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.
The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
(Information and Summary)
The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral was first published in Contemporary Review magazine (1911). It was republished the following year in M. R. James short story collection More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.
The story is about an overly-ambitious clergyman called John Haynes, who arranges the death of an archdeacon.
Haynes makes the murder look like an accident and is subsequently promoted to archdeacon. However, the evil clergyman’s bad deeds don’t go unpunished for long.
The archdeacon’s stall at Barchester Cathedral bears a figure carved out of wood. The wood was taken from a tree known as “The Hanging Oak”. It had an unpleasant history and the man who carved the wood placed a spell upon it.
The spell ensured bad fortune would befall any murderer who touched the wooden figure.
In 1971, the BBC adapted the story and aired it on Chrismas Eve as the first offering in its series A Ghost Story for Christmas.
Many people wrongly believe “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” is the first story in the series.
The BBC dramatized Whistle and I’ll Come to You in 1968 and aired it as part of its Omnibus series. However, the confusion is not surprising because the story is now circulated on DVD as part of the A Ghost Story for Christmas collection. In the UK it’s also possible to stream the series and watch it online. Whistle and I’ll Come to You is the first story, even though it was not part of the series.
The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral by M.R. James
This matter began, as far as I am concerned, with the reading of a notice in the obituary section of the Gentleman’s Magazine for an early year in the nineteenth century:
On February 26th, at his residence in the Cathedral Close of
Barchester, the Venerable John Benwell Haynes, D.D., aged 57,
Archdeacon of Sowerbridge and Rector of Pickhill and Candley. He was
of —— College, Cambridge, and where, by talent and assiduity, he
commanded the esteem of his seniors; when, at the usual time, he took
his first degree, his name stood high in the list of wranglers.
These academical honours procured for him within a short time a
Fellowship of his College. In the year 1783 he received Holy Orders,
and was shortly afterwards presented to the perpetual Curacy of
Ranxton-sub-Ashe by his friend and patron the late truly venerable
Bishop of Lichfield. . . . His speedy preferments, first to a Prebend,
and subsequently to the dignity of Precentor in the Cathedral of
Barchester, form an eloquent testimony to the respect in which he was
held and to his eminent qualifications. He succeeded to the
Archdeaconry upon the sudden decease of Archdeacon Pulteney in 1810.
His sermons, ever conformable to the principles of the religion and
Church which he adorned, displayed in no ordinary degree, without the
least trace of enthusiasm, the refinement of the scholar united with
the graces of the Christian. Free from sectarian violence, and
informed by the spirit of the truest charity, they will long dwell in
the memories of his hearers. [Here a further omission.] The
productions of his pen include an able defence of Episcopacy, which,
though often perused by the author of this tribute to his memory,
affords but one additional instance of the want of liberality and
enterprise which is a too common characteristic of the publishers of
our generation. His published works are, indeed, confined to a
spirited and elegant version of the Argonautica of Valerius Flacus,
a volume of Discourses upon the Several Events in the Life of
Joshua, delivered in his Cathedral, and a number of the charges
which he pronounced at various visitations to the clergy of his
Archdeaconry. These are distinguished by etc., etc. The urbanity and
hospitality of the subject of these lines will not readily be
forgotten by those who enjoyed his acquaintance. His interest in the
venerable and awful pile under whose hoary vault he was so punctual
an attendant, and particularly in the musical portion of its rites,
might be termed filial, and formed a strong and delightful contrast
to the polite indifference displayed by too many of our Cathedral
dignitaries at the present time.
The final paragraph, after informing us that Dr Haynes died a bachelor, says:
It might have been augured that an existence so placid and benevolent
would have been terminated in a ripe old age by a dissolution equally
gradual and calm. But how unsearchable are the workings of
Providence! The peaceful and retired seclusion amid which the
honoured evening of Dr Haynes’ life was mellowing to its close was
destined to be disturbed, nay, shattered, by a tragedy as appalling
as it was unexpected. The morning of the 26th of February —
But perhaps I shall do better to keep back the remainder of the narrative until I have told the circumstances which led up to it. These, as far as they are now accessible, I have derived from another source.
