M. R. James

14 Jul, 2014 08:22 PM

ÔAnd if you was to walk through the bedrooms now, youÕd see the
ragged, mouldy bedclothes a-heaving and a-heaving like seas.ÕÔAnd
a-heaving and a-heaving with what?Õ he says. ÔWhy, with the rats
under Ôem.Õ

But was it with the rats? I ask, because in another case it was not. I
cannot put a date to the story, but I was young when I heard it, and the
teller was old. It is an ill-proportioned tale, but that is my fault, not

It happened in Suffolk, near the coast.In a place where the road makes a
sudden dip and then a sudden rise; as you go northward, at the top of that
rise, stands a house on the left of the road. It is a tall red-brick house,
narrow for its height; perhaps it was built around 1770. the top of the
front has a low triangular pediment with a round window in the centre.
Behind it are stables and offices, and such garden as it has is behind
them.Scraggy scotch firs are near it; an expanse of gorse-covered land
stretches away from it. It commands a view of the distant sea from the upper
windows of the front. A sign on a post stands before the door; or did so
stand, for though it was an inn of repute once, I believe it is so no

To this inn came my acquaintance, Mr Thomson, when he was a young man, on
a fine spring day, coming from the University of Cambridge, and desirous of
solitude in tolerable quarters and time for reading. These he found, for the
landlord and his wife had been in service and could make a visitor
comfortable, and there was no one else staying at the inn. He had a large
room on the first floor commanding the road and the view, if it faced east,
why that could not be helped; the house was well built and warm.

He spent very tranquil and uneventful days: work all the morning, and
afternoon perambulation of the country round, a little conversation with
country company or the people of the inn in the evening over the then
fashionable drink of brandy and water, a little more reading and writing,
and bed; and he would have been content that this should continue for the
full month he had at disposal, so well was his work progressing, and so fine
was the April of that year - which I have reason to believe was that which
Orlando Whistlecraft chronicles in his weather record as the ÔCharming

One of his walks took him along the northern road, which stands high and
traverses a wide common, called a heath. On the bright afternoon when he
first chose this direction his eye caught a white object some hundreds of
yards to the left of the road, and he felt it necessary to make sure what
this might be.It was not long before he was standing by it, and found
himself looking at a square block of white stone fashioned somewhat like the
base of a pillar, with a square hole in the upper surface. Just such another
you may see this day on Thetford Heath. After taking stock of it he
contemplated for a few minutes the view, which offered a church tower or
two, some red roofs of cottages and windows winking in the sun,and the
expanse of sea - also with an occasional wink and gleam upon it - and so
pursued his way.

In the desultory evening talk in the bar, he asked why the white stone
was there on the common.

ÔA old-fashioned thing, that is,Õ said the landlord (Mr Betts) Ôwe was
none of us alive when that was put there.Õ

ÔThatÕs right,Õsaid another. ÕIt stands pretty high, Õsaid Mr Thomson, ÔI
dare say a sea-mark was on it some time back.ÕÕAh! yes,Õ Mr Betts agreed, I
Ôave heard they could see it from the boats; but whatever there was, itÕs
fell to bits this long time.ÕGood job too,Õ said a third, ÔtwarÕnt a lucky
mark, by what the old men used to say; not lucky for the fishinÕ I mean to
say. ÕWhy ever not?Õ said Thomson.ÕWell, I never see it myself,Õ was the
answer,Õ but they Ôad some funny ideas, what I mean, peculiar, them old
chaps, and I shouldnÕt wonder but what they made away with it theirselves.Õ

It was impossible to get anything clearer than this: the company, never
very voluble, fell silent, and when next someone spoke it was of village
affairs and crops. Mr Betts was the speaker.

Not every day did Thomson consult his health by taking a county walk. One
very fine afternoon found him busily writing at three oÕclock. Then he
stretched himself and rose, and walked out of his room into the passage.
Facing him was another room, then the stairhead, then two more rooms, one
looking out to the back, and the other to the south. At the south end of the
passage was a window, to which he went, considering to himself that it was
rather a shame to waste e such a fine afternoon.However, work was paramount
just at the moment; he thought he would just take five minute off and go
back to it, and those five minutes he would employ - the Bettses could not
possibly object - to looking at the other rooms in the passage, which he had
never seen.Nobody at all, it seemed, was indoors; probably, as it was market
day, they were all gone to the town, except perhaps a maid in the bar.Very
still the house was, and the sun shone really hot; early flies buzzed in the
window-panes. So he explored. The room facing his was undistinguished except
for an old print of Bury St Edmunds; the two next him on his side of the
passage were gay and clean, with one window apiece, whereas his had
two.Remained the south-west room, opposite to the last which he had entered.
This was locked; but Thomson was in a mood of quite indefensible curiosity,
and feeling confident that there could be no damaging secrets in a place so
easily got at, he proceeded to fetch the key of his own room,and when that
did not answer, to collect the keys of the other three.One of them fitted,
and he opened the door.The room had two windows looking south and west, so
it was as bright and the sun as hot upon it as it could be.Here there was no
carpet, but bare boards; no pictures, no washing -stand, only a bed, in the
farther corner; an iron bed, with with mattress and bolster, covered with a
bluish check counterpane.As featureless a room as you can well imagine, and
yet there was something that made Thomson close the door again very quickly
and yet quietly behind him and lean against the window-sill in the passage,
actually quivering all over.It was this,that under the counterpane someone
lay, and not only lay, but stirred.That it was some one and not some thing
was certain, because the shape of a head was unmistakable on the bolster;
and yet it was all covered, and no one lies with covered head but a dead
person; and this was not dead, not truly dead, because it heaved and
shivered.If he had seen these things in dusk or by the light of a flickering
candle, Thomson could have comforted himself and talked of fancy.On this
bright day that was impossible.What was to be done? First, lock the door at
all costs . Very gingerly he approached it and bending down listened,
holding his breath; perhaps there might be a sound of heavy breathing, and a
prosaic explanation.There was absolute silence. But, as, with a rather
tremulous hand, he put the key into its hole and turned it, it rattled, and
on the instant a stumbling padded tread was heard coming towards the door.
Thomson fled like a rabbit to his room and and locked himself in; futile
enough, he knew it was; would doors and locks be any obstacle to what he
suspected? but it was all he could think of at the moment, and in fact
nothing happened; only there was a time of acute suspense - followed by a
misery of doubt as to what to do. The impulse, of course, was to slip away
as soon as possible from a house which contained such an inmate.But only the
day before he had said he should be staying for at least a week more, and
how if he changed plans could he avoid the suspicion of having pried into
places where he certainly had no business?Moreover, either the Bettses knew
all about the inmate, and yet did not leave the house, or knew nothing,
which equally meant there was nothing to be afraid of, or knew just enough
to make them shut up the room, but not enough to weigh on their spirits; in
any of these cases it seemed that not much was to be feared, and certainly
so far he had had no sort of ugly experience. On the whole the line of least
resistance was to stay.

