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 Rose Garden
(Information and Summary)
The Rose Garden was included in M. R. James’ anthology More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.
It a short story about a married couple who decide to demolish the old summerhouse in their garden and replace it with a bed of roses. The summerhouse has been there for a very long time and hides an old and sinister secret.
The Rose Garden by M.R. James
Mr and Mrs Anstruther were at breakfast in the parlour of Westfield Hall, In the county of Essex. They were arranging plans for the day.
‘George,’ said Mrs Anstruther, ‘I think you had better take the car to Maldon and see if you can get any of those knitted things I was speaking about which would do for my stall at the bazaar.’
‘Oh well, if you wish it, Mary, of course I can do that, but I had half arranged to play a round with Geoffrey Williamson this morning. The bazaar isn’t till Thursday of next week, is it?’
‘What has that to do with it, George? I should have thought you would have guessed that if I can’t get the things I want in Maldon I shall have to write to all manner of shops in town: and they are certain to send something quite unsuitable in price or quality the first time. If you have actually made an appointment with Mr Williamson, you had better keep it, but I must say I think you might have let me know.’
‘Oh no, no, it wasn’t really an appointment. I quite see what you mean. I’ll go. And what shall you do yourself?’
‘Why, when the work of the house is arranged for, I must see about laying out my new rose garden. By the way, before you start for Maldon I wish you would just take Collins to look at the place I fixed upon. You know it, of course.’
‘Well, I’m not quite sure that I do, Mary. Is it at the upper end, toward. the village?’
‘Good gracious no, my dear George; I thought I had made that quite clear. No, it’s that small clearing just off the shrubbery path that goes towards the church.’
‘Oh yes, where we were saying there must have been a summer-house once: the place with the old seat and the posts. But do you think there’s enough sun there?’
‘My dear George, do allow me some common sense, and don’t credit me with all your ideas about summer-houses. Yes, there will be plenty of sun when we have got rid of some of those box-bushes. I know what you are going to say, and I have as little wish as you to strip the place bare. All I want Collins to do is to clear away the old seats and the posts and things before I come out in an hour’s time. And I hope you will manage to get off fairly soon. After luncheon I think I shall go on with my sketch of the church; and if you please you can go over to the links, or –‘
‘Ah, a good idea — very good! Yes, you finish that sketch, Mary, and I should be glad of a round.’
‘I was going to say, you might call on the Bishop; but I suppose it is no use my making any suggestion. And now do be getting ready, or half the morning will be gone.’
Mr Anstruther’s face, which had shown symptoms of lengthening, shortened itself again, and he hurried from the room, and was soon heard giving orders in the passage. Mrs Anstruther, a stately dame of some fifty summers, proceeded, after a second consideration of the morning’s letters, to her housekeeping.
Within a few minutes Mr Anstruther had discovered Collins in the green-house, and they were on their way to the site of the projected rose garden. I do not know much about the conditions most suitable to these nurseries, but I am inclined to believe that Mrs Anstruther, though in the habit of describing herself as ‘a great gardener’, had not been well advised in the selection of a spot for the purpose. It was a small, dank clearing, bounded on one side by a path, and on the other by thick box-bushes, laurels, and other ever-greens. The ground was almost bare of grass and dark of aspect. Remains of rustic seats and an old and corrugated oak post somewhere near the middle of the clearing had given rise to Mr Anstruther’s conjecture that a summer-house had once stood there.
Clearly Collins had not been put in possession of his mistress’s intentions with regard to this plot of ground: and when he learnt them from Mr Anstruther he displayed no enthusiasm.
‘Of course I could clear them seats away soon enough,’ he said. ‘They aren’t no ornament to the place, Mr Anstruther, and rotten too. Look ‘ere, sir’ — and he broke off a large piece — ‘rotten right through. Yes, clear them away, to be sure we can do that.’
‘And the post,’ said Mr Anstruther, ‘that’s got to go too.’
Collins advanced, and shook the post with both hands: then he rubbed his chin.
‘That’s firm in the ground, that post is,’ he said. ‘That’s been there a number of years, Mr Anstruther. I doubt I shan’t get that up not quite so soon as what I ran do with them seats.
