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.
About A View from a Hill
“A View from a Hill” was first published in The London Mercury (May 1925).
It’s the story of an British academic called Fanshaw who visits the country estate of his friend Squire Richards.
While the two men are out walking, Fanshaw borrows the Squire’s binoculars and used them to enjoy the view from the top of a hill
The binoculars are one-of-a-kind. They were built by the local watch-maker, who is long dead and they show Fanshaw things that are no longer there.
A View from a Hill was adapated by the BBC and used as part of its popular yearly TV series A Ghost Story for Christmas.
A View from a Hill by M.R. James (Online Text)
How pleasant it can be, alone in a first-class railway carriage, on the first day of a holiday that is to be fairly long, to dawdle through a bit of English country that is unfamiliar, stopping at every station. You have a map open on your knee, and you pick out the villages that lie to right and left by their church towers. You marvel at the complete stillness that attends your stoppage at the stations, broken only by a footstep crunching the gravel. Yet perhaps that is best experienced after sundown, and the traveler I have in mind was making his leisurely progress on a sunny afternoon in the latter half of June.
He was in the depths of the country. I need not particularise further than to say that if you divided the map of England into four quarters, he would have been found in the south-western of them.
He was a man of academic pursuits, and his term was just over. He was on his way to meet a new friend, older than himself. The two of them had met first on an official inquiry in town, had found that they had many tastes and habits in common, liked each other, and the result was an invitation from Squire Richards to Mr. Fanshawe which was now taking effect.
The journey ended about five o’clock. Fanshawe was told by a cheerful country porter that the car from the Hall had been up to the station and left a message that something had to be fetched from half a mile farther on, and would the gentleman please to wait a few minutes till it came back? ‘But I see,’ continued the porter, ‘as you’ve got your bystile, and very like you’d find it pleasanter to ride up to the ‘all yourself. Straight up the road ‘ere, and then first turn to the left—it ain’t above two mile—and I’ll see as your things is put in the car for
you’ll excuse me mentioning it, only I though it were a nice evening for a ride. Yes, sir, very seasonable weather for the haymakers: let me see, I have your bike ticket. Thank you, sir; much obliged: you can’t miss your road, etc., etc.’
The two miles to the Hall were just what was needed, after the day in the train, to dispel somnolence and impart a wish for tea. The Hall, when sighted, also promised just what was needed in the way of a quiet resting-place after days of sitting on committees and college-meetings. It was neither excitingly old nor depressingly new. Plastered walls, sash-windows, old trees, smooth lawns, were the features which Fanshawe noticed as he came up the drive. Squire Richards, a burly man of sixty odd, was awaiting him in the porch with evident pleasure ‘Tea first,’ he said, ‘or would you like a longer drink? No? All right, tea’s ready in the garden. Come along, they’ll put your machine away. I always have tea under the lime-tree by the stream on a day like this.’ Nor could you ask for a better place. Midsummer afternoon, shade and scent of a vast lime-tree, cool, swirling water within five yards. It was long before either of them suggested a move. But about six, Mr. Richards sat up, knocked out his pipe, and said: ‘Look here, it’s cool enough now to think of a stroll, if you’re inclined? All right: then what I suggest is that we walk up the park and get on to the hill-side, where we can look over the country. We’ll have a map, and I’ll show you where things are; and you can go off on your machine, or we can take the car, according as you want exercise or not. If you’re ready, we can start now and be back well before eight, taking it very easy.’
‘I’m ready. I should like my stick, though, and have you got any field-glasses? I lent mine to a man a week ago, and he’s gone off Lord knows where and taken them with him.’
Mr. Richards pondered. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I have, but they’re not things I use myself, and I don’t know whether the ones I have will suit you. They’re old-fashioned, and about twice as heavy as they make ‘em now. You’re welcome to have them, but I won’t carry them. By the way, what do you want to drink after dinner?’
Protestations that anything would do were overruled, and a satisfactory settlement was reached on the way to the front hall, where Mr. Fanshawe found his stick, and Mr. Richards, after thoughtful pinching of his lower lip, resorted to a drawer in the hall-table, extracted a key, crossed to a cupboard in the panelling, opened it, took a box from the shelf, and put it on the table. ‘The glasses are in there,’ he said, ‘and there’s some dodge of opening it, but I’ve forgotten what it is. You try.’ Mr. Fanshawe accordingly tried. There was no keyhole, and the box was solid, heavy and smooth: it seemed obvious that some part of it would have to be pressed before anything could happen. ‘The corners,’ said he to himself, ‘are the likely places; and infernally sharp corners they are too,’ he added, as he put his thumb in his mouth after exerting force on a lower corner.
