Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
Montague Rhodes James
Part 1 out of 3
Produced by Suzanne Shell, Thomas Berger,
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
M. R. JAMES
GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY
* * * * *
_These stories are dedicated to all those who at various times have
listened to them._
* * * * *
PART 1: GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY
Canon Alberic's Scrap-book
'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas
PART 2: MORE GHOST STORIES
A School Story
The Rose Garden
The Tractate Middoth
Casting the Runes
The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance
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PART 1: GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY
* * * * *
If anyone is curious about my local settings, let it be recorded that St
Bertrand de Comminges and Viborg are real places: that in 'Oh, Whistle,
and I'll Come to You' I had Felixstowe in mind. As for the fragments of
ostensible erudition which are scattered about my pages, hardly anything
in them is not pure invention; there never was, naturally, any such book
as that which I quote in 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas'. 'Canon Alberic's
Scrap-book' was written in 1894 and printed soon after in the _National
Review_, 'Lost Hearts' appeared in the _Pall Mall Magazine_; of the next
five stories, most of which were read to friends at Christmas-time at
King's College, Cambridge, I only recollect that I wrote 'Number 13' in
1899, while 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas' was composed in the summer of
M. R. JAMES
* * * * *
CANON ALBERIC'S SCRAP-BOOK
St Bertrand de Comminges is a decayed town on the spurs of the Pyrenees,
not very far from Toulouse, and still nearer to Bagneres-de-Luchon. It
was the site of a bishopric until the Revolution, and has a cathedral
which is visited by a certain number of tourists. In the spring of 1883
an Englishman arrived at this old-world place--I can hardly dignify it
with the name of city, for there are not a thousand inhabitants. He was a
Cambridge man, who had come specially from Toulouse to see St Bertrand's
Church, and had left two friends, who were less keen archaeologists than
himself, in their hotel at Toulouse, under promise to join him on the
following morning. Half an hour at the church would satisfy _them_, and
all three could then pursue their journey in the direction of Auch. But
our Englishman had come early on the day in question, and proposed to
himself to fill a note-book and to use several dozens of plates in the
process of describing and photographing every corner of the wonderful
church that dominates the little hill of Comminges. In order to carry out
this design satisfactorily, it was necessary to monopolize the verger of
the church for the day. The verger or sacristan (I prefer the latter
appellation, inaccurate as it may be) was accordingly sent for by the
somewhat brusque lady who keeps the inn of the Chapeau Rouge; and when he
came, the Englishman found him an unexpectedly interesting object of
study. It was not in the personal appearance of the little, dry, wizened
old man that the interest lay, for he was precisely like dozens of other
church-guardians in France, but in a curious furtive or rather hunted and
oppressed air which he had. He was perpetually half glancing behind him;
the muscles of his back and shoulders seemed to be hunched in a continual
nervous contraction, as if he were expecting every moment to find himself
in the clutch of an enemy. The Englishman hardly knew whether to put him
down as a man haunted by a fixed delusion, or as one oppressed by a
guilty conscience, or as an unbearably henpecked husband. The
probabilities, when reckoned up, certainly pointed to the last idea; but,
still, the impression conveyed was that of a more formidable persecutor
even than a termagant wife.
However, the Englishman (let us call him Dennistoun) was soon too deep in
his note-book and too busy with his camera to give more than an
occasional glance to the sacristan. Whenever he did look at him, he found
him at no great distance, either huddling himself back against the wall
or crouching in one of the gorgeous stalls. Dennistoun became rather
fidgety after a time. Mingled suspicions that he was keeping the old man
from his _dejeuner_, that he was regarded as likely to make away with St
Bertrand's ivory crozier, or with the dusty stuffed crocodile that hangs
over the font, began to torment him.
'Won't you go home?' he said at last; 'I'm quite well able to finish my
notes alone; you can lock me in if you like. I shall want at least two
hours more here, and it must be cold for you, isn't it?'
'Good heavens!' said the little man, whom the suggestion seemed to throw
into a state of unaccountable terror, 'such a thing cannot be thought of
for a moment. Leave monsieur alone in the church? No, no; two hours,
three hours, all will be the same to me. I have breakfasted, I am not at
all cold, with many thanks to monsieur.'
'Very well, my little man,' quoth Dennistoun to himself: 'you have been
warned, and you must take the consequences.'
Before the expiration of the two hours, the stalls, the enormous
dilapidated organ, the choir-screen of Bishop John de Mauleon, the
remnants of glass and tapestry, and the objects in the treasure-chamber
had been well and truly examined; the sacristan still keeping at
Dennistoun's heels, and every now and then whipping round as if he had
been stung, when one or other of the strange noises that trouble a large
empty building fell on his ear. Curious noises they were, sometimes.
'Once,' Dennistoun said to me, 'I could have sworn I heard a thin
metallic voice laughing high up in the tower. I darted an inquiring
glance at my sacristan. He was white to the lips. "It is he--that is--it
is no one; the door is locked," was all he said, and we looked at each
other for a full minute.'
Another little incident puzzled Dennistoun a good deal. He was examining
a large dark picture that hangs behind the altar, one of a series
illustrating the miracles of St Bertrand. The composition of the picture
is well-nigh indecipherable, but there is a Latin legend below, which
_Qualiter S. Bertrandus liberavit hominem quem diabolus diu volebat
strangulare_. (How St Bertrand delivered a man whom the Devil long
sought to strangle.)
Dennistoun was turning to the sacristan with a smile and a jocular remark
of some sort on his lips, but he was confounded to see the old man on his
knees, gazing at the picture with the eye of a suppliant in agony, his
hands tightly clasped, and a rain of tears on his cheeks. Dennistoun
naturally pretended to have noticed nothing, but the question would not
go away from him,'Why should a daub of this kind affect anyone so
strongly?' He seemed to himself to be getting some sort of clue to the
reason of the strange look that had been puzzling him all the day: the
man must be a monomaniac; but what was his monomania?
It was nearly five o'clock; the short day was drawing in, and the church
began to fill with shadows, while the curious noises--the muffled
footfalls and distant talking voices that had been perceptible all
day--seemed, no doubt because of the fading light and the consequently
quickened sense of hearing, to become more frequent and insistent.
The sacristan began for the first time to show signs of hurry and
impatience. He heaved a sigh of relief when camera and note-book were
finally packed up and stowed away, and hurriedly beckoned Dennistoun to
the western door of the church, under the tower. It was time to ring the
Angelus. A few pulls at the reluctant rope, and the great bell Bertrande,
high in the tower, began to speak, and swung her voice up among the pines
and down to the valleys, loud with mountain-streams, calling the dwellers
on those lonely hills to remember and repeat the salutation of the angel
to her whom he called Blessed among women. With that a profound quiet
seemed to fall for the first time that day upon the little town, and
Dennistoun and the sacristan went out of the church.
On the doorstep they fell into conversation.
'Monsieur seemed to interest himself in the old choir-books in the
'Undoubtedly. I was going to ask you if there were a library in the
'No, monsieur; perhaps there used to be one belonging to the Chapter, but
it is now such a small place--' Here came a strange pause of
irresolution, as it seemed; then, with a sort of plunge, he went on: 'But
if monsieur is _amateur des vieux livres_, I have at home something that
might interest him. It is not a hundred yards.'
At once all Dennistoun's cherished dreams of finding priceless
manuscripts in untrodden corners of France flashed up, to die down again
the next moment. It was probably a stupid missal of Plantin's printing,
about 1580. Where was the likelihood that a place so near Toulouse would
not have been ransacked long ago by collectors? However, it would be
foolish not to go; he would reproach himself for ever after if he
refused. So they set off. On the way the curious irresolution and sudden
determination of the sacristan recurred to Dennistoun, and he wondered in
a shamefaced way whether he was being decoyed into some purlieu to be
made away with as a supposed rich Englishman. He contrived, therefore, to
begin talking with his guide, and to drag in, in a rather clumsy fashion,
the fact that he expected two friends to join him early the next morning.
To his surprise, the announcement seemed to relieve the sacristan at once
of some of the anxiety that oppressed him.
'That is well,' he said quite brightly--'that is very well. Monsieur will
travel in company with his friends: they will be always near him. It is a
good thing to travel thus in company--sometimes.'
The last word appeared to be added as an afterthought and to bring with
it a relapse into gloom for the poor little man.
They were soon at the house, which was one rather larger than its
neighbours, stone-built, with a shield carved over the door, the shield
of Alberic de Mauleon, a collateral descendant, Dennistoun tells me, of
Bishop John de Mauleon. This Alberic was a Canon of Comminges from 1680
to 1701. The upper windows of the mansion were boarded up, and the whole
place bore, as does the rest of Comminges, the aspect of decaying age.
Arrived on his doorstep, the sacristan paused a moment.
'Perhaps,' he said, 'perhaps, after all, monsieur has not the time?'
'Not at all--lots of time--nothing to do till tomorrow. Let us see what
it is you have got.'
The door was opened at this point, and a face looked out, a face far
younger than the sacristan's, but bearing something of the same
distressing look: only here it seemed to be the mark, not so much of fear
for personal safety as of acute anxiety on behalf of another. Plainly the
owner of the face was the sacristan's daughter; and, but for the
expression I have described, she was a handsome girl enough. She
brightened up considerably on seeing her father accompanied by an
able-bodied stranger. A few remarks passed between father and daughter of
which Dennistoun only caught these words, said by the sacristan: 'He was
laughing in the church,' words which were answered only by a look of
terror from the girl.
But in another minute they were in the sitting-room of the house, a
small, high chamber with a stone floor, full of moving shadows cast by a
wood-fire that flickered on a great hearth. Something of the character of
an oratory was imparted to it by a tall crucifix, which reached almost to
the ceiling on one side; the figure was painted of the natural colours,
the cross was black. Under this stood a chest of some age and solidity,
and when a lamp had been brought, and chairs set, the sacristan went to
this chest, and produced therefrom, with growing excitement and
nervousness, as Dennistoun thought, a large book, wrapped in a white
cloth, on which cloth a cross was rudely embroidered in red thread. Even
before the wrapping had been removed, Dennistoun began to be interested
by the size and shape of the volume. 'Too large for a missal,' he
thought, 'and not the shape of an antiphoner; perhaps it may be something
good, after all.' The next moment the book was open, and Dennistoun felt
that he had at last lit upon something better than good. Before him lay a
large folio, bound, perhaps, late in the seventeenth century, with the
arms of Canon Alberic de Mauleon stamped in gold on the sides. There may
have been a hundred and fifty leaves of paper in the book, and on almost
every one of them was fastened a leaf from an illuminated manuscript.