‘But your mistress specially wishes it to be got out of the way in an hour’s time,’ said Mr Anstruther.
Collins smiled and shook his head slowly. ‘You’ll excuse me, sir, but you feel of it for yourself. No, sir, no one can’t do what’s impossible to ’em, can they, sir? I could git that post up by after tea-time, sir, but that’ll want a lot of digging. What you require, you see, sir, if you’ll excuse me naming of it, you want the soil loosening round this post ‘ere, and me and the boy we shall take a little time doing of that. But now, these ‘ere seats,’ said Collins, appearing to appropriate this portion of the scheme as due to his own resourcefulness, ‘why, I can get the barrer round and ‘ave them cleared away in, why less than an hour’s time from now, if you’ll permit of it. Only –‘
‘Only what, Collins?’
‘Well now, it ain’t for me to go against orders no more than what it is for you yourself — or anyone else’ (this was added somewhat hurriedly), ‘but if you’ll pardon me, sir, this ain’t the place I should have picked out for no rose garden myself Why look at them box and laurestinus, ‘ow they reg’lar preclude the light from –‘
‘Ah yes, but we’ve got to get rid of some of them, of course.’
‘Oh, indeed, get rid of them! Yes, to be sure, but — I beg your pardon, Mr Anstruther –‘
‘I’m sorry, Collins, but I must be getting on now. I hear the car at the door. Your mistress will explain exactly what she wishes. I’ll tell her, then, that you can see your way to clearing away the seats at once, and the post this afternoon. Good morning.’
Collins was left rubbing his chin. Mrs Anstruther received the report with some discontent, but did not insist upon any change of plan.
By four o’clock that afternoon she had dismissed her husband to his golf had dealt faithfully with Collins and with the other duties of the day, and, having sent a campstool and umbrella to the proper spot, had just settled down to her sketch of the church as seen from the shrubbery, when a maid came hurrying down the path to report that Miss Wilkins had called.
Miss Wilkins was one of the few remaining members of the family from whom the Anstruthers had bought the Westfield estate some few years back. She had been staying in the neighbourhood, and this was probably a farewell visit. ‘Perhaps you could ask Miss Wilkins to join me here,’ said Mrs Anstruther, and soon Miss Wilkins, a person of mature years, approached.
‘Yes, I’m leaving the Ashes tomorrow, and I shall be able to tell my brother how tremendously you have improved the place. Of course he can’t help regretting the old house just a little — as I do myself — but the garden is really delightful now.’
‘I am so glad you can say so. But you mustn’t think we’ve finished our improvements. Let me show you where I mean to put a rose garden. It’s close by here.’
The details of the project were laid before Miss Wilkins at some length; but her thoughts were evidently elsewhere.
‘Yes, delightful,’ she said at last rather absently. ‘But do you know, Mrs Anstruther, I’m afraid I was thinking of old times. I’m very glad to have seen just this spot again before you altered it. Frank and I had quite a romance about this place.’
‘Yes?’ said Mrs Anstruther smilingly; ‘do tell me what it was. Something quaint and charming, I’m sure.’
