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 Haunted Dolls’ House
(Information and Summary)
The Haunted Dolls’ House was first published in Empire Review magazine, volume XXXVIII (February 1923).
The story is about an antiques dealer, named Dillet, who buys a magnificent-looking dolls’ house from a fellow trader.
The dolls’ house is fully furnished and has everything you would expect to find in a real home. It also contains dolls dressed as a wealthy family. There are even dolls dressed as servants. All the dolls have a change of clothing, located in a drawer beneath the dolls’ house. The drawer also contains some spare curtains. It’s incredibly intricate.
Dillet successfully haggled a very good price for the dolls’ house, is overjoyed to bag such a bargain, and places the dolls’ house in his bedroom. Unfortunately for Dillet, the dolls’ house is haunted and its inhabitants re-enact their tragic story each and every night.
The Haunted Dolls’ House by M.R. James
“I suppose you get stuff of that kind through your hands pretty often?” said Mr. Dillet, as he pointed with his stick to an object which shall be described when the time comes: and when he said it, he lied in his throat, and knew that he lied. Not once in twenty years – perhaps not once in a lifetime – could Mr. Chittenden, skilled as he was in ferreting out the forgotten treasures of half a dozen counties, expect to handle such a specimen. It was collectors’ palaver, and Mr. Chittenden recognized it as such.
“Stuff of that kind, Mr. Dillet! It’s a museum piece, that is.”
“Well, I suppose there are museums that’ll take anything.”
“I’ve seen one, not as good as that, years back,” said Mr. Chittenden thoughtfully. “But that’s not likely to come into the market: and I’m told they ’ave some fine ones of the period over the water. No: I’m only telling you the truth, Mr. Dillet, when I was to say that if you was to place an unlimited order with me for the very best that could be got – and you know I ’ave facilities for getting to know of such things, and a reputation to maintain – well, all I can say is, I should lead you straight up to that one and say, ‘I can’t do no better for you than that, sir.’”
“Hear, hear!” said Mr. Dillet, applauding ironically with the end of his stick on the floor of the shop. “How much are you sticking the innocent American buyer for it, eh?”
“Oh, I shan’t be over hard on the buyer, American or otherwise. You see, it stands this way, Mr. Dillet – if I knew just a bit more about the pedigree —”
“Or just a bit less,” Mr. Dillet put in.
“Ha, ha! you will have your joke, sir. No, but as I was saying, if I knew just a little more than what I do about the piece – though anyone can see for themselves it’s a genuine thing, every last corner of it, and there’s not been one of my men allowed to so much as touch it since it came into the shop – there’d be another figure in the price I’m asking.”
“And what’s that: five and twenty?”
“Multiply that by three and you’ve got it, sir. Seventy-five’s my price.”
“And fifty’s mine,” said Mr. Dillet. The point of agreement was, of course, somewhere between the two, it does not matter exactly where – I think sixty guineas. But half an hour later the object was being packed, and within an hour Mr. Dillet had called for it in his car and driven away. Mr. Chittenden, holding the cheque in his hand, saw him off from the door with smiles, and returned, still smiling, into the parlour where his wife was making the tea. He stopped at the door.
“It’s gone,” he said. “Thank God for that!” said Mrs. Chittenden, putting down the teapot. “Mr. Dillet, was it?”
“Yes, it was.”
“Well, I’d sooner it was him than another.” “Oh, I don’t know; he ain’t a bad feller, my dear.”
“Maybe not, but in my opinion he’d be none the worse for a bit of a shake up.”
“Well, if that’s your opinion, it’s my opinion he’s put himself into the way of getting one. Anyhow, we shan’t have no more of it, and that’s something to be thankful for.” And so Mr. and Mrs. Chittenden sat down to tea.
And what of Mr. Dillet and his new acquisition? What it was, the title of this story will have told you. What it was like, I shall have to indicate as well as I can.
There was only just enough room for it in the car, and Mr. Dillet had to sit with the driver: he had also to go slow, for though the rooms of the Dolls’ House had all been stuffed carefully with soft cottonwool, jolting was to be avoided, in view of the immense number of small objects which thronged them; and the ten-mile drive was an anxious time for him, in spite of all the precautions he insisted upon. At last his front door was reached, and Collins, the butler, came out.
“Look here, Collins, you must help me with this thing – it’s a delicate job. We must get it out upright, see? It’s full of little things that mustn’t be displaced more than we can help. Let’s see, where shall we have it? (After a pause for consideration.) Really, I think I shall have to put it in my own room, to begin with at any rate. On the big table – that’s it.”
