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 Residence at Whitminster
(Information and Summary)
The Residence at Whitminster was first Published in the M. R. James anthology A Thin Ghost and Others. The story is also responsible for providing the anthology with its name. The “thin ghost” is the spirit of a character that dies at Whitminster.
The Residence at Whitminster is about the events that happen in a house that stands next to an English church. The story is a little unusual because it takes place in two different time periods.
The first part of the story is set in 1730 when the house is occupied by a minister and his wife. It’s a large house that used to be home to many church workers. Due to the decreasing needs of the church, the minister and his wife live there alone.
Things change when his wife’s sister dies. Now an orphan, her 11-year-old son, Frank, comes to live in the house as well. Shortly after this, the minister agrees to look after the son of an Irish nobleman.
Unfortunately for everyone concerned, the Irish boy has an interest in the black arts and soon has Frank involved in his unsavoury practices. Both of them die.
The second part of the story is set a century later when a new minister and his niece move into the house.
The housekeeper discovers one of the rooms is full of flies. Other unpleasant events occur in the house as well.
When a smooth, round tablet of glass is found, the minister gives it to his niece, who looks through it and witnesses some of the events that occurred with the two dead boys.
A Residence at Whitminster is one of M. R. James’ longer stories. It can be quite daunting to read because many of the paragraphs are unusually long.
The Residence at Whitminster by M.R. James
Dr. Ashton — Thomas Ashton, Doctor of Divinity — sat in his study, habited in a dressing-gown, and with a silk cap on his shaven head — his wig being for the time taken off and placed on its block on a side table. He was a man of some fifty-five years, strongly made, of a sanguine complexion, an angry eye, and a long upper lip. Face and eye were lighted up at the moment when I picture him by the level ray of an afternoon sun that shone in upon him through a tall sash window, giving on the west. The room into which it shone was also tall, lined with book-cases, and, where the wall showed between them, panelled. On the table near the doctor’s elbow was a green cloth, and upon it what he would have called a silver standish — a tray with inkstands — quill pens, a calf-bound book or two, some papers, a churchwarden pipe and brass tobacco-box, a flask cased in plaited straw, and a liqueur glass. The year was 1730, the month December, the hour somewhat past three in the afternoon.
I have described in these lines pretty much all that a superficial observer would have noted when he looked into the room. What met Dr. Ashton’s eye when he looked out of it, sitting in his leather arm-chair? Little more than the tops of the shrubs and fruit-trees of his garden could be seen from that point, but the red brick wall of it was visible in almost all the length of its western side. In the middle of that was a gate — a double gate of rather elaborate iron scroll-work, which allowed something of a view beyond. Through it he could see that the ground sloped away almost at once to a bottom, along which a stream must run, and rose steeply from it on the other side, up to a field that was park-like in character, and thickly studded with oaks, now, of course, leafless. They did not stand so thick together but that some glimpse of sky and horizon could be seen between their stems. The sky was now golden and the horizon, a horizon of distant woods, it seemed, was purple.
But all that Dr. Ashton could find to say, after contemplating this prospect for many minutes, was: “Abominable!”
A listener would have been aware, immediately upon this, of the sound of footsteps coming somewhat hurriedly in the direction of the study: by the resonance he could have told that they were traversing a much larger room. Dr. Ashton turned round in his chair as the door opened, and looked expectant. The incomer was a lady — a stout lady in the dress of the time: though I have made some attempt at indicating the doctor’s costume, I will not enterprise that of his wife — for it was Mrs. Ashton who now entered. She had an anxious, even a sorely distracted, look, and it was in a very disturbed voice that she almost whispered to Dr. Ashton, putting her head close to his, “He’s in a very sad way, love, worse, I’m afraid.” “Tt — tt, is he really?” and he leaned back and looked in her face. She nodded. Two solemn bells, high up, and not far away, rang out the half-hour at this moment. Mrs. Ashton started. “Oh, do you think you can give order that the minster clock be stopped chiming to-night? ’Tis just over his chamber, and will keep him from sleeping, and to sleep is the only chance for him, that’s certain.” “Why, to be sure, if there were need, real need, it could be done, but not upon any light occasion. This Frank, now, do you assure me that his recovery stands upon it?” said Dr. Ashton: his voice was loud and rather hard. “I do verily believe it,” said his wife. “Then, if it must be, bid Molly run across to Simpkins and say on my authority that he is to stop the clock chimes at sunset: and — yes — she is after that to say to my lord Saul that I wish to see him presently in this room.” Mrs. Ashton hurried off.
Before any other visitor enters, it will be well to explain the situation.
Dr. Ashton was the holder, among other preferments, of a prebend in the rich collegiate church of Whitminster, one of the foundations which, though not a cathedral, survived dissolution and reformation, and retained its constitution and endowments for a hundred years after the time of which I write. The great church, the residences of the dean and the two prebendaries, the choir and its appurtenances, were all intact and in working order. A dean who flourished soon after 1500 had been a great builder, and had erected a spacious quadrangle of red brick adjoining the church for the residence of the officials. Some of these persons were no longer required: their offices had dwindled down to mere titles, borne by clergy or lawyers in the town and neighbourhood; and so the houses that had been meant to accommodate eight or ten people were now shared among three, the dean and the two prebendaries. Dr. Ashton’s included what had been the common parlour and the dining-hall of the whole body. It occupied a whole side of the court, and at one end had a private door into the minster. The other end, as we have seen, looked out over the country.