I had read the obituary notice which I have been quoting, quite by chance, along with a great many others of the same period. It had excited some little speculation in my mind, but, beyond thinking that, if I ever had an opportunity of examining the local records of the period indicated, I would try to remember Dr Haynes, I made no effort to pursue his case.
Quite lately I was cataloguing the manuscripts in the library of the college to which he belonged. I had reached the end of the numbered volumes on the shelves, and I proceeded to ask the librarian whether there were any more books which he thought I ought to include in my description. ‘I don’t think there are,’ he said, ‘but we had better come and look at the manuscript class and make sure. Have you time to do that now?’ I had time. We went to the library, checked off the manuscripts, and, at the end of our survey, arrived at a shelf of which I had seen nothing. Its contents consisted for the most part of sermons, bundles of fragmentary papers, college exercises, Cyrus, an epic poem in several cantos, the product of a country clergyman’s leisure, mathematical tracts by a deceased professor, and other similar material of a kind with which I am only too familiar. I took brief notes of these. Lastly, there was a tin box, which was pulled out and dusted. Its label, much faded, was thus inscribed: ‘Papers of the Ven. Archdeacon Haynes. Bequeathed in 1834 by his sister, Miss Letitia Haynes.’
I knew at once that the name was one which I had somewhere encountered, and could very soon locate it. ‘That must be the Archdeacon Haynes who came to a very odd end at Barchester. I’ve read his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine. May I take the box home? Do you know if there is anything interesting in it?’
The librarian was very willing that I should take the box and examine it at leisure. ‘I never looked inside it myself,’ he said, ‘but I’ve always been meaning to. I am pretty sure that is the box which our old Master once said ought never to have been accepted by the college. He said that to Martin years ago; and he said also that as long as he had control over the library it should never be opened. Martin told me about it, and said that he wanted terribly to know what was in it; but the Master was librarian, and always kept the box in the lodge, so there was no getting at it in his time, and when he died it was taken away by mistake by his heirs, and only returned a few years ago. I can’t think why I haven’t opened it; but, as I have to go away from Cambridge this afternoon, you had better have first go at it. I think I can trust you not to publish anything undesirable in our catalogue.’
I took the box home and examined its contents, and thereafter consulted the librarian as to what should be done about publication, and, since I have his leave to make a story out of it, provided I disguised the identity of the people concerned, I will try what can be done.
The materials are, of course, mainly journals and letters. How much I shall quote and how much epitomize must be determined by considerations of space. The proper understanding of the situation has necessitated a little — not very arduous — research, which has been greatly facilitated by the excellent illustrations and text of the Barchester volume in Bell’s Cathedral Series.
When you enter the choir of Barchester Cathedral now, you pass through a screen of metal and coloured marbles, designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, and find yourself in what I must call a very bare and odiously furnished place. The stalls are modern, without canopies. The places of the dignitaries and the names of the prebends have fortunately been allowed to survive, and are inscribed on small brass plates affixed to the stalls. The organ is in the triforium, and what is seen of the case is Gothic. The reredos and its surroundings are like every other.
Careful engravings of a hundred years ago show a very different state of things. The organ is on a massive classical screen. The stalls are also classical and very massive. There is a baldacchino of wood over the altar, with urns upon its corners. Farther east is a solid altar screen, classical in design, of wood, with a pediment, in which is a triangle surrounded by rays, enclosing certain Hebrew letters in gold. Cherubs contemplate these. There is a pulpit with a great sounding-board at the eastern end of the stalls on the north side, and there is a black and white marble pavement. Two ladies and a gentleman are admiring the general effect. From other sources I gather that the archdeacon’s stall then, as now, was next to the bishop’s throne at the south-eastern end of the stalls. His house almost faces the west front of the church, and is a fine red-brick building of William the Third’s time.