‘What’s the matter?’ said the Squire.
‘Why, your disgusting Borgia box has scratched me, drat it,’ said Fanshawe.
The Squire chuckled unfeelingly. ‘Well, you’ve got it open, anyway,’ he said.
‘So I have! Well, I don’t begrudge a drop of blood in a good cause, and here are the glasses. They are pretty heavy, as you said, but I think I’m equal to carrying them.’
‘Ready?’ said the Squire. ‘Come on then; we go out by the garden.’
So they did, and passed out into the park, which sloped decidedly upwards to the hill which, as Fanshawe had seen from the train, dominated the country. It was a spur of a larger range that lay behind. On the way, the Squire, who was great on earthworks, pointed out various spots where he detected or imagined traces of war-ditches and the like. ‘And here,’ he said, stopping on a more or less level plot with a ring of large trees, ‘is Baxter’s Roman villa.’
‘Baxter?’ said Mr. Fanshawe.
‘I forgot; you don’t know about him. He was the old chap I got those glasses from. I believe he made them. He was an old watch-maker down in the village, a great antiquary. My father gave him leave to grub about where he liked; and when he made a find he used to lend him a man or two to help him with the digging. He got a surprising lot of things together, and when he died—I dare say it’s ten or fifteen years ago—I bought the whole lot and gave them to the town museum. We’ll run in one of these days, and look over them. The glasses came to me with the rest, but of course I kept them. If you look at them, you’ll see they’re more or less amateur work—the body of them; naturally the lenses weren’t his making.’
‘Yes, I see they are just the sort of thing that a clever workman in a different line of business might turn out. But I don’t see why he made them so heavy. And did Baxter actually find a Roman villa here?’
‘Yes, there’s a pavement turfed over, where we’re standing: it was too rough and plain to be worth taking up, but of course there are drawings of it: and the small things and pottery that turned up were quite good of their kind. An ingenious chap, old Baxter: he seemed to have a quite out-of-the-way instinct for these things. He was invaluable to our archæologists. He used to shut up his shop for days at a time, and wander off over the district, marking down places, where he scented anything, on the ordnance map; and he kept a book with fuller notes of the places. Since his death, a good many of them have been sampled, and there’s always been something to justify him.’
‘What a good man!’ said Mr. Fanshawe.
‘Good?’ said the Squire, pulling up brusquely.
‘I meant useful to have about the place,’ said Mr. Fanshawe. ‘But was he a villain?’
‘I don’t know about that either,’ said the Squire; ‘but all I can say is, if he was good, he wasn’t lucky. And he wasn’t liked: I didn’t like him,’ he added, after a moment.
‘Oh?’ said Fanshawe interrogatively.
‘No, I didn’t; but that’s enough about Baxter: besides, this is the stiffest bit, and I don’t want to talk and walk as well.’
Indeed it was hot, climbing a slippery grass slope that evening. ‘I told you I should take you the short way,’ panted the Squire, ‘and I wish I hadn’t. However, a bath won’t do us any harm when we get back. Here we are, and there’s the seat.’
A small clump of old Scotch firs crowned the top of the hill; and, at the edge of it, commanding the cream of the view, was a wide and solid seat, on which the two disposed themselves, and wiped their brows, and regained breath.
‘Now, then,’ said the Squire, as soon as he was in a condition to talk connectedly, ‘this is where your glasses come in. But you’d better take a general look round first. My word! I’ve never seen the view look better.’
Writing as I am now with a winter wind flapping against dark windows and a rushing, tumbling sea within a hundred yards, I find it hard to summon up the feelings and words which will put my reader in possession of the June evening and the lovely English landscape of which the Squire was speaking.
Across a broad level plain they looked upon ranges of great hills, whose uplands—some green, some furred with woods—caught the light of a sun, westering but not yet low. And all the plain was fertile, though the river which traversed it was nowhere seen. ‘There were copses, green wheat, hedges and pasture-land: the little compact white moving cloud marked the evening train. Then the eye picked out red farms and grey houses, and nearer home scattered cottages, and then the Hall, nestled under the hill. The smoke of chimneys was very blue and straight. There was a smell of hay in the air: there were wild roses on bushes hard by. It was the acme of summer.