So much for the house. As for the inmates, Dr. Ashton was a wealthy man and childless, and he had adopted, or rather undertaken to bring up, the orphan son of his wife’s sister. Frank Sydall was the lad’s name: he had been a good many months in the house. Then one day came a letter from an Irish peer, the Earl of Kildonan (who had known Dr. Ashton at college), putting it to the doctor whether he would consider taking into his family the Viscount Saul, the Earl’s heir, and acting in some sort as his tutor. Lord Kildonan was shortly to take up a post in the Lisbon Embassy, and the boy was unfit to make the voyage: “not that he is sickly,” the Earl wrote, “though you’ll find him whimsical, or of late I’ve thought him so, and to confirm this, ’twas only today his old nurse came expressly to tell me he was possess’d: but let that pass; I’ll warrant you can find a spell to make all straight. Your arm was stout enough in old days, and I give you plenary authority to use it as you see fit. The truth is, he has here no boys of his age or quality to consort with, and is given to moping about in our raths and graveyards: and he brings home romances that fright my servants out of their wits. So there are you and your lady forewarned.” It was perhaps with half an eye open to the possibility of an Irish bishopric (at which another sentence in the Earl’s letter seemed to hint) that Dr. Ashton accepted the charge of my Lord Viscount Saul and of the 200 guineas a year that were to come with him.
So he came, one night in September. When he got out of the chaise that brought him, he went first and spoke to the postboy and gave him some money, and patted the neck of his horse. Whether he made some movement that scared it or not, there was very nearly a nasty accident, for the beast started violently, and the postilion being unready was thrown and lost his fee, as he found afterwards, and the chaise lost some paint on the gateposts, and the wheel went over the man’s foot who was taking out the baggage. When Lord Saul came up the steps into the light of the lamp in the porch to be greeted by Dr. Ashton, he was seen to be a thin youth of, say, sixteen years old, with straight black hair and the pale colouring that is common to such a figure. He took the accident and commotion calmly enough, and expressed a proper anxiety for the people who had been, or might have been, hurt: his voice was smooth and pleasant, and without any trace, curiously, of an Irish brogue.
Frank Sydall was a younger boy, perhaps of eleven or twelve, but Lord Saul did not for that reject his company. Frank was able to teach him various games he had not known in Ireland, and he was apt at learning them; apt, too, at his books, though he had had little or no regular teaching at home. It was not long before he was making a shift to puzzle out the inscriptions on the tombs in the minster, and he would often put a question to the doctor about the old books in the library that required some thought to answer. It is to be supposed that he made himself very agreeable to the servants, for within ten days of his coming they were almost falling over each other in their efforts to oblige him. At the same time, Mrs. Ashton was rather put to it to find new maidservants; for there were several changes, and some of the families in the town from which she had been accustomed to draw seemed to have no one available. She was forced to go further afield than was usual.
These generalities I gather from the doctor’s notes in his diary and from letters. They are generalities, and we should like, in view of what has to be told, something sharper and more detailed. We get it in entries which begin late in the year, and, I think, were posted up all together after the final incident; but they cover so few days in all that there is no need to doubt that the writer could remember the course of things accurately.
On a Friday morning it was that a fox, or perhaps a cat, made away with Mrs. Ashton’s most prized black cockerel, a bird without a single white feather on its body. Her husband had told her often enough that it would make a suitable sacrifice to Æsculapius; that had discomfited her much, and now she would hardly be consoled. The boys looked everywhere for traces of it: Lord Saul brought in a few feathers, which seemed to have been partially burnt on the garden rubbish-heap. It was on the same day that Dr. Ashton, looking out of an upper window, saw the two boys playing in the corner of the garden at a game he did not understand. Frank was looking earnestly at something in the palm of his hand. Saul stood behind him and seemed to be listening. After some minutes he very gently laid his hand on Frank’s head, and almost instantly thereupon, Frank suddenly dropped whatever it was that he was holding, clapped his hands to his eyes, and sank down on the grass. Saul, whose face expressed great anger, hastily picked the object up, of which it could only be seen that it was glittering, put it in his pocket, and turned away, leaving Frank huddled up on the grass. Dr. Ashton rapped on the window to attract their attention, and Saul looked up as if in alarm, and then springing to Frank, pulled him up by the arm and led him away. When they came in to dinner, Saul explained that they had been acting a part of the tragedy of Radamistus, in which the heroine reads the future fate of her father’s kingdom by means of a glass ball held in her hand, and is overcome by the terrible events she has seen. During this explanation Frank said nothing, only looked rather bewilderedly at Saul. He must, Mrs. Ashton thought, have contracted a chill from the wet of the grass, for that evening he was certainly feverish and disordered; and the disorder was of the mind as well as the body, for he seemed to have something he wished to say to Mrs. Ashton, only a press of household affairs prevented her from paying attention to him; and when she went, according to her habit, to see that the light in the boys’ chamber had been taken away, and to bid them good-night, he seemed to be sleeping, though his face was unnaturally flushed, to her thinking: Lord Saul, however, was pale and quiet, and smiling in his slumber.
Next morning it happened that Dr. Ashton was occupied in church and other business, and unable to take the boys’ lessons. He therefore set them tasks to be written and brought to him. Three times, if not oftener, Frank knocked at the study door, and each time the doctor chanced to be engaged with some visitor, and sent the boy off rather roughly, which he later regretted. Two clergymen were at dinner this day, and both remarked — being fathers of families — that the lad seemed sickening for a fever, in which they were too near the truth, and it had been better if he had been put to bed forthwith: for a couple of hours later in the afternoon he came running into the house, crying out in a way that was really terrifying, and rushing to Mrs. Ashton, clung about her, begging her to protect him, and saying, “Keep them off! keep them off!” without intermission. And it was now evident that some sickness had taken strong hold of him. He was therefore got to bed in another chamber from that in which he commonly lay, and the physician brought to him: who pronounced the disorder to be grave and affecting the lad’s brain, and prognosticated a fatal end to it if strict quiet were not observed, and those sedative remedies used which he should prescribe.
