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The Experiment: A New Year’s Eve Ghost Story by M.R. James (Public Domain Text and Summary)

M. R. James (Author)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 Experiment: A New Year’s Eve Ghost Story
(Information and Summary)

The Experiment was first published in The Morning Post (December 31, 1931).

The story is set at an unspecified time in the past, but reference is made to a “sickness”. It has been speculated the sickness may have been the bubonic plague, but certain aspects of the story make the theory seem unlikely.

The Experiment begins with the reverend of the parish being informed the local squire is dead. Although the Squire had been afflicted with the sickness, the Reverand visited the Squire the day before and he seemed to be making a good recovery. News of his demise surprises the Reverand.

The Squire leaves behind a wife and step-son. His wife is sole aire to the estate but cannot find the dead man’s money.

While going through the Squire’s papers, the step-son finds a document that reveals the Squire believed it was possible to summon the spirits of the dead and force them to answer questions. The document also details the way this can be achieved.

With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the step-son decides to carry out an experiment and see if this is really possible. This proves to be an extremely bad idea.

The Experiment: A New Year’s Eve Ghost Story by M.R. James
(Online Text)

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The Reverend Dr Hall was in his study making up the entries for the year in the parish register: it being his custom to note baptisms, weddings and burials in a paper book as they occurred, and in the last days of December to write them out fairly in the vellum book that was kept in the parish chest.

To him entered his housekeeper, in evident agitation. ‘Oh, sir,’ said she, ‘whatever do you think? The poor Squire’s gone!’

‘The Squire? Squire Bowles? What are you talking about, woman? Why, only yesterday—’

‘Yes, I know, sir, but it’s the truth. Wickem, the clerk, just left word on his way down to toll the bell—you’ll hear it yourself in a minute. There now, just listen.’
Sure enough the sound broke on the still night—not loud, for the Rectory did not immediately adjoin the churchyard. Dr Hall rose hastily.

‘Terrible, terrible,’ he said. ‘I must see them at the Hall at once. He seemed so greatly better yesterday.’ He paused. ‘Did you hear any word of the sickness having come this way at all? There was nothing said in Norwich. It seems so sudden.’

‘No, indeed, sir, no such thing. Just caught away with a choking in his throat, Wickem says. It do make one feel—well, I’m sure I had to set down as much as a minute or more, I come over that queer when I heard the words—and by what I could understand they’ll be asking for the burial very quick. There’s some can’t bear the thought of the cold corpse laying in the house, and—’

‘Yes: well, I must find out from Madam Bowles herself or Mr Joseph. Get me my cloak, will you? Ah, and could you let Wickem know that I desire to see him when the tolling is over?’ He hurried off.

‘In an hour’s time he was back and found Wickem waiting for him. ‘There is work for you, Wickem,’ he said, as he threw off his cloak, ‘and not overmuch time to do it in.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Wickem, ‘the vault to be opened to be sure—’

‘No, no, that’s not the message I have. The poor Squire, they tell me, charged them before now not to lay him in the chancel. It was to be an earth grave in the yard, on the north side.’ He stopped at an inarticulate exclamation from the clerk. ‘Well?’ he said.

‘I ask pardon, sir,’ said Wickem in a shocked voice, ‘but did I understand you right? No vault, you say, and on the north side? Tt-tt-! Why the poor gentleman must a been wandering.’

‘Yes, it does seem strange to me, too,’ said Dr Hall, ‘but no, Mr Joseph tells me it was his father’s—I should say stepfather’s—clear wish, expressed more than once, and when he was in good health. Clean earth and open air. You know, of course, the poor Squire had his fancies, though he never spoke of this one to me. And there’s another thing, Wickem. No coffin.’

‘Oh dear, dear, sir,’ said Wickem, yet more shocked. ‘Oh, but that’ll make sad talk, that will, and what a disappointment for Wright, too! I know he’d looked out some beautiful wood for the Squire, and had it by him years past.’

