An Episode of Cathedral History is a short story written by M. R. James.
The story is told in retrospect to a historian who has been sent to the Cathedral of Southminster to examine the archives. One night he accompanies the verger on an evening visit to the cathedral and the verger shares a tale from his youth.
The verger’s story is a spooky one. It concerns the events that occurred during a modernization. When the pulpit was removed, it revealed a mysterious tomb.
After the tomb is disturbed, many people living near the cathedral become ill and are plagued by horrible nightmares. A lot of them die. These problems are attributed to a shadowy figure that’s been seen leaving the cathedral each night.
Although an Episode of Cathedral History has elements of a classic ghost story, it also could be seen as a vampire story and, for that reason, it is sometimes included in anthologies of vampire stories.
An Episode of Cathedral History was first published in the magazine Cambridge Review (June 10, 1914).
About M. R. James
Montague Rhodes James (1862 – 1936) was a noted British scholar and expert on medieval manuscripts and biblical apocrypha. It is for his ghost stories though, that James is best remembered.
M.R. James wrote over thirty ghost stories. They have rarely been out of print, are often anthologized and have been produced as audiobooks, radio plays, television dramatizations, films and on stage presentations.
An Episode of Cathedral History (Online Text)
There was once a learned gentleman who was deputed to examine and report upon the archives of the Cathedral of Southminster. The examination of these records demanded a very considerable expenditure of time: hence it became advisable for him to engage lodgings in the city: for though the Cathedral body were profuse in their offers of hospitality, Mr. Lake felt that he would prefer to be master of his day. This was recognized as reasonable. The Dean eventually wrote advising Mr. Lake, if he were not already suited, to communicate with Mr. Worby, the principal Verger, who occupied a house convenient to the church and was prepared to take in a quiet lodger for three or four weeks. Such an arrangement was precisely what Mr. Lake desired. Terms were easily agreed upon, and early in December, like another Mr. Datchery (as he remarked to himself), the investigator found himself in the occupation of a very comfortable room in an ancient and “cathedraly” house.
One so familiar with the customs of Cathedral churches, and treated with such obvious consideration by the Dean and Chapter of this Cathedral in particular, could not fail to command the respect of the Head Verger. Mr. Worby even acquiesced in certain modifications of statements he had been accustomed to offer for years to parties of visitors. Mr. Lake, on his part, found the Verger a very cheery companion, and took advantage of any occasion that presented itself for enjoying his conversation when the day’s work was over.
One evening, about nine o’clock, Mr. Worby knocked at his lodger’s door. “I’ve occasion,” he said, “to go across to the Cathedral, Mr. Lake, and I think I made you a promise when I did so next I would give you the opportunity to see what it looks like at night time. It is quite fine and dry outside, if you care to come.”
“To be sure I will; very much obliged to you, Mr. Worby, for thinking of it, but let me get my coat.”
“Here it is, sir, and I’ve another lantern here that you’ll find advisable for the steps, as there’s no moon.”
“Any one might think we were Jasper and Durdles, over again, mightn’t they,” said Lake, as they crossed the close, for he had ascertained that the Verger had read Edwin Drood .
“Well, so they might,” said Mr. Worby, with a short laugh, “though I don’t know whether we ought to take it as a compliment. Odd ways, I often think, they had at that Cathedral, don’t it seem so to you, sir? Full choral matins at seven o’clock in the morning all the year round. Wouldn’t suit our boys’ voices nowadays, and I think there’s one or two of the men would be applying for a rise if the Chapter was to bring it in-particular the alltoes.”
They were now at the south-west door. As Mr. Worby was unlocking it, Lake said, “Did you ever find anybody locked in here by accident?”
“Twice I did. One was a drunk sailor; however he got in I don’t know. I s’pose he went to sleep in the service, but by the time I got to him he was praying fit to bring the roof in. Lor’! what a noise that man did make! said it was the first time he’d been inside a church for ten years, and blest if ever he’d try it again. The other was an old sheep: them boys it was, up to their games. That was the last time they tried it on, though. There, sir, now you see what we look like; our late Dean used now and again to bring parties in, but he preferred a moonlight night, and there was a piece of verse he’d coat to ’em, relating to a Scotch cathedral, I understand; but I don’t know; I almost think the effect’s better when it’s all dark-like. Seems to add to the size and heighth. Now if you won’t mind stopping somewhere in the nave while I go up into the choir where my business lays, you’ll see what I mean.”