We are now come by another way to the point we had reached before. The minster clock has been stopped from striking, and Lord Saul is on the threshold of the study.
“What account can you give of this poor lad’s state?” was Dr. Ashton’s first question. “Why, sir, little more than you know already, I fancy. I must blame myself, though, for giving him a fright yesterday when we were acting that foolish play you saw. I fear I made him take it more to heart than I meant.” “How so?” “Well, by telling him foolish tales I had picked up in Ireland of what we call the second sight.” “Second sight! What kind of sight might that be?” “Why, you know our ignorant people pretend that some are able to foresee what is to come — sometimes in a glass, or in the air, maybe, and at Kildonan we had an old woman that pretended to such a power. And I daresay I coloured the matter more highly than I should: but I never dreamed Frank would take it so near as he did.” “You were wrong, my lord, very wrong, in meddling with such superstitious matters at all, and you should have considered whose house you were in, and how little becoming such actions are to my character and person or to your own: but pray how came it that you, acting, as you say, a play, should fall upon anything that could so alarm Frank?” “That is what I can hardly tell, sir: he passed all in a moment from rant about battles and lovers and Cleodora and Antigenes to something I could not follow at all, and then dropped down as you saw.” “Yes: was that at the moment when you laid your hand on the top of his head?” Lord Saul gave a quick look at his questioner — quick and spiteful — and for the first time seemed unready with an answer. “About that time it may have been,” he said. “I have tried to recollect myself, but I am not sure. There was, at any rate, no significance in what I did then.” “Ah!” said Dr. Ashton, “well, my lord, I should do wrong were I not to tell you that this fright of my poor nephew may have very ill consequences to him. The doctor speaks very despondingly of his state.” Lord Saul pressed his hands together and looked earnestly upon Dr. Ashton. “I am willing to believe you had no bad intention, as assuredly you could have no reason to bear the poor boy malice: but I cannot wholly free you from blame in the affair.” As he spoke, the hurrying steps were heard again, and Mrs. Ashton came quickly into the room, carrying a candle, for the evening had by this time closed in. She was greatly agitated. “O come!” she cried, “come directly. I’m sure he is going.” “Going? Frank? Is it possible? Already?” With some such incoherent words the doctor caught up a book of prayers from the table and ran out after his wife. Lord Saul stopped for a moment where he was. Molly, the maid, saw him bend over and put both hands to his face. If it were the last words she had to speak, she said afterwards, he was striving to keep back a fit of laughing. Then he went out softly, following the others.
Mrs. Ashton was sadly right in her forecast. I have no inclination to imagine the last scene in detail. What Dr. Ashton records is, or may be taken to be, important to the story. They asked Frank if he would like to see his companion, Lord Saul, once again. The boy was quite collected, it appears, in these moments. “No,” he said, “I do not want to see him; but you should tell him I am afraid he will be very cold.” “What do you mean, my dear?” said Mrs. Ashton. “Only that;” said Frank, “but say to him besides that I am free of them now, but he should take care. And I am sorry about your black cockerel, Aunt Ashton; but he said we must use it so, if we were to see all that could be seen.”
Not many minutes after, he was gone. Both the Ashtons were grieved, she naturally most; but the doctor, though not an emotional man, felt the pathos of the early death: and, besides, there was the growing suspicion that all had not been told him by Saul, and that there was something here which was out of his beaten track. When he left the chamber of death, it was to walk across the quadrangle of the residence to the sexton’s house. A passing bell, the greatest of the minster bells, must be rung, a grave must be dug in the minster yard, and there was now no need to silence the chiming of the minster clock. As he came slowly back in the dark, he thought he must see Lord Saul again. That matter of the black cockerel — trifling as it might seem — would have to be cleared up. It might be merely a fancy of the sick boy, but if not, was there not a witch-trial he had read, in which some grim little rite of sacrifice had played a part? Yes, he must see Saul.
I rather guess these thoughts of his than find written authority for them. That there was another interview is certain: certain also that Saul would (or, as he said, could) throw no light on Frank’s words: though the message, or some part of it, appeared to affect him horribly. But there is no record of the talk in detail. It is only said that Saul sat all that evening in the study, and when he bid good-night, which he did most reluctantly, asked for the doctor’s prayers.
The month of January was near its end when Lord Kildonan, in the Embassy at Lisbon, received a letter that for once gravely disturbed that vain man and neglectful father. Saul was dead. The scene at Frank’s burial had been very distressing. The day was awful in blackness and wind: the bearers, staggering blindly along under the flapping black pall, found it a hard job, when they emerged from the porch of the minster, to make their way to the grave. Mrs. Ashton was in her room — women did not then go to their kinsfolk’s funerals — but Saul was there, draped in the mourning cloak of the time, and his face was white and fixed as that of one dead, except when, as was noticed three or four times, he suddenly turned his head to the left and looked over his shoulder. It was then alive with a terrible expression of listening fear. No one saw him go away: and no one could find him that evening. All night the gale buffeted the high windows of the church, and howled over the upland and roared through the woodland. It was useless to search in the open: no voice of shouting or cry for help could possibly be heard. All that Dr. Ashton could do was to warn the people about the college, and the town constables, and to sit up, on the alert for any news, and this he did. News came early next morning, brought by the sexton, whose business it was to open the church for early prayers at seven, and who sent the maid rushing upstairs with wild eyes and flying hair to summon her master. The two men dashed across to the south door of the minster, there to find Lord Saul clinging desperately to the great ring of the door, his head sunk between his shoulders, his stockings in rags, his shoes gone, his legs torn and bloody.
This was what had to be told to Lord Kildonan, and this really ends the first part of the story. The tomb of Frank Sydall and of the Lord Viscount Saul, only child and heir to William Earl of Kildonan, is one: a stone altar tomb in Whitminster churchyard.
