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Curious Warnings: The Great Ghost Stories of M.R. James, Page 65

M. R. James

  When I got back to my luggage at Troyes, I looked again at the volume of Caroline de Lichtenfeld. It was a defective copy, pp 33-80 were absent—had evidently never been bound up in it. On the flyleaf in a feminine hand was the name: Émile Giraud.

  The Game of Bear

  TWO ELDERLY PERSONS sat reading and smoking in the library of a country house after tea on an afternoon in the Christmas holidays, and outside a number of the children of the house were playing about. They had turned out all the lights and were engaged in the dreadful game of “Bear” which entails stealthy creepings up and down staircases and along passages, and being leapt upon from doorways with loud and hideous cries. Such a cry, and an answering scream of great poignancy, were heard just outside the library door. One of the two readers—an uncle of the young things who were disporting themselves there—leapt from his chair and dashed the door open. “I will not have you doing that!” he shouted (and his voice was vibrant with real anger); “do you hear? Stop it at once. I can’t stand it. You—you—Why can’t you find something else? What? … Well, I don’t care, I can’t put up with it … Yes, very well, go and do it somewhere where I can’t hear it.” He subsided into a growl and came back to his chair; but his friend saw that his nerves were really on edge, and ventured something sympathetic. “It’s all very well,” said the uncle, “but I cannot bear that jumping out and screaming. Stupid of me to fly out like that, but I couldn’t help it. It reminded me of all that business—you know.”

  “Well,” said the friend after a short pause, “I’m really not sure that I do. Oh!” he added, in a more concerned tone, “unless you mean Purdue.” “That’s it,” said the uncle. There was another silence, and then the friend said, “Really, I’m not sorry that happened just now, for I never did hear the rights of the Purdue business. Will you tell me exactly what happened?”

  “I don’t know,” said the uncle: “I really don’t know, if I ought. But I think I will. Not just now, though. I’ll tell you what: if it’s fine tomorrow we’ll take a walk in the morning; and tonight I’ll think over the whole affair and get it straight in my mind. I have often felt some-body besides me ought to know about it, and all his people are out of the way now.”

  The next day was fine, and the two men walked out to a hill at no real distance, which was known as Windmill Hill. The mill that had topped it was gone but a bit of the brick foundation remained and afforded a seat from which a good stretch of pleasant wild country could be seen. Here then Mr. A and Mr. B sat down on the short, dry grass with their backs against the warm brick wall, and Mr. A produced a little bundle of folded paper and a pocket-book which he held up before Mr. B as an indication that he was prepared not only to tell the story to which he stood pledged, but to back it with documentary evidence.

  “I brought you here,” he said, “partly because you can see Purdue’s place. There!” He pointed with his stick to a wooded slope which might be three or four miles off. In the wood was a large clearing and in the clearing stood a mansion of yellow stone with a portico, upon which, as it chanced, the sun was shining very brilliantly, so that the house stood out brightly against the background of dark trees.

  “Where shall I begin?” said Mr. A.

  “Why,” said Mr. B, “I’ll tell you exactly how little I know, and then you can judge. You and Purdue, you remember, were senior to me at school and at Cambridge. He went down after his three years; you stayed up for part of a fourth, and then I began to see more of you: before that, I was more with people of my own year, and, beyond a fair number of meetings with Purdue at breakfast and lunch and so on, I never saw much of him—not nearly as much as I should have liked, in fact. Then I remember your going to stay with him—there, I suppose” (pointing with his stick)—“in the Easter Vac, and—well, that was the last of it.”

  “Just so,” said Mr. A; “I didn’t come up again, and you and I practically didn’t meet till a year or two back, did we? Though you were a better correspondent than any of my other Cambridge friends. Very well, then, there it is: I was never inclined to write the story down in a letter, and the long and short of it is that you have never heard it: but you do know what sort of man Purdue was, and how fond I was of him.

