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The Ash-tree

Scary Books: Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary
: Montague Rhodes James

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

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

never seen.'

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

me--another glass.'

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

the tree.

He was in a dead faint, and it was some time before any word could be got

from him.

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.'