Dr. Ashton lived on for over thirty years in his prebendal house, I do not know how quietly, but without visible disturbance. His successor preferred a house he already owned in the town, and left that of the senior prebendary vacant. Between them these two men saw the eighteenth century out and the nineteenth in; for Mr. Hindes, the successor of Ashton, became prebendary at nine-and-twenty and died at nine-and-eighty. So that it was not till 1823 or 1824 that any one succeeded to the post who intended to make the house his home. The man who did was Dr. Henry Oldys, whose name may be known to some of my readers as that of the author of a row of volumes labelled Oldys’s Works , which occupy a place that must be honoured, since it is so rarely touched, upon the shelves of many a substantial library.
Dr. Oldys, his niece, and his servants took some months to transfer furniture and books from his Dorsetshire parsonage to the quadrangle of Whitminster, and to get everything into place. But eventually the work was done, and the house (which, though untenanted, had always been kept sound and weather-tight) woke up, and like Monte Cristo’s mansion at Auteuil, lived, sang, and bloomed once more. On a certain morning in June it looked especially fair, as Dr. Oldys strolled in his garden before breakfast and gazed over the red roof at the minster tower with its four gold vanes, backed by a very blue sky, and very white little clouds.
“Mary,” he said, as he seated himself at the breakfast table and laid down something hard and shiny on the cloth, “here’s a find which the boy made just now. You’ll be sharper than I if you can guess what it’s meant for.” It was a round and perfectly smooth tablet — as much as an inch thick — of what seemed clear glass. “It is rather attractive at all events,” said Mary: she was a fair woman, with light hair and large eyes, rather a devotee of literature. “Yes,” said her uncle, “I thought you’d be pleased with it. I presume it came from the house: it turned up in the rubbish-heap in the corner.” “I’m not sure that I do like it, after all,” said Mary, some minutes later. “Why in the world not, my dear?” “I don’t know, I’m sure. Perhaps it’s only fancy.” “Yes, only fancy and romance, of course. What’s that book, now — the name of that book, I mean, that you had your head in all yesterday?” “The Talisman , Uncle. Oh, if this should turn out to be a talisman, how enchanting it would be!” “Yes, The Talisman : ah, well, you’re welcome to it, whatever it is: I must be off about my business. Is all well in the house? Does it suit you? Any complaints from the servants’ hall?” “No, indeed, nothing could be more charming. The only soupçon of a complaint besides the lock of the linen closet, which I told you of, is that Mrs. Maple says she cannot get rid of the sawflies out of that room you pass through at the other end of the hall. By the way, are you sure you like your bedroom? It is a long way off from any one else, you know.” “Like it? To be sure I do; the further off from you, my dear, the better. There, don’t think it necessary to beat me: accept my apologies. But what are sawflies? will they eat my coats? If not, they may have the room to themselves for what I care. We are not likely to be using it.” “No, of course not. Well, what she calls sawflies are those reddish things like a daddy-longlegs, but smaller,1 and there are a great many of them perching about that room, certainly. I don’t like them, but I don’t fancy they are mischievous.” “There seem to be several things you don’t like this fine morning,” said her uncle, as he closed the door. Miss Oldys remained in her chair looking at the tablet, which she was holding in the palm of her hand. The smile that had been on her face faded slowly from it and gave place to an expression of curiosity and almost strained attention. Her reverie was broken by the entrance of Mrs. Maple, and her invariable opening, “Oh, Miss, could I speak to you a minute?”
1 Apparently the ichneumon fly (Ophion obscurum ), and not the true sawfly, is meant.
A letter from Miss Oldys to a friend in Lichfield, begun a day or two before, is the next source for this story. It is not devoid of traces of the influence of that leader of female thought in her day, Miss Anna Seward, known to some as the Swan of Lichfield.
“My sweetest Emily will be rejoiced to hear that we are at length — my beloved uncle and myself — settled in the house that now calls us master — nay, master and mistress — as in past ages it has called so many others. Here we taste a mingling of modern elegance and hoary antiquity, such as has never ere now graced life for either of us. The town, small as it is, affords us some reflection, pale indeed, but veritable, of the sweets of polite intercourse: the adjacent country numbers amid the occupants of its scattered mansions some whose polish is annually refreshed by contact with metropolitan splendour, and others whose robust and homely geniality is, at times, and by way of contrast, not less cheering and acceptable. Tired of the parlours and drawing-rooms of our friends, we have ready to hand a refuge from the clash of wits or the small talk of the day amid the solemn beauties of our venerable minster, whose silvern chimes daily ‘knoll us to prayer,’ and in the shady walks of whose tranquil graveyard we muse with softened heart, and ever and anon with moistened eye, upon the memorials of the young, the beautiful, the aged, the wise, and the good.”
Here there is an abrupt break both in the writing and the style.
