A Thin Ghost and others, by M. R. James

The Diary of Mr. Poynter

The sale-room of an old and famous firm of book auctioneers in London is, of course, a great meeting-place for collectors, librarians, dealers: not only when an auction is in progress, but perhaps even more notably when books that are coming on for sale are upon view. It was in such a sale-room that the remarkable series of events began which were detailed to me not many months ago by the person whom they principally affected, namely, Mr. James Denton, M.A., F.S.A., etc., etc., some time of Trinity Hall, now, or lately, of Rendcomb Manor in the county of Warwick.

He, on a certain spring day not many years since, was in London for a few days upon business connected principally with the furnishing of the house which he had just finished building at Rendcomb. It may be a disappointment to you to learn that Rendcomb Manor was new; that I cannot help. There had, no doubt, been an old house; but it was not remarkable for beauty or interest. Even had it been, neither beauty nor interest would have enabled it to resist the disastrous fire which about a couple of years before the date of my story had razed it to the ground. I am glad to say that all that was most valuable in it had been saved, and that it was fully insured. So that it was with a comparatively light heart that Mr. Denton was able to face the task of building a new and considerably more convenient dwelling for himself and his aunt who constituted his whole ménage.

Being in London, with time on his hands, and not far from the sale-room at which I have obscurely hinted, Mr. Denton thought that he would spend an hour there upon the chance of finding, among that portion of the famous Thomas collection of MSS., which he knew to be then on view, something bearing upon the history or topography of his part of Warwickshire.

He turned in accordingly, purchased a catalogue and ascended to the sale-room, where, as usual, the books were disposed in cases and some laid out upon the long tables. At the shelves, or sitting about at the tables, were figures, many of whom were familiar to him. He exchanged nods and greetings with several, and then settled down to examine his catalogue and note likely items. He had made good progress through about two hundred of the five hundred lots — every now and then rising to take a volume from the shelf and give it a cursory glance — when a hand was laid on his shoulder, and he looked up. His interrupter was one of those intelligent men with a pointed beard and a flannel shirt, of whom the last quarter of the nineteenth century was, it seems to me, very prolific.

It is no part of my plan to repeat the whole conversation which ensued between the two. I must content myself with stating that it largely referred to common acquaintances, e.g., to the nephew of Mr. Denton’s friend who had recently married and settled in Chelsea, to the sister-inlaw of Mr. Denton’s friend who had been seriously indisposed, but was now better, and to a piece of china which Mr. Denton’s friend had purchased some months before at a price much below its true value. From which you will rightly infer that the conversation was rather in the nature of a monologue. In due time, however, the friend bethought himself that Mr. Denton was there for a purpose, and said he, “What are you looking out for in particular? I don’t think there’s much in this lot.” “Why, I thought there might be some Warwickshire collections, but I don’t see anything under Warwick in the catalogue.” “No, apparently not,” said the friend. “All the same, I believe I noticed something like a Warwickshire diary. What was the name again? Drayton? Potter? Painter — either a P or a D, I feel sure.” He turned over the leaves quickly. “Yes, here it is. Poynter. Lot 486. That might interest you. There are the books, I think: out on the table. Some one has been looking at them. Well, I must be getting on. Good-bye, you’ll look us up, won’t you? Couldn’t you come this afternoon? We’ve got a little music about four. Well, then, when you’re next in town.” He went off. Mr. Denton looked at his watch and found to his confusion that he could spare no more than a moment before retrieving his luggage and going for the train. The moment was just enough to show him that there were four largish volumes of the diary — that it concerned the years about 1710, and that there seemed to be a good many insertions in it of various kinds. It seemed quite worth while to leave a commission of five and twenty pounds for it, and this he was able to do, for his usual agent entered the room as he was on the point of leaving it.

