightbe something. I suspect it was that young man,' he went on, pointingwith the key to the line about the 'only Child and Heire.' 'Eh, Mary?The viscounty of Kildonan was Saul.' 'How _do_ you know that, Uncle?'said Mary. 'Oh, why not? it's all in Debrett--two little fat books.But I meant the tomb by the lime walk. He's there. What's the story, Iwonder? Do you know it, Mrs. Maple? and, by the way, look at yoursawflies by the window there.'
"Mrs. Maple, thus confronted with two subjects at once, was a littleput to it to do justice to both. It was no doubt rash in Uncle Oldysto give her the opportunity. I could only guess that he had someslight hesitation about using the key he held in his hand.
"'Oh them flies, how bad they was, Doctor and Miss, this three or fourdays: and you, too, sir, you wouldn't guess, none of you! And how theycome, too! First we took the room in hand, the shutters was up, andhad been, I daresay, years upon years, and not a fly to be seen. Thenwe got the shutter bars down with a deal of trouble and left it so forthe day, and next day I sent Susan in with the broom to sweep about,and not two minutes hadn't passed when out she come into the hall likea blind thing, and we had regular to beat them off her. Why her capand her hair, you couldn't see the colour of it, I do assure you, andall clustering round her eyes, too. Fortunate enough she's not a girlwith fancies, else if it had been me, why only the tickling of thenasty things would have drove me out of my wits. And now there theylay like so many dead things. Well, they was lively enough on theMonday, and now here's Thursday, is it, or no, Friday. Only to comenear the door and you'd hear them pattering up against it, and onceyou opened it, dash at you, they would, as if they'd eat you. Icouldn't help thinking to myself, "If you was bats, where should we bethis night?" Nor you can't cresh 'em, not like a usual kind of a fly.Well, there's something to be thankful for, if we could but learn byit. And then this tomb, too,' she said, hastening on to her secondpoint to elude any chance of interruption, 'of them two poor younglads. I say poor, and yet when I recollect myself, I was at tea withMrs. Simpkins, the sexton's wife, before you come, Doctor and MissMary, and that's a family has been in the place, what? I daresay ahundred years in that very house, and could put their hand on any tombor yet grave in all the yard and give you name and age. And hisaccount of that young man, Mr. Simpkins's I mean to say--_well_!' Shecompressed her lips and nodded several times. 'Tell us, Mrs. Maple,'said Mary. 'Go on,' said Uncle Oldys. 'What about him?' said I.'Never was such a thing seen in this place, not since Queen Mary'stimes and the Pope and all,' said Mrs. Maple. 'Why, do you know helived in this very house, him and them that was with him, and for allI can tell in this identical room' (she shifted her feet uneasily onthe floor). 'Who was with him? Do you mean the people of the house?'said Uncle Oldys suspiciously. 'Not to call people, Doctor, dear no,'was the answer; 'more what he brought with him from Ireland, I believeit was. No, the people in the house was the last to hear anything ofhis goings-on. But in the town not a family but knew how he stoppedout at night: and them that was with him, why they were such as wouldstrip the skin from the child in its grave; and a withered heart makesan ugly thin ghost, says Mr. Simpkins. But they turned on him at thelast, he says, and there's the mark still to be seen on the minsterdoor where they run him down. And that's no more than the truth, for Igot him to show it to myself, and that's what he said. A lord he was,with a Bible name of a wicked king, whatever his godfathers could havebeen thinking of.' 'Saul was the name,' said Uncle Oldys. 'To be sureit was Saul, Doctor, and thank you; and now isn't it King Saul that weread of raising up the dead ghost that was slumbering in its tomb tillhe disturbed it, and isn't that a strange thing, this young lord tohave such a name, and Mr. Simpkins's grandfather to see him out of hiswindow of a dark night going about from one grave to another in theyard with a candle, and them that was with him following through thegrass at his heels: and one night him to come right up to old Mr.Simpkins's window that gives on the yard and press his face up againstit to find out if there was any one in the room that could see him:and only just time there was for old Mr. Simpkins to drop down like,quiet, just under the window and hold his breath, and not stir till heheard him stepping away again, and this rustling-like in the grassafter him as he went, and then when he looked out of his window in themorning there was treadings in the grass and a dead man's bone. Oh, hewas a cruel child for certain, but he had to pay in the end, andafter.' 'After?' said Uncle Oldys, with a frown. 'Oh yes, Doctor,night after night in old Mr. Simpkins's time, and his son, that's ourMr. Simpkins's father, yes, and our own Mr. Simpkins too. Up againstthat same window, particular when they've had a fire of a chillyevening, with his face right on the panes, and his hands flutteringout, and his mouth open and shut, open and shut, for a minute or more,and then gone off in the dark yard. But open the window at such times,no, that they dare not do, though they could find it in their heart topity the poor thing, that pinched up with the cold, and seeminglyfading away to a nothink as the years passed on. Well, indeed, Ibelieve it is no more than the truth what our Mr. Simpkins says on hisown grandfather's word, "A withered heart makes an ugly thin ghost."''I daresay,' said Uncle Oldys suddenly: so sudde
"We left that curious room not unwillingly, I think. Uncle Oldys'sorders were carried out that same day. And so," concludes Mr.Spearman, "Whitminster has a Bluebeard's chamber, and, I am ratherinclined to suspect, a Jack-in-the-box, awaiting some future occupantof the residence of the senior prebendary."
[Footnote 1: Apparently the ichneumon fly (_Ophion obscurum_), and notthe true sawfly, is meant.]
THE DIARY OF MR. POYNTER
A Thin Ghost and Others by M. R. James / Horror have rating 3.4 out of 5 / Based on17 votes