‘Well, well, perhaps the family will make it up to Wright in some way,’ said the Rector, rather impatiently, ‘but what you have to do is to get the grave dug and all things in a readiness—torches from Wright you must not forget—by ten o’clock tomorrow night. I don’t doubt but there will be somewhat coming to you for your pains and hurry.’

‘Very well, sir, if those be the orders, I must do my best to carry them out. And should I call in on my way down and send the women up to the Hall to lay out the body, sir?’

‘No: that, I think—I am sure—was not spoken of. Mr Joseph will send, no doubt, if they are needed. No, you have enough without that. Good-night, Wickem. I was making up the registers when this doleful news came. Little had I thought to add such an entry to them as I must now.’

All things had been done in decent order. The torchlighted cortege had passed from the Hall through the park, up the lime avenue to the top of the knoll on which the church stood. All the village had been there, and such neighbours as could be warned in the few hours available. There was no great surprise at the hurry.

Formalities of law there were none then, and no one blamed the stricken widow for hastening to lay her dead to rest. Nor did anyone look to see her following in the funeral train. Her son Joseph—only issue of her first marriage with a Calvert of Yorkshire—was the chief mourner.

There were, indeed, no kinsfolk on Squire Bowles’s side who could have been bidden. The will, executed at the time of the Squire’s second marriage, left everything to the widow.

And what was ‘everything’? Land, house, furniture, pictures, plate were all obvious. But there should have been accumulations in coin, and beyond a few hundreds in the hands of agents—honest men and no embezzlers—cash there was none. Yet Francis Bowles had for years received good rents and paid little out. Nor was he a reputed miser; he kept a good table, and money was always forthcoming for the moderate spendings of his wife and stepson. Joseph Calvert had been maintained ungrudgingly at school and college.

What, then, had he done with it all? No ransacking of the house brought any secret hoard to light; no servant, old or young, had any tale to tell of meeting the Squire in unexpected places at strange hours. No, Madam Bowles and her son were fairly non-plussed. As they sat one evening in the parlour discussing the problem for the twentieth time:

‘You have been at his books and papers, Joseph, again today, haven’t you?’

‘Yes, mother, and no forwarder.’

‘What was it he would be writing at, and why was he always sending letters to Mr Fowler at Gloucester?’

‘Why, you know he had a maggot about the Middle State of the Soul. ’Twas over that he and that other were always busy. The last thing he wrote would be a letter that he never finished. I’ll fetch it . . . Yes, the same song over again.
‘“Honoured friend, — I make some slow advance in our studies, but I know not well how far to trust our authors. Here is one lately come my way who will have it that for a time after death the soul is under control of certain spirits, as Raphael, and another whom I doubtfully read as Nares; but still so near to this state of life that on prayer to them he may be free to come and disclose matters to the living. Come, indeed, he must, if he be rightly called, the manner of which is set forth in an experiment. But having come, and once opened his mouth, it may chance that his summoner shall see and hear more than of the hid treasure which it is likely he bargained for; since the experiment puts this in the forefront of things to be enquired. But the eftest way is to send you the whole, which herewith I do; copied from a book of recipes which I had of good Bishop Moore.”’

Here Joseph stopped, and made no comment, gazing on the paper. For more than a minute nothing was said, then Madam Bowles, drawing her needle through her work and looking at it, coughed and said, ‘There was no more written?’

‘No, nothing, mother.’

‘No? Well, it is strange stuff. Did ever you meet this Mr Fowler?’

‘Yes, it might be once or twice, in Oxford, a civil gentleman enough.’

‘Now I think of it,’ said she, ‘it would be but right to acquaint him with—with what has happened: they were close friends. Yes, Joseph, you should do that: you will know what should be said. And the letter is his, after all.’

‘You are in the right, mother, and I’ll not delay it.’ And forthwith he sat down to write.

From Norfolk to Gloucester was no quick transit. But a letter went, and a larger packet came in answer; and there were more evening talks in the panelled parlour at the Hall. At the close of one, these words were said: ‘Tonight, then, if you are certain of yourself, go round by the field path. Ay, and here is a cloth will serve.’