“But my dearest Emily, I can no longer write with the care which you deserve, and in which we both take pleasure. What I have to tell you is wholly foreign to what has gone before. This morning my uncle brought in to breakfast an object which had been found in the garden; it was a glass or crystal tablet of this shape (a little sketch is given), which he handed to me, and which, after he left the room, remained on the table by me. I gazed at it, I know not why, for some minutes, till called away by the day’s duties; and you will smile incredulously when I say that I seemed to myself to begin to descry reflected in it objects and scenes which were not in the room where I was. You will not, however, be surprised that after such an experience I took the first opportunity to seclude myself in my room with what I now half believed to be a talisman of mickle might. I was not disappointed. I assure you, Emily, by that memory which is dearest to both of us, that what I went through this afternoon transcends the limits of what I had before deemed credible. In brief, what I saw, seated in my bedroom, in the broad daylight of summer, and looking into the crystal depth of that small round tablet, was this. First, a prospect, strange to me, of an enclosure of rough and hillocky grass, with a grey stone ruin in the midst, and a wall of rough stones about it. In this stood an old, and very ugly, woman in a red cloak and ragged skirt, talking to a boy dressed in the fashion of maybe a hundred years ago. She put something which glittered into his hand, and he something into hers, which I saw to be money, for a single coin fell from her trembling hand into the grass. The scene passed — I should have remarked, by the way, that on the rough walls of the enclosure I could distinguish bones, and even a skull, lying in a disorderly fashion. Next, I was looking upon two boys; one the figure of the former vision, the other younger. They were in a plot of garden, walled round, and this garden, in spite of the difference in arrangement, and the small size of the trees, I could clearly recognize as being that upon which I now look from my window. The boys were engaged in some curious play, it seemed. Something was smouldering on the ground. The elder placed his hands upon it, and then raised them in what I took to be an attitude of prayer: and I saw, and started at seeing, that on them were deep stains of blood. The sky above was overcast. The same boy now turned his face towards the wall of the garden, and beckoned with both his raised hands, and as he did so I was conscious that some moving objects were becoming visible over the top of the wall — whether heads or other parts of some animal or human forms I could not tell. Upon the instant the elder boy turned sharply, seized the arm of the younger (who all this time had been poring over what lay on the ground), and both hurried off. I then saw blood upon the grass, a little pile of bricks, and what I thought were black feathers scattered about. That scene closed, and the next was so dark that perhaps the full meaning of it escaped me. But what I seemed to see was a form, at first crouching low among trees or bushes that were being threshed by a violent wind, then running very swiftly, and constantly turning a pale face to look behind him, as if he feared a pursuer: and, indeed, pursuers were following hard after him. Their shapes were but dimly seen, their number — three or four, perhaps, only guessed. I suppose they were on the whole more like dogs than anything else, but dogs such as we have seen they assuredly were not. Could I have closed my eyes to this horror, I would have done so at once, but I was helpless. The last I saw was the victim darting beneath an arch and clutching at some object to which he clung: and those that were pursuing him overtook him, and I seemed to hear the echo of a cry of despair. It may be that I became unconscious: certainly I had the sensation of awaking to the light of day after an interval of darkness. Such, in literal truth, Emily, was my vision — I can call it by no other name — of this afternoon. Tell me, have I not been the unwilling witness of some episode of a tragedy connected with this very house?”
The letter is continued next day. “The tale of yesterday was not completed when I laid down my pen. I said nothing of my experiences to my uncle — you know, yourself, how little his robust common-sense would be prepared to allow of them, and how in his eyes the specific remedy would be a black draught or a glass of port. After a silent evening, then — silent, not sullen — I retired to rest. Judge of my terror, when, not yet in bed, I heard what I can only describe as a distant bellow, and knew it for my uncle’s voice, though never in my hearing so exerted before. His sleeping-room is at the further extremity of this large house, and to gain access to it one must traverse an antique hall some eighty feet long and a lofty panelled chamber, and two unoccupied bedrooms. In the second of these — a room almost devoid of furniture — I found him, in the dark, his candle lying smashed on the floor. As I ran in, bearing a light, he clasped me in arms that trembled for the first time since I have known him, thanked God, and hurried me out of the room. He would say nothing of what had alarmed him. ‘To-morrow, tomorrow,’ was all I could get from him. A bed was hastily improvised for him in the room next to my own. I doubt if his night was more restful than mine. I could only get to sleep in the small hours, when daylight was already strong, and then my dreams were of the grimmest — particularly one which stamped itself on my brain, and which I must set down on the chance of dispersing the impression it has made. It was that I came up to my room with a heavy foreboding of evil oppressing me, and went with a hesitation and reluctance I could not explain to my chest of drawers. I opened the top drawer, in which was nothing but ribbons and handkerchiefs, and then the second, where was as little to alarm, and then, O heavens, the third and last: and there was a mass of linen neatly folded: upon which, as I looked with curiosity that began to be tinged with horror, I perceived a movement in it, and a pink hand was thrust out of the folds and began to grope feebly in the air. I could bear it no more, and rushed from the room, clapping the door after me, and strove with all my force to lock it. But the key would not turn in the wards, and from within the room came a sound of rustling and bumping, drawing nearer and nearer to the door. Why I did not flee down the stairs I know not. I continued grasping the handle, and mercifully, as the door was plucked from my hand with an irresistible force, I awoke. You may not think this very alarming, but I assure you it was so to me.
“At breakfast today my uncle was very uncommunicative, and I think ashamed of the fright he had given us; but afterwards he inquired of me whether Mr. Spearman was still in town, adding that he thought that was a young man who had some sense left in his head. I think you know, my dear Emily, that I am not inclined to disagree with him there, and also that I was not unlikely to be able to answer his question. To Mr. Spearman he accordingly went, and I have not seen him since. I must send this strange budget of news to you now, or it may have to wait over more than one post.”
The reader will not be far out if he guesses that Miss Mary and Mr. Spearman made a match of it not very long after this month of June. Mr. Spearman was a young spark, who had a good property in the neighbourhood of Whitminster, and not unfrequently about this time spent a few days at the “King’s Head,” ostensibly on business. But he must have had some leisure, for his diary is copious, especially for the days of which I am telling the story. It is probable to me that he wrote this episode as fully as he could at the bidding of Miss Mary.