Well, he stayed out his week. Nothing took him past that door, and, often
as he would pause in a quiet hour of day or night in the passage and listen,
and listen, no sound whatever issued from that direction. You might have
thought that Thomson would have made some attempt at ferreting out stories
connected with the inn - hardly perhaps from Betts, but from the parson of
the parish, or old people in the village; but no the reticence which
commonly falls on people who have had strange experiences, and believe in
them, was upon him. Nevertheless, as the end of his stay drew near, his
yearning after some kind of explanation grew more and more acute.On his
solitary walks he persisted in planning out some way, the least obtrusive,
of getting another daylight glimpse into that room, and eventually arrived
at this scheme. He would leave by an afternoon train - about four
oÕclock.When his fly was waiting, and his luggage on it, he would make one
last expedition upstairs to look round his own room and see if anything was
left unpacked, and then, with that key, which he had contrived to oil, (as
if that made any difference!) the door should once more be opened, for a
moment, and shut.

So it worked out. The bill was paid, the consequent small talk gone
through while the fly was loaded: Ôpleasant part of the country - been very
comfortable, thanks to you and Mrs Betts - hope to come back some timeÕ, one
one side: on the other, Ôvery glad youÕve found satisfaction, sir, done our
best - always glad to Ôave your good word - very much favoured weÕve been
with the weather , to be sure.Õ Then, ÔIÕll just take a look upstairs in
case IÕve left a book or something out - no, donÕt trouble, IÕll be back in
a minute.ÕAnd as noiselessly as possible he stole to the door and opened
it.The shattering of the illusion! Propped, or you might say sitting, on the
edge of the bed was - nothing in the round world but a scarecrow! A
scarecrow out of the garden, of course, dumped into the deserted room...Yes;
but here amusement ceased. Have scarecrows bare bony feet? Do their heads
loll on their shoulders? Have they iron collars and links of chain about
their necks? Can they get up and move, if never so stiffly, across a floor,
with wagging heads and arms close at their sides? and shiver?

The slam of the door, the dash to the stair-head, the leap downstairs,
were followed by a faint. Awakening, Thomson saw Betts standing over him
with the brandy bottle and a very reproachful face. ÔYou shouldnÕt a done
so, sir, really you shouldnÕt. It ainÕt a kind way to act by persons as done
the best they could for you.Õ Thomson heard words of this kind, but what he
said in reply he did not know.Mr Betts, and perhaps even more Mrs Betts,
found it hard to accept his apologies and his assurances that he would say
no word that could damage the good name of the house. However, they were
accepted.Since the train could not now be caught, it was arranged that
Thomson should be driven to the town to sleep there. Before he went the
Bettses told him what little they knew. ÔThey say he was a landlord Ôere a
long time back, and was in with the Ôighwaymen that Ôad their beat about the
Ôeath. ThatÕs how he come by his end; Ôung in chains, they say, up where you
see that stone what the gallus stood in. Yes, the fishermen made away with
that,I believe, because they see it out at sea and it kepÕ the fish off,
according to their idea. Yes, we Ôad the account from the people that Ôad
the Ôouse before we come. ÒYou keep that room shut up,Ó they says, Òbut
donÕt move the bed out, and youÕll find there wonÕt be no trouble.Ó And no
more there Ôas been; not once he havenÕt come out into the Ôouse,though what
he may do now there ainÕt no sayinÕ. Anyway, youÕre the first I know thatÕs
seen him since weÕve been Ôere; I never set eyes on him myself, nor donÕt
want. And ever since weÕve made the servants rooms in the stablinÕ, we ainÕt
Ôad no difficulty that way. Only I do Ôope, sir, as youÕll keep a close
tongue, considerinÕ Ôow an Ôouse do get talked aboutÕ: with more to this

The promise of silence was kept for many years.The occasion of my hearing
the story at last was this: that when Mr Thomson came to stay with my father
it fell to me to show him to his room, and instead of letting me open the
door for him he stepped forward and threw it open himself, and then for some
moments stood in the doorway holding up his candle and looking narrowly into
the interior. Then he seemed to recollect himself and said; ÔI beg your
pardon. Very absurd, but I canÕt help doing that, for a particular reason.Õ
What that reason was I heard some days afterwards, and you have heard now.

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