That evening he rejoined his aunt at their temporary abode, which was a small dower-house not many hundred yards from the Manor. On the following morning the two resumed a discussion that had now lasted for some weeks as to the equipment of the new house. Mr. Denton laid before his relative a statement of the results of his visit to town — particulars of carpets, of chairs, of wardrobes, and of bedroom china. “Yes, dear,” said his aunt, “but I don’t see any chintzes here. Did you go to ——?” Mr. Denton stamped on the floor (where else, indeed, could he have stamped?). “Oh dear, oh dear,” he said, “the one thing I missed. I am sorry. The fact is I was on my way there and I happened to be passing Robins’s.” His aunt threw up her hands. “Robins’s! Then the next thing will be another parcel of horrible old books at some outrageous price. I do think, James, when I am taking all this trouble for you, you might contrive to remember the one or two things which I specially begged you to see after. It’s not as if I was asking it for myself. I don’t know whether you think I get any pleasure out of it, but if so I can assure you it’s very much the reverse. The thought and worry and trouble I have over it you have no idea of, and you have simply to go to the shops and order the things.” Mr. Denton interposed a moan of penitence. “Oh, aunt ——” “Yes, that’s all very well, dear, and I don’t want to speak sharply, but you must know how very annoying it is: particularly as it delays the whole of our business for I can’t tell how long: here is Wednesday — the Simpsons come tomorrow, and you can’t leave them. Then on Saturday we have friends, as you know, coming for tennis. Yes, indeed, you spoke of asking them yourself, but, of course, I had to write the notes, and it is ridiculous, James, to look like that. We must occasionally be civil to our neighbours: you wouldn’t like to have it said we were perfect bears. What was I saying? Well, anyhow it comes to this, that it must be Thursday in next week at least, before you can go to town again, and until we have decided upon the chintzes it is impossible to settle upon one single other thing.”

Mr. Denton ventured to suggest that as the paint and wallpapers had been dealt with, this was too severe a view: but this his aunt was not prepared to admit at the moment. Nor, indeed, was there any proposition he could have advanced which she would have found herself able to accept. However, as the day went on, she receded a little from this position: examined with lessening disfavour the samples and price lists submitted by her nephew, and even in some cases gave a qualified approval to his choice.

As for him, he was naturally somewhat dashed by the consciousness of duty unfulfilled, but more so by the prospect of a lawn-tennis party, which, though an inevitable evil in August, he had thought there was no occasion to fear in May. But he was to some extent cheered by the arrival on the Friday morning of an intimation that he had secured at the price of £12 10s. the four volumes of Poynter’s manuscript diary, and still more by the arrival on the next morning of the diary itself.

The necessity of taking Mr. and Mrs. Simpson for a drive in the car on Saturday morning and of attending to his neighbours and guests that afternoon prevented him from doing more than open the parcel until the party had retired to bed on the Saturday night. It was then that he made certain of the fact, which he had before only suspected, that he had indeed acquired the diary of Mr. William Poynter, Squire of Acrington (about four miles from his own parish)— that same Poynter who was for a time a member of the circle of Oxford antiquaries, the centre of which was Thomas Hearne, and with whom Hearne seems ultimately to have quarrelled — a not uncommon episode in the career of that excellent man. As is the case with Hearne’s own collections, the diary of Poynter contained a good many notes from printed books, descriptions of coins and other antiquities that had been brought to his notice, and drafts of letters on these subjects, besides the chronicle of everyday events. The description in the sale-catalogue had given Mr. Denton no idea of the amount of interest which seemed to lie in the book, and he sat up reading in the first of the four volumes until a reprehensibly late hour.

On the Sunday morning, after church, his aunt came into the study and was diverted from what she had been going to say to him by the sight of the four brown leather quartos on the table. “What are these?” she said suspiciously. “New, aren’t they? Oh! are these the things that made you forget my chintzes? I thought so. Disgusting. What did you give for them, I should like to know? Over Ten Pounds? James, it is really sinful. Well, if you have money to throw away on this kind of thing, there can be no reason why you should not subscribe — and subscribe handsomely — to my anti-Vivisection League. There is not, indeed, James, and I shall be very seriously annoyed if ——. Who did you say wrote them? Old Mr. Poynter, of Acrington? Well, of course, there is some interest in getting together old papers about this neighbourhood. But Ten Pounds!” She picked up one of the volumes — not that which her nephew had been reading — and opened it at random, dashing it to the floor the next instant with a cry of disgust as a earwig fell from between the pages. Mr. Denton picked it up with a smothered expletive and said, “Poor book! I think you’re rather hard on Mr. Poynter.” “Was I, my dear? I beg his pardon, but you know I cannot abide those horrid creatures. Let me see if I’ve done any mischief.” “No, I think all’s well: but look here what you’ve opened him on.” “Dear me, yes, to be sure! how very interesting. Do unpin it, James, and let me look at it.”