“Uncle Oldys (how I hope I may have the right to call him so before long!) called this morning. After throwing out a good many short remarks on indifferent topics, he said ‘I wish, Spearman, you’d listen to an odd story and keep a close tongue about it just for a bit, till I get more light on it.’ ‘To be sure,’ said I, ‘you may count on me.’ ‘I don’t know what to make of it,’ he said. ‘You know my bedroom. It is well away from every one else’s, and I pass through the great hall and two or three other rooms to get to it.’ ‘Is it at the end next the minster, then?’ I asked. ‘Yes, it is: well, now, yesterday morning my Mary told me that the room next before it was infested with some sort of fly that the housekeeper couldn’t get rid of. That may be the explanation, or it may not. What do you think?’ ‘Why,’ said I, ‘you’ve not yet told me what has to be explained.’ ‘True enough, I don’t believe I have; but by-the-by, what are these sawflies? What’s the size of them?’ I began to wonder if he was touched in the head. ‘What I call a sawfly,’ I said very patiently, ‘is a red animal, like a daddy-longlegs, but not so big, perhaps an inch long, perhaps less. It is very hard in the body, and to me’— I was going to say ‘particularly offensive,’ but he broke in, ‘Come, come; an inch or less. That won’t do.’ ‘I can only tell you,’ I said, ‘what I know. Would it not be better if you told me from first to last what it is that has puzzled you, and then I may be able to give you some kind of an opinion.’ He gazed at me meditatively. ‘Perhaps it would,’ he said. ‘I told Mary only today that I thought you had some vestiges of sense in your head.’ (I bowed my acknowledgements.) ‘The thing is, I’ve an odd kind of shyness about talking of it. Nothing of the sort has happened to me before. Well, about eleven o’clock last night, or after, I took my candle and set out for my room. I had a book in my other hand — I always read something for a few minutes before I drop off to sleep. A dangerous habit: I don’t recommend it: but I know how to manage my light and my bed curtains. Now then, first, as I stepped out of my study into the great half that’s next to it, and shut the door, my candle went out. I supposed I had clapped the door behind me too quick, and made a draught, and I was annoyed, for I’d no tinder-box nearer than my bedroom. But I knew my way well enough, and went on. The next thing was that my book was struck out of my hand in the dark: if I said twitched out of my hand it would better express the sensation. It fell on the floor. I picked it up, and went on, more annoyed than before, and a little startled. But as you know, that hall has many windows without curtains, and in summer nights like these it is easy to see not only where the furniture is, but whether there’s any one or anything moving, and there was no one — nothing of the kind. So on I went through the hall and through the audit chamber next to it, which also has big windows, and then into the bedrooms which lead to my own, where the curtains were drawn, and I had to go slower because of steps here and there. It was in the second of those rooms that I nearly got my quietus . The moment I opened the door of it I felt there was something wrong. I thought twice, I confess, whether I shouldn’t turn back and find another way there is to my room rather than go through that one. Then I was ashamed of myself, and thought what people call better of it, though I don’t know about “better” in this case. If I was to describe my experience exactly, I should say this: there was a dry, light, rustling sound all over the room as I went in, and then (you remember it was perfectly dark) something seemed to rush at me, and there was — I don’t know how to put it — a sensation of long thin arms, or legs, or feelers, all about my face, and neck, and body. Very little strength in them, there seemed to be, but Spearman, I don’t think I was ever more horrified or disgusted in all my life, that I remember: and it does take something to put me out. I roared out as loud as I could, and flung away my candle at random, and, knowing I was near the window, I tore at the curtain and somehow let in enough light to be able to see something waving which I knew was an insect’s leg, by the shape of it: but, Lord, what a size! Why the beast must have been as tall as I am. And now you tell me sawflies are an inch long or less. What do you make of it, Spearman?’
“‘For goodness sake finish your story first,’ I said. ‘I never heard anything like it.’ ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘there’s no more to tell. Mary ran in with a light, and there was nothing there. I didn’t tell her what was the matter. I changed my room for last night, and I expect for good.’ ‘Have you searched this odd room of yours?’ I said. ‘What do you keep in it?’ ‘We don’t use it,’ he answered. ‘There’s an old press there, and some little other furniture.’ ‘And in the press?’ said I. ‘I don’t know; I never saw it opened, but I do know that it’s locked.’ ‘Well, I should have it looked into, and, if you had time, I own to having some curiosity to see the place myself.’ ‘I didn’t exactly like to ask you, but that’s rather what I hoped you’d say. Name your time and I’ll take you there.’ ‘No time like the present,’ I said at once, for I saw he would never settle down to anything while this affair was in suspense. He got up with great alacrity, and looked at me, I am tempted to think, with marked approval. ‘Come along,’ was all he said, however; and was pretty silent all the way to his house. My Mary (as he calls her in public, and I in private) was summoned, and we proceeded to the room. The Doctor had gone so far as to tell her that he had had something of a fright there last night, of what nature he had not yet divulged; but now he pointed out and described, very briefly, the incidents of his progress. When we were near the important spot, he pulled up, and allowed me to pass on. ‘There’s the room,’ he said. ‘Go in, Spearman, and tell us what you find.’ Whatever I might have felt at midnight, noonday I was sure would keep back anything sinister, and I flung the door open with an air and stepped in. It was a well-lighted room, with its large window on the right, though not, I thought, a very airy one. The principal piece of furniture was the gaunt old press of dark wood. There was, too, a four-post bedstead, a mere skeleton which could hide nothing, and there was a chest of drawers. On the window-sill and the floor near it were the dead bodies of many hundred sawflies, and one torpid one which I had some satisfaction in killing. I tried the door of the press, but could not open it: the drawers, too, were locked. Somewhere, I was conscious, there was a faint rustling sound, but I could not locate it, and when I made my report to those outside, I said nothing of it. But, I said, clearly the next thing was to see what was in those locked receptacles. Uncle Oldys turned to Mary. ‘Mrs. Maple,’ he said, and Mary ran off — no one, I am sure, steps like her — and soon came back at a soberer pace, with an elderly lady of discreet aspect.
