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 Tractate Middoth
(Information and Summary)
The Tractate Middoth was first published in M. R. James’ 1911 short story collection More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.
The central character is a librarian, called David Garrett, who is asked to search for a book called the Tractate Middoth.
Garret does his best to oblige the request made by the rather unpleasant Mr Eldred. However, while he is searching for the book he has a rather unpleasant encounter.
The Tractate Middoth by M.R. James
Towards the end of an autumn afternoon an elderly man with a thin face and grey Piccadilly weepers pushed open the swing-door leading into the vestibule of a certain famous library, and addressing himself to an attendant, stated that he believed he was entitled to use the library, and inquired if he might take a book out. Yes, if he were on the list of those to whom that privilege was given. He produced his card — Mr John Eldred — and, the register being consulted, a favourable answer was given. ‘Now, another point,’ said he. ‘It is a long time since I was here, and I do not know my way about your building; besides, it is near closing-time, and it is bad for me to hurry up and down stairs. I have here the title of the book I want: is there anyone at liberty who could go and find it for me?’ After a moment’s thought the doorkeeper beckoned to a young man who was passing. ‘Mr Garrett,’ he said, ‘have you a minute to assist this gentleman?’ ‘With pleasure,’ was Mr Garrett’s answer. The slip with the title was handed to him. ‘I think I can put my hand on this; it happens to be in the class I inspected last quarter, but I’ll just look it up in the catalogue to make sure. I suppose it is that particular edition that you require, sir?’ ‘Yes, if you please; that, and no other,’ said Mr Eldred; ‘I am exceedingly obliged to you.’ ‘Don’t mention it I beg, sir,’ said Mr Garrett, and hurried off.
‘I thought so,’ he said to himself, when his finger, travelling down the pages of the catalogue, stopped at a particular entry. ‘Talmud: Tractate Middoth, with the commentary of Nachmanides, Amsterdam, 1707. 11.3.34. Hebrew class, of course. Not a very difficult job this.’
Mr Eldred, accommodated with a chair in the vestibule, awaited anxiously the return of his messenger — and his disappointment at seeing an empty-handed Mr Garrett running down the staircase was very evident. ‘I’m sorry to disappoint you, sir,’ said the young man, ‘but the book is out.’ ‘Oh dear!’ said Mr Eldred, ‘is that so? You are sure there can be no mistake?’ ‘I don’t think there is much chance of it, sir: but it’s possible, if you like to wait a minute, that you might meet the very gentleman that’s got it. He must be leaving the library soon, and I think I saw him take that particular book out of the shelf.’ ‘Indeed! You didn’t recognize him, I suppose? Would it be one of the professors or one of the students?’ ‘I don’t think so: certainly not a professor. I should have known him; but the light isn’t very good in that part of the library at this time of day, and I didn’t see his face. I should have said he was a shortish old gentleman, perhaps a clergyman, in a cloak. If you could wait, I can easily find out whether he wants the book very particularly.’
‘No, no,’ said Mr Eldred, ‘I won’t — I can’t wait now, thank you — no. I must be off. But I’ll call again tomorrow if I may, and perhaps you could find out who has it.’
‘Certainly, sir, and I’ll have the book ready for you if we —’ But Mr Eldred was already off, and hurrying more than one would have thought wholesome for him.
Garrett had a few moments to spare; and, thought he, ‘I’ll go back to that case and see if I can find the old man. Most likely he could put off using the book for a few days. I dare say the other one doesn’t want to keep it for long.’ So off with him to the Hebrew class. But when he got there it was unoccupied, and the volume marked 11.3.34 was in its place on the shelf. It was vexatious to Garrett’s self-respect to have disappointed an inquirer with so little reason: and he would have liked, had it not been against library rules, to take the book down to the vestibule then and there, so that it might be ready for Mr Eldred when he called. However, next morning he would be on the look out for him, and he begged the doorkeeper to send and let him know when the moment came. As a matter of fact, he was himself in the vestibule when Mr Eldred arrived, very soon after the library opened and when hardly anyone besides the staff were in the building.