After some minutes of silent contemplation, the Squire began to point out the leading features, the hills and valleys, and told where the towns and villages lay. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘with the glasses you’ll be able to pick out Fulnaker Abbey. Take a line across that big green field, then over the wood beyond it, then over the farm on the knoll.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Fanshawe. ‘I’ve got it. What a fine tower!’
‘You must have got the wrong direction,’ said the Squire; ‘there’s not much of a tower about there that I remember, unless it’s Oldbourne Church that you’ve got hold of. And if you call that a fine tower, you’re easily pleased.’
‘Well, I do call it a fine tower,’ said Fanshawe, the glasses still at his eyes, ‘whether it’s Oldbourne or any other. And it must belong to a largish church; it looks to me like a central tower—four big pinnacles a the corners, and four smaller ones between. I must certainly go over there. How far is it?’
‘Oldbourne’s about nine miles, or less,’ said the Squire. ‘It’s a long time since I’ve been there, but I don’t remember thinking much of it. Now I’ll show you another thing.’
Fanshawe had lowered the glasses, and was still gazing in the Oldbourne direction. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I can’t make out anything with the naked eye. What was it you were going to show me?’
‘A good deal more to the left—it oughtn’t to be difficult to find. Do you see a rather sudden knob of a hill with a thick wood on top of it? It’s in a dead line with that single tree on the top of the big ridge.’
‘I do,’ said Fanshawe, ‘and I believe I could tell you without much difficulty what it’s called.’
‘Could you now?’ said the Squire. ‘Say on.’
‘Why, Gallows Hill,’ was the answer.
‘How did you guess that?’
‘Well, if you don’t want it guessed, you shouldn’t put up a dummy gibbet and a man hanging on it.’
‘What’s that?’ said the Squire abruptly. ‘There’s nothing on that hill but wood.’
‘On the contrary,’ said Fanshawe, ‘there’s a largish expanse of grass on the top and your dummy gibbet in the middle; and I thought there was something on it when I looked first. But I see there’s nothing—or is there? I can’t be sure.’
‘Nonsense, nonsense, Fanshawe, there’s no such thing as a dummy gibbet, or any other sort, on that hill. And it’s thick wood—a fairly young plantation. I was in it myself not a year ago. Hand me the glasses, though I don’t suppose I can see anything.’ After a pause: ‘No, I thought not: they won’t show a thing.’
Meanwhile Fanshawe was scanning the hill—it might be only two or three miles away. ‘Well, it’s very odd,’ he said, ‘it does look exactly like a wood without the glass.’ He took it again. ‘That is one of the oddest effects. The gibbet is perfectly plain, and the grass field, and there even seem to be people on it, and carts, or a cart, with men in it. And yet when I take the glass away, there’s nothing. It must be something in the way this afternoon light falls: I shall come up earlier in the day when the sun’s full on it.’
‘Did you say you saw people and a cart on that hill?’ said the Squire incredulously. ‘What should they be doing there at this time of day, even if the trees have been felled? Do talk sense—look again.’
‘Well, I certainly thought I saw them. Yes, I should say there were a few, just clearing off. And now—by Jove, it does look like something hanging on the gibbet. But these glasses are so beastly heavy I can’t hold them steady for long. Anyhow, you can take it from me there’s no wood. And if you’ll show me the road on the map, I’ll go there tomorrow.’
The Squire remained brooding for some little time. At last he rose and said, ‘Well, I suppose that will be the best way to settle it. And now we’d better be getting back. Bath and dinner is my idea.’ And on the way back he was not very communicative.
They returned through the garden, and went into the front hall to leave sticks, etc., in their due place. And here they found the aged butler Patten evidently in a state of some anxiety. ‘Beg pardon, Master Henry,’ he began at once, ‘but someone’s been up to mischief here, I’m much afraid.’ He pointed to the open box which had contained the glasses.
‘Nothing worse than that, Patten?’ said the Squire. ‘Mayn’t I take out my own glasses and lend them to a friend? Bought with my own money, you recollect? At old Baxter’s sale, eh?’
Patten bowed, unconvinced. ‘Oh, very well, Master Henry, as long as you know who it was. Only I thought proper to name it, for I didn’t think that box’d been off its shelf since you first put it there; and, if you’ll excuse me, after what happened … ’ The voice was lowered, and the rest was not audible to Fanshawe. The Squire replied with a few words and a gruff laugh, and called on Fanshawe to come and be shown his room. And I do not think that anything else happened that night which bears on my story.