“‘Have you the keys of these things, Mrs. Maple?’ said Uncle Oldys. His simple words let loose a torrent (not violent, but copious) of speech: had she been a shade or two higher in the social scale, Mrs. Maple might have stood as the model for Miss Bates.
“‘Oh, Doctor, and Miss, and you too, sir,’ she said, acknowledging my presence with a bend, ‘them keys! who was that again that come when first we took over things in this house — a gentleman in business it was, and I gave him his luncheon in the small parlour on account of us not having everything as we should like to see it in the large one — chicken, and apple-pie, and a glass of madeira — dear, dear, you’ll say I’m running on, Miss Mary; but I only mention it to bring back my recollection; and there it comes — Gardner, just the same as it did last week with the artichokes and the text of the sermon. Now that Mr. Gardner, every key I got from him were labelled to itself, and each and every one was a key of some door or another in this house, and sometimes two; and when I say door, my meaning is door of a room, not like such a press as this is. Yes, Miss Mary, I know full well, and I’m just making it clear to your uncle and you too, sir. But now there was a box which this same gentleman he give over into my charge, and thinking no harm after he was gone I took the liberty, knowing it was your uncle’s property, to rattle it: and unless I’m most surprisingly deceived, in that box there was keys, but what keys, that, Doctor, is known Elsewhere, for open the box, no that I would not do.’
“I wondered that Uncle Oldys remained as quiet as he did under this address. Mary, I knew, was amused by it, and he probably had been taught by experience that it was useless to break in upon it. At any rate he did not, but merely said at the end, ‘Have you that box handy, Mrs. Maple? If so, you might bring it here.’ Mrs. Maple pointed her finger at him, either in accusation or in gloomy triumph. ‘There,’ she said, ‘was I to choose out the very words out of your mouth, Doctor, them would be the ones. And if I’ve took it to my own rebuke one half-a-dozen times, it’s been nearer fifty. Laid awake I have in my bed, sat down in my chair I have, the same you and Miss Mary gave me the day I was twenty year in your service, and no person could desire a better — yes, Miss Mary, but it is the truth, and well we know who it is would have it different if he could. “All very well,” says I to myself, “but pray, when the Doctor calls you to account for that box, what are you going to say?” No, Doctor, if you was some masters I’ve heard of and I was some servants I could name, I should have an easy task before me, but things being, humanly speaking, what they are, the one course open to me is just to say to you that without Miss Mary comes to my room and helps me to my recollection, which her wits may manage what’s slipped beyond mine, no such box as that, small though it be, will cross your eyes this many a day to come.’
“‘Why, dear Mrs. Maple, why didn’t you tell me before that you wanted me to help you to find it?’ said my Mary. ‘No, never mind telling me why it was: let us come at once and look for it.’ They hastened off together. I could hear Mrs. Maple beginning an explanation which, I doubt not, lasted into the furthest recesses of the housekeeper’s department. Uncle Oldys and I were left alone. ‘A valuable servant,’ he said, nodding towards the door. ‘Nothing goes wrong under her: the speeches are seldom over three minutes.’ ‘How will Miss Oldys manage to make her remember about the box?’ I asked.
“‘Mary? Oh, she’ll make her sit down and ask her about her aunt’s last illness, or who gave her the china dog on the mantel-piece — something quite off the point. Then, as Maple says, one thing brings up another, and the right one will come round sooner than you could suppose. There! I believe I hear them coming back already.’
“It was indeed so, and Mrs. Maple was hurrying on ahead of Mary with the box in her outstretched hand, and a beaming face. ‘What was it,’ she cried as she drew near, ‘what was it as I said, before ever I come out of Dorsetshire to this place? Not that I’m a Dorset woman myself, nor had need to be. “Safe bind, safe find,” and there it was in the place where I’d put it — what?— two months back, I daresay.’ She handed it to Uncle Oldys, and he and I examined it with some interest, so that I ceased to pay attention to Mrs. Ann Maple for the moment, though I know that she went on to expound exactly where the box had been, and in what way Mary had helped to refresh her memory on the subject.
“It was an oldish box, tied with pink tape and sealed, and on the lid was pasted a label inscribed in old ink, ‘The Senior Prebendary’s House, Whitminster.’ On being opened it was found to contain two keys of moderate size, and a paper, on which, in the same hand as the label, was ‘Keys of the Press and Box of Drawers standing in the disused Chamber.’ Also this: ‘The Effects in this Press and Box are held by me, and to be held by my successors in the Residence, in trust for the noble Family of Kildonan, if claim be made by any survivor of it. I having made all the Enquiry possible to myself am of the opinion that that noble House is wholly extinct: the last Earl having been, as is notorious, cast away at sea, and his only Child and Heire deceas’d in my House (the Papers as to which melancholy Casualty were by me repos’d in the same Press in this year of our Lord 1753, 21 March). I am further of opinion that unless grave discomfort arise, such persons, not being of the Family of Kildonan, as shall become possess’d of these keys, will be well advised to leave matters as they are: which opinion I do not express without weighty and sufficient reason; and am Happy to have my Judgment confirm’d by the other Members of this College and Church who are conversant with the Events referr’d to in this Paper. Tho. Ashton, S.T.P. , Præb. senr. Will. Blake, S.T.P. , Decanus . Hen. Goodman, S.T.B. , Præb. junr. ’
“‘Ah!’ said Uncle Oldys, ‘grave discomfort! So he thought there might be something. I suspect it was that young man,’ he went on, pointing with the key to the line about the ‘only Child and Heire.’ ‘Eh, Mary? The viscounty of Kildonan was Saul.’ ‘How do you know that, Uncle?’ said Mary. ‘Oh, why not? it’s all in Debrett — two little fat books. But I meant the tomb by the lime walk. He’s there. What’s the story, I wonder? Do you know it, Mrs. Maple? and, by the way, look at your sawflies by the window there.’
