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