Lost Hearts

M.R. James

0
10 Jul, 2014 08:55 PM

It was, as far as I can ascertain, in September of the year 1811 that a
postchaise 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
weathercock 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 steadygoing 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 even 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? Certain?'
'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
lower regions.
Mrs Bunch was the most comfortable and human person whom Stephen had as
yet met in 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 satisfactory.
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 was - surprising.'
'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 shelf.'
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
hurdy-gurdy.
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 possess 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 dream 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
book'.
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
nightgown.
'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
after you."
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 before.
'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
fingernails, 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 your bed.'
'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 hurt you.'
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 Hall.'
'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 moonlit 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. The door was not locked, he felt sure,
for the key was on the outside of it 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 24, 1812.
'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.

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