  “When I stayed with him over there, the place was his only home, and yet it wasn’t his. He was an orphan and practically adopted by his uncle and aunt who were quite old childless people. There had been another uncle who had married a village woman, and had one daughter. That couple were very odd squalid creatures, and died off, I think from drink, but the daughter survived and went on living in a cottage in the next parish. She wasn’t left destitute by any means in the way of money; but she lived all by herself, and I think always with a sense of injury upon her that she wasn’t noticed by the county families and such. The remaining uncle and aunt had been kind enough to her and at one time used to invite her over to their place, but she had a very difficult temper and was always on the look-out for slights and injuries, and at last they gave up the effort to be cordial, and saw no more of her. It wasn’t to be expected after that that they would pass on the property to her (it was entirely at their disposition, to do what they liked with it) and no more they did. When they died it went to Purdue, about a year before his own death, that was.

  “So there he was, settled, you would say, into a happy life: he’d been brought up in the country and knew all the neighborhood, places and people, very well; and was interested in farming and forestry and prepared to make himself useful. That last visit I paid him was particularly delightful: he was on such excellent terms with everybody in the village. ‘Master Henry’ to all of them, and just as well liked by the neighbors in the larger houses. I think the only fly in the ointment was that woman Caroline Purdue. She took to attending our parish church and we used to find her in our pew every Sunday morning. She didn’t say much to Henry, but all the service time she sat and looked at him through her veil. A short stout red-faced woman she was, with black hair and snappy black eyes. She used to wait in the churchyard till we had gone out and then set off on her three mile walk home. She gave me the creeps, I couldn’t say why; I suppose there was a flavor of concentrated hostility about her.

  “Henry was anxious of something of the same kind. His lawyer told me after his death that he had tried through them to get her to accept a handsome addition to her income and the gift of a suitable house wherever she liked in some other part of the county. They said she was as impracticable a woman as they had ever come across: she just sat and smiled broadly at them and said she was quite comfortable where she was, and didn’t want to move out of reach of her cousin Henry. ‘But wouldn’t it be more lively and amusing for you to be in some place where there’s more to be seen—theaters, and that sort of thing?’ No, oh no, she had plenty of things to occupy herself with: and—again—she didn’t want to move out of reach of her cousin Henry.

  “‘But, but: your cousin Henry, you know; he’s likely to be a busy man—traveling about a good deal, and occupied with his men friends: it isn’t probable that he’ll be able to see much of you.’ Oh, she was quite content to take her chance of that: they would often be meeting when he was riding about, and no doubt there would be times when he was alone at the Court, and she could look in on him. ‘Ah well, that’s just the point. Are you sure that Mr. Purdue will welcome that?’ ‘Yes, to be sure, why not?’ ‘Well, we have reason to think that he doesn’t wish it.’ Oh indeed! and pray had he commissioned these gentlemen to tell his own cousin that he had cast her off? A nice thing for a relative to hear, that her own flesh and blood preferred not to have anything to do with her. What had she done, she should like to know, to be treated in that way?

  “There was more to the same effect, and the storm rose quickly, culminating in a short burst of tears, and a rapid stumping out of the room. The gentlemen who had been conducting the interview were left looking at each other and feeling they had not done much to advance their client’s wishes. But at least Miss Purdue left off her
attendance at our church, and, we gathered, did not favor any other place of worship in its stead.

  “She was not more popular with the rest of the community than with Henry.

  “How is the rest of this to be told? I have here some papers which bear on it, but they are fragmentary, of course. When Henry Purdue was alone in that big house he did what at other times was rather foreign to his habits—confided his feelings to paper. Here are some entries.”

  “Letter from CP” (Caroline Purdue, of course). “Infernal woman. May she come see me and talk over this painful matter. No, she mayn’t.”

  [manuscript ends]

  Speaker Lenthall’s Tomb


  FIFTY YEARS carries us back to the times of the Oxford Movement, the first rage of the Gothic Revival and the restorations of many of the finest churches in England, restorations whose results were often of the most deplorable kind. Pugin was at the head of the Gothicists; Wailes, Willement and Hardman were trying their prentice hands upon the rediscovery of the art of glass painting with very indifferent success; Newman had joined the Roman Church, and many other interesting names were in men’s mouths, of which I could tell you more if I happened to know anything about them.