Such a collection Dennistoun had hardly dreamed of in his wildest
moments. Here were ten leaves from a copy of Genesis, illustrated with
pictures, which could not be later than A.D. 700. Further on was a
complete set of pictures from a Psalter, of English execution, of the
very finest kind that the thirteenth century could produce; and, perhaps
best of all, there were twenty leaves of uncial writing in Latin, which,
as a few words seen here and there told him at once, must belong to some
very early unknown patristic treatise. Could it possibly be a fragment of
the copy of Papias 'On the Words of Our Lord', which was known to have
existed as late as the twelfth century at Nimes? In any case, his mind
was made up; that book must return to Cambridge with him, even if he had
to draw the whole of his balance from the bank and stay at St. Bertrand
till the money came. He glanced up at the sacristan to see if his face
yielded any hint that the book was for sale. The sacristan was pale, and
his lips were working.
 We now know that these leaves did contain a considerable fragment
of that work, if not of that actual copy of it.
'If monsieur will turn on to the end,' he said.
So monsieur turned on, meeting new treasures at every rise of a leaf; and
at the end of the book he came upon two sheets of paper, of much more
recent date than anything he had seen yet, which puzzled him
considerably. They must be contemporary, he decided, with the
unprincipled Canon Alberic, who had doubtless plundered the Chapter
library of St Bertrand to form this priceless scrap-book. On the first of
the paper sheets was a plan, carefully drawn and instantly recognizable
by a person who knew the ground, of the south aisle and cloisters of St
Bertrand's. There were curious signs looking like planetary symbols, and
a few Hebrew words in the corners; and in the north-west angle of the
cloister was a cross drawn in gold paint. Below the plan were some lines
of writing in Latin, which ran thus:
_Responsa 12(mi) Dec. 1694. Interrogatum est: Inveniamne? Responsum
est: Invenies. Fiamne dives? Fies. Vivamne invidendus? Vives.
Moriarne in lecto meo? Ita._ (Answers of the 12th of December, 1694.
It was asked: Shall I find it? Answer: Thou shalt. Shall I become
rich? Thou wilt. Shall I live an object of envy? Thou wilt. Shall I
die in my bed? Thou wilt.)
'A good specimen of the treasure-hunter's record--quite reminds one of Mr
Minor-Canon Quatremain in _Old St Paul's_,' was Dennistoun's comment, and
he turned the leaf.
What he then saw impressed him, as he has often told me, more than he
could have conceived any drawing or picture capable of impressing him.
And, though the drawing he saw is no longer in existence, there is a
photograph of it (which I possess) which fully bears out that statement.
The picture in question was a sepia drawing at the end of the seventeenth
century, representing, one would say at first sight, a Biblical scene;
for the architecture (the picture represented an interior) and the
figures had that semi-classical flavour about them which the artists of
two hundred years ago thought appropriate to illustrations of the Bible.
On the right was a king on his throne, the throne elevated on twelve
steps, a canopy overhead, soldiers on either side--evidently King
Solomon. He was bending forward with outstretched sceptre, in attitude of
command; his face expressed horror and disgust, yet there was in it also
the mark of imperious command and confident power. The left half of the
picture was the strangest, however. The interest plainly centred there.
On the pavement before the throne were grouped four soldiers, surrounding
a crouching figure which must be described in a moment. A fifth soldier
lay dead on the pavement, his neck distorted, and his eye-balls starting
from his head. The four surrounding guards were looking at the King. In
their faces, the sentiment of horror was intensified; they seemed, in
fact, only restrained from flight by their implicit trust in their
master. All this terror was plainly excited by the being that crouched in
I entirely despair of conveying by any words the impression which this
figure makes upon anyone who looks at it. I recollect once showing the
photograph of the drawing to a lecturer on morphology--a person of, I was
going to say, abnormally sane and unimaginative habits of mind. He
absolutely refused to be alone for the rest of that evening, and he told
me afterwards that for many nights he had not dared to put out his light
before going to sleep. However, the main traits of the figure I can at
At first you saw only a mass of coarse, matted black hair; presently it
was seen that this covered a body of fearful thinness, almost a skeleton,
but with the muscles standing out like wires. The hands were of a dusky
pallor, covered, like the body, with long, coarse hairs, and hideously
taloned. The eyes, touched in with a burning yellow, had intensely black
pupils, and were fixed upon the throned King with a look of beast-like
hate. Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America
translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than
human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by
the appalling effigy. One remark is universally made by those to whom I
have shown the picture: 'It was drawn from the life.'
As soon as the first shock of his irresistible fright had subsided,
Dennistoun stole a look at his hosts. The sacristan's hands were pressed
upon his eyes; his daughter, looking up at the cross on the wall, was
telling her beads feverishly.
At last the question was asked: 'Is this book for sale?'
There was the same hesitation, the same plunge of determination that he
had noticed before, and then came the welcome answer: 'If monsieur
'How much do you ask for it?'
'I will take two hundred and fifty francs.'
This was confounding. Even a collector's conscience is sometimes stirred,
and Dennistoun's conscience was tenderer than a collector's.
'My good man!' he said again and again, 'your book is worth far more than
two hundred and fifty francs. I assure you--far more.'
But the answer did not vary: 'I will take two hundred and fifty
There was really no possibility of refusing such a chance. The money was
paid, the receipt signed, a glass of wine drunk over the transaction, and
then the sacristan seemed to become a new man. He stood upright, he
ceased to throw those suspicious glances behind him, he actually laughed
or tried to laugh. Dennistoun rose to go.
'I shall have the honour of accompanying monsieur to his hotel?' said the
'Oh, no, thanks! it isn't a hundred yards. I know the way perfectly, and
there is a moon.'
The offer was pressed three or four times and refused as often.
'Then, monsieur will summon me if--if he finds occasion; he will keep the
middle of the road, the sides are so rough.'
'Certainly, certainly,' said Dennistoun, who was impatient to examine his
prize by himself; and he stepped out into the passage with his book under
Here he was met by the daughter; she, it appeared, was anxious to do a
little business on her own account; perhaps, like Gehazi, to 'take
somewhat' from the foreigner whom her father had spared.
'A silver crucifix and chain for the neck; monsieur would perhaps be good
enough to accept it?'
Well, really, Dennistoun hadn't much use for these things. What did
mademoiselle want for it?
'Nothing--nothing in the world. Monsieur is more than welcome to it.'
The tone in which this and much more was said was unmistakably genuine,
so that Dennistoun was reduced to profuse thanks, and submitted to have
the chain put round his neck. It really seemed as if he had rendered the
father and daughter some service which they hardly knew how to repay. As
he set off with his book they stood at the door looking after him, and
they were still looking when he waved them a last good night from the
steps of the Chapeau Rouge.
Dinner was over, and Dennistoun was in his bedroom, shut up alone with
his acquisition. The landlady had manifested a particular interest in him
since he had told her that he had paid a visit to the sacristan and
bought an old book from him. He thought, too, that he had heard a hurried
dialogue between her and the said sacristan in the passage outside the
_salle a manger_; some words to the effect that 'Pierre and Bertrand
would be sleeping in the house' had closed the conversation.
All this time a growing feeling of discomfort had been creeping over
him--nervous reaction, perhaps, after the delight of his discovery.
Whatever it was, it resulted in a conviction that there was someone
behind him, and that he was far more comfortable with his back to the
wall. All this, of course, weighed light in the balance as against the
obvious value of the collection he had acquired. And now, as I said, he
was alone in his bedroom, taking stock of Canon Alberic's treasures, in
which every moment revealed something more charming.
'Bless Canon Alberic!' said Dennistoun, who had an inveterate habit of
talking to himself. 'I wonder where he is now? Dear me! I wish that
landlady would learn to laugh in a more cheering manner; it makes one
feel as if there was someone dead in the house. Half a pipe more, did you
say? I think perhaps you are right. I wonder what that crucifix is that
the young woman insisted on giving me? Last century, I suppose. Yes,
probably. It is rather a nuisance of a thing to have round one's
neck--just too heavy. Most likely her father has been wearing it for
years. I think I might give it a clean up before I put it away.'
He had taken the crucifix off, and laid it on the table, when his
attention was caught by an object lying on the red cloth just by his left
elbow. Two or three ideas of what it might be flitted through his brain
with their own incalculable quickness.
A penwiper? No, no such thing in the house. A rat? No, too black. A large
spider? I trust to goodness not--no. Good God! a hand like the hand in
In another infinitesimal flash he had taken it in. Pale, dusky skin,
covering nothing but bones and tendons of appalling strength; coarse
black hairs, longer than ever grew on a human hand; nails rising from the
ends of the fingers and curving sharply down and forward, grey, horny,
He flew out of his chair with deadly, inconceivable terror clutching at
his heart. The shape, whose left hand rested on the table, was rising to
a standing posture behind his seat, its right hand crooked above his
scalp. There was black and tattered drapery about it; the coarse hair
covered it as in the drawing. The lower jaw was thin--what can I call
it?--shallow, like a beast's; teeth showed behind the black lips; there
was no nose; the eyes, of a fiery yellow, against which the pupils showed
black and intense, and the exulting hate and thirst to destroy life which
shone there, were the most horrifying features in the whole vision. There
was intelligence of a kind in them--intelligence beyond that of a beast,
below that of a man.
The feelings which this horror stirred in Dennistoun were the intensest
physical fear and the most profound mental loathing. What did he do? What
could he do? He has never been quite certain what words he said, but he
knows that he spoke, that he grasped blindly at the silver crucifix, that
he was conscious of a movement towards him on the part of the demon, and
that he screamed with the voice of an animal in hideous pain.
Pierre and Bertrand, the two sturdy little serving-men, who rushed in,
saw nothing, but felt themselves thrust aside by something that passed
out between them, and found Dennistoun in a swoon. They sat up with him
that night, and his two friends were at St Bertrand by nine o'clock next
morning. He himself, though still shaken and nervous, was almost himself
by that time, and his story found credence with them, though not until
they had seen the drawing and talked with the sacristan.
Almost at dawn the little man had come to the inn on some pretence, and
had listened with the deepest interest to the story retailed by the
landlady. He showed no surprise.
'It is he--it is he! I have seen him myself,' was his only comment; and
to all questionings but one reply was vouchsafed: 'Deux fois je l'ai vu:
mille fois je l'ai senti.' He would tell them nothing of the provenance
of the book, nor any details of his experiences. 'I shall soon sleep, and
my rest will be sweet. Why should you trouble me?' he said.
 He died that summer; his daughter married, and settled at St
Papoul. She never understood the circumstances of her father's
We shall never know what he or Canon Alberic de Mauleon suffered. At the
back of that fateful drawing were some lines of writing which may be
supposed to throw light on the situation:
_Contradictio Salomonis cum demonio nocturno.
Albericus de Mauleone delineavit.
V. Deus in adiutorium. Ps. Qui habitat.
Sancte Bertrande, demoniorum effugator, intercede pro me miserrimo.
Primum uidi nocte 12(mi) Dec. 1694:
uidebo mox ultimum. Peccaui et passus
sum, plura adhuc passurus.
Dec. 29, 1701_.
 _i.e._, The Dispute of Solomon with a demon of the night. Drawn by
Alberic de Mauleon. _Versicle_. O Lord, make haste to help me. _Psalm_.