Here Dr Haynes, already a mature man, took up his abode with his sister in the year 1810. The dignity had long been the object of his wishes, but his predecessor refused to depart until he had attained the age of ninety-two. About a week after he had held a modest festival in celebration of that ninety-second birthday, there came a morning, late in the year, when Dr Haynes, hurrying cheerfully into his breakfast-room, rubbing his hands and humming a tune, was greeted, and checked in his genial flow of spirits, by the sight of his sister, seated, indeed, in her usual place behind the tea-urn, but bowed forward and sobbing unrestrainedly into her handkerchief. ‘What — what is the matter? What bad news?’ he began. ‘Oh, Johnny, you’ve not heard? The poor dear archdeacon!’ ‘The archdeacon, yes? What is it — ill, is he?’ ‘No, no; they found him on the staircase this morning; it is so shocking.’ ‘Is it possible! Dear, dear, poor Pulteney! Had there been any seizure?’ ‘They don’t think so, and that is almost the worst thing about it. It seems to have been all the fault of that stupid maid of theirs, Jane.’ Dr Haynes paused. ‘I don’t quite understand, Letitia. How was the maid at fault?’ ‘Why, as far as I can make out, there was a stair-rod missing, and she never mentioned it, and the poor archdeacon set his foot quite on the edge of the step — you know how slippery that oak is — and it seems he must have fallen almost the whole flight and broken his neck. It is so sad for poor Miss Pulteney. Of course, they will get rid of the girl at once. I never liked her.’ Miss Haynes’s grief resumed its sway, but eventually relaxed so far as to permit of her taking some breakfast. Not so her brother, who, after standing in silence before the window for some minutes, left the room, and did not appear again that morning.
I need only add that the careless maid-servant was dismissed forthwith, but that the missing stair-rod was very shortly afterwards found under the stair-carpet — an additional proof, if any were needed, of extreme stupidity and carelessness on her part.
For a good many years Dr Haynes had been marked out by his ability, which seems to have been really considerable, as the likely successor of Archdeacon Pulteney, and no disappointment was in store for him. He was duly installed, and entered with zeal upon the discharge of those functions which are appropriate to one in his position. A considerable space in his journals is occupied with exclamations upon the confusion in which Archdeacon Pulteney had left the business of his office and the documents appertaining to it. Dues upon Wringham and Barnswood have been uncollected for something like twelve years, and are largely irrecoverable; no visitation has been held for seven years; four chancels are almost past mending. The persons deputized by the archdeacon have been nearly as incapable as himself. It was almost a matter for thankfulness that this state of things had not been permitted to continue, and a letter from a friend confirms this view. ‘[Greek: ho katechôn],’ it says (in rather cruel allusion to the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians), ‘is removed at last. My poor friend! Upon what a scene of confusion will you be entering! I give you my word that, on the last occasion of my crossing his threshold, there was no single paper that he could lay hands upon, no syllable of mine that he could hear, and no fact in connexion with my business that he could remember. But now, thanks to a negligent maid and a loose stair-carpet, there is some prospect that necessary business will be transacted without a complete loss alike of voice and temper.’ This letter was tucked into a pocket in the cover of one of the diaries.
There can be no doubt of the new archdeacon’s zeal and enthusiasm. ‘Give me but time to reduce to some semblance of order the innumerable errors and complications with which I am confronted, and I shall gladly and sincerely join with the aged Israelite in the canticle which too many, I fear, pronounce but with their lips.’ This reflection I find, not in a diary, but a letter; the doctor’s friends seem to have returned his correspondence to his surviving sister. He does not confine himself, however, to reflections. His investigation of the rights and duties of his office are very searching and business-like, and there is a calculation in one place that a period of three years will just suffice to set the business of the Archdeaconry upon a proper footing. The estimate appears to have been an exact one. For just three years he is occupied in reforms; but I look in vain at the end of that time for the promised Nunc dimittis. He has now found a new sphere of activity. Hitherto his duties have precluded him from more than an occasional attendance at the Cathedral services. Now he begins to take an interest in the fabric and the music. Upon his struggles with the organist, an old gentleman who had been in office since 1786, I have no time to dwell; they were not attended with any marked success. More to the purpose is his sudden growth of enthusiasm for the Cathedral itself and its furniture. There is a draft of a letter to Sylvanus Urban (which I do not think was ever sent) describing the stalls in the choir. As I have said, these were of fairly late date — of about the year 1700, in fact.