“Mrs. Maple, thus confronted with two subjects at once, was a little put to it to do justice to both. It was no doubt rash in Uncle Oldys to give her the opportunity. I could only guess that he had some slight hesitation about using the key he held in his hand.
“‘Oh them flies, how bad they was, Doctor and Miss, this three or four days: and you, too, sir, you wouldn’t guess, none of you! And how they come, too! First we took the room in hand, the shutters was up, and had been, I daresay, years upon years, and not a fly to be seen. Then we got the shutter bars down with a deal of trouble and left it so for the day, and next day I sent Susan in with the broom to sweep about, and not two minutes hadn’t passed when out she come into the hall like a blind thing, and we had regular to beat them off her. Why her cap and her hair, you couldn’t see the colour of it, I do assure you, and all clustering round her eyes, too. Fortunate enough she’s not a girl with fancies, else if it had been me, why only the tickling of the nasty things would have drove me out of my wits. And now there they lay like so many dead things. Well, they was lively enough on the Monday, and now here’s Thursday, is it, or no, Friday. Only to come near the door and you’d hear them pattering up against it, and once you opened it, dash at you, they would, as if they’d eat you. I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “If you was bats, where should we be this night?” Nor you can’t cresh ’em, not like a usual kind of a fly. Well, there’s something to be thankful for, if we could but learn by it. And then this tomb, too,’ she said, hastening on to her second point to elude any chance of interruption, ‘of them two poor young lads. I say poor, and yet when I recollect myself, I was at tea with Mrs. Simpkins, the sexton’s wife, before you come, Doctor and Miss Mary, and that’s a family has been in the place, what? I daresay a hundred years in that very house, and could put their hand on any tomb or yet grave in all the yard and give you name and age. And his account of that young man, Mr. Simpkins’s I mean to say — well !’ She compressed her lips and nodded several times. ‘Tell us, Mrs. Maple,’ said Mary. ‘Go on,’ said Uncle Oldys. ‘What about him?’ said I. ‘Never was such a thing seen in this place, not since Queen Mary’s times and the Pope and all,’ said Mrs. Maple. ‘Why, do you know he lived in this very house, him and them that was with him, and for all I can tell in this identical room’ (she shifted her feet uneasily on the floor). ‘Who was with him? Do you mean the people of the house?’ said Uncle Oldys suspiciously. ‘Not to call people, Doctor, dear no,’ was the answer; ‘more what he brought with him from Ireland, I believe it was. No, the people in the house was the last to hear anything of his goings-on. But in the town not a family but knew how he stopped out at night: and them that was with him, why they were such as would strip the skin from the child in its grave; and a withered heart makes an ugly thin ghost, says Mr. Simpkins. But they turned on him at the last, he says, and there’s the mark still to be seen on the minster door where they run him down. And that’s no more than the truth, for I got him to show it to myself, and that’s what he said. A lord he was, with a Bible name of a wicked king, whatever his godfathers could have been thinking of.’ ‘Saul was the name,’ said Uncle Oldys. ‘To be sure it was Saul, Doctor, and thank you; and now isn’t it King Saul that we read of raising up the dead ghost that was slumbering in its tomb till he disturbed it, and isn’t that a strange thing, this young lord to have such a name, and Mr. Simpkins’s grandfather to see him out of his window of a dark night going about from one grave to another in the yard with a candle, and them that was with him following through the grass at his heels: and one night him to come right up to old Mr. Simpkins’s window that gives on the yard and press his face up against it to find out if there was any one in the room that could see him: and only just time there was for old Mr. Simpkins to drop down like, quiet, just under the window and hold his breath, and not stir till he heard him stepping away again, and this rustling-like in the grass after him as he went, and then when he looked out of his window in the morning there was treadings in the grass and a dead man’s bone. Oh, he was a cruel child for certain, but he had to pay in the end, and after.’ ‘After?’ said Uncle Oldys, with a frown. ‘Oh yes, Doctor, night after night in old Mr. Simpkins’s time, and his son, that’s our Mr. Simpkins’s father, yes, and our own Mr. Simpkins too. Up against that same window, particular when they’ve had a fire of a chilly evening, with his face right on the panes, and his hands fluttering out, and his mouth open and shut, open and shut, for a minute or more, and then gone off in the dark yard. But open the window at such times, no, that they dare not do, though they could find it in their heart to pity the poor thing, that pinched up with the cold, and seemingly fading away to a nothink as the years passed on. Well, indeed, I believe it is no more than the truth what our Mr. Simpkins says on his own grandfather’s word, “A withered heart makes an ugly thin ghost.”’ ‘I daresay,’ said Uncle Oldys suddenly: so suddenly that Mrs. Maple stopped short. ‘Thank you. Come away, all of you.’ ‘Why, Uncle,’ said Mary, ‘are you not going to open the press after all?’ Uncle Oldys blushed, actually blushed. ‘My dear,’ he said, ‘you are at liberty to call me a coward, or applaud me as a prudent man, whichever you please. But I am neither going to open that press nor that chest of drawers myself, nor am I going to hand over the keys to you or to any other person. Mrs. Maple, will you kindly see about getting a man or two to move those pieces of furniture into the garret?’ ‘And when they do it, Mrs. Maple,’ said Mary, who seemed to me — I did not then know why — more relieved than disappointed by her uncle’s decision, ‘I have something that I want put with the rest; only quite a small packet.’
“We left that curious room not unwillingly, I think. Uncle Oldys’s orders were carried out that same day. And so,” concludes Mr. Spearman, “Whitminster has a Bluebeard’s chamber, and, I am rather inclined to suspect, a Jack-in-the-box, awaiting some future occupant of the residence of the senior prebendary.”
Montague Rhodes James (1862 — 1936)