Accordingly Lake waited, leaning against a pillar, and watched the light wavering along the length of the church, and up the steps into the choir, until it was intercepted by some screen or other furniture, which only allowed the reflection to be seen on the piers and roof. Not many minutes had passed before Worby reappeared at the door of the choir and by waving his lantern signalled to Lake to rejoin him.
“I suppose it is Worby, and not a substitute,” thought Lake to himself, as he walked up the nave. There was, in fact, nothing untoward. Worby showed him the papers which he had come to fetch out of the Dean’s stall, and asked him what he thought of the spectacle: Lake agreed that it was well worth seeing. “I suppose,” he said, as they walked towards the altar-steps together, “that you’re too much used to going about here at night to feel nervous — but you must get a start every now and then, don’t you, when a book falls down or a door swings to.”
“No, Mr. Lake, I can’t say I think much about noises, not nowadays: I’m much more afraid of finding an escape of gas or a burst in the stove pipes than anything else. Still there have been times, years ago. Did you notice that plain altar-tomb there — fifteenth century we say it is, I don’t know if you agree to that? Well, if you didn’t look at it, just come back and give it a glance, if you’d be so good.” It was on the north side of the choir, and rather awkwardly placed: only about three feet from the enclosing stone screen. Quite plain, as the Verger had said, but for some ordinary stone panelling. A metal cross of some size on the northern side (that next to the screen) was the solitary feature of any interest.
Lake agreed that it was not earlier than the Perpendicular period: “but,” he said, “unless it’s the tomb of some remarkable person, you’ll forgive me for saying that I don’t think it’s particularly noteworthy.”
“Well, I can’t say as it is the tomb of anybody noted in ‘istory,” said Worby, who had a dry smile on his face, “for we don’t own any record whatsoever of who it was put up to. For all that, if you’ve half an hour to spare, sir, when we get back to the house, Mr. Lake, I could tell you a tale about that tomb. I won’t begin on it now; it strikes cold here, and we don’t want to be dawdling about all night.”
“Of course I should like to hear it immensely.”
“Very well, sir, you shall. Now if I might put a question to you,” he went on, as they passed down the choir aisle, “in our little local guide — and not only there, but in the little book on our Cathedral in the series — you’ll find it stated that this portion of the building was erected previous to the twelfth century. Now of course I should be glad enough to take that view, but — mind the step, sir — but, I put it to you — does the lay of the stone ’ere in this portion of the wall (which he tapped with his key) does it to your eye carry the flavour of what you might call Saxon masonry? No? I thought not; no more it does to me: now, if you’ll believe me, I’ve said as much to those men — one’s the librarian of our Free Libry here, and the other came down from London on purpose — fifty times, if I have once, but I might just as well have talked to that bit of stonework. But there it is, I suppose every one’s got their opinions.”
The discussion of this peculiar trait of human nature occupied Mr. Worby almost up to the moment when he and Lake re-entered the former’s house. The condition of the fire in Lake’s sitting-room led to a suggestion from Mr. Worby that they should finish the evening in his own parlour. We find them accordingly settled there some short time afterwards.
Mr. Worby made his story a long one, and I will not undertake to tell it wholly in his own words, or in his own order. Lake committed the substance of it to paper immediately after hearing it, together with some few passages of the narrative which had fixed themselves verbatim in his mind; I shall probably find it expedient to condense Lake’s record to some extent.
Mr. Worby was born, it appeared, about the year 1828. His father before him had been connected with the Cathedral, and likewise his grandfather. One or both had been choristers, and in later life both had done work as mason and carpenter respectively about the fabric. Worby himself, though possessed, as he frankly acknowledged, of an indifferent voice, had been drafted into the choir at about ten years of age.