‘The archdeacon’s stall, situated at the south-east end, west of the episcopal throne (now so worthily occupied by the truly excellent prelate who adorns the See of Barchester), is distinguished by some curious ornamentation. In addition to the arms of Dean West, by whose efforts the whole of the internal furniture of the choir was completed, the prayer-desk is terminated at the eastern extremity by three small but remarkable statuettes in the grotesque manner. One is an exquisitely modelled figure of a cat, whose crouching posture suggests with admirable spirit the suppleness, vigilance, and craft of the redoubted adversary of the genus Mus. Opposite to this is a figure seated upon a throne and invested with the attributes of royalty; but it is no earthly monarch whom the carver has sought to portray. His feet are studiously concealed by the long robe in which he is draped: but neither the crown nor the cap which he wears suffice to hide the prick-ears and curving horns which betray his Tartarean origin; and the hand which rests upon his knee, is armed with talons of horrifying length and sharpness. Between these two figures stands a shape muffled in a long mantle. This might at first sight be mistaken for a monk or “friar of orders gray”, for the head is cowled and a knotted cord depends from somewhere about the waist. A slight inspection, however, will lead to a very different conclusion. The knotted cord is quickly seen to be a halter, held by a hand all but concealed within the draperies; while the sunken features and, horrid to relate, the rent flesh upon the cheek-bones, proclaim the King of Terrors. These figures are evidently the production of no unskilled chisel; and should it chance that any of your correspondents are able to throw light upon their origin and significance, my obligations to your valuable miscellany will be largely increased.’
There is more description in the paper, and, seeing that the woodwork in question has now disappeared, it has a considerable interest. A paragraph at the end is worth quoting:
‘Some late researches among the Chapter accounts have shown me that the carving of the stalls was not as was very usually reported, the work of Dutch artists, but was executed by a native of this city or district named Austin. The timber was procured from an oak copse in the vicinity, the property of the Dean and Chapter, known as Holywood. Upon a recent visit to the parish within whose boundaries it is situated, I learned from the aged and truly respectable incumbent that traditions still lingered amongst the inhabitants of the great size and age of the oaks employed to furnish the materials of the stately structure which has been, however imperfectly, described in the above lines. Of one in particular, which stood near the centre of the grove, it is remembered that it was known as the Hanging Oak. The propriety of that title is confirmed by the fact that a quantity of human bones was found in the soil about its roots, and that at certain times of the year it was the custom for those who wished to secure a successful issue to their affairs, whether of love or the ordinary business of life, to suspend from its boughs small images or puppets rudely fashioned of straw, twigs, or the like rustic materials.’
So much for the archdeacon’s archaeological investigations. To return to his career as it is to be gathered from his diaries. Those of his first three years of hard and careful work show him throughout in high spirits, and, doubtless, during this time, that reputation for hospitality and urbanity which is mentioned in his obituary notice was well deserved. After that, as time goes on, I see a shadow coming over him — destined to develop into utter blackness — which I cannot but think must have been reflected in his outward demeanour. He commits a good deal of his fears and troubles to his diary; there was no other outlet for them. He was unmarried and his sister was not always with him. But I am much mistaken if he has told all that he might have told. A series of extracts shall be given:
Aug. 30th 1816 — The days begin to draw in more perceptibly than
ever. Now that the Archdeaconry papers are reduced to order, I must
find some further employment for the evening hours of autumn and
winter. It is a great blow that Letitia’s health will not allow her
to stay through these months. Why not go on with my Defence of
Episcopacy? It may be useful.
Sept. 15. — Letitia has left me for Brighton.