‘I’m very sorry,’ he said; ‘it’s not often that I make such a stupid mistake, but I did feel sure that the old gentleman I saw took out that very book and kept it in his hand without opening it, just as people do, you know, sir, when they mean to take a book out of the library and not merely refer to it. But, however, I’ll run up now at once and get it for you this time.’
And here intervened a pause. Mr Eldred paced the entry, read all the notices, consulted his watch, sat and gazed up the staircase, did all that a very impatient man could, until some twenty minutes had run out. At last he addressed himself to the doorkeeper and inquired if it was a very long way to that part of the library to which Mr Garrett had gone.
‘Well, I was thinking it was funny, sir: he’s a quick man as a rule, but to be sure he might have been sent for by the librarian, but even so I think he’d have mentioned to him that you was waiting. I’ll just speak him up on the toob and see.’ And to the tube he addressed himself. As he absorbed the reply to his question his face changed, and he made one or two supplementary inquiries which were shortly answered. Then he came forward to his counter and spoke in a lower tone. ‘I’m sorry to hear, sir, that something seems to have ‘appened a little awkward. Mr Garrett has been took poorly, it appears, and the librarian sent him ‘ome in a cab the other way. Something of an attack, by what I can hear.’ ‘What, really? Do you mean that someone has injured him?’ ‘No, sir, not violence ’ere, but, as I should judge, attacked with an attack, what you might term it, of illness. Not a strong constitootion, Mr Garrett. But as to your book, sir, perhaps you might be able to find it for yourself. It’s too bad you should be disappointed this way twice over —’ ‘Er — well, but I’m so sorry that Mr Garrett should have been taken ill in this way while he was obliging me. I think I must leave the book, and call and inquire after him. You can give me his address, I suppose.’ That was easily done: Mr Garrett, it appeared, lodged in rooms not far from the station. ‘And one other question. Did you happen to notice if an old gentleman, perhaps a clergyman, in a — yes — in a black cloak, left the library after I did yesterday. I think he may have been a — I think, that is, that he may be staying — or rather that I may have known him.’
‘Not in a black cloak, sir; no. There were only two gentlemen left later than what you done, sir, both of them youngish men. There was Mr Carter took out a music-book and one of the prefessors with a couple o’ novels. That’s the lot, sir; and then I went off to me tea, and glad to get it. Thank you, sir, much obliged.’
* * *
Mr Eldred, still a prey to anxiety, betook himself in a cab to Mr Garrett’s address, but the young man was not yet in a condition to receive visitors. He was better, but his landlady considered that he must have had a severe shock. She thought most likely from what the doctor said that he would be able to see Mr Eldred tomorrow. Mr Eldred returned to his hotel at dusk and spent, I fear, but a dull evening.
On the next day he was able to see Mr Garrett. When in health Mr Garrett was a cheerful and pleasant-looking young man. Now he was a very white and shaky being, propped up in an arm-chair by the fire, and inclined to shiver and keep an eye on the door. If however, there were visitors whom he was not prepared to welcome, Mr Eldred was not among them. ‘It really is I who owe you an apology, and I was despairing of being able to pay it, for I didn’t know your address. But I am very glad you have called. I do dislike and regret giving all this trouble, but you know I could not have foreseen this — this attack which I had.’
‘Of course not; but now, I am something of a doctor. You’ll excuse my asking; you have had, I am sure, good advice. Was it a fall you had?’
‘No. I did fall on the floor — but not from any height. It was, really, a shock.’
‘You mean something startled you. Was it anything you thought you saw?’
‘Not much thinking in the case, I’m afraid. Yes, it was something I saw. You remember when you called the first time at the library?’
‘Yes, of course. Well, now, let me beg you not to try to describe it — it will not be good for you to recall it, I’m sure.’