It was a piece of patterned stuff about the size of the quarto page, to which it was fastened by an old-fashioned pin. James detached it and handed it to his aunt, carefully replacing the pin in the paper.

Now, I do not know exactly what the fabric was; but it had a design printed upon it, which completely fascinated Miss Denton. She went into raptures over it, held it against the wall, made James do the same, that she might retire to contemplate it from a distance: then pored over it at close quarters, and ended her examination by expressing in the warmest terms her appreciation of the taste of the ancient Mr. Poynter who had had the happy idea of preserving this sample in his diary. “It is a most charming pattern,” she said, “and remarkable too. Look, James, how delightfully the lines ripple. It reminds one of hair, very much, doesn’t it. And then these knots of ribbon at intervals. They give just the relief of colour that is wanted. I wonder ——” “I was going to say,” said James with deference, “I wonder if it would cost much to have it copied for our curtains.” “Copied? how could you have it copied, James?” “Well, I don’t know the details, but I suppose that is a printed pattern, and that you could have a block cut from it in wood or metal.” “Now, really, that is a capital idea, James. I am almost inclined to be glad that you were so — that you forgot the chintzes on Monday. At any rate, I’ll promise to forgive and forget if you get this lovely old thing copied. No one will have anything in the least like it, and mind, James, we won’t allow it to be sold. Now I must go, and I’ve totally forgotten what it was I came in to say: never mind, it’ll keep.”

After his aunt had gone James Denton devoted a few minutes to examining the pattern more closely than he had yet had a chance of doing. He was puzzled to think why it should have struck Miss Benton so forcibly. It seemed to him not specially remarkable or pretty. No doubt it was suitable enough for a curtain pattern: it ran in vertical bands, and there was some indication that these were intended to converge at the top. She was right, too, in thinking that these main bands resembled rippling — almost curling — tresses of hair. Well, the main thing was to find out by means of trade directories, or otherwise, what firm would undertake the reproduction of an old pattern of this kind. Not to delay the reader over this portion of the story, a list of likely names was made out, and Mr. Denton fixed a day for calling on them, or some of them, with his sample.

The first two visits which he paid were unsuccessful: but there is luck in odd numbers. The firm in Bermondsey which was third on his list was accustomed to handling this line. The evidence they were able to produce justified their being entrusted with the job. “Our Mr. Cattell” took a fervent personal interest in it. “It’s ‘eartrending, isn’t it, sir,” he said, “to picture the quantity of reelly lovely medeevial stuff of this kind that lays well-nigh unnoticed in many of our residential country ‘ouses: much of it in peril, I take it, of being cast aside as so much rubbish. What is it Shakespeare says — unconsidered trifles. Ah, I often say he ‘as a word for us all, sir. I say Shakespeare, but I’m well aware all don’t ‘old with me there — I ‘ad something of an upset the other day when a gentleman came in-a titled man, too, he was, and I think he told me he’d wrote on the topic, and I ‘appened to cite out something about ‘Ercules and the painted cloth. Dear me, you never see such a pother. But as to this, what you’ve kindly confided to us, it’s a piece of work we shall take a reel enthusiasm in achieving it out to the very best of our ability. What man ‘as done, as I was observing only a few weeks back to another esteemed client, man can do, and in three to four weeks’ time, all being well, we shall ‘ope to lay before you evidence to that effect, sir. Take the address, Mr. ‘Iggins, if you please.”