  Among the many beautiful country towns in the southern shires, few are more complete or fascinating than the town of Burford in Oxon. It is very much out of the world; there is hardly a new house in it, and there are several exceptionally fine old ones, as well as a magnificent parish church. To Burford it was that Cromwell’s Speaker, Lenthall, retired: there he built his beautiful home, now almost a ruin, and there he died and was buried. His house must be very shortly described. It is of stone, with a surprisingly rich front, and a chapel attached thereto by a covered walk, possessing one of the last rose windows ever made in England before this century. Texts are carved and painted on the walls, and there are indications that the fittings must at one time have been sumptuous. But the roof is gone and the place a shattered ruin.

  But fifty years ago things were not quite so bad, though even then the chapel had been long disused. The house was inhabited, and was perfectly sound, and well-furnished, even to richness. It had passed away from the Lenthalls to the not less ancient and reputable line of the Claxtons, once considerable people in Suffolk; but they too had left off living there, and it was now held on lease by a rich clergyman, Mr. Cave, who had some sons and daughters, and in the evening of his days had retired from active duty and brought his family and his library to Burford where he found existence tolerable enough. A rich clergyman, said I, and one considerably learned in ancient matters, and with a strong turn for Gothic architecture as it was then understood.

  What was more natural than that he should work upon the feelings of the rector—an old friend—and lead very handsomely a subscription list for the restoring of St. Mary’s Church? He had been little more than a year in the place when the Movement was fairly started; and now we find Mr. Cave, young Mr. Cave, Miss Cave, Mr. Eldon the rector, and Mr. Green the architect, a disciple of Pugin’s, conferring upon the necessary alterations, after dinner and a long day spent in and about the Church.

  “The galleries and pews must go, Eldon; that is clear enough: the organ shifts into the north transept. The nave is reseated with pitch pine: the monuments ranged along the walls on each side. I do wish we could get rid of that hideous erection of Speaker Lenthall’s. It fills up the whole of the north choir aisle, and we might have arranged such a pretty little morning chapel there for the daily service.”

  The erection alluded to is indeed large, but of alabaster and other marbles, and we do not nowadays call it hideous. It is covered with emblematical statuettes of virtues and arts and is really extremely imposing.

  “Yes, my dear Cave, that is a block, to be sure: miserable debased work, one wonders that in any age it could have been thought to possess the least merit.”

  “Well, can nothing be done? Could you get a faculty or whatever it is to remove it?” said young Cave (age some three and twenty and now at Trinity, Oxford).

  “Ah, my dear sir, the faculty might be got easily enough,” said Mr. Green the architect. “The only question is, are there surviving relatives of Speaker Lenthall’s, and can their consent to the removal of the monument be obtained? If so, all is easy.”

  “Really? Well, that sounds very promising. There can hardly be any Lenthalls left, I should think, eh, father?”

  “Ask the rector, my boy; I should hardly imagine it, either?”

  “Well, Harry, I think you may set your mind at ease on that point. We certainly have a Lenthall in Burford, but in Burford Almshouse. But she is nearer ninety than eighty and it has been ascertained, I believe with certainty, that she is the last of the name. One can hardly doubt that a five pound note would be more of an object to her than fifty Speaker’s monuments.”

  “You are clear, Green, that we must get her consent to the removal in due form?” said Mr. Cave. “What I mean is that if there was likely to be any difficulty with her—if she is doting or obstinate or anything of that kind,—we might easily wait for the sand to run. It can’t in nature be long before the poor old thing is out of the way.”

  “Yes, Mr. Cave; if there are any survivors, their written consent must be obtained. The law is very clear on that point.”