‘What cloth is that, mother? A napkin?’

‘Yes, of a kind: what matter?’ So he went out by the way of the garden, and she stood in the door, musing, with her hand on her mouth. Then the hand dropped and she said half aloud: ‘If only I had not been so hurried! But it was the face cloth, sure enough.’

It was a very dark night, and the spring wind blew loud over the black fields: loud enough to drown all sounds of shouting or calling. If calling there was, there was no voice, nor any that answered, nor any that regarded—yet.

Next morning, Joseph’s mother was early in his chamber. ‘Give me the cloth,’ she said, ‘the maids must not find it. And tell me, tell me, quick!’

Joseph, seated on the side of the bed with his head in his hands, looked up at her with bloodshot eyes. ‘We have opened his mouth,’ he said. ‘Why in God’s name did you leave his face bare?’

‘How could I help it? You know how I was hurried that day? But do you mean you saw it?’

Joseph only groaned and sunk his head in his hands again. Then, in a low voice, ‘He said you should see it, too.’

With a dreadful gasp she clutched at the bedpost and clung to it. ‘Oh, but he’s angry,’ Joseph went on. ‘He was only biding his time, I’m sure. The words were scarce out of my mouth when I heard like the snarl of a dog in under there.’ He got up and paced the room. ‘And what can we do? He’s free! And I daren’t meet him! I daren’t take the drink and go where he is! I daren’t lie here another night. Oh, why did you do it? We could have waited.’

‘Hush,’ said his mother: her lips were dry. ‘’Twas you, you know it, as much as I. Besides, what use in talking? Listen to me: ’tis but six o’clock. There’s money to cross the water: such as they can’t follow. Yarmouth’s not so far, and most night boats sail for Holland, I’ve heard. See you to the horses. I can be ready.’

Joseph stared at her. ‘What will they say here?’

‘What? Why, cannot you tell the parson we have wind of property lying in Amsterdam which we must claim or lose? Go, go; or if you are not man enough for that, lie here again tonight.’ He shivered and went.

That evening after dark a boatman lumbered into an inn on Yarmouth Quay, where a man and a woman sat, with saddle-bags on the floor by them.

‘Ready, are you, mistress and gentleman?’ he said. ‘She sails before the hour, and my other passenger he’s waitin’ on the quay. Be there all your baggage?’ and he picked up the bags.

‘Yes, we travel light,’ said Joseph. ‘And you have more company bound for Holland?’

‘Just the one,’ said the boatman, ‘and he seem to travel lighter yet.’

‘Do you know him?’ said Madam Bowles: she laid her hand on Joseph’s arm, and they both paused in the doorway.

‘Why no, but for all he’s hooded I’d know him again fast enough, he have such a cur’ous way of speakin’, and I doubt you’ll find he know you, by what he said. “Goo you and fetch ’em out,” he say, “and I’ll wait on ’em here,” he say, and sure enough he’s a-comin’ this way now.’

Poisoning of a husband was petty treason then, and women guilty of it were strangled at the stake and burnt. The Assize records of Norwich tell of a woman so dealt with and of her son hanged thereafter, convict on their own confession, made before the Rector of their parish, the name of which I withhold, for there is still hid treasure to be found there.

Bishop Moore’s book of recipes is now in the University Library at Cambridge, marked Dd 11, 45, and on the leaf numbered 144 this is written:

An experiment most ofte proved true, to find out tresure hidden in the ground, theft, manslaughter, or anie other thynge. Go to the grave of a ded man, and three tymes call hym by his nam at the hed of the grave, and say. Thou, N., N., N., I coniure the, I require the, and I charge the, by thi Christendome that thou takest leave of the Lord Raffael and Nares and then askest leave this night to come and tell me trewlie of the tresure that lyith hid in such a place. Then take of the earth of the grave at the dead bodyes hed and knitt it in a lynnen clothe and put itt under thi right eare and sleape theruppon: and wheresoever thou lyest or slepest, that night he will corn and tell thee trewlie in waking or sleping.

Montague Rhodes James (1862 — 1936)