It was in 1840 that the wave of the Gothic revival smote the Cathedral of Southminster. “There was a lot of lovely stuff went then, sir,” said Worby, with a sigh. “My father couldn’t hardly believe it when he got his orders to clear out the choir. There was a new dean just come in-Dean Burscough it was — and my father had been ‘prenticed to a good firm of joiners in the city, and knew what good work was when he saw it. Crool it was, he used to say: all that beautiful wainscot oak, as good as the day it was put up, and garlands-like of foliage and fruit, and lovely old gilding work on the coats of arms and the organ pipes. All went to the timber yard — every bit except some little pieces worked up in the Lady Chapel, and ’ere in this overmantel. Well — I may be mistook, but I say our choir never looked as well since. Still there was a lot found out about the history of the church, and no doubt but what it did stand in need of repair. There were very few winters passed but what we’d lose a pinnicle.” Mr. Lake expressed his concurrence with Worby’s views of restoration, but owns to a fear about this point lest the story proper should never be reached. Possibly this was perceptible in his manner.
Worby hastened to reassure him, “Not but what I could carry on about that topic for hours at a time, and do do when I see my opportunity. But Dean Burscough he was very set on the Gothic period, and nothing would serve him but everything must be made agreeable to that. And one morning after service he appointed for my father to meet him in the choir, and he came back after he’d taken off his robes in the vestry, and he’d got a roll of paper with him, and the verger that was then brought in a table, and they begun spreading it out on the table with prayer books to keep it down, and my father helped ’em, and he saw it was a picture of the inside of a choir in a Cathedral; and the Dean — he was a quick spoken gentleman — he says, ‘Well, Worby, what do you think of that?’ ‘Why’, says my father, ‘I don’t think I ‘ave the pleasure of knowing that view. Would that be Hereford Cathedral, Mr. Dean?’ ‘No, Worby,’ says the Dean, ‘that’s Southminster Cathedral as we hope to see it before many years.’ ‘In-deed, sir,’ says my father, and that was all he did say — leastways to the Dean — but he used to tell me he felt really faint in himself when he looked round our choir as I can remember it, all comfortable and furnished-like, and then see this nasty little dry picter, as he called it, drawn out by some London architect. Well, there I am again. But you’ll see what I mean if you look at this old view.”
Worby reached down a framed print from the wall. “Well, the long and the short of it was that the Dean he handed over to my father a copy of an order of the Chapter that he was to clear out every bit of the choir — make a clean sweep — ready for the new work that was being designed up in town, and he was to put it in hand as soon as ever he could get the breakers together. Now then, sir, if you look at that view, you’ll see where the pulpit used to stand: that’s what I want you to notice, if you please.” It was, indeed, easily seen; an unusually large structure of timber with a domed sounding-board, standing at the east end of the stalls on the north side of the choir, facing the bishop’s throne. Worby proceeded to explain that during the alterations, services were held in the nave, the members of the choir being thereby disappointed of an anticipated holiday, and the organist in particular incurring the suspicion of having wilfully damaged the mechanism of the temporary organ that was hired at considerable expense from London.
The work of demolition began with the choir screen and organ loft, and proceeded gradually eastwards, disclosing, as Worby said, many interesting features of older work. While this was going on, the members of the Chapter were, naturally, in and about the choir a great deal, and it soon became apparent to the elder Worby — who could not help overhearing some of their talk — that, on the part of the senior Canons especially, there must have been a good deal of disagreement before the policy now being carried out had been adopted. Some were of opinion that they should catch their deaths of cold in the return-stalls, unprotected by a screen from the draughts in the nave: others objected to being exposed to the view of persons in the choir aisles, especially, they said, during the sermons, when they found it helpful to listen in a posture which was liable to misconstruction. The strongest opposition, however, came from the oldest of the body, who up to the last moment objected to the removal of the pulpit. “You ought not to touch it, Mr. Dean,” he said with great emphasis one morning, when the two were standing before it: “you don’t know what mischief you may do.” “Mischief? it’s not a work of any particular merit, Canon.” “Don’t call me Canon,” said the old man with great asperity, “that is, for thirty years I’ve been known as Dr. Ayloff, and I shall be obliged, Mr. Dean, if you would kindly humour me in that matter. And as to the pulpit (which I’ve preached from for thirty years, though I don’t insist on that) all I’ll say is, I know you’re doing wrong in moving it.” “But what sense could there be, my dear Doctor, in leaving it where it is, when we’re fitting up the rest of the choir in a totally different style ? What reason could be given — apart from the look of the thing?” “Reason! reason!” said old Dr. Ayloff; “if you young men — if I may say so without any disrespect, Mr. Dean — if you’d only listen to reason a little, and not be always asking for it, we should get on better. But there, I’ve said my say.” The old gentleman hobbled off, and as it proved, never entered the Cathedral again. The season — it was a hot summer — turned sickly on a sudden. Dr. Ayloff was one of the first to go, with some affection of the muscles of the thorax, which took him painfully at night. And at many services the number of choirmen and boys was very thin.