‘But indeed it would be a relief to me to tell anyone like yourself: you might be able to explain it away. It was just when I was going into the class where your book is —’
‘Indeed, Mr Garrett, I insist; besides, my watch tells me I have but very little time left in which to get my things together and take the train. No — not another word — it would be more distressing to you than you imagine, perhaps. Now there is just one thing I want to say. I feel that I am really indirectly responsible for this illness of yours, and I think I ought to defray the expense which it has — eh?’
But this offer was quite distinctly declined. Mr Eldred, not pressing it, left almost at once: not, however, before Mr Garrett had insisted upon his taking a note of the class-mark of the Tractate Middoth, which, as he said, Mr Eldred could at leisure get for himself. But Mr Eldred did not reappear at the library.
* * *
William Garrett had another visitor that day in the person of a contemporary and colleague from the library, one George Earle. Earle had been one of those who found Garrett lying insensible on the floor just inside the ‘class’ or cubicle (opening upon the central alley of a spacious gallery) in which the Hebrew books were placed, and Earle had naturally been very anxious about his friend’s condition. So as soon as library hours were over he appeared at the lodgings. ‘Well,’ he said (after other conversation), ‘I’ve no notion what it was that put you wrong, but I’ve got the idea that there’s something wrong in the atmosphere of the library. I know this, that just before we found you I was coming along the gallery with Davis, and I said to him, “Did ever you know such a musty smell anywhere as there is about here? It can’t be wholesome.” Well now, if one goes on living a long time with a smell of that kind (I tell you it was worse than I ever knew it) it must get into the system and break out some time, don’t you think?’
Garrett shook his head. ‘That’s all very well about the smell — but it isn’t always there, though I’ve noticed it the last day or two — a sort of unnaturally strong smell of dust. But no — that’s not what did for me. It was something I saw. And I want to tell you about it. I went into that Hebrew class to get a book for a man that was inquiring for it down below. Now that same book I’d made a mistake about the day before. I’d been for it, for the same man, and made sure that I saw an old parson in a cloak taking it out. I told my man it was out: off he went, to call again next day. I went back to see if I could get it out of the parson: no parson there, and the book on the shelf. Well, yesterday, as I say, I went again. This time, if you please — ten o’clock in the morning, remember, and as much light as ever you get in those classes, and there was my parson again, back to me, looking at the books on the shelf I wanted. His hat was on the table, and he had a bald head. I waited a second or two looking at him rather particularly. I tell you, he had a very nasty bald head. It looked to me dry, and it looked dusty, and the streaks of hair across it were much less like hair than cobwebs. Well, I made a bit of a noise on purpose, coughed and moved my feet. He turned round and let me see his face — which I hadn’t seen before. I tell you again, I’m not mistaken. Though, for one reason or another I didn’t take in the lower part of his face, I did see the upper part; and it was perfectly dry, and the eyes were very deep-sunk; and over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bone, there were cobwebs — thick. Now that closed me up, as they say, and I can’t tell you anything more.’
* * *
What explanations were furnished by Earle of this phenomenon it does not very much concern us to inquire; at all events they did not convince Garrett that he had not seen what he had seen.
* * *
Before William Garrett returned to work at the library, the librarian insisted upon his taking a week’s rest and change of air. Within a few days’ time, therefore, he was at the station with his bag, looking for a desirable smoking compartment in which to travel to Burnstow-on-Sea, which he had not previously visited. One compartment and one only seemed to be suitable. But, just as he approached it, he saw, standing in front of the door, a figure so like one bound up with recent unpleasant associations that, with a sickening qualm, and hardly knowing what he did, he tore open the door of the next compartment and pulled himself into it as quickly as if death were at his heels. The train moved off, and he must have turned quite faint, for he was next conscious of a smelling-bottle being put to his nose. His physician was a nice-looking old lady, who, with her daughter, was the only passenger in the carriage.
But for this incident it is not very likely that he would have made any overtures to his fellow-travellers. As it was, thanks and inquiries and general conversation supervened inevitably; and Garrett found himself provided before the journey’s end not only with a physician, but with a landlady: for Mrs Simpson had apartments to let at Burnstow, which seemed in all ways suitable. The place was empty at that season, so that Garrett was thrown a good deal into the society of the mother and daughter. He found them very acceptable company. On the third evening of his stay he was on such terms with them as to be asked to spend the evening in their private sitting-room.