Except, perhaps, the sensation which invaded Fanshawe in the small hours that something had been let out which ought not to have been let out. It came into his dreams. He was walking in a garden which he seemed half to know, and stopped in front of a rockery made of old wrought stones, pieces of window tracery from a church, and even bits of figures. One of these moved his curiosity: it seemed to be a sculptured capital with scenes carved on it. He felt he must pull it out, and worked away, and, with an ease that surprised him, moved the stones that obscured it aside, and pulled out the block. As he did so, a tin label fell down by his feet with a little clatter. He picked it up and read on it: ‘On no account move this stone. Yours sincerely, J. Patten.’ As often happens in dreams, he felt that this injunction was of extreme importance; and with an anxiety that amounted to anguish he looked to see if the stone had really been shifted. Indeed it had; in fact, he could not see it anywhere. The removal had disclosed the mouth of a burrow, and he bent down to look into it. Something stirred in the blackness, and then, to his intense horror, a hand emerged—a clean right hand in a neat cull and coat-sleeve, just in the attitude of a hand that means to shake yours. He wondered whether it would not be rude to let it alone. But, as he looked at it, it began to grow hairy and dirty and thin, and also to change its pose and stretch out as if to take hold of his leg. At that he dropped all thought of politeness, decided to run, screamed and woke himself up.
This was the dream he remembered; but it seemed to him (as, again, it often does) that there had been others of the same import before, but not so insistent. He lay awake for some little time, fixing the details of the last dream in his mind, and wondering in particular what the figures had been which he had seen or half seen on the carved capital. Something quite incongruous, he felt sure; but that was the most he could recall.
Whether because of the dream, or because it was the first day of his holiday, he did not get up very early; nor did he at once plunge into the exploration of the country. He spent a morning, half lazy, half instructive, in looking over the volumes of the County Archæological Society’s transactions, in which were many contributions from Mr. Baxter on finds of flint implements, Roman sites, ruins of monastic establishments—in fact, most departments of archæology. They were written in an odd, pompous, only half-educated style. If the man had had more early schooling, thought Fanshawe, he would have been a very distinguished antiquary; or he might have been (he thus qualified his opinion a little later), but for a certain love of opposition and controversy, and, yes, a patronising tone as of one possessing superior knowledge, which left an unpleasant taste. He might have been a very respectable artist. There was an imaginary restoration and elevation of a priory church which was very well conceived. A fine pinnacled central tower was a conspicuous feature of this; it reminded Fanshawe of that which he had seen from the hill, and which the Squire had told him must be Oldbourne. But it was not Oldbourne; it was Fulnaker Priory. ‘Oh, well,’ he said to himself, ‘I suppose Oldbourne Church may have been built by Fulnaker monks, and Baxter has copied Oldbourne tower. Anything about it in the letterpress? Ah, I see it was published after his death—found among his papers.’
After lunch the Squire asked Fanshawe what he meant to do.
‘Well,’ said Fanshawe, ‘I think 1 shall go out on my bike about four as far as Oldbourne and back by Gallows Hill. That ought to be a round of about fifteen miles, oughtn’t it?’
‘About that,’ said the Squire, ‘and you’ll pass Lambsfield and Wanstone, both of which are worth looking at. There’s a little glass at Lambsfield and the stone at Wanstone.’
‘Good,’ said Fanshawe, ‘I’ll get tea somewhere, and may I take the glasses? I’ll strap them on my bike, on the carrier.’
‘Of course, if you like,’ said the Squire. ‘I really ought to have some better ones. If I go into the town today, I’ll see if 1 can pick up some.’
‘Why should you trouble to do that if you can’t use them yourself?’ said Fanshawe.
‘Oh, I don’t know; one ought to have a decent pair; and—well, old Patten doesn’t think those are fit to use.’
‘Is he a judge?’
‘He’s got some tale: I don’t know: something about old Baxter. I’ve promised to let him tell me about it. It seems very much on his mind since last night.’
‘Why that? Did he have a nightmare like me?’
‘He had something: he was looking an old man this morning, and he said he hadn’t closed an eye.’
‘Well, let him save up his tale till I come back.’
‘Very well, I will if I can. Look here, are you going to be late? If you get a puncture eight miles off and have to walk home, what then? I don’t trust these bicycles: I shall tell them to give us cold things to eat.’
‘I shan’t mind that, whether I’m late or early. But I’ve got things to mend punctures with. And now I’m off.’