Whoso dwelleth xci.
Saint Bertrand, who puttest devils to flight, pray for me most unhappy.
I saw it first on the night of Dec. 12, 1694: soon I shall see it for
the last time. I have sinned and suffered, and have more to suffer yet.
Dec. 29, 1701.
The 'Gallia Christiana' gives the date of the Canon's death as December
31, 1701, 'in bed, of a sudden seizure'. Details of this kind are not
common in the great work of the Sammarthani.
I have never quite understood what was Dennistoun's view of the events I
have narrated. He quoted to me once a text from Ecclesiasticus: 'Some
spirits there be that are created for vengeance, and in their fury lay on
sore strokes.' On another occasion he said: 'Isaiah was a very sensible
man; doesn't he say something about night monsters living in the ruins of
Babylon? These things are rather beyond us at present.'
Another confidence of his impressed me rather, and I sympathized with it.
We had been, last year, to Comminges, to see Canon Alberic's tomb. It is
a great marble erection with an effigy of the Canon in a large wig and
soutane, and an elaborate eulogy of his learning below. I saw Dennistoun
talking for some time with the Vicar of St Bertrand's, and as we drove
away he said to me: 'I hope it isn't wrong: you know I am a
Presbyterian--but I--I believe there will be "saying of Mass and singing
of dirges" for Alberic de Mauleon's rest.' Then he added, with a touch of
the Northern British in his tone, 'I had no notion they came so dear.'
* * * * *
The book is in the Wentworth Collection at Cambridge. The drawing was
photographed and then burnt by Dennistoun on the day when he left
Comminges on the occasion of his first visit.
It was, as far as I can ascertain, in September of the year 1811 that a
post-chaise drew up before the door of Aswarby Hall, in the heart of
Lincolnshire. The little boy who was the only passenger in the chaise,
and who jumped out as soon as it had stopped, looked about him with the
keenest curiosity during the short interval that elapsed between the
ringing of the bell and the opening of the hall door. He saw a tall,
square, red-brick house, built in the reign of Anne; a stone-pillared
porch had been added in the purer classical style of 1790; the windows of
the house were many, tall and narrow, with small panes and thick white
woodwork. A pediment, pierced with a round window, crowned the front.
There were wings to right and left, connected by curious glazed
galleries, supported by colonnades, with the central block. These wings
plainly contained the stables and offices of the house. Each was
surmounted by an ornamental cupola with a gilded vane.
An evening light shone on the building, making the window-panes glow like
so many fires. Away from the Hall in front stretched a flat park studded
with oaks and fringed with firs, which stood out against the sky. The
clock in the church-tower, buried in trees on the edge of the park, only
its golden weather-cock catching the light, was striking six, and the
sound came gently beating down the wind. It was altogether a pleasant
impression, though tinged with the sort of melancholy appropriate to an
evening in early autumn, that was conveyed to the mind of the boy who was
standing in the porch waiting for the door to open to him.
The post-chaise had brought him from Warwickshire, where, some six months
before, he had been left an orphan. Now, owing to the generous offer of
his elderly cousin, Mr Abney, he had come to live at Aswarby. The offer
was unexpected, because all who knew anything of Mr Abney looked upon him
as a somewhat austere recluse, into whose steady-going household the
advent of a small boy would import a new and, it seemed, incongruous
element. The truth is that very little was known of Mr Abney's pursuits
or temper. The Professor of Greek at Cambridge had been heard to say that
no one knew more of the religious beliefs of the later pagans than did
the owner of Aswarby. Certainly his library contained all the then
available books bearing on the Mysteries, the Orphic poems, the worship
of Mithras, and the Neo-Platonists. In the marble-paved hall stood a fine
group of Mithras slaying a bull, which had been imported from the Levant
at great expense by the owner. He had contributed a description of it to
the _Gentleman's Magazine_, and he had written a remarkable series of
articles in the _Critical Museum_ on the superstitions of the Romans of
the Lower Empire. He was looked upon, in fine, as a man wrapped up in his
books, and it was a matter of great surprise among his neighbours that he
should ever have heard of his orphan cousin, Stephen Elliott, much more
that he should have volunteered to make him an inmate of Aswarby Hall.
Whatever may have been expected by his neighbours, it is certain that Mr
Abney--the tall, the thin, the austere--seemed inclined to give his young
cousin a kindly reception. The moment the front-door was opened he darted
out of his study, rubbing his hands with delight.
'How are you, my boy?--how are you? How old are you?' said he--'that is,
you are not too much tired, I hope, by your journey to eat your supper?'
'No, thank you, sir,' said Master Elliott; 'I am pretty well.'
'That's a good lad,' said Mr Abney. 'And how old are you, my boy?'
It seemed a little odd that he should have asked the question twice in
the first two minutes of their acquaintance.
'I'm twelve years old next birthday, sir,' said Stephen.
'And when is your birthday, my dear boy? Eleventh of September, eh?
That's well--that's very well. Nearly a year hence, isn't it? I like--ha,
ha!--I like to get these things down in my book. Sure it's twelve?
'Yes, quite sure, sir.'
'Well, well! Take him to Mrs Bunch's room, Parkes, and let him have his
tea--supper--whatever it is.'
'Yes, sir,' answered the staid Mr Parkes; and conducted Stephen to the
Mrs Bunch was the most comfortable and human person whom Stephen had as
yet met at Aswarby. She made him completely at home; they were great
friends in a quarter of an hour: and great friends they remained. Mrs
Bunch had been born in the neighbourhood some fifty-five years before the
date of Stephen's arrival, and her residence at the Hall was of twenty
years' standing. Consequently, if anyone knew the ins and outs of the
house and the district, Mrs Bunch knew them; and she was by no means
disinclined to communicate her information.
Certainly there were plenty of things about the Hall and the Hall gardens
which Stephen, who was of an adventurous and inquiring turn, was anxious
to have explained to him. 'Who built the temple at the end of the laurel
walk? Who was the old man whose picture hung on the staircase, sitting at
a table, with a skull under his hand?' These and many similar points were
cleared up by the resources of Mrs Bunch's powerful intellect. There were
others, however, of which the explanations furnished were less
One November evening Stephen was sitting by the fire in the housekeeper's
room reflecting on his surroundings.
'Is Mr Abney a good man, and will he go to heaven?' he suddenly asked,
with the peculiar confidence which children possess in the ability of
their elders to settle these questions, the decision of which is believed
to be reserved for other tribunals.
'Good?--bless the child!' said Mrs Bunch. 'Master's as kind a soul as
ever I see! Didn't I never tell you of the little boy as he took in out
of the street, as you may say, this seven years back? and the little
girl, two years after I first come here?'
'No. Do tell me all about them, Mrs Bunch--now, this minute!'
'Well,' said Mrs Bunch, 'the little girl I don't seem to recollect so
much about. I know master brought her back with him from his walk one
day, and give orders to Mrs Ellis, as was housekeeper then, as she should
be took every care with. And the pore child hadn't no one belonging to
her--she telled me so her own self--and here she lived with us a matter
of three weeks it might be; and then, whether she were somethink of a
gipsy in her blood or what not, but one morning she out of her bed afore
any of us had opened a eye, and neither track nor yet trace of her have I
set eyes on since. Master was wonderful put about, and had all the ponds
dragged; but it's my belief she was had away by them gipsies, for there
was singing round the house for as much as an hour the night she went,
and Parkes, he declare as he heard them a-calling in the woods all that
afternoon. Dear, dear! a hodd child she was, so silent in her ways and
all, but I was wonderful taken up with her, so domesticated she
'And what about the little boy?' said Stephen.
'Ah, that pore boy!' sighed Mrs Bunch. 'He were a foreigner--Jevanny he
called hisself--and he come a-tweaking his 'urdy-gurdy round and about
the drive one winter day, and master 'ad him in that minute, and ast all
about where he came from, and how old he was, and how he made his way,
and where was his relatives, and all as kind as heart could wish. But it
went the same way with him. They're a hunruly lot, them foreign nations,
I do suppose, and he was off one fine morning just the same as the girl.
Why he went and what he done was our question for as much as a year
after; for he never took his 'urdy-gurdy, and there it lays on the
The remainder of the evening was spent by Stephen in miscellaneous
cross-examination of Mrs Bunch and in efforts to extract a tune from the
That night he had a curious dream. At the end of the passage at the top
of the house, in which his bedroom was situated, there was an old disused
bathroom. It was kept locked, but the upper half of the door was glazed,
and, since the muslin curtains which used to hang there had long been
gone, you could look in and see the lead-lined bath affixed to the wall
on the right hand, with its head towards the window.
On the night of which I am speaking, Stephen Elliott found himself, as he
thought, looking through the glazed door. The moon was shining through
the window, and he was gazing at a figure which lay in the bath.
His description of what he saw reminds me of what I once beheld myself in
the famous vaults of St Michan's Church in Dublin, which possesses the
horrid property of preserving corpses from decay for centuries. A figure
inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a
shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful
smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.
As he looked upon it, a distant, almost inaudible moan seemed to issue
from its lips, and the arms began to stir. The terror of the sight forced
Stephen backwards and he awoke to the fact that he was indeed standing on
the cold boarded floor of the passage in the full light of the moon. With
a courage which I do not think can be common among boys of his age, he
went to the door of the bathroom to ascertain if the figure of his dreams
were really there. It was not, and he went back to bed.
Mrs Bunch was much impressed next morning by his story, and went so far
as to replace the muslin curtain over the glazed door of the bathroom. Mr
Abney, moreover, to whom he confided his experiences at breakfast, was
greatly interested and made notes of the matter in what he called 'his
The spring equinox was approaching, as Mr Abney frequently reminded his
cousin, adding that this had been always considered by the ancients to be
a critical time for the young: that Stephen would do well to take care of
himself, and to shut his bedroom window at night; and that Censorinus had
some valuable remarks on the subject. Two incidents that occurred about
this time made an impression upon Stephen's mind.
The first was after an unusually uneasy and oppressed night that he had
passed--though he could not recall any particular dream that he had had.
The following evening Mrs Bunch was occupying herself in mending his
'Gracious me, Master Stephen!' she broke forth rather irritably, 'how do
you manage to tear your nightdress all to flinders this way? Look here,
sir, what trouble you do give to poor servants that have to darn and mend
There was indeed a most destructive and apparently wanton series of slits
or scorings in the garment, which would undoubtedly require a skilful
needle to make good. They were confined to the left side of the chest--
long, parallel slits about six inches in length, some of them not quite
piercing the texture of the linen. Stephen could only express his entire
ignorance of their origin: he was sure they were not there the night
'But,' he said, 'Mrs Bunch, they are just the same as the scratches on
the outside of my bedroom door: and I'm sure I never had anything to do
with making _them_.'
Mrs Bunch gazed at him open-mouthed, then snatched up a candle, departed
hastily from the room, and was heard making her way upstairs. In a few
minutes she came down.