Meanwhile the pulpit had been done away with. In fact, the sounding-board (part of which still exists as a table in a summer-house in the palace garden) was taken down within an hour or two of Dr. Ayloff’s protest. The removal of the base — not effected without considerable trouble — disclosed to view, greatly to the exultation of the restoring party, an altar-tomb — the tomb, of course, to which Worby had attracted Lake’s attention that same evening. Much fruitless research was expended in attempts to identify the occupant; from that day to this he has never had a name put to him. The structure had been most carefully boxed in under the pulpit-base, so that such slight ornament as it possessed was not defaced; only on the north side of it there was what looked like an injury; a gap between two of the slabs composing the side. It might be two or three inches across. Palmer, the mason, was directed to fill it up in a week’s time, when he came to do some other small jobs near that part of the choir.
The season was undoubtedly a very trying one. Whether the church was built on a site that had once been a marsh, as was suggested, or for whatever reason, the residents in its immediate neighbourhood had, many of them, but little enjoyment of the exquisite sunny days and the calm nights of August and September. To several of the older people — Dr. Ayloff, among others, as we have seen — the summer proved downright fatal, but even among the younger, few escaped either a sojourn in bed for a matter of weeks, or at the least, a brooding sense of oppression, accompanied by hateful nightmares. Gradually there formulated itself a suspicion — which grew into a conviction — that the alterations in the Cathedral had something to say in the matter. The widow of a former old verger, a pensioner of the Chapter of Southminster, was visited by dreams, which she retailed to her friends, of a shape that slipped out of the little door of the south transept as the dark fell in, and flitted — taking a fresh direction every night — about the close, disappearing for a while in house after house, and finally emerging again when the night sky was paling. She could see nothing of it, she said, but that it was a moving form: only she had an impression that when it returned to the church, as it seemed to do in the end of the dream, it turned its head: and then, she could not tell why, but she thought it had red eyes. Worby remembered hearing the old lady tell this dream at a tea-party in the house of the chapter clerk. Its recurrence might, perhaps, he said, be taken as a symptom of approaching illness; at any rate before the end of September the old lady was in her grave.
The interest excited by the restoration of this great church was not confined to its own county. One day that summer an F.S.A., of some celebrity, visited the place. His business was to write an account of the discoveries that had been made, for the Society of Antiquaries, and his wife, who accompanied him, was to make a series of illustrative drawings for his report. In the morning she employed herself in making a general sketch of the choir; in the afternoon she devoted herself to details. She first drew the newly exposed altar-tomb, and when that was finished, she called her husband’s attention to a beautiful piece of diaper-ornament on the screen just behind it, which had, like the tomb itself, been completely concealed by the pulpit. Of course, he said, an illustration of that must be made; so she seated herself on the tomb and began a careful drawing which occupied her till dusk.
Her husband had by this time finished his work of measuring and description, and they agreed that it was time to be getting back to their hotel. “You may as well brush my skirt, Frank,” said the lady, “it must have got covered with dust, I’m sure.” He obeyed dutifully; but, after a moment, he said, “I don’t know whether you value this dress particularly, my dear, but I’m inclined to think it’s seen its best days. There’s a great bit of it gone.” “Gone? Where?” said she. “I don’t know where it’s gone, but it’s off at the bottom edge behind here.” She pulled it hastily into sight, and was horrified to find a jagged tear extending some way into the substance of the stuff; very much, she said, as if a dog had rent it away. The dress was, in any case, hopelessly spoilt, to her great vexation, and though they looked everywhere, the missing piece could not be found. There were many ways, they concluded, in which the injury might have come about, for the choir was full of old bits of woodwork with nails sticking out of them. Finally, they could only suppose that one of these had caused the mischief, and that the workmen, who had been about all day, had carried off the particular piece with the fragment of dress still attached to it.