Such was the general drift of Mr. Cattell’s observations on the occasion of his first interview with Mr. Denton. About a month later, being advised that some samples were ready for his inspection, Mr. Denton met him again, and had, it seems, reason to be satisfied with the faithfulness of the reproduction of the design. It had been finished off at the top in accordance with the indication I mentioned, so that the vertical bands joined. But something still needed to be done in the way of matching the colour of the original. Mr. Cattell had suggestions of a technical kind to offer, with which I need not trouble you. He had also views as to the general desirability of the pattern which were vaguely adverse. “You say you don’t wish this to be supplied excepting to personal friends equipped with a authorization from yourself, sir. It shall be done. I quite understand your wish to keep it exclusive: lends it a catchit, does it not, to the suite? What’s every man’s, it’s been said, is no man’s.”

“Do you think it would be popular if it were generally obtainable?” asked Mr. Denton.

“I ‘ardly think it, sir,” said Cattell, pensively clasping his beard. “I ‘ardly think it. Not popular: it wasn’t popular with the man that cut the block, was it, Mr. ‘Iggins?”

“Did he find it a difficult job?”

“He’d no call to do so, sir; but the fact is that the artistic temperament — and our men are artists, sir, every man of them — true artists as much as many that the world styles by that term — it’s apt to take some strange ‘ardly accountable likes or dislikes, and here was an example. The twice or thrice that I went to inspect his progress: language I could understand, for that’s ‘abitual to him, but reel distaste for what I should call a dainty enough thing, I did not, nor am I now able to fathom. It seemed,” said Mr. Cattell, looking narrowly upon Mr. Denton, “as if the man scented something almost Hevil in the design.”

“Indeed? did he tell you so? I can’t say I see anything sinister in it myself.”

“Neether can I, sir. In fact I said as much. ‘Come, Gatwick,’ I said, ‘what’s to do here? What’s the reason of your prejudice — for I can call it no more than that?’ But, no! no explanation was forthcoming. And I was merely reduced, as I am now, to a shrug of the shoulders, and a cui bono. However, here it is,” and with that the technical side of the question came to the front again.

The matching of the colours for the background, the hem, and the knots of ribbon was by far the longest part of the business, and necessitated many sendings to and fro of the original pattern and of new samples. During part of August and September, too, the Dentons were away from the Manor. So that it was not until October was well in that a sufficient quantity of the stuff had been manufactured to furnish curtains for the three or four bedrooms which were to be fitted up with it.

On the feast of Simon and Jude the aunt and nephew returned from a short visit to find all completed, and their satisfaction at the general effect was great. The new curtains, in particular, agreed to admiration with their surroundings. When Mr. Denton was dressing for dinner, and took stock of his room, in which there was a large amount of the chintz displayed, he congratulated himself over and over again on the luck which had first made him forget his aunt’s commission and had then put into his hands this extremely effective means of remedying his mistake. The pattern was, as he said at dinner, so restful and yet so far from being dull. And Miss Denton — who, by the way, had none of the stuff in her own room — was much disposed to agree with him.

At breakfast next morning he was induced to qualify his satisfaction to some extent — but very slightly. “There is one thing I rather regret,” he said, “that we allowed them to join up the vertical bands of the pattern at the top. I think it would have been better to leave that alone.”

“Oh?” said his aunt interrogatively.

“Yes: as I was reading in bed last night they kept catching my eye rather. That is, I found myself looking across at them every now and then. There was an effect as if some one kept peeping out between the curtains in one place or another, where there was no edge, and I think that was due to the joining up of the bands at the top. The only other thing that troubled me was the wind.”

“Why, I thought it was a perfectly still night.”

“Perhaps it was only on my side of the house, but there was enough to sway my curtains and rustle them more than I wanted.”

That night a bachelor friend of James Denton’s came to stay, and was lodged in a room on the same floor as his host, but at the end of a long passage, halfway down which was a red baize door, put there to cut off the draught and intercept noise.