'Well,' she said, 'Master Stephen, it's a funny thing to me how them
marks and scratches can 'a' come there--too high up for any cat or dog to
'ave made 'em, much less a rat: for all the world like a Chinaman's
finger-nails, as my uncle in the tea-trade used to tell us of when we was
girls together. I wouldn't say nothing to master, not if I was you,
Master Stephen, my dear; and just turn the key of the door when you go to
'I always do, Mrs Bunch, as soon as I've said my prayers.'
'Ah, that's a good child: always say your prayers, and then no one can't
Herewith Mrs Bunch addressed herself to mending the injured nightgown,
with intervals of meditation, until bed-time. This was on a Friday night
in March, 1812.
On the following evening the usual duet of Stephen and Mrs Bunch was
augmented by the sudden arrival of Mr Parkes, the butler, who as a rule
kept himself rather _to_ himself in his own pantry. He did not see that
Stephen was there: he was, moreover, flustered and less slow of speech
than was his wont.
'Master may get up his own wine, if he likes, of an evening,' was his
first remark. 'Either I do it in the daytime or not at all, Mrs Bunch. I
don't know what it may be: very like it's the rats, or the wind got into
the cellars; but I'm not so young as I was, and I can't go through with
it as I have done.'
'Well, Mr Parkes, you know it is a surprising place for the rats, is the
'I'm not denying that, Mrs Bunch; and, to be sure, many a time I've heard
the tale from the men in the shipyards about the rat that could speak. I
never laid no confidence in that before; but tonight, if I'd demeaned
myself to lay my ear to the door of the further bin, I could pretty much
have heard what they was saying.'
'Oh, there, Mr Parkes, I've no patience with your fancies! Rats talking
in the wine-cellar indeed!'
'Well, Mrs Bunch, I've no wish to argue with you: all I say is, if you
choose to go to the far bin, and lay your ear to the door, you may prove
my words this minute.'
'What nonsense you do talk, Mr Parkes--not fit for children to listen to!
Why, you'll be frightening Master Stephen there out of his wits.'
'What! Master Stephen?' said Parkes, awaking to the consciousness of the
boy's presence. 'Master Stephen knows well enough when I'm a-playing a
joke with you, Mrs Bunch.'
In fact, Master Stephen knew much too well to suppose that Mr Parkes had
in the first instance intended a joke. He was interested, not altogether
pleasantly, in the situation; but all his questions were unsuccessful in
inducing the butler to give any more detailed account of his experiences
in the wine-cellar.
* * * * *
We have now arrived at March 24, 1812. It was a day of curious
experiences for Stephen: a windy, noisy day, which filled the house and
the gardens with a restless impression. As Stephen stood by the fence of
the grounds, and looked out into the park, he felt as if an endless
procession of unseen people were sweeping past him on the wind, borne on
resistlessly and aimlessly, vainly striving to stop themselves, to catch
at something that might arrest their flight and bring them once again
into contact with the living world of which they had formed a part. After
luncheon that day Mr Abney said:
'Stephen, my boy, do you think you could manage to come to me tonight as
late as eleven o'clock in my study? I shall be busy until that time, and
I wish to show you something connected with your future life which it is
most important that you should know. You are not to mention this matter
to Mrs Bunch nor to anyone else in the house; and you had better go to
your room at the usual time.'
Here was a new excitement added to life: Stephen eagerly grasped at the
opportunity of sitting up till eleven o'clock. He looked in at the
library door on his way upstairs that evening, and saw a brazier, which
he had often noticed in the corner of the room, moved out before the
fire; an old silver-gilt cup stood on the table, filled with red wine,
and some written sheets of paper lay near it. Mr Abney was sprinkling
some incense on the brazier from a round silver box as Stephen passed,
but did not seem to notice his step.
The wind had fallen, and there was a still night and a full moon. At
about ten o'clock Stephen was standing at the open window of his bedroom,
looking out over the country. Still as the night was, the mysterious
population of the distant moon-lit woods was not yet lulled to rest. From
time to time strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers sounded
from across the mere. They might be the notes of owls or water-birds, yet
they did not quite resemble either sound. Were not they coming nearer?
Now they sounded from the nearer side of the water, and in a few moments
they seemed to be floating about among the shrubberies. Then they ceased;
but just as Stephen was thinking of shutting the window and resuming his
reading of _Robinson Crusoe_, he caught sight of two figures standing on
the gravelled terrace that ran along the garden side of the Hall--the
figures of a boy and girl, as it seemed; they stood side by side, looking
up at the windows. Something in the form of the girl recalled
irresistibly his dream of the figure in the bath. The boy inspired him
with more acute fear.
Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands clasped over
her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing,
raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and of
unappeasable hunger and longing. The moon shone upon his almost
transparent hands, and Stephen saw that the nails were fearfully long and
that the light shone through them. As he stood with his arms thus raised,
he disclosed a terrifying spectacle. On the left side of his chest there
opened a black and gaping rent; and there fell upon Stephen's brain,
rather than upon his ear, the impression of one of those hungry and
desolate cries that he had heard resounding over the woods of Aswarby all
that evening. In another moment this dreadful pair had moved swiftly and
noiselessly over the dry gravel, and he saw them no more.
Inexpressibly frightened as he was, he determined to take his candle and
go down to Mr Abney's study, for the hour appointed for their meeting was
near at hand. The study or library opened out of the front-hall on one
side, and Stephen, urged on by his terrors, did not take long in getting
there. To effect an entrance was not so easy. It was not locked, he felt
sure, for the key was on the outside of the door as usual. His repeated
knocks produced no answer. Mr Abney was engaged: he was speaking. What!
why did he try to cry out? and why was the cry choked in his throat? Had
he, too, seen the mysterious children? But now everything was quiet, and
the door yielded to Stephen's terrified and frantic pushing.
* * * * *
On the table in Mr Abney's study certain papers were found which
explained the situation to Stephen Elliott when he was of an age to
understand them. The most important sentences were as follows:
'It was a belief very strongly and generally held by the ancients--of
whose wisdom in these matters I have had such experience as induces me to
place confidence in their assertions--that by enacting certain processes,
which to us moderns have something of a barbaric complexion, a very
remarkable enlightenment of the spiritual faculties in man may be
attained: that, for example, by absorbing the personalities of a certain
number of his fellow-creatures, an individual may gain a complete
ascendancy over those orders of spiritual beings which control the
elemental forces of our universe.
'It is recorded of Simon Magus that he was able to fly in the air, to
become invisible, or to assume any form he pleased, by the agency of the
soul of a boy whom, to use the libellous phrase employed by the author of
the _Clementine Recognitions_, he had "murdered". I find it set down,
moreover, with considerable detail in the writings of Hermes
Trismegistus, that similar happy results may be produced by the
absorption of the hearts of not less than three human beings below the
age of twenty-one years. To the testing of the truth of this receipt I
have devoted the greater part of the last twenty years, selecting as the
_corpora vilia_ of my experiment such persons as could conveniently be
removed without occasioning a sensible gap in society. The first step I
effected by the removal of one Phoebe Stanley, a girl of gipsy
extraction, on March 24, 1792. The second, by the removal of a wandering
Italian lad, named Giovanni Paoli, on the night of March 23, 1805. The
final "victim"--to employ a word repugnant in the highest degree to my
feelings--must be my cousin, Stephen Elliott. His day must be this March
'The best means of effecting the required absorption is to remove the
heart from the _living_ subject, to reduce it to ashes, and to mingle
them with about a pint of some red wine, preferably port. The remains of
the first two subjects, at least, it will be well to conceal: a disused
bathroom or wine-cellar will be found convenient for such a purpose. Some
annoyance may be experienced from the psychic portion of the subjects,
which popular language dignifies with the name of ghosts. But the man of
philosophic temperament--to whom alone the experiment is
appropriate--will be little prone to attach importance to the feeble
efforts of these beings to wreak their vengeance on him. I contemplate
with the liveliest satisfaction the enlarged and emancipated existence
which the experiment, if successful, will confer on me; not only placing
me beyond the reach of human justice (so-called), but eliminating to a
great extent the prospect of death itself.'
* * * * *
Mr Abney was found in his chair, his head thrown back, his face stamped
with an expression of rage, fright, and mortal pain. In his left side was
a terrible lacerated wound, exposing the heart. There was no blood on his
hands, and a long knife that lay on the table was perfectly clean. A
savage wild-cat might have inflicted the injuries. The window of the
study was open, and it was the opinion of the coroner that Mr Abney had
met his death by the agency of some wild creature. But Stephen Elliott's
study of the papers I have quoted led him to a very different conclusion.
Some time ago I believe I had the pleasure of telling you the story of an
adventure which happened to a friend of mine by the name of Dennistoun,
during his pursuit of objects of art for the museum at Cambridge.
He did not publish his experiences very widely upon his return to
England; but they could not fail to become known to a good many of his
friends, and among others to the gentleman who at that time presided over
an art museum at another University. It was to be expected that the story
should make a considerable impression on the mind of a man whose vocation
lay in lines similar to Dennistoun's, and that he should be eager to
catch at any explanation of the matter which tended to make it seem
improbable that he should ever be called upon to deal with so agitating
an emergency. It was, indeed, somewhat consoling to him to reflect that
he was not expected to acquire ancient MSS. for his institution; that was
the business of the Shelburnian Library. The authorities of that
institution might, if they pleased, ransack obscure corners of the
Continent for such matters. He was glad to be obliged at the moment to
confine his attention to enlarging the already unsurpassed collection of
English topographical drawings and engravings possessed by his museum.
Yet, as it turned out, even a department so homely and familiar as this
may have its dark corners, and to one of these Mr Williams was
Those who have taken even the most limited interest in the acquisition of
topographical pictures are aware that there is one London dealer whose
aid is indispensable to their researches. Mr J. W. Britnell publishes at
short intervals very admirable catalogues of a large and constantly
changing stock of engravings, plans, and old sketches of mansions,
churches, and towns in England and Wales. These catalogues were, of
course, the ABC of his subject to Mr Williams: but as his museum already
contained an enormous accumulation of topographical pictures, he was a
regular, rather than a copious, buyer; and he rather looked to Mr
Britnell to fill up gaps in the rank and file of his collection than to
supply him with rarities.
Now, in February of last year there appeared upon Mr Williams's desk at
the museum a catalogue from Mr Britnell's emporium, and accompanying it
was a typewritten communication from the dealer himself. This latter ran
We beg to call your attention to No. 978 in our accompanying
catalogue, which we shall be glad to send on approval.
J. W. Britnell.
To turn to No. 978 in the accompanying catalogue was with Mr. Williams
(as he observed to himself) the work of a moment, and in the place
indicated he found the following entry:
978.--_Unknown._ Interesting mezzotint: View of a manor-house, early
part of the century. 15 by 10 inches; black frame. L2 2s.