It was about this time, Worby thought, that his little dog began to wear an anxious expression when the hour for it to be put into the shed in the back yard approached. (For his mother had ordained that it must not sleep in the house.) One evening, he said, when he was just going to pick it up and carry it out, it looked at him “like a Christian, and waved its ‘and, I was going to say — well, you know ‘ow they do carry on sometimes, and the end of it was I put it under my coat, and ‘uddled it upstairs — and I’m afraid I as good as deceived my poor mother on the subject. After that the dog acted very artful with ‘iding itself under the bed for half-an-hour or more before bed-time came, and we worked it so as my mother never found out what we’d done.” Of course Worby was glad of its company anyhow, but more particularly when the nuisance that is still remembered in Southminster as “the crying” set in.
“Night after night,” said Worby, “that dog seemed to know it was coming; he’d creep out, he would, and snuggle into the bed and cuddle right up to me shivering, and when the crying come he’d be like a wild thing, shoving his head under my arm, and I was fully near as bad. Six or seven times we’d hear it, not more, and when he’d dror out his ‘ed again I’d know it was over for that night. What was it like, sir? Well, I never heard but one thing that seemed to hit it off. I happened to be playing about in the Close, and there was two of the Canons met and said ‘Good morning’ one to another. ‘Sleep well last night?’ says one — it was Mr. Henslow that one, and Mr. Lyall was the other —‘Can’t say I did,’ says Mr. Lyall, ‘rather too much of Isaiah 34. 14 for me.’ ‘34. 14,’ says Mr. Henslow, ‘what’s that?’ ‘You call yourself a Bible reader!’ says Mr. Lyall. (Mr. Henslow, you must know, he was one of what used to be termed Simeon’s lot — pretty much what we should call the Evangelical party.) ‘You go and look it up.’ I wanted to know what he was getting at myself, and so off I ran home and got out my own Bible, and there it was: ‘the satyr shall cry to his fellow.’ Well, I thought, is that what we’ve been listening to these past nights? and I tell you it made me look over my shoulder a time or two. Of course I’d asked my father and mother about what it could be before that, but they both said it was most likely cats: but they spoke very short, and I could see they was troubled. My word! that was a noise —‘ungry-like, as if it was calling after some one that wouldn’t come. If ever you felt you wanted company, it would be when you was waiting for it to begin again. I believe two or three nights there was men put on to watch in different parts of the Close; but they all used to get together in one corner, the nearest they could to the High Street, and nothing came of it.
“Well, the next thing was this. Me and another of the boys — he’s in business in the city now as a grocer, like his father before him — we’d gone up in the Close after morning service was over, and we heard old Palmer the mason bellowing to some of his men. So we went up nearer, because we knew he was a rusty old chap and there might be some fun going. It appears Palmer’d told this man to stop up the chink in that old tomb. Well, there was this man keeping on saying he’d done it the best he could, and there was Palmer carrying on like all possessed about it. ‘Call that making a job of it?’ he says. ‘If you had your rights you’d get the sack for this. What do you suppose I pay you your wages for? What do you suppose I’m going to say to the Dean and Chapter when they come round, as come they may do any time, and see where you’ve been bungling about covering the ‘ole place with mess and plaster and Lord knows what?’ ‘Well, master, I done the best I could,’ says the man; ‘I don’t know no more than what you do ‘ow it come to fall out this way. I tamped it right in the ‘ole,’ he says, ‘and now it’s fell out,’ he says, ‘I never see.’
“‘Fell out?’ says old Palmer, ‘why it’s nowhere near the place. Blowed out, you mean,’ and he picked up a bit of plaster, and so did I, that was laying up against the screen, three or four feet off, and not dry yet; and old Palmer he looked at it curious-like, and then he turned round on me and he says, ‘Now then, you boys, have you been up to some of your games here?’ ‘No,’ I says, ‘I haven’t, Mr. Palmer; there’s none of us been about here till just this minute,’ and while I was talking the other boy, Evans, he got looking in through the chink, and I heard him draw in his breath, and he came away sharp and up to us, and says he, ‘I believe there’s something in there. I saw something shiny.’ ‘What! I daresay,’ says old Palmer; ‘Well, I ain’t got time to stop about there. You, William, you go off and get some more stuff and make a job of it this time; if not, there’ll be trouble in my yard,’ he says.