It was conveyed – with much talking – to Mr. Dillet’s spacious room on the first floor, looking out on the drive. The sheeting was unwound from it, and the front thrown open, and for the next hour or two Mr.. Dillet was fully occupied in extracting the padding and setting in order the contents of the rooms.
When this thoroughly congenial task was finished, I must say that it would have been difficult to find a more perfect and attractive specimen of a Dolls’ House in Strawberry Hill Gothic than that which now stood on Mr. Dillet’s large kneehole table, lighted up by the evening sun which came slanting through three tall slash-windows.
It was quite six feet long, including the Chapel or Oratory which flanked the front on the left as you faced it, and the stable on the right. The main block of the house was, as I have said, in the Gothic manner: that is to say, the windows had pointed arches and were surmounted by what are called ogival hoods, with crockets and finials such as we see on the canopies of tombs built into church walls. At the angles were absurd turrets covered with arched panels. The Chapel had pinnacles and buttresses, and a bell in the turret and coloured glass in the windows. When the front of the house was open you saw four large rooms, bedroom, dining-room, drawing-room and kitchen, each with its appropriate furniture in a very complete state.
The stable on the right was in two storeys, with its proper complement of horses, coaches and grooms, and with its clock and Gothic cupola for the clock bell.
Pages, of course, might be written on the outfit of the mansion – how many frying-pans, how many gilt chairs, what pictures, carpets, chandeliers, four-posters, table linen, glass, crockery and plate it possessed; but all this must be left to the imagination. I will only say that the base or plinth on which the house stood (for it was fitted with one of some depth which allowed of a flight of steps to the front door and a terrace, partly balustraded) contained a shallow drawer or drawers in which were neatly stored sets of embroidered curtains, changes of raiment for the inmates, and, in short, all the materials for an infinite series of variations and refittings of the most absorbing and delightful kind.
“Quintessence of Horace Walpole, that’s what it is: he must have had something to do with the making of it.” Such was Mr. Dillet’s murmured reflection as he knelt before it in a reverent ecstasy. “Simply wonderful! this is my day and no mistake. Five hundred pounds coming in this morning for that cabinet which I never cared about, and now this tumbling into my hands for a tenth, at the very most, of what it would fetch in town. Well, well! It almost makes one afraid something’ll happen to counter it. Let’s have a look at the population, anyhow.”
Accordingly, he set them before him in a row. Again, here is an opportunity, which some would snatch at, of making an inventory of costume: I am incapable of it.
There were a gentleman and lady, in blue satin and brocade respectively. There were two children, a boy and a girl. There was a cook, a nurse, a footman, and there were the stable servants, two postilions, a coachman, two grooms.
“Anyone else? Yes, possibly.”
The curtains of the four-poster in the bedroom were closely drawn round all four sides of it, and he put his finger in between them and felt in the bed. He drew the finger back hastily, for it almost seemed to him as if something had – not stirred, perhaps, but yielded – in an odd live way as he pressed it. Then he put back the curtains, which ran on rods in the proper manner, and extracted from the bed a white-haired old gentleman in a long linen night-dress and cap, and laid him down by the rest. The tale was complete.
Dinner-time was now near, so Mr. Dillet spent but five minutes in putting the lady and children into the drawing-room, the gentleman into the dining-room, the servants into the kitchen and stables, and the old man back into his bed. He retired into his dressing-room next door, and we see and hear no more of him until something like eleven o’clock at night.
His whim was to sleep surrounded by some of the gems of his collection.. The big room in which we have seen him contained his bed: bath, wardrobe, and all the appliances of dressing were in a commodious room adjoining: but his four-poster, which itself was a valued treasure, stood in the large room where he sometimes wrote, and often sat, and even received visitors. To-night he repaired to it in a highly complacent frame of mind.
There was no striking clock within earshot – none on the staircase, none in the stable, none in the distant church tower. Yet it is indubitable that Mr. Dillet was started out of a very pleasant slumber by a bell tolling One.
He was so much startled that he did not merely lie breathless with wide-open eyes, but actually sat up in his bed.
He never asked himself, till the morning hours, how it was that, though there was no light at all in the room, the Dolls’ House on the kneehole table stood out with complete clearness. But it was so. The effect was that of a bright harvest moon shining full on the front of a big white stone mansion – a quarter of a mile away it might be, and yet every detail was photographically sharp. There were trees about it, too – trees rising behind the chapel and the house. He seemed to be conscious of the scent of a cool still September night. He thought he could hear an occasional stamp and clink from the stables, as of horses stirring. And with another shock he realized that, above the house, he was looking, not at the wall of his room with its pictures, but into the profound blue of a night sky.