It was just as well that the Squire had made that arrangement about a cold supper, Fanshawe thought, and not for the first time, as he wheeled his bicycle up the drive about nine o’clock. So also the Squire thought and said, several times, as he met him in the hall, rather pleased at the confirmation of his want of faith in bicycles than sympathetic with his hot, weary, thirsty, and indeed haggard, friend. In fact, the kindest thing he found to say was: ‘You’ll want a long drink tonight? Cider-cup do? All right. Hear that, Patten? Cider-cup, iced, lots of it.’ Then to Fanshawe, ‘Don’t be all night over your bath.’
By half-past nine they were at dinner, and Fanshawe was reporting progress, if progress it might be called.
‘I got to Lambsfield very smoothly, and saw the glass. It is very interesting stuff, but there’s a lot of lettering I couldn’t read.’
‘Not with glasses?’ said the Squire.
‘Those glasses of yours are no manner of use inside a church—or inside anywhere, I suppose, for that matter. But the only places I took ‘em into were churches.’
‘H’m! Well, go on,’ said the Squire.
‘However, I took some sort of a photograph of the window, and I dare say an enlargement would show what I want. Then Wanstone; I should think that stone was a very out-of-the-way thing, only I don’t know about that class of antiquities. Has anybody opened the mound it stands on?’
‘Baxter wanted to, but the farmer wouldn’t let him.’
‘Oh, well, I should think it would be worth doing. Anyhow, the next thing was Fulnaker and Oldbourne. You know, it’s very odd about that tower I saw from the hill. Oldbourne Church is nothing like it, and of course there’s nothing over thirty feet high at Fulnaker, though you can see it had a central tower. I didn’t tell you, did I? that Baxter’s fancy drawing of Fulnaker shows a tower exactly like the one I saw.’
‘So you thought, I dare say,’ put in the Squire.
‘No, it wasn’t a case of thinking. The picture actually reminded me of what I’d seen, and I made sure it was Oldbourne, well before I looked at the title.’
‘Well, Baxter had a very fair idea of architecture. I dare say what’s left made it easy for him to draw the right sort of tower.’
‘That may be it, of course, but I’m doubtful if even a professional could have got it so exactly right. There’s absolutely nothing left at Fulnaker but the bases of the piers which supported it. However, that isn’t the oddest thing.’
‘What about Gallows Hill?’ said the Squire. ‘Here, Patten, listen to this. I told you what Mr. Fanshawe said he saw from the hill.’
‘Yes, Master Henry, you did; and I can’t say I was so much surprised, considering.’
‘All right, all right. You keep that till afterwards. We want to hear what Mr. Fanshawe saw today. Go on, Fanshawe. You turned to come back by Ackford and Thorfield, I suppose?’
‘Yes, and I looked into both the churches. Then I got to the turning which goes to the top of Gallows Hill; I saw that if I wheeled my machine over the field at the top of the hill I could join the home road on this side. It was about half-past six when I got to the top of the hill, and there was a gate on my right, where it ought to be, leading into the belt of plantation.’
‘You hear that, Patten? A belt, he says.’
‘So I thought it was—a belt. But it wasn’t. You were quite right, and I was hopelessly wrong. I cannot understand it. The whole top is planted quite thick. Well, I went on into this wood, wheeling and dragging my bike, expecting every minute to come to a clearing, and then my misfortunes began. Thorns, I suppose; first I realised that the front tyre was slack, then the back. I couldn’t stop to do more than try to find the punctures and mark them; but even that was hopeless. So I ploughed on, and the farther I went, the less I liked the place.’
‘Not much poaching in that cover, eh, Patten?’ said the Squire.
‘No, indeed, Master Henry: there’s very few cares to go—’
‘No, I know: never mind that now. Go on, Fanshawe.’
‘I don’t blame anybody for not caring to go there. I know I had all the fancies one least likes: steps crackling over twigs behind me, indistinct people stepping behind trees in front of me, yes, and even a hand laid on my shoulder. I pulled up very sharp at that and looked round, but there really was no branch or bush that could have done it. Then, when I was just about at the middle of the plot, I was convinced that there was someone looking down on me from above—and not with any pleasant intent. I stopped again, or at least slackened my pace, to look up. And as I did, down I came, and barked my shins abominably on, what do you think? a block of stone with a big square hole in the top of it. And within a few paces there were two others just like it. The three were set in a triangle. Now, do you make out what they were put there for?’