“So the man he went off, and Palmer too, and us boys stopped behind, and I says to Evans, ‘Did you really see anything in there?’ ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘I did indeed.’ So then I says, ‘Let’s shove something in and stir it up.’ And we tried several of the bits of wood that was laying about, but they were all too big. Then Evans he had a sheet of music he’d brought with him, an anthem or a service, I forget which it was now, and he rolled it up small and shoved it in the chink; two or three times he did it, and nothing happened. ‘Give it me, boy,’ I said, and I had a try. No, nothing happened. Then, I don’t know why I thought of it, I’m sure, but I stooped down just opposite the chink and put my two fingers in my mouth and whistled — you know the way — and at that I seemed to think I heard something stirring, and I says to Evans, ‘Come away,’ I says; ‘I don’t like this.’ ‘Oh, rot,’ he says, ‘Give me that roll,’ and he took it and shoved it in. And I don’t think ever I see any one go so pale as he did. ‘I say, Worby,’ he says, ‘it’s caught, or else some one’s got hold of it.’ ‘Pull it out or leave it,’ I says, ‘Come and let’s get off.’ So he gave a good pull, and it came away. Leastways most of it did, but the end was gone. Torn off it was, and Evans looked at it for a second and then he gave a sort of a croak and let it drop, and we both made off out of there as quick as ever we could. When we got outside Evans says to me, ‘Did you see the end of that paper.’ ‘No,’ I says, ‘only it was torn.’ ‘Yes, it was,’ he says, ‘but it was wet too, and black!’ Well, partly because of the fright we had, and partly because that music was wanted in a day or two, and we knew there’d be a set-out about it with the organist, we didn’t say nothing to any one else, and I suppose the workmen they swept up the bit that was left along with the rest of the rubbish. But Evans, if you were to ask him this very day about it, he’d stick to it he saw that paper wet and black at the end where it was torn.”
After that the boys gave the choir a wide berth, so that Worby was not sure what was the result of the mason’s renewed mending of the tomb. Only he made out from fragments of conversation dropped by the workmen passing through the choir that some difficulty had been met with, and that the governor — Mr. Palmer to wit — had tried his own hand at the job. A little later, he happened to see Mr. Palmer himself knocking at the door of the Deanery and being admitted by the butler. A day or so after that, he gathered from a remark his father let fall at breakfast that something a little out of the common was to be done in the Cathedral after morning service on the morrow. “And I’d just as soon it was today,” his father added, “I don’t see the use of running risks.” “‘Father,’ I says, ‘what are you going to do in the Cathedral tomorrow?’ and he turned on me as savage as I ever see him — he was a wonderful good-tempered man as a general thing, my poor father was. ‘My lad,’ he says, ‘I’ll trouble you not to go picking up your elders’ and betters’ talk: it’s not manners and it’s not straight. What I’m going to do or not going to do in the Cathedral tomorrow is none of your business: and if I catch sight of you hanging about the place tomorrow after your work’s done, I’ll send you home with a flea in your ear. Now you mind that.’ Of course I said I was very sorry and that, and equally of course I went off and laid my plans with Evans. We knew there was a stair up in the corner of the transept which you can get up to the triforium, and in them days the door to it was pretty well always open, and even if it wasn’t we knew the key usually laid under a bit of matting hard by. So we made up our minds we’d be putting away music and that, next morning while the rest of the boys was clearing off, and then slip up the stairs and watch from the triforium if there was any signs of work going on.
“Well, that same night I dropped off asleep as sound as a boy does, and all of a sudden the dog woke me up, coming into the bed, and thought I, now we’re going to get it sharp, for he seemed more frightened than usual. After about five minutes sure enough came this cry. I can’t give you no idea what it was like; and so near too — nearer than I’d heard it yet — and a funny thing, Mr. Lake, you know what a place this Close is for an echo, and particular if you stand this side of it. Well, this crying never made no sign of an echo at all. But, as I said, it was dreadful near this night; and on the top of the start I got with hearing it, I got another fright; for I heard something rustling outside in the passage. Now to be sure I thought I was done; but I noticed the dog seemed to perk up a bit, and next there was some one whispered outside the door, and I very near laughed out loud, for I knew it was my father and mother that had got out of bed with the noise. ‘Whatever is it?’ says my mother. ‘Hush! I don’t know,’ says my father, excited-like, ‘don’t disturb the boy. I hope he didn’t hear nothing.’