During their talk it transpired that Garrett’s work lay in a library. ‘Ah, libraries are fine places,’ said Mrs Simpson, putting down her work with a sigh; ‘but for all that, books have played me a sad turn, or rather a book has.’
‘Well, books give me my living, Mrs Simpson, and I should be sorry to say a word against them: I don’t like to hear that they have been bad for you.’
‘Perhaps Mr Garrett could help us to solve our puzzle, mother,’ said Miss Simpson.
‘I don’t want to set Mr Garrett off on a hunt that might waste a lifetime, my dear, nor yet to trouble him with our private affairs.’
‘But if you think it in the least likely that I could be of use, I do beg you to tell me what the puzzle is, Mrs Simpson. If it is finding out anything about a book, you see, I am in rather a good position to do it.’
‘Yes, I do see that, but the worst of it is that we don’t know the name of the book.’
‘Nor what it is about?’
‘No, nor that either.’
‘Except that we don’t think it’s in English, mother — and that is not much of a clue.’
‘Well, Mr Garrett,’ said Mrs Simpson, who had not yet resumed her work, and was looking at the fire thoughtfully, ‘I shall tell you the story. You will please keep it to yourself, if you don’t mind? Thank you. Now it is just this. I had an old uncle, a Dr Rant. Perhaps you may have heard of him. Not that he was a distinguished man, but from the odd way he chose to be buried.’
‘I rather think I have seen the name in some guidebook.’
‘That would be it,’ said Miss Simpson. ‘He left directions — horrid old man! — that he was to be put, sitting at a table in his ordinary clothes, in a brick room that he’d had made underground in a field near his house. Of course the country people say he’s been seen about there in his old black cloak.’
‘Well, dear, I don’t know much about such things,’ Mrs Simpson went on, ‘but anyhow he is dead, these twenty years and more. He was a clergyman, though I’m sure I can’t imagine how he got to be one: but he did no duty for the last part of his life, which I think was a good thing; and he lived on his own property: a very nice estate not a great way from here. He had no wife or family; only one niece, who was myself, and one nephew, and he had no particular liking for either of us — nor for anyone else, as far as that goes. If anything, he liked my cousin better than he did me — for John was much more like him in his temper, and, I’m afraid I must say, his very mean sharp ways. It might have been different if I had not married; but I did, and that he very much resented. Very well: here he was with this estate and a good deal of money, as it turned out, of which he had the absolute disposal, and it was understood that we — my cousin and I— would share it equally at his death. In a certain winter, over twenty years back, as I said, he was taken ill, and I was sent for to nurse him. My husband was alive then, but the old man would not hear of his coming. As I drove up to the house I saw my cousin John driving away from it in an open fly and looking, I noticed, in very good spirits. I went up and did what I could for my uncle, but I was very soon sure that this would be his last illness; and he was convinced of it too. During the day before he died he got me to sit by him all the time, and I could see there was something, and probably something unpleasant, that he was saving up to tell me, and putting it off as long as he felt he could afford the strength — I’m afraid purposely in order to keep me on the stretch. But, at last, out it came. “Mary,” he said — “Mary, I’ve made my will in John’s favour: he has everything, Mary.” Well, of course that came as a bitter shock to me, for we — my husband and I— were not rich people, and if he could have managed to live a little easier than he was obliged to do, I felt it might be the prolonging of his life. But I said little or nothing to my uncle, except that he had a right to do what he pleased: partly because I couldn’t think of anything to say, and partly because I was sure there was more to come: and so there was. “But, Mary,” he said, “I’m not very fond of John, and I’ve made another will in your favour. You can have everything. Only you’ve got to find the will, you see: and I don’t mean to tell you where it is.” Then he chuckled to himself, and I waited, for again I was sure he hadn’t finished. “That’s a good girl,” he said after a time — “you wait, and I’ll tell you as much as I told John. But just let me remind you, you can’t go into court with what I’m saying to you, for you won’t be able to produce any collateral evidence beyond your own word, and John’s a man that can do a little hard swearing if necessary. Very well then, that’s understood. Now, I had the fancy that I wouldn’t write this will quite in the common way, so I wrote it in a book, Mary, a printed book. And there’s several thousand books in this house. But there! you needn’t trouble yourself with them, for it isn’t one of them. It’s in safe keeping elsewhere: in a place where John can go and find it any day, if he only knew, and you can’t. A good will it is: properly signed and witnessed, but I don’t think you’ll find the witnesses in a hurry.”
