Collected Ghost Stories, by M. R. James

After Dark in the Playing Fields

The hour was late and the night was fair. I had halted not far from Sheeps’ Bridge and was thinking about the stillness, only broken by the sound of the weir, when a loud tremulous hoot just above me made me jump. It is always annoying to be startled; but I have a kindness for owls. This one was evidently very near: I looked. about for it. There it was, sitting plumply on a branch about twelve feet up. I pointed my stick at it and said, “Was that you?” “Drop it,” said the owl. “I know it ain’t only a stick, but I don’t like it. Yes, of course it was me: who do you suppose it would be if it warn’t?”

We will take as read the sentences about my surprise. I lowered the stick. “Well,” said the owl, “what about it? If you will come out here of a Midsummer evening like what this is, what do you expect?” “I beg your pardon,” I said, “I should have remembered. May I say that I think myself very lucky to have met you to — night? I hope you have time for a little talk?” “Well,” said the owl ungraciously, “I don’t know as it matters so particular to — night. I’ve had me supper as it happens, and if you ain’t too long over it — ah-h-h!” Suddenly it broke into a loud scream, flapped its wings furiously, bent forward and clutched its perch tightly, continuing to scream. Plainly something was pulling hard at it from behind. The strain relaxed abruptly, the owl nearly fell over, and then whipped round, ruffling up all over, and made a vicious dab at something unseen by me. “Oh, I am sorry,” said a small clear voice in a solicitous tone. “I made sure it was loose. I do hope I didn’t hurt you.” “Didn’t ’urt me?” said the owl bitterly. “Of course you ’urt me, and well you know it, you young infidel. That feather was no more loose than — oh, if I could git at you! Now I shouldn’t wonder but what you’ve throwed me all out of balance. Why can’t you let a person set quiet for two minutes at a time without you must come creepin’ up and — well, you’ve done it this time, anyway. I shall go straight to ’eadquarters and” — (finding it was now addressing the empty air) — “why, where have you got to now? Oh, it is too bad, that it is!” .

“Dear me!” I said, “I’m afraid this isn’t the first time you’ve been annoyed in this way. May I ask exactly what happened?”

“Yes, you may ask,” said the owl, still looking narrowly about as it spoke, “but it ’ud take me till the latter end of next week to tell you. Fancy coming and pulling out anyone’s tail feather! ’Urt me something crool, it did. And what for, I should like to know? Answer me that! Where’s the reason of it?”

All that occurred to me was to murmur, “The clamorous owl that nightly hoots and wonders at our quaint spirits.” I hardly thought the point would be taken, but the owl said sharply: “What’s that? Yes, you needn’t to repeat it. I ’eard. And I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it, and you mark my words.” It bent towards me and whispered, with many nods of its round head: “Pride! stand-offish-ness I that’s what it is! Come not near our fairy queen” (this in a tone of bitter contempt). “Oh, dear no! we ain’t good enough for the likes of them. Us that’s been noted time out of mind for the best singers in the Fields: now, ain’t that so?”

“Well,” I said, doubtfully enough, “I like to hear you very much: but, you know, some people think a lot of the thrushes and nightingales and so on; you must have heard of that, haven’t you? (And then, perhaps — of course I don’t know — perhaps your style of singing isn’t exactly what they think suitable to accompany their dancing, eh?”

“I should kindly ’ope not,” said the owl, drawing itself up. “Our family’s never give in to dancing, nor never won’t neither. Why, what ever are you thinkin’ of!” it went on with rising temper. “A pretty thing it would be for me to set there hiccuppin’ at them” — it stopped and looked cautiously all round it and up and down and then continued in a louder voice — “them little ladies and gentlemen. If it ain’t sootable for them, I’m very sure it ain’t sootable for me. And” (temper rising again) “if they expect me never to say a word just because they’re dancin’ and carryin’ on with their foolishness, they’re very much mistook, and so I tell ’em.”

From what had passed before I was afraid this was an imprudent line to take, and I was right. Hardly had the owl given its last emphatic nod when four small slim forms dropped from a bough above, and in a twinkling some sort of grass rope was thrown round the body of the unhappy bird, and it was borne off through the air, loudly protesting, in the direction of Fellows’ Pond. Splashes and gurgles and shrieks of unfeeling laughter were heard as I hurried up. Something darted away over my head, and as I stood peering over the bank of the pond, which was all in commotion, a very angry and dishevelled owl scrambled heavily up the bank, and stopping near my feet shook itself and flapped and hissed for several minutes without saying anything I should care to repeat.

Glaring at me, it eventually said — and the grim suppressed rage in its voice was such that I hastily drew back a step or two — “’Ear that? Said they was very sorry, but they’d mistook me for a duck. Oh, if it ain’t enough to make anyone go reg’lar distracted in their mind and tear everythink to flinders for miles round.” So carried away was it by passion, that it began the process at once by rooting up a large beakful of grass, which alas! got into its throat; and the choking that resulted made me really afraid that it would break a vessel. But the paroxysm was mastered, and the owl sat up, winking and breathless but intact.

Some expression of sympathy seemed to be required; yet I was chary of offering it, for in its present state of mind I felt that the bird might interpret the best-meant phrase as a fresh insult. So we stood looking at each other without speech for a very awkward minute, and then came a diversion. First the thin voice of the pavilion clock, then the deeper sound from the Castle quadrangle, then Lupton’s Tower, drowning the Curfew Tower by its nearness.

“What’s that?” said the owl, suddenly and hoarsely. “Midnight, I should think,” said I, and had recourse to my watch. “Midnight?” cried the owl, evidently much startled, “and me too wet to fly a yard! Here, you pick me up and put me in the tree; don’t, I’ll climb up your leg, and you won’t ask me to do that twice. Quick now! “ I obeyed. “Which tree do you want?” “Why, my tree, to be sure! Over there!” It nodded towards the Wall. “All right. Bad-calx tree do you mean?” I said, beginning to run in that direction. “’Ow should I know what silly names you call it? The one what ’as like a door in it. Go faster! They’ll be coming in another minute.” “Who? What’s the matter?” I asked as I ran, clutching the wet creature, and much afraid of stumbling and coming over with it in the long grass. “You’ll see fast enough,” said this selfish bird. “You just let me git on the tree, I shall be all right.”

And I suppose it was, for it scrabbled very quickly up the trunk with its wings spread and disappeared in a hollow without a word of thanks. I looked round, not very comfortably. The Curfew Tower was still playing St. David’s tune and the little chime that follows, for the third and last time, but the other bells had finished what they had to say, and now there was silence, and again the “restless changing weir” was the only thing that broke — no, that emphasized it.

Why had the owl been so anxious to get into hiding? That of course was what now exercised me. Whatever and whoever was coming, I was sure that this was no time for me to cross the open field: I should do best to dissemble my presence by staying on the darker side of the tree. And that is what I did.

* * *

All this took place some years ago, before summertime came in. I do sometimes go into the Playing Fields at night still, but I come in before true midnight. And I find I do not like a crowd after dark — for example at the Fourth of June fireworks. You see — no, you do not, but I see — such curious faces: and the people to whom they belong flit about so oddly, often at your elbow when you least expect it, and looking close into your face, as it they were searching for someone — who may be thankful, I think, if they do not find him. “Where do they come from?” Why, some, I think, out of the Water, and some out of the ground. They look like that. But I am sure it is best to take no notice of them, and not to touch them.

Yes, I certainly prefer the daylight population of the Playing Fields to that which comes there after dark.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38