“So, me knowing they were just outside, it made me bolder, and I slipped out of bed across to my little window — giving on the Close — but the dog he bored right down to the bottom of the bed — and I looked out. First go off I couldn’t see anything. Then right down in the shadow under a buttress I made out what I shall always say was two spots of red — a dull red it was — nothing like a lamp or a fire, but just so as you could pick ’em out of the black shadow. I hadn’t but just sighted ’em when it seemed we wasn’t the only people that had been disturbed, because I see a window in a house on the left-hand side become lighted up, and the light moving. I just turned my head to make sure of it, and then looked back into the shadow for those two red things, and they were gone, and for all I peered about and stared, there was not a sign more of them. Then come my last fright that night — something come against my bare leg — but that was all right: that was my little dog had come out of bed, and prancing about, making a great to-do, only holding his tongue, and me seeing he was quite in spirits again, I took him back to bed and we slept the night out!
“Next morning I made out to tell my mother I’d had the dog in my room, and I was surprised, after all she’d said about it before, how quiet she took it. ‘Did you?’ she says. ‘Well, by good rights you ought to go without your breakfast for doing such a thing behind my back: but I don’t know as there’s any great harm done, only another time you ask my permission, do you hear?’ A bit after that I said something to my father about having heard the cats again. ‘Cats ,’ he says, and he looked over at my poor mother, and she coughed and he says, ‘Oh! ah! yes, cats. I believe I heard ’em myself.’
“That was a funny morning altogether: nothing seemed to go right. The organist he stopped in bed, and the minor Canon he forgot it was the 19th day and waited for the Venite ; and after a bit the deputy he set off playing the chant for evensong, which was a minor; and then the Decani boys were laughing so much they couldn’t sing, and when it came to the anthem the solo boy he got took with the giggles, and made out his nose was bleeding, and shoved the book at me what hadn’t practised the verse and wasn’t much of a singer if I had known it. Well, things was rougher, you see, fifty years ago, and I got a nip from the counter-tenor behind me that I remembered.
“So we got through somehow, and neither the men nor the boys weren’t by way of waiting to see whether the Canon in residence — Mr. Henslow it was — would come to the vestries and fine ’em, but I don’t believe he did: for one thing I fancy he’d read the wrong lesson for the first time in his life, and knew it. Anyhow Evans and me didn’t find no difficulty in slipping up the stairs as I told you, and when we got up we laid ourselves down flat on our stomachs where we could just stretch our heads out over the old tomb, and we hadn’t but just done so when we heard the verger that was then, first shutting the iron porch-gates and locking the south-west door, and then the transept door, so we knew there was something up, and they meant to keep the public out for a bit.
“Next thing was, the Dean and the Canon come in by their door on the north, and then I see my father, and old Palmer, and a couple of their best men, and Palmer stood a talking for a bit with the Dean in the middle of the choir. He had a coil of rope and the men had crows. All of ’em looked a bit nervous. So there they stood talking, and at last I heard the Dean say, ‘Well, I’ve no time to waste, Palmer. If you think this’ll satisfy Southminster people, I’ll permit it to be done; but I must say this, that never in the whole course of my life have I heard such arrant nonsense from a practical man as I have from you. Don’t you agree with me, Henslow?’ As far as I could hear Mr. Henslow said something like ‘Oh! well we’re told, aren’t we, Mr. Dean, not to judge others?’ and the Dean he gave a kind of sniff, and walked straight up to the tomb, and took his stand behind it with his back to the screen, and the others they come edging up rather gingerly. Henslow, he stopped on the south side and scratched on his chin, he did. Then the Dean spoke up: ‘Palmer,’ he says, ‘which can you do easiest, get the slab off the top, or shift one of the side slabs?’
“Old Palmer and his men they pottered about a bit looking round the edge of the top slab and sounding the sides on the south and east and west and everywhere but the north. Henslow said something about it being better to have a try at the south side, because there was more light and more room to move about in. Then my father, who’d been watching of them, went round to the north side, and knelt down and felt of the slab by the chink, and he got up and dusted his knees and says to the Dean: ‘Beg pardon, Mr. Dean, but I think if Mr. Palmer’ll try this here slab he’ll find it’ll come out easy enough. Seems to me one of the men could prize it out with his crow by means of this chink.’ ‘Ah! thank you, Worby,’ says the Dean; ‘that’s a good suggestion. Palmer, let one of your men do that, will you?’