‘Still I said nothing: if I had moved at all I must have taken hold of the old wretch and shaken him. He lay there laughing to himself, and at last he said:
‘“Well, well, you’ve taken it very quietly, and as I want to start you both on equal terms, and John has a bit of a purchase in being able to go where the book is, I’ll tell you just two other things which I didn’t tell him. The will’s in English, but you won’t know that if ever you see it. That’s one thing, and another is that when I’m gone you’ll find an envelope in my desk directed to you, and inside it something that would help you to find it, if only you have the wits to use it.”
‘In a few hours from that he was gone, and though I made an appeal to John Eldred about it —’
‘John Eldred? I beg your pardon, Mrs Simpson — I think I’ve seen a Mr John Eldred. What is he like to look at?’
‘It must be ten years since I saw him: he would be a thin elderly man now, and unless he has shaved them off, he has that sort of whiskers which people used to call Dundreary or Piccadilly something.’
‘— weepers. Yes, that is the man.’
‘Where did you come across him, Mr Garrett?’
‘I don’t know if I could tell you,’ said Garrett mendaciously, ‘in some public place. But you hadn’t finished.’
‘Really I had nothing much to add, only that John Eldred, of course, paid no attention whatever to my letters, and has enjoyed the estate ever since, while my daughter and I have had to take to the lodging-house business here, which I must say has not turned out by any means so unpleasant as I feared it might.’
‘But about the envelope.’
‘To be sure! Why, the puzzle turns on that. Give Mr Garrett the paper out of my desk.’
It was a small slip, with nothing whatever on it but five numerals, not divided or punctuated in any way: 11334.
Mr Garrett pondered, but there was a light in his eye. Suddenly he ‘made a face’, and then asked, ‘Do you suppose that Mr Eldred can have any more clue than you have to the title of the book?’
‘I have sometimes thought he must,’ said Mrs Simpson, ‘and in this way: that my uncle must have made the will not very long before he died (that, I think, he said himself), and got rid of the book immediately afterwards. But all his books were very carefully catalogued: and John has the catalogue: and John was most particular that no books whatever should be sold out of the house. And I’m told that he is always journeying about to booksellers and libraries; so I fancy that he must have found out just which books are missing from my uncle’s library of those which are entered in the catalogue, and must be hunting for them.’
‘Just so, just so,’ said Mr Garrett, and relapsed into thought.
* * *
No later than next day he received a letter which, as he told Mrs Simpson with great regret, made it absolutely necessary for him to cut short his stay at Burnstow.
Sorry as he was to leave them (and they were at least as sorry to part with him), he had begun to feel that a crisis, all-important to Mrs (and shall we add, Miss?) Simpson, was very possibly supervening.
In the train Garrett was uneasy and excited. He racked his brains to think whether the press mark of the book which Mr Eldred had been inquiring after was one in any way corresponding to the numbers on Mrs Simpson’s little bit of paper. But he found to his dismay that the shock of the previous week had really so upset him that he could neither remember any vestige of the title or nature of the book, or even of the locality to which he had gone to seek it. And yet all other parts of library topography and work were clear as ever in his mind.
And another thing — he stamped with annoyance as he thought of it — he had at first hesitated, and then had forgotten, to ask Mrs Simpson for the name of the place where Eldred lived. That, however, he could write about.