It was not specially exciting, and the price seemed high. However, as Mr
Britnell, who knew his business and his customer, seemed to set store by
it, Mr Williams wrote a postcard asking for the article to be sent on
approval, along with some other engravings and sketches which appeared in
the same catalogue. And so he passed without much excitement of
anticipation to the ordinary labours of the day.
A parcel of any kind always arrives a day later than you expect it, and
that of Mr Britnell proved, as I believe the right phrase goes, no
exception to the rule. It was delivered at the museum by the afternoon
post of Saturday, after Mr Williams had left his work, and it was
accordingly brought round to his rooms in college by the attendant, in
order that he might not have to wait over Sunday before looking through
it and returning such of the contents as he did not propose to keep. And
here he found it when he came in to tea, with a friend.
The only item with which I am concerned was the rather large,
black-framed mezzotint of which I have already quoted the short
description given in Mr Britnell's catalogue. Some more details of it
will have to be given, though I cannot hope to put before you the look of
the picture as clearly as it is present to my own eye. Very nearly the
exact duplicate of it may be seen in a good many old inn parlours, or in
the passages of undisturbed country mansions at the present moment. It
was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is,
perhaps, the worst form of engraving known. It presented a full-face view
of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of
plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with
balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre. On
either side were trees, and in front a considerable expanse of lawn. The
legend _A. W. F. sculpsit_ was engraved on the narrow margin; and there
was no further inscription. The whole thing gave the impression that it
was the work of an amateur. What in the world Mr Britnell could mean by
affixing the price of L2 2s. to such an object was more than Mr Williams
could imagine. He turned it over with a good deal of contempt; upon the
back was a paper label, the left-hand half of which had been torn off.
All that remained were the ends of two lines of writing; the first had
the letters--_ngley Hall_; the second,--_ssex_.
It would, perhaps, be just worth while to identify the place represented,
which he could easily do with the help of a gazetteer, and then he would
send it back to Mr Britnell, with some remarks reflecting upon the
judgement of that gentleman.
He lighted the candles, for it was now dark, made the tea, and supplied
the friend with whom he had been playing golf (for I believe the
authorities of the University I write of indulge in that pursuit by way
of relaxation); and tea was taken to the accompaniment of a discussion
which golfing persons can imagine for themselves, but which the
conscientious writer has no right to inflict upon any non-golfing
The conclusion arrived at was that certain strokes might have been
better, and that in certain emergencies neither player had experienced
that amount of luck which a human being has a right to expect. It was now
that the friend--let us call him Professor Binks--took up the framed
engraving and said:
'What's this place, Williams?'
'Just what I am going to try to find out,' said Williams, going to the
shelf for a gazetteer. 'Look at the back. Somethingley Hall, either in
Sussex or Essex. Half the name's gone, you see. You don't happen to know
it, I suppose?'
'It's from that man Britnell, I suppose, isn't it?' said Binks. 'Is it
for the museum?'
'Well, I think I should buy it if the price was five shillings,' said
Williams; 'but for some unearthly reason he wants two guineas for it. I
can't conceive why. It's a wretched engraving, and there aren't even any
figures to give it life.'
'It's not worth two guineas, I should think,' said Binks; 'but I don't
think it's so badly done. The moonlight seems rather good to me; and I
should have thought there _were_ figures, or at least a figure, just on
the edge in front.'
'Let's look,' said Williams. 'Well, it's true the light is rather
cleverly given. Where's your figure? Oh, yes! Just the head, in the very
front of the picture.'
And indeed there was--hardly more than a black blot on the extreme edge
of the engraving--the head of a man or woman, a good deal muffled up, the
back turned to the spectator, and looking towards the house.
Williams had not noticed it before.
'Still,' he said, 'though it's a cleverer thing than I thought, I can't
spend two guineas of museum money on a picture of a place I don't know.'
Professor Binks had his work to do, and soon went; and very nearly up to
Hall time Williams was engaged in a vain attempt to identify the subject
of his picture. 'If the vowel before the _ng_ had only been left, it
would have been easy enough,' he thought; 'but as it is, the name may be
anything from Guestingley to Langley, and there are many more names
ending like this than I thought; and this rotten book has no index of
Hall in Mr Williams's college was at seven. It need not be dwelt upon;
the less so as he met there colleagues who had been playing golf during
the afternoon, and words with which we have no concern were freely
bandied across the table--merely golfing words, I would hasten to
I suppose an hour or more to have been spent in what is called
common-room after dinner. Later in the evening some few retired to
Williams's rooms, and I have little doubt that whist was played and
tobacco smoked. During a lull in these operations Williams picked up the
mezzotint from the table without looking at it, and handed it to a person
mildly interested in art, telling him where it had come from, and the
other particulars which we already know.
The gentleman took it carelessly, looked at it, then said, in a tone of
'It's really a very good piece of work, Williams; it has quite a feeling
of the romantic period. The light is admirably managed, it seems to me,
and the figure, though it's rather too grotesque, is somehow very
'Yes, isn't it?' said Williams, who was just then busy giving whisky and
soda to others of the company, and was unable to come across the room to
look at the view again.
It was by this time rather late in the evening, and the visitors were on
the move. After they went Williams was obliged to write a letter or two
and clear up some odd bits of work. At last, some time past midnight, he
was disposed to turn in, and he put out his lamp after lighting his
bedroom candle. The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last
man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the
lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor,
and he declares now if he had been left in the dark at that moment he
would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen, he was able to put
down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was
indubitable--rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the
middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where
no figure had been at five o'clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all
fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment
with a white cross on the back.
I do not know what is the ideal course to pursue in a situation of this
kind, I can only tell you what Mr Williams did. He took the picture by
one corner and carried it across the passage to a second set of rooms
which he possessed. There he locked it up in a drawer, sported the doors
of both sets of rooms, and retired to bed; but first he wrote out and
signed an account of the extraordinary change which the picture had
undergone since it had come into his possession.
Sleep visited him rather late; but it was consoling to reflect that the
behaviour of the picture did not depend upon his own unsupported
testimony. Evidently the man who had looked at it the night before had
seen something of the same kind as he had, otherwise he might have been
tempted to think that something gravely wrong was happening either to his
eyes or his mind. This possibility being fortunately precluded, two
matters awaited him on the morrow. He must take stock of the picture very
carefully, and call in a witness for the purpose, and he must make a
determined effort to ascertain what house it was that was represented. He
would therefore ask his neighbour Nisbet to breakfast with him, and he
would subsequently spend a morning over the gazetteer.
Nisbet was disengaged, and arrived about 9.20. His host was not quite
dressed, I am sorry to say, even at this late hour. During breakfast
nothing was said about the mezzotint by Williams, save that he had a
picture on which he wished for Nisbet's opinion. But those who are
familiar with University life can picture for themselves the wide and
delightful range of subjects over which the conversation of two Fellows
of Canterbury College is likely to extend during a Sunday morning
breakfast. Hardly a topic was left unchallenged, from golf to
lawn-tennis. Yet I am bound to say that Williams was rather distraught;
for his interest naturally centred in that very strange picture which was
now reposing, face downwards, in the drawer in the room opposite.
The morning pipe was at last lighted, and the moment had arrived for
which he looked. With very considerable--almost tremulous--excitement he
ran across, unlocked the drawer, and, extracting the picture--still face
downwards--ran back, and put it into Nisbet's hands.
'Now,' he said, 'Nisbet, I want you to tell me exactly what you see in
that picture. Describe it, if you don't mind, rather minutely. I'll tell
you why afterwards.'
'Well,' said Nisbet, 'I have here a view of a country-house--English, I
'Moonlight? You're sure of that?'
'Certainly. The moon appears to be on the wane, if you wish for details,
and there are clouds in the sky.'
'All right. Go on. I'll swear,' added Williams in an aside, 'there was no
moon when I saw it first.'
'Well, there's not much more to be said,' Nisbet continued. 'The house
has one--two--three rows of windows, five in each row, except at the
bottom, where there's a porch instead of the middle one, and--'
'But what about figures?' said Williams, with marked interest.
'There aren't any,' said Nisbet; 'but--'
'What! No figure on the grass in front?'
'Not a thing.'
'You'll swear to that?'
'Certainly I will. But there's just one other thing.'
'Why, one of the windows on the ground-floor--left of the door--is open.'
'Is it really so? My goodness! he must have got in,' said Williams, with
great excitement; and he hurried to the back of the sofa on which Nisbet
was sitting, and, catching the picture from him, verified the matter for
It was quite true. There was no figure, and there was the open window.
Williams, after a moment of speechless surprise, went to the
writing-table and scribbled for a short time. Then he brought two papers
to Nisbet, and asked him first to sign one--it was his own description of
the picture, which you have just heard--and then to read the other which
was Williams's statement written the night before.
'What can it all mean?' said Nisbet.
'Exactly,' said Williams. 'Well, one thing I must do--or three things,
now I think of it. I must find out from Garwood'--this was his last
night's visitor--'what he saw, and then I must get the thing photographed
before it goes further, and then I must find out what the place is.'
'I can do the photographing myself,' said Nisbet, 'and I will. But, you
know, it looks very much as if we were assisting at the working out of a
tragedy somewhere. The question is, has it happened already, or is it
going to come off? You must find out what the place is. Yes,' he said,
looking at the picture again, 'I expect you're right: he has got in. And
if I don't mistake, there'll be the devil to pay in one of the rooms
'I'll tell you what,' said Williams: 'I'll take the picture across to old
Green' (this was the senior Fellow of the College, who had been Bursar
for many years). 'It's quite likely he'll know it. We have property in
Essex and Sussex, and he must have been over the two counties a lot in
'Quite likely he will,' said Nisbet; 'but just let me take my photograph
first. But look here, I rather think Green isn't up today. He wasn't in
Hall last night, and I think I heard him say he was going down for the
'That's true, too,' said Williams; 'I know he's gone to Brighton. Well,
if you'll photograph it now, I'll go across to Garwood and get his
statement, and you keep an eye on it while I'm gone. I'm beginning to
think two guineas is not a very exorbitant price for it now.'
In a short time he had returned, and brought Mr Garwood with him.
Garwood's statement was to the effect that the figure, when he had seen
it, was clear of the edge of the picture, but had not got far across the
lawn. He remembered a white mark on the back of its drapery, but could
not have been sure it was a cross. A document to this effect was then
drawn up and signed, and Nisbet proceeded to photograph the picture.
'Now what do you mean to do?' he said. 'Are you going to sit and watch it
'Well, no, I think not,' said Williams. 'I rather imagine we're meant to
see the whole thing. You see, between the time I saw it last night and
this morning there was time for lots of things to happen, but the
creature only got into the house. It could easily have got through its
business in the time and gone to its own place again; but the fact of the
window being open, I think, must mean that it's in there now. So I feel
quite easy about leaving it. And besides, I have a kind of idea that it
wouldn't change much, if at all, in the daytime. We might go out for a
walk this afternoon, and come in to tea, or whenever it gets dark. I
shall leave it out on the table here, and sport the door. My skip can get
in, but no one else.'