There were lights, more than one, in the windows, and he quickly saw that this was no four-roomed house with a movable front, but one of many rooms and staircases – a real house, but seen as if through the wrong end of a telescope.
“You mean to show me something,” he muttered to himself, and he gazed earnestly on the lighted windows. They would in real life have been shuttered or curtained, no doubt, he thought; but, as it was, there was nothing to intercept his view of what was being transacted inside the rooms.
Two rooms were lighted – one on the ground floor to the right of the door, one upstairs, on the left – the first brightly enough, the other rather dimly. The lower room was the dining-room: a table was laid, but the meal was over, and only wine and glasses were left on the table. The man of the blue satin and the woman of the brocade were alone in the room, and they were talking very earnestly, seated close together at the table, their elbows on it: every now and again stopping to listen, as it seemed. Once he rose, came to the window and opened it and put his head out and his hand to his ear. There was a lighted taper in a silver candlestick on a sideboard. When the man left the window he seemed to leave the room also; and the lady, taper in hand, remained standing and listening. The expression on her face was that of one striving her utmost to keep down a fear that threatened to master her – and succeeding. It was a hateful face, too; broad, flat and sly. Now the man came back and she took some small thing from him and hurried out of the room. He, too, disappeared, but only for a moment or two. The front door slowly opened and he stepped out and stood on the top of the perron, looking this way and that; then turned towards the upper window that was lighted, and shook his fist.
It was time to look at that upper window. Through it was seen a four-post bed: a nurse or other servant in an arm-chair, evidently sound asleep; in the bed an old man lying: awake, and, one would say, anxious, from the way in which he shifted about and moved his fingers, beating tunes on the coverlet. Beyond the bed a door opened. Light was seen on the ceiling, and the lady came in: she set down her candle on a table, came to the fireside and roused the nurse. In her hand she had an old-fashioned wine bottle, ready uncorked. The nurse took it, poured some of the contents into a little silver saucepan, added some spice and sugar from casters on the table, and set it to warm on the fire. Meanwhile the old man in the bed beckoned feebly to the lady, who came to him, smiling, took his wrist as if to feel his pulse, and bit her lip as if in consternation. He looked at her anxiously, and then pointed to the window, and spoke. She nodded, and did as the man below had done; opened the casement and listened – perhaps rather ostentatiously: then drew in her head and shook it, looking at the old man, who seemed to sigh.
By this time the posset on the fire was steaming, and the nurse poured it into a small two-handled silver bowl and brought it to the bedside. The old man seemed disinclined for it and was waving it away, but the lady and the nurse together bent over him and evidently pressed it upon him. He must have yielded, for they supported him into a sitting position, and put it to his lips. He drank most of it, in several draughts, and they laid him down. The lady left the room, smiling good night to him, and took the bowl, the bottle and the silver saucepan with her. The nurse returned to the chair, and there was an interval of complete quiet.
Suddenly the old man started up in his bed – and he must have uttered some cry, for the nurse started out of her chair and made but one step of it to the bedside. He was a sad and terrible sight – flushed in the face, almost to blackness, the eyes glaring whitely, both hands clutching at his heart, foam at his lips. For a moment the nurse left him, ran to the door, flung it wide open, and, one supposes, screamed aloud for help, then darted back to the bed and seemed to try feverishly to soothe him – to lay him down – anything. But as the lady, her husband, and several servants, rushed into the room with horrified faces, the old man collapsed under the nurse’s hands and lay back, and his features, contorted with agony and rage, relaxed slowly into calm.
A few moments later, lights showed out to the left of the house, and a coach with flambeaux drove up to the door. A white-wigged man in black got nimbly out and ran up the steps, carrying a small leather trunk-shaped box. He was met in the doorway by the man and his wife, she with her handkerchief clutched between her hands, he with a tragic face, but retaining his self-control. They led the new-comer into the dining-room, where he set his box of papers on the table, and, turning to them, listened with a face of consternation at what they had to tell. He nodded his head again and again, threw out his hands slightly, declined, it seemed, offers of refreshment and lodging for the night, and within a few minutes came slowly down the steps, entering the coach and driving off the way he had come. As the man in blue watched him from the top of the steps, a smile not pleasant to see stole slowly over his fat white face. Darkness fell over the whole scene as the lights of the coach disappeared.