At least he had his clue in the figures on the paper. If they referred to a press mark in his library, they were only susceptible of a limited number of interpretations. They might be divided into 1.13.34, 11.33.4, or 11.3.34. He could try all these in the space of a few minutes, and if any one were missing he had every means of tracing it. He got very quickly to work, though a few minutes had to be spent in explaining his early return to his landlady and his colleagues. 1.13.34. was in place and contained no extraneous writing. As he drew near to Class 11 in the same gallery, its association struck him like a chill. But he must go on. After a cursory glance at 11.33.4 (which first confronted him, and was a perfectly new book) he ran his eye along the line of quartos which fills 11.3. The gap he feared was there: 34 was out. A moment was spent in making sure that it had not been misplaced, and then he was off to the vestibule.
‘Has 11.3.34 gone out? Do you recollect noticing that number?’
‘Notice the number? What do you take me for, Mr Garrett? There, take and look over the tickets for yourself, if you’ve got a free day before you.’
‘Well then, has a Mr Eldred called again? — the old gentleman who came the day I was taken ill. Come! you’d remember him.’
‘What do you suppose? Of course I recollect of him: no, he haven’t been in again, not since you went off for your ‘oliday. And yet I seem to — there now. Roberts’ll know. Roberts, do you recollect of the name of Heldred?’
‘Not arf,’ said Roberts. ‘You mean the man that sent a bob over the price for the parcel, and I wish they all did.’
‘Do you mean to say you’ve been sending books to Mr Eldred? Come, do speak up! Have you?’
‘Well now, Mr Garrett, if a gentleman sends the ticket all wrote correct and the secketry says this book may go and the box ready addressed sent with the note, and a sum of money sufficient to deefray the railway charges, what would be your action in the matter, Mr Garrett, if I may take the liberty to ask such a question? Would you or would you not have taken the trouble to oblige, or would you have chucked the ‘ole thing under the counter and —’
‘You were perfectly right, of course, Hodgson — perfectly right: only, would you kindly oblige me by showing me the ticket Mr Eldred sent, and letting me know his address?’
‘To be sure, Mr Garrett; so long as I’m not ‘ectored about and informed that I don’t know my duty, I’m willing to oblige in every way feasible to my power. There is the ticket on the file. J. Eldred, 11.3.34. Title of work: T-a-l-m — well, there, you can make what you like of it — not a novel, I should ‘azard the guess. And here is Mr Heldred’s note applying for the book in question, which I see he terms it a track.’
‘Thanks, thanks: but the address? There’s none on the note.’
‘Ah, indeed; well, now . . . stay now, Mr Garrett, I ‘ave it. Why, that note come inside of the parcel, which was directed very thoughtful to save all trouble, ready to be sent back with the book inside; and if I have made any mistake in this ‘ole transaction, it lays just in the one point that I neglected to enter the address in my little book here what I keep. Not but what I dare say there was good reasons for me not entering of it: but there, I haven’t the time, neither have you, I dare say, to go into ’em just now. And — no, Mr Garrett, I do not carry it in my ‘ed, else what would be the use of me keeping this little book here — just a ordinary common notebook, you see, which I make a practice of entering all such names and addresses in it as I see fit to do?’
‘Admirable arrangement, to be sure — but — all right, thank you. When did the parcel go off?’
‘Half-past ten, this morning.’
‘Oh, good; and it’s just one now.’
Garrett went upstairs in deep thought. How was he to get the address? A telegram to Mrs Simpson: he might miss a train by waiting for the answer. Yes, there was one other way. She had said that Eldred lived on his uncle’s estate. If this were so, he might find that place entered in the donation-book. That he could run through quickly, now that he knew the title of the book. The register was soon before him, and, knowing that the old man had died more than twenty years ago, he gave him a good margin, and turned back to 1870. There was but one entry possible. 1875, August 14th. Talmud: Tractatus Middoth cum comm. R. Nachmanidae. Amstelod. 1707. Given by J. Rant, D.D., of Bretfield Manor.
A gazetteer showed Bretfield to be three miles from a small station on the main line. Now to ask the doorkeeper whether he recollected if the name on the parcel had been anything like Bretfield.