The three agreed that this would be a good plan; and, further, that if
they spent the afternoon together they would be less likely to talk about
the business to other people; for any rumour of such a transaction as was
going on would bring the whole of the Phasmatological Society about their
We may give them a respite until five o'clock.
At or near that hour the three were entering Williams's staircase. They
were at first slightly annoyed to see that the door of his rooms was
unsported; but in a moment it was remembered that on Sunday the skips
came for orders an hour or so earlier than on weekdays. However, a
surprise was awaiting them. The first thing they saw was the picture
leaning up against a pile of books on the table, as it had been left, and
the next thing was Williams's skip, seated on a chair opposite, gazing at
it with undisguised horror. How was this? Mr Filcher (the name is not my
own invention) was a servant of considerable standing, and set the
standard of etiquette to all his own college and to several neighbouring
ones, and nothing could be more alien to his practice than to be found
sitting on his master's chair, or appearing to take any particular notice
of his master's furniture or pictures. Indeed, he seemed to feel this
himself. He started violently when the three men were in the room, and
got up with a marked effort. Then he said:
'I ask your pardon, sir, for taking such a freedom as to set down.'
'Not at all, Robert,' interposed Mr Williams. 'I was meaning to ask you
some time what you thought of that picture.'
'Well, sir, of course I don't set up my opinion against yours, but it
ain't the pictur I should 'ang where my little girl could see it, sir.'
'Wouldn't you, Robert? Why not?'
'No, sir. Why, the pore child, I recollect once she see a Door Bible,
with pictures not 'alf what that is, and we 'ad to set up with her three
or four nights afterwards, if you'll believe me; and if she was to ketch
a sight of this skelinton here, or whatever it is, carrying off the pore
baby, she would be in a taking. You know 'ow it is with children; 'ow
nervish they git with a little thing and all. But what I should say, it
don't seem a right pictur to be laying about, sir, not where anyone
that's liable to be startled could come on it. Should you be wanting
anything this evening, sir? Thank you, sir.'
With these words the excellent man went to continue the round of his
masters, and you may be sure the gentlemen whom he left lost no time in
gathering round the engraving. There was the house, as before under the
waning moon and the drifting clouds. The window that had been open was
shut, and the figure was once more on the lawn: but not this time
crawling cautiously on hands and knees. Now it was erect and stepping
swiftly, with long strides, towards the front of the picture. The moon
was behind it, and the black drapery hung down over its face so that only
hints of that could be seen, and what was visible made the spectators
profoundly thankful that they could see no more than a white dome-like
forehead and a few straggling hairs. The head was bent down, and the arms
were tightly clasped over an object which could be dimly seen and
identified as a child, whether dead or living it was not possible to say.
The legs of the appearance alone could be plainly discerned, and they
were horribly thin.
From five to seven the three companions sat and watched the picture by
turns. But it never changed. They agreed at last that it would be safe to
leave it, and that they would return after Hall and await further
When they assembled again, at the earliest possible moment, the engraving
was there, but the figure was gone, and the house was quiet under the
moonbeams. There was nothing for it but to spend the evening over
gazetteers and guide-books. Williams was the lucky one at last, and
perhaps he deserved it. At 11.30 p.m. he read from Murray's _Guide to
Essex_the following lines:
16-1/2 miles, _Anningley_. The church has been an interesting
building of Norman date, but was extensively classicized in the last
century. It contains the tomb of the family of Francis, whose
mansion, Anningley Hall, a solid Queen Anne house, stands immediately
beyond the churchyard in a park of about 80 acres. The family is now
extinct, the last heir having disappeared mysteriously in infancy in
the year 1802. The father, Mr Arthur Francis, was locally known as a
talented amateur engraver in mezzotint. After his son's disappearance
he lived in complete retirement at the Hall, and was found dead in
his studio on the third anniversary of the disaster, having just
completed an engraving of the house, impressions of which are of
This looked like business, and, indeed, Mr Green on his return at once
identified the house as Anningley Hall.
'Is there any kind of explanation of the figure, Green?' was the question
which Williams naturally asked.
'I don't know, I'm sure, Williams. What used to be said in the place when
I first knew it, which was before I came up here, was just this: old
Francis was always very much down on these poaching fellows, and whenever
he got a chance he used to get a man whom he suspected of it turned off
the estate, and by degrees he got rid of them all but one. Squires could
do a lot of things then that they daren't think of now. Well, this man
that was left was what you find pretty often in that country--the last
remains of a very old family. I believe they were Lords of the Manor at
one time. I recollect just the same thing in my own parish.'
'What, like the man in _Tess o' the Durbervilles_?' Williams put in.
'Yes, I dare say; it's not a book I could ever read myself. But this
fellow could show a row of tombs in the church there that belonged to his
ancestors, and all that went to sour him a bit; but Francis, they said,
could never get at him--he always kept just on the right side of the
law--until one night the keepers found him at it in a wood right at the
end of the estate. I could show you the place now; it marches with some
land that used to belong to an uncle of mine. And you can imagine there
was a row; and this man Gawdy (that was the name, to be sure--Gawdy; I
thought I should get it--Gawdy), he was unlucky enough, poor chap! to
shoot a keeper. Well, that was what Francis wanted, and grand juries--you
know what they would have been then--and poor Gawdy was strung up in
double-quick time; and I've been shown the place he was buried in, on the
north side of the church--you know the way in that part of the world:
anyone that's been hanged or made away with themselves, they bury them
that side. And the idea was that some friend of Gawdy's--not a relation,
because he had none, poor devil! he was the last of his line: kind of
_spes ultima gentis_--must have planned to get hold of Francis's boy and
put an end to _his_ line, too. I don't know--it's rather an
out-of-the-way thing for an Essex poacher to think of--but, you know, I
should say now it looks more as if old Gawdy had managed the job himself.
Booh! I hate to think of it! have some whisky, Williams!'
The facts were communicated by Williams to Dennistoun, and by him to a
mixed company, of which I was one, and the Sadducean Professor of
Ophiology another. I am sorry to say that the latter when asked what he
thought of it, only remarked: 'Oh, those Bridgeford people will say
anything'--a sentiment which met with the reception it deserved.
I have only to add that the picture is now in the Ashleian Museum; that
it has been treated with a view to discovering whether sympathetic ink
has been used in it, but without effect; that Mr Britnell knew nothing of
it save that he was sure it was uncommon; and that, though carefully
watched, it has never been known to change again.
Everyone who has travelled over Eastern England knows the smaller
country-houses with which it is studded--the rather dank little
buildings, usually in the Italian style, surrounded with parks of some
eighty to a hundred acres. For me they have always had a very strong
attraction, with the grey paling of split oak, the noble trees, the meres
with their reed-beds, and the line of distant woods. Then, I like the
pillared portico--perhaps stuck on to a red-brick Queen Anne house which
has been faced with stucco to bring it into line with the 'Grecian' taste
of the end of the eighteenth century; the hall inside, going up to the
roof, which hall ought always to be provided with a gallery and a small
organ. I like the library, too, where you may find anything from a
Psalter of the thirteenth century to a Shakespeare quarto. I like the
pictures, of course; and perhaps most of all I like fancying what life in
such a house was when it was first built, and in the piping times of
landlords' prosperity, and not least now, when, if money is not so
plentiful, taste is more varied and life quite as interesting. I wish to
have one of these houses, and enough money to keep it together and
entertain my friends in it modestly.
But this is a digression. I have to tell you of a curious series of
events which happened in such a house as I have tried to describe. It is
Castringham Hall in Suffolk. I think a good deal has been done to the
building since the period of my story, but the essential features I have
sketched are still there--Italian portico, square block of white house,
older inside than out, park with fringe of woods, and mere. The one
feature that marked out the house from a score of others is gone. As you
looked at it from the park, you saw on the right a great old ash-tree
growing within half a dozen yards of the wall, and almost or quite
touching the building with its branches. I suppose it had stood there
ever since Castringham ceased to be a fortified place, and since the moat
was filled in and the Elizabethan dwelling-house built. At any rate, it
had well-nigh attained its full dimensions in the year 1690.
In that year the district in which the Hall is situated was the scene of
a number of witch-trials. It will be long, I think, before we arrive at a
just estimate of the amount of solid reason--if there was any--which lay
at the root of the universal fear of witches in old times. Whether the
persons accused of this offence really did imagine that they were
possessed of unusual power of any kind; or whether they had the will at
least, if not the power, of doing mischief to their neighbours; or
whether all the confessions, of which there are so many, were extorted by
the cruelty of the witch-finders--these are questions which are not, I
fancy, yet solved. And the present narrative gives me pause. I cannot
altogether sweep it away as mere invention. The reader must judge for
Castringham contributed a victim to the _auto-da-fe_. Mrs Mothersole was
her name, and she differed from the ordinary run of village witches only
in being rather better off and in a more influential position. Efforts
were made to save her by several reputable farmers of the parish. They
did their best to testify to her character, and showed considerable
anxiety as to the verdict of the jury.
But what seems to have been fatal to the woman was the evidence of the
then proprietor of Castringham Hall--Sir Matthew Fell. He deposed to
having watched her on three different occasions from his window, at the
full of the moon, gathering sprigs 'from the ash-tree near my house'. She
had climbed into the branches, clad only in her shift, and was cutting
off small twigs with a peculiarly curved knife, and as she did so she
seemed to be talking to herself. On each occasion Sir Matthew had done
his best to capture the woman, but she had always taken alarm at some
accidental noise he had made, and all he could see when he got down to
the garden was a hare running across the path in the direction of the
On the third night he had been at the pains to follow at his best speed,
and had gone straight to Mrs Mothersole's house; but he had had to wait a
quarter of an hour battering at her door, and then she had come out very
cross, and apparently very sleepy, as if just out of bed; and he had no
good explanation to offer of his visit.
Mainly on this evidence, though there was much more of a less striking
and unusual kind from other parishioners, Mrs Mothersole was found guilty
and condemned to die. She was hanged a week after the trial, with five or
six more unhappy creatures, at Bury St Edmunds.
Sir Matthew Fell, then Deputy-Sheriff, was present at the execution. It
was a damp, drizzly March morning when the cart made its way up the rough
grass hill outside Northgate, where the gallows stood. The other victims
were apathetic or broken down with misery; but Mrs Mothersole was, as in
life so in death, of a very different temper. Her 'poysonous Rage', as a
reporter of the time puts it, 'did so work upon the Bystanders--yea, even
upon the Hangman--that it was constantly affirmed of all that saw her
that she presented the living Aspect of a mad Divell. Yet she offer'd no
Resistance to the Officers of the Law; onely she looked upon those that
laid Hands upon her with so direfull and venomous an Aspect that--as one
of them afterwards assured me--the meer Thought of it preyed inwardly
upon his Mind for six Months after.'
However, all that she is reported to have said were the seemingly
meaningless words: 'There will be guests at the Hall.' Which she repeated
more than once in an undertone.