But Mr. Dillet remained sitting up in the bed: he had rightly guessed that there would be a sequel. The house front glimmered out again before long. But now there was a difference. The lights were in other windows, one at the top of the house, the other illuminating the range of coloured windows of the chapel. How he saw through these is not quite obvious, but he did. The interior was as carefully furnished as the rest of the establishment, with its minute red cushions on the desks, its Gothic stall-canopies, and its western gallery and pinnacled organ with gold pipes. On the centre of the black and white pavement was a bier: four tall candles burned at the corners. On the bier was a coffin covered with a pall of black velvet.
As he looked the folds of the pall stirred. It seemed to rise at one end: it slid downwards: it fell away, exposing the black coffin with its silver handles and name-plate. One of the tall candlesticks swayed and toppled over. Ask no more, but turn, as Mr. Dillet hastily did, and look in at the lighted window at the top of the house, where a boy and girl lay in two truckle-beds, and a four-poster for the nurse rose above them. The nurse was not visible for the moment; but the father and mother were there, dressed now in mourning, but with very little sign of mourning in their demeanour. Indeed, they were laughing and talking with a good deal of animation, sometimes to each other, and sometimes throwing a remark to one or other of the children, and again laughing at the answers. Then the father was seen to go on tiptoe out of the room, taking with him as he went a white garment that hung on a peg near the door. He shut the door after him. A minute or two later it was slowly opened again, and a muffled head poked round it. A bent form of sinister shape stepped across to the truckle-beds, and suddenly stopped, threw up its arms and revealed, of course, the father, laughing. The children were in agonies of terror, the boy with the bedclothes over his head, the girl throwing herself out of bed into her mother’s arms. Attempts at consolation followed – the parents took the children on their laps, patted them, picked up the white gown and showed there was no harm in it, and so forth; and at last putting the children back into bed, left the room with encouraging waves of the hand. As they left it, the nurse came in, and soon the light died down.
Still Mr. Dillet watched immovable.
A new sort of light – not of lamp or candle – a pale ugly light, began to dawn around the door-case at the back of the room. The door was opening again. The seer does not like to dwell upon what he saw entering the room: he says it might be described as a frog – the size of a man – but it had scanty white hair about its head. It was busy about the truckle-beds, but not for long. The sound of cries – faint, as if coming out of a vast distance – but, even so, infinitely appalling, reached the ear.
There were signs of a hideous commotion all over the house: lights moved along and up, and doors opened and shut, and running figures passed within the windows. The clock in the stable turret tolled one, and darkness fell again.
It was only dispelled once more, to show the house front. At the bottom of the steps dark figures were drawn up in two lines, holding flaming torches. More dark figures came down the steps, bearing, first one, then another small coffin. And the lines of torch-bearers with the coffins between them moved silently onward to the left.
The hours of night passed on – never so slowly, Mr. Dillet thought. Gradually he sank down from sitting to lying in his bed – but he did not close an eye: and early next morning he sent for the doctor.
The doctor found him in a disquieting state of nerves, and recommended sea-air. To a quiet place on the East Coast he accordingly repaired by easy stages in his car.
One of the first people he met on the sea front was Mr. Chittenden, who, it appeared, had likewise been advised to take his wife away for a bit of a change.
Mr. Chittenden looked somewhat askance upon him when they met: and not without cause.
“Well, I don’t wonder at you being a bit upset, Mr. Dillet. What? yes, well, I might say ’orrible upset, to be sure, seeing what me and my poor wife went through ourselves. But I put it to you, Mr. Dillet, one of two things: was I going to scrap a lovely piece like that on the one ’and, or was I going to tell customers: ‘I’m selling you a regular picture-palace-dramar in reel life of the olden time, billed to perform regular at one o’clock a..m.’? Why, what would you ‘ave said yourself? And next thing you know, two Justices of the Peace in the back parlour, and pore Mr. and Mrs. Chittenden off in a spring cart to the County Asylum and everyone in the street saying, ‘Ah, I thought it ’ud come to that. Look at the way the man drank!’ – and me next door, or next door but one, to a total abstainer, as you know. Well, there was my position. What? Me ’ave it back in the shop? Well, what do you think? No, but I’ll tell you what I will do. You shall have your money back, bar the ten pound I paid for it, and you make what you can.”
Later in the day, in what is offensively called the “smoke-room” of the hotel, a murmured conversation between the two went on for some time.
“How much do you really know about that thing, and where it came from?”