‘No, nothing like. It was, now you mention it, Mr Garrett, either Bredfield or Britfield, but nothing like that other name what you coated.’
So far well. Next, a time-table. A train could be got in twenty minutes — taking two hours over the journey. The only chance, but one not to be missed; and the train was taken.
If he had been fidgety on the journey up, he was almost distracted on the journey down. If he found Eldred, what could he say? That it had been discovered that the book was a rarity and must be recalled? An obvious untruth. Or that it was believed to contain important manuscript notes? Eldred would of course show him the book, from which the leaf would already have been removed. He might, perhaps, find traces of the removal — a torn edge of a fly-leaf probably — and who could disprove, what Eldred was certain to say, that he too had noticed and regretted the mutilation? Altogether the chase seemed very hopeless. The one chance was this. The book had left the library at 10.30: it might not have been put into the first possible train, at 11.20. Granted that, then he might be lucky enough to arrive simultaneously with it and patch up some story which would induce Eldred to give it up.
It was drawing towards evening when he got out upon the platform of his station, and, like most country stations, this one seemed unnaturally quiet. He waited about till the one or two passengers who got out with him had drifted off, and then inquired of the station-master whether Mr Eldred was in the neighbourhood.
‘Yes, and pretty near too, I believe. I fancy he means calling here for a parcel he expects. Called for it once today already, didn’t he, Bob?’ (to the porter).
‘Yes, sir, he did; and appeared to think it was all along of me that it didn’t come by the two o’clock. Anyhow, I’ve got it for him now,’ and the porter flourished a square parcel, which — a glance assured Garrett — contained all that was of any importance to him at that particular moment.
‘Bretfield, sir? Yes — three miles just about. Short cut across these three fields brings it down by half a mile. There: there’s Mr Eldred’s trap.’
A dog-cart drove up with two men in it, of whom Garrett, gazing back as he crossed the little station yard, easily recognized one. The fact that Eldred was driving was slightly in his favour — for most likely he would not open the parcel in the presence of his servant. On the other hand, he would get home quickly, and unless Garrett were there within a very few minutes of his arrival, all would be over. He must hurry; and that he did. His short cut took him along one side of a triangle, while the cart had two sides to traverse; and it was delayed a little at the station, so that Garrett was in the third of the three fields when he heard the wheels fairly near. He had made the best progress possible, but the pace at which the cart was coming made him despair. At this rate it must reach home ten minutes before him, and ten minutes would more than suffice for the fulfilment of Mr Eldred’s project.
It was just at this time that the luck fairly turned. The evening was still, and sounds came clearly. Seldom has any sound given greater relief than that which he now heard: that of the cart pulling up. A few words were exchanged, and it drove on. Garrett, halting in the utmost anxiety, was able to see as it drove past the stile (near which he now stood) that it contained only the servant and not Eldred; further, he made out that Eldred was following on foot. From behind the tall hedge by the stile leading into the road he watched the thin wiry figure pass quickly by with the parcel beneath its arm, and feeling in its pockets. Just as he passed the stile something fell out of a pocket upon the grass, but with so little sound that Eldred was not conscious of it. In a moment more it was safe for Garrett to cross the stile into the road and pick up — a box of matches. Eldred went on, and, as he went, his arms made hasty movements, difficult to interpret in the shadow of the trees that overhung the road. But, as Garrett followed cautiously, he found at various points the key to them — a piece of string, and then the wrapper of the parcel — meant to be thrown over the hedge, but sticking in it.