Sir Matthew Fell was not unimpressed by the bearing of the woman. He had
some talk upon the matter with the Vicar of his parish, with whom he
travelled home after the assize business was over. His evidence at the
trial had not been very willingly given; he was not specially infected
with the witch-finding mania, but he declared, then and afterwards, that
he could not give any other account of the matter than that he had given,
and that he could not possibly have been mistaken as to what he saw. The
whole transaction had been repugnant to him, for he was a man who liked
to be on pleasant terms with those about him; but he saw a duty to be
done in this business, and he had done it. That seems to have been the
gist of his sentiments, and the Vicar applauded it, as any reasonable man
must have done.
A few weeks after, when the moon of May was at the full, Vicar and Squire
met again in the park, and walked to the Hall together. Lady Fell was
with her mother, who was dangerously ill, and Sir Matthew was alone at
home; so the Vicar, Mr Crome, was easily persuaded to take a late supper
at the Hall.
Sir Matthew was not very good company this evening. The talk ran chiefly
on family and parish matters, and, as luck would have it, Sir Matthew
made a memorandum in writing of certain wishes or intentions of his
regarding his estates, which afterwards proved exceedingly useful.
When Mr Crome thought of starting for home, about half past nine o'clock,
Sir Matthew and he took a preliminary turn on the gravelled walk at the
back of the house. The only incident that struck Mr Crome was this: they
were in sight of the ash-tree which I described as growing near the
windows of the building, when Sir Matthew stopped and said:
'What is that that runs up and down the stem of the ash? It is never a
squirrel? They will all be in their nests by now.'
The Vicar looked and saw the moving creature, but he could make nothing
of its colour in the moonlight. The sharp outline, however, seen for an
instant, was imprinted on his brain, and he could have sworn, he said,
though it sounded foolish, that, squirrel or not, it had more than four
Still, not much was to be made of the momentary vision, and the two men
parted. They may have met since then, but it was not for a score of
Next day Sir Matthew Fell was not downstairs at six in the morning, as
was his custom, nor at seven, nor yet at eight. Hereupon the servants
went and knocked at his chamber door. I need not prolong the description
of their anxious listenings and renewed batterings on the panels. The
door was opened at last from the outside, and they found their master
dead and black. So much you have guessed. That there were any marks of
violence did not at the moment appear; but the window was open.
One of the men went to fetch the parson, and then by his directions rode
on to give notice to the coroner. Mr Crome himself went as quick as he
might to the Hall, and was shown to the room where the dead man lay. He
has left some notes among his papers which show how genuine a respect and
sorrow was felt for Sir Matthew, and there is also this passage, which I
transcribe for the sake of the light it throws upon the course of events,
and also upon the common beliefs of the time:
'There was not any the least Trace of an Entrance having been forc'd to
the Chamber: but the Casement stood open, as my poor Friend would always
have it in this Season. He had his Evening Drink of small Ale in a silver
vessel of about a pint measure, and tonight had not drunk it out. This
Drink was examined by the Physician from Bury, a Mr Hodgkins, who could
not, however, as he afterwards declar'd upon his Oath, before the
Coroner's quest, discover that any matter of a venomous kind was present
in it. For, as was natural, in the great Swelling and Blackness of the
Corpse, there was talk made among the Neighbours of Poyson. The Body was
very much Disorder'd as it laid in the Bed, being twisted after so
extream a sort as gave too probable Conjecture that my worthy Friend and
Patron had expir'd in great Pain and Agony. And what is as yet
unexplain'd, and to myself the Argument of some Horrid and Artfull
Designe in the Perpetrators of this Barbarous Murther, was this, that the
Women which were entrusted with the laying-out of the Corpse and washing
it, being both sad Pearsons and very well Respected in their Mournfull
Profession, came to me in a great Pain and Distress both of Mind and
Body, saying, what was indeed confirmed upon the first View, that they
had no sooner touch'd the Breast of the Corpse with their naked Hands
than they were sensible of a more than ordinary violent Smart and Acheing
in their Palms, which, with their whole Forearms, in no long time swell'd
so immoderately, the Pain still continuing, that, as afterwards proved,
during many weeks they were forc'd to lay by the exercise of their
Calling; and yet no mark seen on the Skin.
'Upon hearing this, I sent for the Physician, who was still in the House,
and we made as carefull a Proof as we were able by the Help of a small
Magnifying Lens of Crystal of the condition of the Skinn on this Part of
the Body: but could not detect with the Instrument we had any Matter of
Importance beyond a couple of small Punctures or Pricks, which we then
concluded were the Spotts by which the Poyson might be introduced,
remembering that Ring of _Pope Borgia_, with other known Specimens of the
Horrid Art of the Italian Poysoners of the last age.
'So much is to be said of the Symptoms seen on the Corpse. As to what I
am to add, it is meerly my own Experiment, and to be left to Posterity to
judge whether there be anything of Value therein. There was on the Table
by the Beddside a Bible of the small size, in which my Friend--punctuall
as in Matters of less Moment, so in this more weighty one--used nightly,
and upon his First Rising, to read a sett Portion. And I taking it
up--not without a Tear duly paid to him wich from the Study of this
poorer Adumbration was now pass'd to the contemplation of its great
Originall--it came into my Thoughts, as at such moments of Helplessness
we are prone to catch at any the least Glimmer that makes promise of
Light, to make trial of that old and by many accounted Superstitious
Practice of drawing the _Sortes;_ of which a Principall Instance, in the
case of his late Sacred Majesty the Blessed Martyr King _Charles_ and my
Lord _Falkland_, was now much talked of. I must needs admit that by my
Trial not much Assistance was afforded me: yet, as the Cause and Origin
of these Dreadfull Events may hereafter be search'd out, I set down the
Results, in the case it may be found that they pointed the true Quarter
of the Mischief to a quicker Intelligence than my own.
'I made, then, three trials, opening the Book and placing my Finger upon
certain Words: which gave in the first these words, from Luke xiii. 7,
_Cut it down_; in the second, Isaiah xiii. 20, _It shall never be
inhabited_; and upon the third Experiment, Job xxxix. 30, _Her young ones
also suck up blood_.'
This is all that need be quoted from Mr Crome's papers. Sir Matthew Fell
was duly coffined and laid into the earth, and his funeral sermon,
preached by Mr Crome on the following Sunday, has been printed under the
title of 'The Unsearchable Way; or, England's Danger and the Malicious
Dealings of Antichrist', it being the Vicar's view, as well as that most
commonly held in the neighbourhood, that the Squire was the victim of a
recrudescence of the Popish Plot.
His son, Sir Matthew the second, succeeded to the title and estates. And
so ends the first act of the Castringham tragedy. It is to be mentioned,
though the fact is not surprising, that the new Baronet did not occupy
the room in which his father had died. Nor, indeed, was it slept in by
anyone but an occasional visitor during the whole of his occupation. He
died in 1735, and I do not find that anything particular marked his
reign, save a curiously constant mortality among his cattle and
live-stock in general, which showed a tendency to increase slightly as
time went on.
Those who are interested in the details will find a statistical account
in a letter to the _Gentleman's Magazine_ of 1772, which draws the facts
from the Baronet's own papers. He put an end to it at last by a very
simple expedient, that of shutting up all his beasts in sheds at night,
and keeping no sheep in his park. For he had noticed that nothing was
ever attacked that spent the night indoors. After that the disorder
confined itself to wild birds, and beasts of chase. But as we have no
good account of the symptoms, and as all-night watching was quite
unproductive of any clue, I do not dwell on what the Suffolk farmers
called the 'Castringham sickness'.
The second Sir Matthew died in 1735, as I said, and was duly succeeded by
his son, Sir Richard. It was in his time that the great family pew was
built out on the north side of the parish church. So large were the
Squire's ideas that several of the graves on that unhallowed side of the
building had to be disturbed to satisfy his requirements. Among them was
that of Mrs Mothersole, the position of which was accurately known,
thanks to a note on a plan of the church and yard, both made by Mr Crome.
A certain amount of interest was excited in the village when it was known
that the famous witch, who was still remembered by a few, was to be
exhumed. And the feeling of surprise, and indeed disquiet, was very
strong when it was found that, though her coffin was fairly sound and
unbroken, there was no trace whatever inside it of body, bones, or dust.
Indeed, it is a curious phenomenon, for at the time of her burying no
such things were dreamt of as resurrection-men, and it is difficult to
conceive any rational motive for stealing a body otherwise than for the
uses of the dissecting-room.
The incident revived for a time all the stories of witch-trials and of
the exploits of the witches, dormant for forty years, and Sir Richard's
orders that the coffin should be burnt were thought by a good many to be
rather foolhardy, though they were duly carried out.
Sir Richard was a pestilent innovator, it is certain. Before his time the
Hall had been a fine block of the mellowest red brick; but Sir Richard
had travelled in Italy and become infected with the Italian taste, and,
having more money than his predecessors, he determined to leave an
Italian palace where he had found an English house. So stucco and ashlar
masked the brick; some indifferent Roman marbles were planted about in
the entrance-hall and gardens; a reproduction of the Sibyl's temple at
Tivoli was erected on the opposite bank of the mere; and Castringham took
on an entirely new, and, I must say, a less engaging, aspect. But it was
much admired, and served as a model to a good many of the neighbouring
gentry in after-years.
* * * * *
One morning (it was in 1754) Sir Richard woke after a night of
discomfort. It had been windy, and his chimney had smoked persistently,
and yet it was so cold that he must keep up a fire. Also something had so
rattled about the window that no man could get a moment's peace. Further,
there was the prospect of several guests of position arriving in the
course of the day, who would expect sport of some kind, and the inroads
of the distemper (which continued among his game) had been lately so
serious that he was afraid for his reputation as a game-preserver. But
what really touched him most nearly was the other matter of his sleepless
night. He could certainly not sleep in that room again.
That was the chief subject of his meditations at breakfast, and after it
he began a systematic examination of the rooms to see which would suit
his notions best. It was long before he found one. This had a window with
an eastern aspect and that with a northern; this door the servants would
be always passing, and he did not like the bedstead in that. No, he must
have a room with a western look-out, so that the sun could not wake him
early, and it must be out of the way of the business of the house. The
housekeeper was at the end of her resources.
'Well, Sir Richard,' she said, 'you know that there is but the one room
like that in the house.'
'Which may that be?' said Sir Richard.
'And that is Sir Matthew's--the West Chamber.'
'Well, put me in there, for there I'll lie tonight,' said her master.
'Which way is it? Here, to be sure'; and he hurried off.
'Oh, Sir Richard, but no one has slept there these forty years. The air
has hardly been changed since Sir Matthew died there.'
Thus she spoke, and rustled after him.
'Come, open the door, Mrs Chiddock. I'll see the chamber, at least.'
So it was opened, and, indeed, the smell was very close and earthy. Sir
Richard crossed to the window, and, impatiently, as was his wont, threw
the shutters back, and flung open the casement. For this end of the house
was one which the alterations had barely touched, grown up as it was with
the great ash-tree, and being otherwise concealed from view.