‘I think I can,’ said the Squire, who was now very grave and absorbed in the story. ‘Sit down, Patten.’
It was time, for the old man was supporting himself by one hand, and leaning heavily on it. He dropped into a chair, and said in a very tremulous voice, ‘You didn’t go between them stones, did you, sir?’
‘I did not,’ said Fanshawe, emphatically. ‘I dare say I was an ass, but as soon as it dawned on me where I was, I just shouldered my machine and did my best to run. It seemed to me as if I was in an unholy evil sort of graveyard, and I was most profoundly thankful that it was one of the longest days and still sunlight. Well, I had a horrid run, even if it was only a few hundred yards. Everything caught on everything: handles and spokes and carrier and pedals—caught in them viciously, or I fancied so. I fell over at least five times. At last I saw the hedge, and I couldn’t trouble to hunt for the gate.’
‘There is no gate on my side,’ the Squire interpolated.
‘Just as well I didn’t waste time, then. I dropped the machine over somehow and went into the road pretty near head-first; some branch or something got my ankle at the last moment. Anyhow, there I was out of the wood, and seldom more thankful or more generally sore. Then came the job of mending my punctures. I had a good outfit and I’m not at all bad at the business; but this was an absolutely hopeless case. It was seven when I got out of the wood, and I spent fifty minutes over one tyre. As fast as I found a hole and put on a patch, and blew it up, it went flat again. So I made up my mind to walk. That hill isn’t three miles away, is it?’
Not more across country, but nearer six by road.’
‘I thought it must be. I thought I couldn’t have taken well over the hour over less than five miles, even leading a bike. Well, there’s my story: where’s yours and Patten’s?’
‘Mine? I’ve no story,’ said the Squire. ‘But you weren’t very far out when you thought you were in a graveyard. There must be a good few of them up there, Patten, don’t you think? They left ‘em there when they fell to bits, I fancy.’
Patten nodded, too much interested to speak. ‘Don’t,’ said Fanshawe. ‘Now then, Patten,’ said the Squire, ‘you’ve heard what sort of a time
Mr. Fanshawe’s been having. What do you make of it? Anything to do with Mr. Baxter? Fill yourself a glass of port, and tell us.’
‘Ah, that done me good, Master Henry,’ said Patten, after absorbing what was before him. ‘If you really wish to know what were in my thoughts, my answer would be clear in the affirmative. Yes,’ he went on, warming to his work, ‘I should say as Mr. Fanshawe’s experience of today were very largely doo to the person you named. And I think, Master Henry, as I have some title to speak, in view of me ‘axing been many years on speaking terms with him, and swore in to be jury on the Coroner’s inquest near this time ten years ago, you being then, if you carry your mind back, Master Henry, travelling abroad, and no one ‘ere to represent the family.’
‘Inquest?’ said Fanshawe. ‘An inquest on Mr. Baxter, was there?’
‘Yes, sir, on—on that very person. The facts as led up to that occurrence was these. The deceased was, as you may have gathered, a very peculiar individual in ‘is ‘abits—in my idear, at least, but all must speak as they find. He lived very much to himself, without neither chick nor child, as the saying is. And how he passed away his time was what very few could orfer a guess at.’
‘He lived unknown, and few could know when Baxter ceased to be,’ said the Squire to his pipe.
‘I beg pardon, Master Henry, I was just coming to that. But when I say how he passed away his time—to be sure we know ‘ow intent he was in rummaging and ransacking out all the ‘istry of the neighbourhood and the number of things he’d managed to collect together—well, it was spoke of for miles round as Baxter’s Museum, and many a time when he might be in the mood, and I might have an hour to spare, have he showed me his pieces of pots and what not, going back by his account to the times of the ancient Romans. However, you know more about that than what I do, Master Henry: only what I was a-going to say was this, as know what he might and interesting as he might be in his talk, there was something about the man—well, for one thing, no one ever remember to see him in church nor yet chapel at service-time. And that made talk. Our rector he never come in the house but once. “Never ask me what the man said”; that was all anybody could ever get out of him. Then how did he spend his nights, particularly about this season of the year? Time and again the labouring men’d meet him coming back as they went out to their work, and he’d pass ‘em by without a word, looking, they says, like someone straight out of the asylum. They see the whites of his eyes all round. He’d have a fish-basket with him, that they noticed, and he always come the same road. And the talk got to be that he’d made himself some business, and that not the best kind—well, not so far from where you was at seven o’clock this evening, sir.