“Honest, Mr. Dillet, I don’t know the ’ouse. Of course, it came out of the lumber room of a country ’ouse – that anyone could guess. But I’ll go as far as say this, that I believe it’s not a hundred miles from this place. Which direction and how far I’ve no notion. I’m only judging by guess-work. The man as I actually paid the cheque to ain’t one of my regular men, and I’ve lost sight of him; but I ’ave the idea that this part of the country was his beat, and that’s every word I can tell you. But now, Mr. Dillet, there’s one thing that rather physicks me. That old chap, – I suppose you saw him drive up to the door – I thought so: now, would he have been the medical man, do you take it? My wife would have it so, but I stuck to it that was the lawyer, because he had papers with him, and one he took out was folded up.”
“I agree,” said Mr. Dillet. “Thinking it over, I came to the conclusion that was the old man’s will, ready to be signed.”
“Just what I thought,” said Mr. Chittenden, “and I took it that will would have cut out the young people, eh? Well, well! It’s been a lesson to me, I know that. I shan’t buy no more dolls’ houses, nor waste no more money on the pictures – and as to this business of poisonin’ grandpa, well, if I know myself, I never ’ad much of a turn for that. Live and let live: that’s bin my motto throughout life, and I ain’t found it a bad one.”
Filled with these elevated sentiments, Mr. Chittenden retired to his lodgings. Mr. Dillet next day repaired to the local Institute, where he hoped to find some clue to the riddle that absorbed him. He gazed in despair at a long file of the Canterbury and York Society’s publications of the Parish Registers of the District. No print resembling the house of his nightmare was among those that hung on the staircase and in the passages. Disconsolate, he found himself at last in a derelict room, staring at a dusty model of a church in a dusty glass case: Model of St. Stephen’s Church, Coxham. Presented by J. Merewether, Esq., of Ilbridge House, 1877. The work of his ancestor James Merewether, d.. 1786. There was something in the fashion of it that reminded him dimly of his horror. He retraced his steps to a wall map he had noticed, and made out that Ilbridge House was in Coxham Parish. Coxham was, as it happened, one of the parishes of which he had retained the name when he glanced over the file of printed registers, and it was not long before he found in them the record of the burial of Roger Milford, aged 76, on the 11th of September, 1757, and of Roger and Elizabeth Merewether, aged 9 and 7, on the 19th of the same month. It seemed worth while to follow up this clue, frail as it was; and in the afternoon he drove out to Coxham. The east end of the north aisle of the church is a Milford chapel, and on its north wall are tablets to the same persons; Roger, the elder, it seems, was distinguished by all the qualities which adorn “the Father, the Magistrate and the Man”: the memorial was erected by his attached daughter Elizabeth, “who did not long survive the loss of a parent ever solicitous for her welfare, and of two amiable children.” The last sentence was plainly an addition to the original inscription.
A yet later slab told of James Merewether, husband of Elizabeth, “who in the dawn of life practised, not without success, those arts which, had he continued their exercise, might in the opinion of the most competent judges have earned for him the name of the British Vitruvius: but who, overwhelmed by the visitation which deprived him of an affectionate partner and a blooming offspring, passed his Prime and Age in a secluded yet elegant Retirement: his grateful Nephew and Heir indulges a pious sorrow by this too brief recital of his excellences.”
The children were more simply commemorated. Both died on the night of the 12th of September.
Mr. Dillet felt sure that in Ilbridge House he had found the scene of his drama. In some old sketchbook, possibly in some old print, he may yet find convincing evidence that he is right. But the Ilbridge House of today is not that which he sought; it is an Elizabethan erection of the forties, in red brick with stone quoins and dressings. A quarter of a mile from it, in a low part of the park, backed by ancient, staghorned, ivy-strangled trees and thick undergrowth, are marks of a terraced platform overgrown with rough grass. A few stone balusters lie here and there, and a heap or two, covered with nettles and ivy, of wrought stones with badly-carved crockets. This, someone told Mr. Dillet, was the site of an older house.
As he drove out of the village, the hall clock struck four, and Mr. Dillet started up and clapped his hands to his ears. It was not the first time he had heard that bell.
Awaiting an offer from the other side of the Atlantic, the dolls’ house still reposes, carefully sheeted, in a loft over Mr. Dillet’s stables, whither Collins conveyed it on the day when Mr. Dillet started for the sea coast.
[It will be said, perhaps, and not unjustly, that this is no more than a variation on a former story of mine called The Mezzotint. I can only hope that there is enough of variation in the setting to make the repetition of the motif tolerable. M. R. J.]
Montague Rhodes James (1862 — 1936)