  “Well, Cave,” said the rector, “I propose that Green and you and Harry and I go down in force tomorrow morning and call on Mrs. Elizabeth Lenthall with a document ready prepared, to which she can set her name. I fancy, do you know, that you might have some time to wait if you put off the matter till she is dead. She is as upright as a dart and certainly she has a will of her own. I don’t think she is on speaking terms with any of her neighbors in the almshouses. There has been a terrible feud about the pump, I understand, though I don’t know the rights of it. Green had better bring his drawings with him, hadn’t he, so as to impress the old lady with the extent of the improvement which would result from the clearing away of her ancestor’s tomb?”

  “I think,” said the architect, “if it would help matters at all, Mr. Eldon, I could easily work some of the statuettes into a reredos for the Chapel. And of course we would have a sketch of the monument done before it was taken down, and a slab laid in the floor. The Speaker’s effigy could be kept in the vestry, could it not?”

  “O yes, I think that could be managed easily enough. But really the whole thing is in such wretched taste that I would sooner make a clean sweep of it myself.”

  “To be sure, so would I,” said Mr. Green. “Perhaps my suggestions had better be reserved to form the basis of a compromise; if that proves necessary.”

  “What sort of person was Lenthall, papa?” asked Miss Mary Cave. “Was he a fine character at all?”

  “Well no, my dear,” said her father. “By all accounts he was something of a trimmer in his later days and a very hard customer in money matters. They say he did most bitterly repent his share in King Charles’s death. But you should look him up in Clarendon. I’m afraid I am no authority on the Civil War period.”

  “I suppose it’s very bad taste on my part,” said the young lady after a moment, “but I must say I always have admired that monument a good deal.”

  “My dear! That gaudy half-classical nondescript erection! I always thought you had some sort of perception of what was good in art,” said her brother.

  “Well, Harry, I said I supposed it was my bad taste and I daresay it is. But you must allow that the materials are really beautiful marbles, and the coloring and some of the modeling is very clever. Besides, I never could see the reason in refusing to admire a thing because it is not of a particular period or style. Surely there may be beautiful things made in more styles than one. I remember quite well when you used to admire St. Paul’s tremendously, Harry, before you went to Oxford.”

  “Yes, precisely: before I went to Oxford, and before I ever looked at a Gothic Church, and before I had made any attempt at educating my tastes and before two or t
hree other things of equal importance, perhaps I did like St. Paul’s. All I can say is I think differently now.”

  “Well, perhaps in thirty or forty years you may be able to find room to admire St. Paul’s as well as Gothic Churches. However, I must go—Goodnight, Harry.” And when she had said the other goodnights Miss Cave departed, Mr. Green’s eyes following her with something of pity and amusement.

  A declamation from Harry in the style peculiar to his University upon the wonderful character of female taste followed, which it is hardly necessary to transcribe: and soon after that the gentlemen dispersed also.

  Next morning, they met again at Mr. Cave’s house, and proceeded, with drawings and documents, in an imposing procession to the Burford Almshouses founded by Lenthall’s daughter who had married a Claxton, in 1695. The houses are of the familiar type—a long row of cottages, one story high, date and inscription in a pediment in the center, a garden behind: her house and a share in the garden and pump belonging to each inmate. Mr. Green mourned melodiously over the design of the cottages and pointed out how far preferable to this would have been a Gothic hospitium with a chapel and statue of a patron saint.

  “Well, Green,” said Mr. Cave, “who knows but we may see that here yet: the endowment of this place is pretty good, and a few years’ accumulation would go a long way toward supplying what you want. But that must wait until we have done with the Church.”

  “Here is Mrs. Lenthall’s house—the one at the end,” interposed the rector. “Perhaps, as I be treasurer, pretty well, I had better begin the ball, Cave?”

  The old lady was a fine and dignified object as she sat in her armchair by the fire, in the white cap and blue tippet which were de rigueur for the inheritrices of Dame Claxton’s bounty. She rose on the entrance of the four gentlemen, and it was plain that the rector had not been exaggerating when he said that she was as upright as a dart. She had fine dark eyes, rather thick white eyebrows and strongly cut features. The only thing that singled out the functions of her parlor was a small oval portrait of Speaker Lenthall over the mantelpiece. It was by a good hand, and showed something of the strength of character and will which had reappeared in his descendant’s face.