Oct. 11. — Candles lit in the choir for the first time at evening
prayers. It came as a shock: I find that I absolutely shrink from the
Nov. 17 — Much struck by the character of the carving on my desk: I
do not know that I had ever carefully noticed it before. My attention
was called to it by an accident. During the Magnificat I was, I
regret to say, almost overcome with sleep. My hand was resting on the
back of the carved figure of a cat which is the nearest to me of the
three figures on the end of my stall. I was not aware of this, for I
was not looking in that direction, until I was startled by what
seemed a softness, a feeling as of rather rough and coarse fur, and a
sudden movement, as if the creature were twisting round its head to
bite me. I regained complete consciousness in an instant, and I have
some idea that I must have uttered a suppressed exclamation, for I
noticed that Mr Treasurer turned his head quickly in my direction.
The impression of the unpleasant feeling was so strong that I found
myself rubbing my hand upon my surplice. This accident led me to
examine the figures after prayers more carefully than I had done
before, and I realized for the first time with what skill they are
Dec. 6 — I do indeed miss Letitia’s company. The evenings, after I
have worked as long as I can at my Defence, are very trying. The
house is too large for a lonely man, and visitors of any kind are too
rare. I get an uncomfortable impression when going to my room that
there is company of some kind. The fact is (I may as well formulate
it to myself) that I hear voices. This, I am well aware, is a common
symptom of incipient decay of the brain — and I believe that I should
be less disquieted than I am if I had any suspicion that this was the
cause. I have none — none whatever, nor is there anything in my family
history to give colour to such an idea. Work, diligent work, and a
punctual attention to the duties which fall to me is my best remedy,
and I have little doubt that it will prove efficacious.
Jan. 1 — My trouble is, I must confess it, increasing upon me. Last
night, upon my return after midnight from the Deanery, I lit my
candle to go upstairs. I was nearly at the top when something
whispered to me, ‘Let me wish you a happy New Year.’ I could not be
mistaken: it spoke distinctly and with a peculiar emphasis. Had I
dropped my candle, as I all but did, I tremble to think what the
consequences must have been. As it was, I managed to get up the last
flight, and was quickly in my room with the door locked, and
experienced no other disturbance.
Jan. 15 — I had occasion to come downstairs last night to my
workroom for my watch, which I had inadvertently left on my table
when I went up to bed. I think I was at the top of the last flight
when I had a sudden impression of a sharp whisper in my ear ‘Take
care.’ I clutched the balusters and naturally looked round at once.
Of course, there was nothing. After a moment I went on — it was no
good turning back — but I had as nearly as possible fallen: a cat — a
large one by the feel of it — slipped between my feet, but again, of
course, I saw nothing. It may have been the kitchen cat, but I do
not think it was.
Feb. 27 — A curious thing last night, which I should like to forget.
Perhaps if I put it down here I may see it in its true proportion. I
worked in the library from about 9 to 10. The hall and staircase
seemed to be unusually full of what I can only call movement without
sound: by this I mean that there seemed to be continuous going and
coming, and that whenever I ceased writing to listen, or looked out
into the hall, the stillness was absolutely unbroken. Nor, in going
to my room at an earlier hour than usual — about half-past ten — was I
conscious of anything that I could call a noise. It so happened that
I had told John to come to my room for the letter to the bishop which
I wished to have delivered early in the morning at the Palace. He was
to sit up, therefore, and come for it when he heard me retire. This I
had for the moment forgotten, though I had remembered to carry the
letter with me to my room. But when, as I was winding up my watch, I
heard a light tap at the door, and a low voice saying, ‘May I come
in?’ (which I most undoubtedly did hear), I recollected the fact, and
took up the letter from my dressing-table, saying ‘Certainly: come
in.’ No one, however, answered my summons, and it was now that, as I
strongly suspect, I committed an error: for I opened the door and
held the letter out. There was certainly no one at that moment in the
passage, but, in the instant of my standing there, the door at the
end opened and John appeared carrying a candle. I asked him whether
he had come to the door earlier; but am satisfied that he had not. I
do not like the situation; but although my senses were very much on
the alert, and though it was some time before I could sleep, I must
allow that I perceived nothing further of an untoward character.
With the return of spring, when his sister came to live with him for some months, Dr Haynes’s entries become more cheerful, and, indeed, no symptom of depression is discernible until the early part of September when he was again left alone. And now, indeed, there is evidence that he was incommoded again, and that more pressingly. To this matter I will return in a moment, but I digress to put in a document which, rightly or wrongly, I believe to have a bearing on the thread of the story.