‘Well, now, after such a night as that, Mr. Baxter he’d shut up the shop, and the old lady that did for him had orders not to come in; and knowing what she did about his language, she took care to obey them orders. But one day it so happened, about three o’clock in the afternoon, the house being shut up as I said, there come a most fearful to-do inside, and smoke out of the windows, and Baxter crying out seemingly in an agony. So the man as lived next door he run round to the back premises and burst the door in, and several others come too. Well, he tell me he never in all his life smelt such a fearfu—well, odour, as what there was in that kitchen-place. It seem as if Baxter had been boiling something in a pot and overset it on his leg. There he laid on the floor, trying to keep back the cries, but it was more than he could manage, and when he seen the people come in—oh, he was in a nice condition: if his tongue warn’t blistered worse than his leg it warn’t his fault. Well, they picked him up, and got him into a chair, and run for the medical man, and one of ‘em was going to pick up the pot, and Baxter, he screams out to let it alone. So he did, but he couldn’t see as there was anything in the pot but a few old brown bones. Then they says “Dr. Lawrence’ll be here in a minute, Mr. Baxter; he’ll soon put you to rights.” And then he was off again. He must be got up to his room, he couldn’t have the doctor come in there and see all that mess—they must throw a cloth over it—anything—the tablecloth out of the parlour; well, so they did. But that must have been poisonous stuff in that pot, for it was pretty near on two months afore Baxter were about agin. Beg pardon, Master Henry, was you going to say something?’
‘Yes, I was,’ said the Squire. ‘I wonder you haven’t told me all this before. However, I was going to say I remember old Lawrence telling me he’d attended Baxter. He was a queer card, he said. Lawrence was up in the bedroom one day, and picked up a little mask covered with black velvet, and put it on in fun and went to look at himself in the glass. He hadn’t time for a proper look, for old Baxter shouted out to him from the bed: “Put it down, you fool! Do you want to look through a dead man’s eyes?” and it startled him so that he did put it down, and then he asked Baxter what he meant. And Baxter insisted on him handing it over, and said the man he bought it from was dead, or some such nonsense. But Lawrence felt it as he handed it over, and he declared he was sure it was made out of the front of a skull. He bought a distilling apparatus at Baxter’s sale, he told me, but he could never use it: it seemed to taint everything, however much he cleaned it. But go on, Patten.’
‘Yes, Master Henry, I’m nearly done now, and time, too, for I don’t know what they’ll think about me in the servants’ ‘all. Well, this business of the scalding was some few years before Mr. Baxter was took, and he got about again, and went on just as he’d used. And one of the last jobs he done was finishing up them actual glasses what you took out last night. You see he’d made the body of them some long time, and got the pieces of glass for them, but there was somethink wanted to finish ‘em, whatever it was, I don’t know, but I picked up the frame one day, and I says: “Mr. Baxter, why don’t you make a job of this?” And he says, “Ah, when I’ve done that, you’ll hear news, you will: there’s going to be no such pair of glasses as mine when they’re filled and sealed,” and there he stopped, and I says: “Why, Mr. Baxter, you talk as if they was wine bottles: filled and sealed—why, where’s the necessity for that?” “Did I say filled and sealed?” he says. “O, well, I was suiting my conversation to my company.” Well, then come round this time of year, and one fine evening, I was passing his shop on my way home, and he was standing on the step, very pleased with hisself, and he says: “All right and tight now: my best bit of work’s finished, and I’ll be out with ‘em tomorrow.” “What, finished them glasses?” I says, “might I have a look at them?” “No, no,” he says, “I’ve put ‘em to bed for tonight, and when I do show ‘em you, you’ll have to pay for peepin’, so I tell you.” And that, gentlemen, were the last words I heard that man say.