Now Eldred was walking slower, and it could just be made out that he had opened the book and was turning over the leaves. He stopped, evidently troubled by the failing light. Garrett slipped into a gate-opening, but still watched. Eldred, hastily looking around, sat down on a felled tree-trunk by the roadside and held the open book up close to his eyes. Suddenly he laid it, still open, on his knee, and felt in all his pockets: clearly in vain, and clearly to his annoyance. ‘You would be glad of your matches now,’ thought Garrett. Then he took hold of a leaf, and was carefully tearing it out, when two things happened. First, something black seemed to drop upon the white leaf and run down it, and then as Eldred started and was turning to look behind him, a little dark form appeared to rise out of the shadow behind the tree-trunk and from it two arms enclosing a mass of blackness came before Eldred’s face and covered his head and neck. His legs and arms were wildly flourished, but no sound came. Then, there was no more movement. Eldred was alone. He had fallen back into the grass behind the tree-trunk. The book was cast into the roadway. Garrett, his anger and suspicion gone for the moment at the sight of this horrid struggle, rushed up with loud cries of ‘Help!’ and so too, to his enormous relief, did a labourer who had just emerged from a field opposite. Together they bent over and supported Eldred, but to no purpose. The conclusion that he was dead was inevitable. ‘Poor gentleman!’ said Garrett to the labourer, when they had laid him down, ‘what happened to him, do you think?’ ‘I wasn’t two hundred yards away,’ said the man, ‘when I see Squire Eldred setting reading in his book, and to my thinking he was took with one of these fits — face seemed to go all over black.’ ‘Just so,’ said Garrett. ‘You didn’t see anyone near him? It couldn’t have been an assault?’ ‘Not possible — no one couldn’t have got away without you or me seeing them.’ ‘So I thought. Well, we must get some help, and the doctor and the policeman; and perhaps I had better give them this book.’
It was obviously a case for an inquest, and obvious also that Garrett must stay at Bretfield and give his evidence. The medical inspection showed that, though some black dust was found on the face and in the mouth of the deceased, the cause of death was a shock to a weak heart, and not asphyxiation. The fateful book was produced, a respectable quarto printed wholly in Hebrew, and not of an aspect likely to excite even the most sensitive.
‘You say, Mr Garrett, that the deceased gentleman appeared at the moment before his attack to be tearing a leaf out of this book?’
‘Yes; I think one of the fly-leaves.’
‘There is here a fly-leaf partially torn through. It has Hebrew writing on it. Will you kindly inspect it?’
‘There are three names in English, sir, also, and a date. But I am sorry to say I cannot read Hebrew writing.’
‘Thank you. The names have the appearance of being signatures. They are John Rant, Walter Gibson, and James Frost, and the date is 20 July, 1875. Does anyone here know any of these names?’
The Rector, who was present, volunteered a statement that the uncle of the deceased, from whom he inherited, had been named Rant.
The book being handed to him, he shook a puzzled head. ‘This is not like any Hebrew I ever learnt.’
‘You are sure that it is Hebrew?’
‘What? Yes — I suppose. . . . No — my dear sir, you are perfectly right — that is, your suggestion is exactly to the point. Of course — it is not Hebrew at all. It is English, and it is a will.’
It did not take many minutes to show that here was indeed a will of Dr John Rant, bequeathing the whole of the property lately held by John Eldred to Mrs Mary Simpson. Clearly the discovery of such a document would amply justify Mr Eldred’s agitation. As to the partial tearing of the leaf, the coroner pointed out that no useful purpose could be attained by speculations whose correctness it would never be possible to establish.
* * *
The Tractate Middoth was naturally taken in charge by the coroner for further investigation, and Mr Garrett explained privately to him the history of it, and the position of events so far as he knew or guessed them.
He returned to his work next day, and on his walk to the station passed the scene of Mr Eldred’s catastrophe. He could hardly leave it without another look, though the recollection of what he had seen there made him shiver, even on that bright morning. He walked round, with some misgivings, behind the felled tree. Something dark that still lay there made him start back for a moment: but it hardly stirred. Looking closer, he saw that it was a thick black mass of cobwebs; and, as he stirred it gingerly with his stick, several large spiders ran out of it into the grass.
* * *
There is no great difficulty in imagining the steps by which William Garrett, from being an assistant in a great library, attained to his present position of prospective owner of Bretfield Manor, now in the occupation of his mother-inlaw, Mrs Mary Simpson.
Montague Rhodes James (1862 — 1936)