‘Not so very charming, but it has always seemed to me curious. Neither of us would ever be here alone when we were children, and I’m not sure that I should care about it now in certain moods. It is one of those things that can hardly be put into words — by me at least — and that sound rather foolish if they are not properly expressed. I can tell you after a fashion what it was that gave us — well, almost a horror of the place when we were alone. It was towards the evening of one very hot autumn day, when Frank had disappeared mysteriously about the grounds, and I was looking for him to fetch him to tea, and going down this path I suddenly saw him, not hiding in the bushes, as I rather expected, but sitting on the bench in the old summer-house — there was a wooden summer-house here, you know — up in the corner, asleep, but with such a dreadful look on his face that I really thought he must be ill or even dead. I rushed at him and shook him, and told him to wake up; and wake up he did, with a scream. I assure you the poor boy seemed almost beside himself with fright. He hurried me away to the house, and was in a terrible state all that night, hardly sleeping. Someone had to sit up with him, as far as I remember. He was better very soon, hut for days I couldn’t get him to say why he had been in such a condition. It came out at last that he had really been asleep and had had a very odd disjointed sort of dream. He never saw much of what was around him, but he felt the scenes most vividly. First he made out that he was standing in a large room with a number of people in it, and that someone was opposite to him who was “very powerful”, and he was being asked questions which he felt to be very important, and, whenever he answered them, someone — either the person opposite to him; or someone else in the room — seemed to be, as he said, making something up against him. All the voices sounded to him very distant, but he remembered bits of the things that were said: “Where were you on the 19th of October?” and “Is this your handwriting?” and so on. I can see now, of course, that he was dreaming of some trial: but we were never allowed to see the papers, and it was odd that a boy of eight should have such a vivid idea of what went on in a court. All the time he felt, he said, the most intense anxiety and oppression and hopelessness (though I don’t suppose he used such words as that tome). Then, after that, there was an interval in which he remembered being dreadfully restless and miserable, and then there came another sort of picture, when he was aware that he had come out of doors on a dark raw morning with a little snow about. It was in a street, or at any rate among houses, and he felt that there were numbers and numbers of people there too, and that he was taken up some creaking wooden steps and stood on a sort of platform, but the only thing he could actually see was a small fire burning somewhere near him. Someone who had been holding his arm left hold of it and went towards this fire, and then he said the fright he was in was worse than at any other part of his dream, and if I had not wakened him up he didn’t know what would have become of him. A curious dream for a child to have, wasn’t it? Well, so much for that. It must have been later in the year that Frank and I were here, and I was sitting in the arbour just about sunset. I noticed the sun was going down, and told Frank to run in and see if tea was ready while I finished a chapter in the book I was reading. Frank was away longer than I expected, and the light was going so fast that I had to bend over my book to make it out. All at once I became conscious that someone was whispering to me inside the arbour. The only words I could distinguish, or thought I could, were something like “Pull, pull. I’ll push, you pull.”
‘I started up in something of a fright. The voice — it was little more than a whisper — sounded so hoarse and angry, and yet as if it came from a long, long way off — just as it had done in Frank’s dream. But, though I was startled, I had enough courage to look round and try to make out where the sound came from. And — this sounds very foolish, I know, but still it is the fact — I made sure that it was strongest when I put my ear to an old post which was part of the end of the seat. I was so certain of this that I remember making some marks on the post — as deep as I could with the scissors out of my work-basket. I don’t know why. I wonder, by the way, whether that isn’t the very post itself . . . Well, yes, it might be: there are marks and scratches on it — but one can’t be sure. Anyhow, it was just like that post you have there. My father got to know that both of us had had a fright in the arbour, and he went down there himself one evening after dinner, and the arbour was pulled down at very short notice. I recollect hearing my father talking about it to an old man who used to do odd jobs in the place, and the old man saying, “Don’t you fear for that, sir: he’s fast enough in there without no one don’t take and let him out.” But when I asked who it was, I could get no satisfactory answer. Possibly my father or mother might have told me more about it when I grew up, but, as you know, they both died when we were still quite children. I must say it has always seemed very odd to me, and I’ve often asked the older people in the village whether they knew of anything strange: but either they knew nothing or they wouldn’t tell me. Dear, dear, how I have been boring you with my childish remembrances! but indeed that arbour did absorb our thoughts quite remarkably for a time. You can fancy, can’t you, the kind of stories that we made up for ourselves. Well, dear Mrs Anstruther, I must be leaving you now. We shall meet in town this winter, I hope, shan’t we?’ etc., etc.
The seats and the post were cleared away and uprooted respectively by that evening. Late summer weather is proverbially treacherous, and during dinner-time Mrs Collins sent up to ask for a little brandy, because her husband had took a nasty chill and she was afraid he would not be able to do much next day.
Mrs Anstruther’s morning reflections were not wholly placid. She was sure some roughs had got into the plantation during the night. ‘And another thing, George: the moment that Collins is about again, you must tell him to do something about the owls. I never heard anything like them, and I’m positive one came and perched somewhere just outside our window. If it had come in I should have been out of my wits: it must have been a very large bird, from its voice. Didn’t you hear it? No, of course not, you were sound asleep as usual. Still, I must say, George, you don’t look as if your night had done you much good.’