'Air it, Mrs Chiddock, all today, and move my bed-furniture in in the
afternoon. Put the Bishop of Kilmore in my old room.'
'Pray, Sir Richard,' said a new voice, breaking in on this speech, 'might
I have the favour of a moment's interview?'
Sir Richard turned round and saw a man in black in the doorway, who
'I must ask your indulgence for this intrusion, Sir Richard. You will,
perhaps, hardly remember me. My name is William Crome, and my grandfather
was Vicar in your grandfather's time.'
'Well, sir,' said Sir Richard, 'the name of Crome is always a passport to
Castringham. I am glad to renew a friendship of two generations'
standing. In what can I serve you? for your hour of calling--and, if I do
not mistake you, your bearing--shows you to be in some haste.'
'That is no more than the truth, sir. I am riding from Norwich to Bury St
Edmunds with what haste I can make, and I have called in on my way to
leave with you some papers which we have but just come upon in looking
over what my grandfather left at his death. It is thought you may find
some matters of family interest in them.'
'You are mighty obliging, Mr Crome, and, if you will be so good as to
follow me to the parlour, and drink a glass of wine, we will take a first
look at these same papers together. And you, Mrs Chiddock, as I said, be
about airing this chamber.... Yes, it is here my grandfather died....
Yes, the tree, perhaps, does make the place a little dampish.... No; I do
not wish to listen to any more. Make no difficulties, I beg. You have
your orders--go. Will you follow me, sir?'
They went to the study. The packet which young Mr Crome had brought--he
was then just become a Fellow of Clare Hall in Cambridge, I may say, and
subsequently brought out a respectable edition of Polyaenus--contained
among other things the notes which the old Vicar had made upon the
occasion of Sir Matthew Fell's death. And for the first time Sir Richard
was confronted with the enigmatical _Sortes Biblicae_ which you have
heard. They amused him a good deal.
'Well,' he said, 'my grandfather's Bible gave one prudent piece of
advice--_Cut it down_. If that stands for the ash-tree, he may rest
assured I shall not neglect it. Such a nest of catarrhs and agues was
The parlour contained the family books, which, pending the arrival of a
collection which Sir Richard had made in Italy, and the building of a
proper room to receive them, were not many in number.
Sir Richard looked up from the paper to the bookcase.
'I wonder,' says he, 'whether the old prophet is there yet? I fancy I see
Crossing the room, he took out a dumpy Bible, which, sure enough, bore on
the flyleaf the inscription: 'To Matthew Fell, from his Loving Godmother,
Anne Aldous, 2 September 1659.'
'It would be no bad plan to test him again, Mr Crome. I will wager we get
a couple of names in the Chronicles. H'm! what have we here? "Thou shalt
seek me in the morning, and I shall not be." Well, well! Your grandfather
would have made a fine omen of that, hey? No more prophets for me! They
are all in a tale. And now, Mr Crome, I am infinitely obliged to you for
your packet. You will, I fear, be impatient to get on. Pray allow
So with offers of hospitality, which were genuinely meant (for Sir
Richard thought well of the young man's address and manner), they parted.
In the afternoon came the guests--the Bishop of Kilmore, Lady Mary
Hervey, Sir William Kentfield, etc. Dinner at five, wine, cards, supper,
and dispersal to bed.
Next morning Sir Richard is disinclined to take his gun with the rest. He
talks with the Bishop of Kilmore. This prelate, unlike a good many of the
Irish Bishops of his day, had visited his see, and, indeed, resided
there, for some considerable time. This morning, as the two were walking
along the terrace and talking over the alterations and improvements in
the house, the Bishop said, pointing to the window of the West Room:
'You could never get one of my Irish flock to occupy that room, Sir
'Why is that, my lord? It is, in fact, my own.'
'Well, our Irish peasantry will always have it that it brings the worst
of luck to sleep near an ash-tree, and you have a fine growth of ash not
two yards from your chamber window. Perhaps,' the Bishop went on, with a
smile, 'it has given you a touch of its quality already, for you do not
seem, if I may say it, so much the fresher for your night's rest as your
friends would like to see you.'
'That, or something else, it is true, cost me my sleep from twelve to
four, my lord. But the tree is to come down tomorrow, so I shall not hear
much more from it.'
'I applaud your determination. It can hardly be wholesome to have the air
you breathe strained, as it were, through all that leafage.'
'Your lordship is right there, I think. But I had not my window open last
night. It was rather the noise that went on--no doubt from the twigs
sweeping the glass--that kept me open-eyed.'
'I think that can hardly be, Sir Richard. Here--you see it from this
point. None of these nearest branches even can touch your casement unless
there were a gale, and there was none of that last night. They miss the
panes by a foot.'
'No, sir, true. What, then, will it be, I wonder, that scratched and
rustled so--ay, and covered the dust on my sill with lines and marks?'
At last they agreed that the rats must have come up through the ivy. That
was the Bishop's idea, and Sir Richard jumped at it.
So the day passed quietly, and night came, and the party dispersed to
their rooms, and wished Sir Richard a better night.
And now we are in his bedroom, with the light out and the Squire in bed.
The room is over the kitchen, and the night outside still and warm, so
the window stands open.
There is very little light about the bedstead, but there is a strange
movement there; it seems as if Sir Richard were moving his head rapidly
to and fro with only the slightest possible sound. And now you would
guess, so deceptive is the half-darkness, that he had several heads,
round and brownish, which move back and forward, even as low as his
chest. It is a horrible illusion. Is it nothing more? There! something
drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten, and is out of the
window in a flash; another--four--and after that there is quiet again.
_Thou shall seek me in the morning, and I shall not be._
As with Sir Matthew, so with Sir Richard--dead and black in his bed!
A pale and silent party of guests and servants gathered under the window
when the news was known. Italian poisoners, Popish emissaries, infected
air--all these and more guesses were hazarded, and the Bishop of Kilmore
looked at the tree, in the fork of whose lower boughs a white tom-cat was
crouching, looking down the hollow which years had gnawed in the trunk.
It was watching something inside the tree with great interest.
Suddenly it got up and craned over the hole. Then a bit of the edge on
which it stood gave way, and it went slithering in. Everyone looked up at
the noise of the fall.
It is known to most of us that a cat can cry; but few of us have heard, I
hope, such a yell as came out of the trunk of the great ash. Two or three
screams there were--the witnesses are not sure which--and then a slight
and muffled noise of some commotion or struggling was all that came. But
Lady Mary Hervey fainted outright, and the housekeeper stopped her ears
and fled till she fell on the terrace.
The Bishop of Kilmore and Sir William Kentfield stayed. Yet even they
were daunted, though it was only at the cry of a cat; and Sir William
swallowed once or twice before he could say:
'There is something more than we know of in that tree, my lord. I am for
an instant search.'
And this was agreed upon. A ladder was brought, and one of the gardeners
went up, and, looking down the hollow, could detect nothing but a few dim
indications of something moving. They got a lantern, and let it down by a
'We must get at the bottom of this. My life upon it, my lord, but the
secret of these terrible deaths is there.'
Up went the gardener again with the lantern, and let it down the hole
cautiously. They saw the yellow light upon his face as he bent over, and
saw his face struck with an incredulous terror and loathing before he
cried out in a dreadful voice and fell back from the ladder--where,
happily, he was caught by two of the men--letting the lantern fall inside
He was in a dead faint, and it was some time before any word could be got
By then they had something else to look at. The lantern must have broken
at the bottom, and the light in it caught upon dry leaves and rubbish
that lay there for in a few minutes a dense smoke began to come up, and
then flame; and, to be short, the tree was in a blaze.
The bystanders made a ring at some yards' distance, and Sir William and
the Bishop sent men to get what weapons and tools they could; for,
clearly, whatever might be using the tree as its lair would be forced out
by the fire.
So it was. First, at the fork, they saw a round body covered with
fire--the size of a man's head--appear very suddenly, then seem to
collapse and fall back. This, five or six times; then a similar ball
leapt into the air and fell on the grass, where after a moment it lay
still. The Bishop went as near as he dared to it, and saw--what but the
remains of an enormous spider, veinous and seared! And, as the fire
burned lower down, more terrible bodies like this began to break out from
the trunk, and it was seen that these were covered with greyish hair.
All that day the ash burned, and until it fell to pieces the men stood
about it, and from time to time killed the brutes as they darted out. At
last there was a long interval when none appeared, and they cautiously
closed in and examined the roots of the tree.
'They found,' says the Bishop of Kilmore, 'below it a rounded hollow
place in the earth, wherein were two or three bodies of these creatures
that had plainly been smothered by the smoke; and, what is to me more
curious, at the side of this den, against the wall, was crouching the
anatomy or skeleton of a human being, with the skin dried upon the bones,
having some remains of black hair, which was pronounced by those that
examined it to be undoubtedly the body of a woman, and clearly dead for a
period of fifty years.'
Among the towns of Jutland, Viborg justly holds a high place. It is the
seat of a bishopric; it has a handsome but almost entirely new cathedral,
a charming garden, a lake of great beauty, and many storks. Near it is
Hald, accounted one of the prettiest things in Denmark; and hard by is
Finderup, where Marsk Stig murdered King Erik Glipping on St Cecilia's
Day, in the year 1286. Fifty-six blows of square-headed iron maces were
traced on Erik's skull when his tomb was opened in the seventeenth
century. But I am not writing a guide-book.
There are good hotels in Viborg--Preisler's and the Phoenix are all that
can be desired. But my cousin, whose experiences I have to tell you now,
went to the Golden Lion the first time that he visited Viborg. He has not
been there since, and the following pages will, perhaps, explain the
reason of his abstention.
The Golden Lion is one of the very few houses in the town that were not
destroyed in the great fire of 1726, which practically demolished the
cathedral, the Sognekirke, the Raadhuus, and so much else that was old
and interesting. It is a great red-brick house--that is, the front is of
brick, with corbie steps on the gables and a text over the door; but the
courtyard into which the omnibus drives is of black and white wood and
The sun was declining in the heavens when my cousin walked up to the
door, and the light smote full upon the imposing facade of the house. He
was delighted with the old-fashioned aspect of the place, and promised
himself a thoroughly satisfactory and amusing stay in an inn so typical
of old Jutland.
It was not business in the ordinary sense of the word that had brought Mr
Anderson to Viborg. He was engaged upon some researches into the Church
history of Denmark, and it had come to his knowledge that in the
Rigsarkiv of Viborg there were papers, saved from the fire, relating to
the last days of Roman Catholicism in the country. He proposed,
therefore, to spend a considerable time--perhaps as much as a fortnight
or three weeks--in examining and copying these, and he hoped that the
Golden Lion would be able to give him a room of sufficient size to serve
alike as a bedroom and a study. His wishes were explained to the
landlord, and, after a certain amount of thought, the latter suggested
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