‘That were the 17th of June, and just a week after, there was a funny thing happened, and it was doo to that as we brought in “unsound mind” at the inquest, for barring that, no one as knew Baxter in business could anyways have laid that against him. But George Williams, as lived in the next house, and do now, he was woke up that same night with a stumbling and tumbling about in Mr. Baxter’s premises, and he got out o’ bed, and went to the front window on the street to see if there was any rough customers about. And it being a very light night, he could make sure as there was not. Then he stood and listened, and he hear Mr. Baxter coming down his front stair one step after another very slow, and he got the idear as it was like someone bein’ pushed or pulled down and holdin’ on to everythin’ he could. Next thing he hear the street door come open, and out come Mr. Baxter into the street in his day-clothes, ‘at and all, with his arms straight down by his sides, and talking to hisself, and shakin’ his head from one side to the other, and walking in that peculiar way that he appeared to be going as it were against his own will. George Williams put up the window, and hear him say: “O mercy, gentlemen!” and then he shut up sudden as if, he said, someone clapped his hand over his mouth, and Mr. Baxter threw his head back, and his hat fell off. And Williams see his face looking something pitiful, so as he couldn’t keep from calling out to him: “Why, Mr. Baxter, ain’t you well?” and he was goin’ to offer to fetch Dr. Lawrence to him, only he heard the answer: “ ‘Tis best you mind your own business. Put in your head.” But whether it were Mr. Baxter said it so hoarse-like and faint, he never could be sure. Still there weren’t no one but him in the street, and yet Williams was that upset by the way he spoke that he shrank back from the window and went and sat on the bed. And he heard Mr. Baxter’s step go on and up the road, and after a minute or more he couldn’t help but look out once more and he see him going along the same curious way as before. And one thing he recollected was that Mr. Baxter never stopped to pick up his ‘at when it fell off, and yet there it was on his head. Well, Master Henry, that was the last anybody see of Mr. Baxter, leastways for a week or more. There was a lot of people said he was called off on business, or made off because he’d got into some scrape, but he was well known for miles round, and none of the railway people nor the public-house people hadn’t seen him; and then ponds was looked into and nothink found; and at last one evening Fakes the keeper come down from over the hill to the village, and he says he seen the Gallows Hill planting black with birds, and that were a funny thing, because he never see no sign of a creature there in his time. So they looked at each other a bit, and first one says: “I’m game to go up,” and another says: “So am I, if you are,” and half a dozen of ‘em set out in the evening time, and took Dr. Lawrence with them, and you know, Master Henry, there he was between them three stones with his neck broke.’
Useless to imagine the talk which this story set going. It is not remembered. But before Patten left them, he said to Fanshawe: ‘Excuse me, sir, but did I understand as you took out them glasses with you today? I thought you did; and might I ask, did you make use of them at all?’
‘Yes. Only to look at something in a church.’
‘Oh, indeed, you took ‘em into the church, did you, sir?’
‘Yes, I did; it was Lambsfield church. By the way, I left them strapped on to my bicycle, I’m afraid, in the stable-yard.’
‘No matter for that, sir. I can bring them in the first thing tomorrow, and perhaps you’ll be so good as to look at ‘em then.’
Accordingly, before breakfast, after a tranquil and well-earned sleep, Fanshawe took the glasses into the garden and directed them to a distant hill. He lowered them instantly, and looked at top and bottom, worked the screws, tried them again and yet again, shrugged his shoulders and replaced them on the hall-table.
‘Patten,’ he said, ‘they’re absolutely useless. I can’t see a thing: it’s as if someone had stuck a black wafer over the lens.’
‘Spoilt my glasses, have you?’ said the Squire. ‘Thank you: the only ones I’ve got.’
‘You try them yourself,’ said Fanshawe, ‘I’ve done nothing to them.’
So after breakfast the Squire took them out to the terrace and stood on the steps. After a few ineffectual attempts, ‘Lord, how heavy they are!’ he said impatiently, and in the same instant dropped them on to the stones, and the lens splintered and the barrel cracked: a little pool of liquid formed on the stone slab. It was inky black, and the odour that rose from it is not to be described.
‘Filled and sealed, eh?’ said the Squire. ‘If I could bring myself to touch it, I dare say we should find the seal. So that’s what came of his boiling and distilling, is it? Old Ghoul!’
‘What in the world do you mean?’
‘Don’t you see, my good man? Remember what he said to the doctor about looking through dead men’s eyes? Well, this was another way of it. But they didn’t like having their bones boiled, I take it, and the end of it was they carried him off whither he would not. Well, I’ll get a spade, and we’ll bury this thing decently.’
As they smoothed the turf over it, the Squire, handing the spade to Patten, who had been a reverential spectator, remarked to Fanshawe: ‘It’s almost a pity you took that thing into the church: you might have seen more than you did. Baxter had them for a week, I make out, but I don’t see that he did much in the time.’
‘I’m not sure,’ said Fanshawe, ‘there is that picture of Fulnaker Priory Church.’
Montague Rhodes James (1862 — 1936)