‘My dear, I feel as if another of the same would turn me silly. You have no idea of the dreams I had. I couldn’t speak of them when I woke up, and if this room wasn’t so bright and sunny I shouldn’t care to think of them even now.’
‘Well, really, George, that isn’t very common with you, I must say. You must have — no, you only had what I had yesterday — unless you had tea at that wretched club house: did you?’
‘No, no; nothing but a cup of tea and some bread and butter. I should really like to know how I came to put my dream together — as I suppose one does put one’s dreams together from a lot of little things one has been seeing or reading. Look here, Mary, it was like this — if I shan’t be boring you-‘
‘I wish to hear what it was, George. I will tell you when I have had enough.’
‘All right. I must tell you that it wasn’t like other nightmares in one way, because I didn’t really see anyone who spoke to me or touched me, and yet I was most fearfully impressed with the reality of it all. First I was sitting, no, moving about, in an old-fashioned sort of panelled room. I remember there was a fireplace and a lot of burnt papers in it, and I was in a great state of anxiety about something. There was someone else — a servant, I suppose, because I remember saying to him, “Horses, as quick as you can,” and then waiting a bit: and next I heard several people coming upstairs and a noise like spurs on a boarded floor, and then the door opened and whatever it was that I was expecting happened.’
‘Yes, but what was that?’
‘You see, I couldn’t tell: it was the sort of shock that upsets you in a dream. You either wake up or else everything goes black. That was what happened to me. Then I was in a big dark-walled room, panelled, I think, like the other, and a number of people, and I was evidently –‘
‘Standing your trial, I suppose, George.’
‘Goodness! yes, Mary, I was; but did you dream that too? How very odd!’
‘No, no; I didn’t get enough sleep for that. Go on, George, and I will tell you afterwards.’
‘Yes; well, I was being tried, for my life, I’ve no doubt, from the state I was in. I had no one speaking for me, and somewhere there was a most fearful fellow on the bench, I should have said, only that he seemed to be pitching into me most unfairly, and twisting everything I said, and asking most abominable questions.’
‘Why, dates when I was at particular places, and letters I was supposed to have written, and why I had destroyed some papers; and I recollect his laughing at answers I made in a way that quite daunted me. It doesn’t sound much, but I can tell you, Mary, it was really appalling at the time. I am quite certain there was such a man once, and a most horrible villain he must have been. The things he said –‘
‘Thank you, I have no wish to hear them. I can go to the links any day myself. How did it end?’
‘Oh, against me; he saw to that. I do wish, Mary, I could give you a notion of the strain that came after that, and seemed to me to last for days: waiting and waiting, and sometimes writing things I knew to be enormously important to me, and waiting for answers and none coming, and after that I came out –‘
‘What makes you say that? Do you know what sort of thing I saw?’
‘Was it a dark cold day, and snow in the streets, and a fire burning somewhere near you?’
‘By George, it was! You have had the same nightmare! Really not? Well, it is the oddest thing! Yes; I’ve no doubt it was an execution for high treason. I know I was laid on straw and jolted along most wretchedly, and then had to go up some steps, and someone was holding my arm, and I remember seeing a bit of a ladder and hearing a sound of a lot of people. I really don’t think I could bear now to go into a crowd of people and hear the noise they make talking. However, mercifully, I didn’t get to the real business. The dream passed off with a sort of thunder inside my head. But, Mary –‘
‘I know what you are going to ask. I suppose this is an instance of a kind of thought-reading. Miss Wilkins called yesterday and told me of a dream her brother had as a child when they lived here, and something did no doubt make me think of that when I was awake last night listening to those horrible owls and those men talking and laughing in the shrubbery (by the way, I wish you would see if they have done any damage, and speak to the police about it); and so, I suppose, from my brain it must have got into yours while you were asleep. Curious, no doubt, and I am sorry it gave you such a bad night. You had better be as much in the fresh air as you can today.’