The account-books of Dr Haynes, preserved along with his other papers, show, from a date but little later than that of his institution as archdeacon, a quarterly payment of £25 to J. L. Nothing could have been made of this, had it stood by itself. But I connect with it a very dirty and ill-written letter, which, like another that I have quoted, was in a pocket in the cover of a diary. Of date or postmark there is no vestige, and the decipherment was not easy. It appears to run:
I have bin expctin to her off you theis last wicks, and not Haveing
done so must supose you have not got mine witch was saying how me and
my man had met in with bad times this season all seems to go cross
with us on the farm and which way to look for the rent we have no
knowledge of it this been the sad case with us if you would have the
great [liberality probably, but the exact spelling defies
reproduction] to send fourty pounds otherwise steps will have to be
took which I should not wish. Has you was the Means of me losing my
place with Dr Pulteney I think it is only just what I am asking and
you know best what I could say if I was Put to it but I do not wish
anything of that unpleasant Nature being one that always wish to have
everything Pleasant about me.
Your obedt Servt,
About the time at which I suppose this letter to have been written there is, in fact, a payment of £40 to J.L.
We return to the diary:
Oct. 22 — At evening prayers, during the Psalms, I had that same
experience which I recollect from last year. I was resting my hand on
one of the carved figures, as before (I usually avoid that of the cat
now), and — I was going to have said — a change came over it, but that
seems attributing too much importance to what must, after all, be due
to some physical affection in myself: at any rate, the wood seemed to
become chilly and soft as if made of wet linen. I can assign the
moment at which I became sensible of this. The choir were singing the
words (Set thou an ungodly man to be ruler over him and let Satan
stand at his right hand.)
The whispering in my house was more persistent tonight. I seemed not
to be rid of it in my room. I have not noticed this before. A nervous
man, which I am not, and hope I am not becoming, would have been much
annoyed, if not alarmed, by it. The cat was on the stairs tonight. I
think it sits there always. There is no kitchen cat.
Nov. 15 — Here again I must note a matter I do not understand. I am
much troubled in sleep. No definite image presented itself, but I was
pursued by the very vivid impression that wet lips were whispering
into my ear with great rapidity and emphasis for some time together.
After this, I suppose, I fell asleep, but was awakened with a start
by a feeling as if a hand were laid on my shoulder. To my intense
alarm I found myself standing at the top of the lowest flight of the
first staircase. The moon was shining brightly enough through the
large window to let me see that there was a large cat on the second
or third step. I can make no comment. I crept up to bed again, I do
not know how. Yes, mine is a heavy burden. [Then follows a line or
two which has been scratched out. I fancy I read something like
‘acted for the best’.]
Not long after this it is evident to me that the archdeacon’s firmness began to give way under the pressure of these phenomena. I omit as unnecessarily painful and distressing the ejaculations and prayers which, in the months of December and January, appear for the first time and become increasingly frequent. Throughout this time, however, he is obstinate in clinging to his post. Why he did not plead ill-health and take refuge at Bath or Brighton I cannot tell; my impression is that it would have done him no good; that he was a man who, if he had confessed himself beaten by the annoyances, would have succumbed at once, and that he was conscious of this. He did seek to palliate them by inviting visitors to his house. The result he has noted in this fashion:
Jan. 7 — I have prevailed on my cousin Allen to give me a few days,
and he is to occupy the chamber next to mine.
Jan. 8 — A still night. Allen slept well, but complained of the
wind. My own experiences were as before: still whispering and
whispering: what is it that he wants to say?
Jan. 9 — Allen thinks this a very noisy house. He thinks, too, that
my cat is an unusually large and fine specimen, but very wild.
Jan. 10 — Allen and I in the library until 11. He left me twice to
see what the maids were doing in the hall: returning the second time
he told me he had seen one of them passing through the door at the
end of the passage, and said if his wife were here she would soon get
them into better order. I asked him what coloured dress the maid
wore; he said grey or white. I supposed it would be so.