“So the man come round, and put his bar in and bore on it, and just that minute when they were all bending over, and we boys got our heads well out over the edge of the triforium, there come a most fearful crash down at the west end of the choir, as if a whole stack of big timber had fallen down a flight of stairs. Well, you can’t expect me to tell you everything that happened all in a minute. Of course there was a terrible commotion. I heard the slab fall out, and the crowbar on the floor, and I heard the Dean say ‘Good God!’
“When I looked down again I saw the Dean tumbled over on the floor, the men was making off down the choir, Henslow was just going to help the Dean up, Palmer was going to stop the men, as he said afterwards, and my father was sitting on the altar step with his face in his hands. The Dean he was very cross. ‘I wish to goodness you’d look where you’re coming to, Henslow,’ he says. ‘Why you should all take to your heels when a stick of wood tumbles down I cannot imagine,’ and all Henslow could do, explaining he was right away on the other side of the tomb, would not satisfy him.
“Then Palmer came back and reported there was nothing to account for this noise and nothing seemingly fallen down, and when the Dean finished feeling of himself they gathered round — except my father, he sat where he was — and some one lighted up a bit of candle and they looked into the tomb. ‘Nothing there,’ says the Dean, ‘what did I tell you? Stay! here’s something. What’s this: a bit of music paper, and a piece of torn stuff — part of a dress it looks like. Both quite modern — no interest whatever. Another time perhaps you’ll take the advice of an educated man’— or something like that, and off he went, limping a bit, and out through the north door, only as he went he called back angry to Palmer for leaving the door standing open. Palmer called out ‘Very sorry, sir,’ but he shrugged his shoulders, and Henslow says, ‘I fancy Mr. Dean’s mistaken. I closed the door behind me, but he’s a little upset.’ Then Palmer says, ‘Why, where’s Worby?’ and they saw him sitting on the step and went up to him. He was recovering himself, it seemed, and wiping his forehead, and Palmer helped him up on to his legs, as I was glad to see.
“They were too far off for me to hear what they said, but my father pointed to the north door in the aisle, and Palmer and Henslow both of them looked very surprised and scared. After a bit, my father and Henslow went out of the church, and the others made what haste they could to put the slab back and plaster it in. And about as the clock struck twelve the Cathedral was opened again and us boys made the best of our way home.
“I was in a great taking to know what it was had given my poor father such a turn, and when I got in and found him sitting in his chair taking a glass of spirits, and my mother standing looking anxious at him, I couldn’t keep from bursting out and making confession where I’d been. But he didn’t seem to take on, not in the way of losing his temper. ‘You was there, was you? Well did you see it?’ ‘I see everything, father,’ I said, ‘except when the noise came.’ ‘Did you see what it was knocked the Dean over?’ he says, ‘that what come out of the monument? You didn’t? Well, that’s a mercy.’ ‘Why, what was it, father?’ I said. ‘Come, you must have seen it,’ he says. ‘Didn’t you see? A thing like a man, all over hair, and two great eyes to it?’
“Well, that was all I could get out of him that time, and later on he seemed as if he was ashamed of being so frightened, and he used to put me off when I asked him about it. But years after, when I was got to be a grown man, we had more talk now and again on the matter, and he always said the same thing. ‘Black it was,’ he’d say, ‘and a mass of hair, and two legs, and the light caught on its eyes.’
“Well, that’s the tale of that tomb, Mr. Lake; it’s one we don’t tell to our visitors, and I should be obliged to you not to make any use of it till I’m out of the way. I doubt Mr. Evans’ll feel the same as I do, if you ask him.”
This proved to be the case. But over twenty years have passed by, and the grass is growing over both Worby and Evans; so Mr. Lake felt no difficulty about communicating his notes — taken in 1890 — to me. He accompanied them with a sketch of the tomb and a copy of the short inscription on the metal cross which was affixed at the expense of Dr. Lyall to the centre of the northern side. It was from the Vulgate of Isaiah xxxiv., and consisted merely of the three words — IBI CUBAVIT LAMIA. [Translation: “There hath the lamia lain. Relevance to the Story]
Montague Rhodes James (1862 — 1936)