The party of three had separated. Miss Denton a good first, the two men at about eleven. James Denton, not yet inclined for bed, sat him down in an arm-chair and read for a time. Then he dozed, and then he woke, and bethought himself that his brown spaniel, which ordinarily slept in his room, had not come upstairs with him. Then he thought he was mistaken: for happening to move his hand which hung down over the arm of the chair within a few inches of the floor, he felt on the back of it just the slightest touch of a surface of hair, and stretching it out in that direction he stroked and patted a rounded something. But the feel of it, and still more the fact that instead of a responsive movement, absolute stillness greeted his touch, made him look over the arm. What he had been touching rose to meet him. It was in the attitude of one that had crept along the floor on its belly, and it was, so far as could be collected, a human figure. But of the face which was now rising to within a few inches of his own no feature was discernible, only hair. Shapeless as it was, there was about it so horrible an air of menace that as he bounded from his chair and rushed from the room he heard himself moaning with fear: and doubtless he did right to fly. As he dashed into the baize door that cut the passage in two, and — forgetting that it opened towards him — beat against it with all the force in him, he felt a soft ineffectual tearing at his back which, all the same, seemed to be growing in power, as if the hand, or whatever worse than a hand was there, were becoming more material as the pursuer’s rage was more concentrated. Then he remembered the trick of the door — he got it open — he shut it behind him — he gained his friend’s room, and that is all we need know.

It seems curious that, during all the time that had elapsed since the purchase of Poynter’s diary, James Denton should not have sought an explanation of the presence of the pattern that had been pinned into it. Well, he had read the diary through without finding it mentioned, and had concluded that there was nothing to be said. But, on leaving Rendcomb Manor (he did not know whether for good), as he naturally insisted upon doing on the day after experiencing the horror I have tried to put into words, he took the diary with him. And at his seaside lodgings he examined more narrowly the portion whence the pattern had been taken. What he remembered having suspected about it turned out to be correct. Two or three leaves were pasted together, but written upon, as was patent when they were held up to the light. They yielded easily to steaming, for the paste had lost much of its strength, and they contained something relevant to the pattern.

The entry was made in 1707.

“Old Mr. Casbury, of Acrington, told me this day much of young Sir Everard Charlett, whom he remember’d Commoner of University College, and thought was of the same Family as Dr. Arthur Charlett, now master of ye Coll. This Charlett was a personable young gent., but a loose atheistical companion, and a great Lifter, as they then call’d the hard drinkers, and for what I know do so now. He was noted, and subject to severall censures at different times for his extravagancies: and if the full history of his debaucheries had bin known, no doubt would have been expell’d ye Coll., supposing that no interest had been imploy’d on his behalf, of which Mr. Casbury had some suspicion. He was a very beautiful person, and constantly wore his own Hair, which was very abundant, from which, and his loose way of living, the cant name for him was Absalom, and he was accustom’d to say that indeed he believ’d he had shortened old David’s days, meaning his father, Sir Job Charlett, an old worthy cavalier.

“Note that Mr. Casbury said that he remembers not the year of Sir Everard Charlett’s death, but it was 1692 or 3. He died suddenly in October. [Several lines describing his unpleasant habits and reputed delinquencies are omitted.] Having seen him in such topping spirits the night before, Mr. Casbury was amaz’d when he learn’d the death. He was found in the town ditch, the hair as was said pluck’d clean off his head. Most bells in Oxford rung out for him, being a nobleman, and he was buried next night in St. Peter’s in the East. But two years after, being to be moved to his country estate by his successor, it was said the coffin, breaking by mischance, proved quite full of Hair: which sounds fabulous, but yet I believe precedents are upon record, as in Dr. Plot’s History of Staffordshire.

“His chambers being afterwards stripp’d, Mr. Casbury came by part of the hangings of it, which ’twas said this Charlett had design’d expressly for a memorial of his Hair, giving the Fellow that drew it a lock to work by, and the piece which I have fasten’d in here was parcel of the same, which Mr. Casbury gave to me. He said he believ’d there was a subtlety in the drawing, but had never discover’d it himself, nor much liked to pore upon it.”

* * * * *

The money spent upon the curtains might as well have been thrown into the fire, as they were. Mr. Cattell’s comment upon what he heard of the story took the form of a quotation from Shakespeare. You may guess it without difficulty. It began with the words “There are more things.”

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