Jan. 11 — Allen left me today. I must be firm.
These words, I must be firm, occur again and again on subsequent days; sometimes they are the only entry. In these cases they are in an unusually large hand, and dug into the paper in a way which must have broken the pen that wrote them.
Apparently the archdeacon’s friends did not remark any change in his behaviour, and this gives me a high idea of his courage and determination. The diary tells us nothing more than I have indicated of the last days of his life. The end of it all must be told in the polished language of the obituary notice:
The morning of the 26th of February was cold and tempestuous. At an
early hour the servants had occasion to go into the front hall of the
residence occupied by the lamented subject of these lines. What was
their horror upon observing the form of their beloved and respected
master lying upon the landing of the principal staircase in an
attitude which inspired the gravest fears. Assistance was procured,
and an universal consternation was experienced upon the discovery
that he had been the object of a brutal and a murderous attack. The
vertebral column was fractured in more than one place. This might
have been the result of a fall: it appeared that the stair-carpet was
loosened at one point. But, in addition to this, there were injuries
inflicted upon the eyes, nose and mouth, as if by the agency of some
savage animal, which, dreadful to relate, rendered those features
unrecognizable. The vital spark was, it is needless to add,
completely extinct, and had been so, upon the testimony of
respectable medical authorities, for several hours. The author or
authors of this mysterious outrage are alike buried in mystery, and
the most active conjecture has hitherto failed to suggest a solution
of the melancholy problem afforded by this appalling occurrence.
The writer goes on to reflect upon the probability that the writings of Mr Shelley, Lord Byron, and M. Voltaire may have been instrumental in bringing about the disaster, and concludes by hoping, somewhat vaguely, that this event may ‘operate as an example to the rising generation’; but this portion of his remarks need not be quoted in full.
I had already formed the conclusion that Dr Haynes was responsible for the death of Dr Pulteney. But the incident connected with the carved figure of death upon the archdeacon’s stall was a very perplexing feature. The conjecture that it had been cut out of the wood of the Hanging Oak was not difficult, but seemed impossible to substantiate. However, I paid a visit to Barchester, partly with the view of finding out whether there were any relics of the woodwork to be heard of. I was introduced by one of the canons to the curator of the local museum, who was, my friend said, more likely to be able to give me information on the point than anyone else. I told this gentleman of the description of certain carved figures and arms formerly on the stalls, and asked whether any had survived. He was able to show me the arms of Dean West and some other fragments. These, he said, had been got from an old resident, who had also once owned a figure — perhaps one of those which I was inquiring for. There was a very odd thing about that figure, he said. ‘The old man who had it told me that he picked it up in a woodyard, whence he had obtained the still extant pieces, and had taken it home for his children. On the way home he was fiddling about with it and it came in two in his hands, and a bit of paper dropped out. This he picked up and, just noticing that there was writing on it, put it into his pocket, and subsequently into a vase on his mantelpiece. I was at his house not very long ago, and happened to pick up the vase and turn it over to see whether there were any marks on it, and the paper fell into my hand. The old man, on my handing it to him, told me the story I have told you, and said I might keep the paper. It was crumpled and rather torn, so I have mounted it on a card, which I have here. If you can tell me what it means I shall be very glad, and also, I may say, a good deal surprised.’
He gave me the card. The paper was quite legibly inscribed in an old hand, and this is what was on it:
When I grew in the Wood I was water’d w’th Blood Now in the Church I stand Who that touches me with his Hand If a Bloody hand he bear I councell him to be ware Lest he be fetcht away Whether by night or day, But chiefly when the wind blows high In a night of February. This I drempt, 26 Febr. Anno 1699. JOHN AUSTIN.
‘I suppose it is a charm or a spell: wouldn’t you call it something of that kind?’ said the curator.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I suppose one might. What became of the figure in which it was concealed?’
‘Oh, I forgot,’ said he. ‘The old man told me it was so ugly and frightened his children so much that he burnt it.’
Montague Rhodes James (1862 — 1936)