‘Oh, it’s all right now; but I think I will go over to the Lodge and see if I can get a game with any of them. And you?’
‘I have enough to do for this morning; and this afternoon, if I am interrupted, there is my drawing.’
‘To be sure — I want to see that finished very much.’
No damage was discoverable in the shrubbery. Mr Anstruther surveyed with faint interest the site of the rose garden, where the uprooted post still lay, and the hole it had occupied remained unfilled. Collins, upon inquiry made, proved to be better, hut quite unable to come to his work. He expressed, by the mouth of his wife, a hope that he hadn’t done nothing wrong clearing away them things. Mrs Collins added that there was a lot of talking people in Westfield, and the hold ones was the worst: seemed to think everything of them having been in the parish longer than what other people had. But as to what they said no more could then be ascertained than that it had quite upset Collins, and was a lot of nonsense.
Recruited by lunch and a brief period of slumber, Mrs Anstruther settled herself comfortably upon her sketching chair in the path leading through the shrubbery to the side-gate of the churchyard. Trees and buildings were among her favourite subjects, and here she had good studies of both. She worked hard, and the drawing was becoming a really pleasant thing to look upon by the time that the wooded hills to the west had shut off the sun. Still she would have persevered, but the light changed rapidly, and it became obvious that the last touches must be added on the morrow. She rose and turned towards the house, pausing for a time to take delight in the limpid green western sky. Then she passed on between the dark box-bushes, and, at a point just before the path debouched on the lawn, she stopped once again and considered the quiet evening landscape, and made a mental note that that must be the tower of one of the Roothing churches that one caught on the sky-line. Then a bird (perhaps) rustled in the box- bush on her left, and she turned and started at seeing what at first she took to be a Fifth of November mask peeping out among the branches. She looked closer. It was not a mask. It was a face — large, smooth, and pink. She remembers the minute drops of perspiration which were starting from its forehead: she remembers how the jaws were clean- shaven and the eyes shut. She remembers also, and with an accuracy which makes the thought intolerable to her, how the mouth was open and a single tooth appeared below the upper lip. As she looked the face receded into the darkness of the bush. The shelter of the house was gained and the door shut before she collapsed.
Mr and Mrs Anstruther had been for a week or more recruiting at Brighton before they received a circular from the Essex Archaeological Society, and a query as to whether they possessed certain historical portraits which it was desired to include in the forthcoming work on Essex Portraits, to be published under the Society’s auspices. There was an accompanying letter from the Secretary which contained the following passage: ‘We are specially anxious to know whether you possess the original of the engraving of which I enclose a photograph. It represents Sir —- , Lord Chief Justice under Charles II, who, as you doubtless know, retired after his disgrace to Westfield, and is supposed to have died there of remorse. It may interest you to hear that a curious entry has recently been found in the registers, not of Westfield but of Priors Roothing, to the effect that the parish was so much troubled after his death that the rector of Westfield summoned the parsons of all the Roothings to come and lay him; which they did. The entry ends by saying: “The stake is in a field adjoining to the churchyard of Westfield, on the west side.” Perhaps you can let us know if any tradition to this effect is current in your parish.’
The incidents which the ‘enclosed photograph’ recalled were productive of a severe shock to Mrs Anstruther. It was decided that she must spend the winter abroad.
Mr Anstruther, when he went down to Westfield to make the necessary arrangements, not unnaturally told his story to the rector (an old gentle man), who showed little surprise.
‘Really I had managed to piece out for myself very much what must have happened, partly from old people’s talk and partly from what I saw in your grounds. Of course we have suffered to some extent also. Yes, it was bad at first: like owls, as you say, and men talking sometimes. One night it was in this garden, and at other times about several of the cottages. But lately there has been very little: I think it will die out. There is nothing in our registers except the entry of the burial, and what I for a long time took to be the family motto; but last time I looked at it I noticed that it was added in a later hand and had the initials of one of our rectors quite late in the seventeenth century, A. C. — Augustine Crompton. Here it is, you see — quieta non movere. I suppose — Well, it is rather hard to say exactly what I do suppose.’
Montague Rhodes James (1862 — 1936)