A Warning to the Curious and other ghost stories, by M. R. James

A Neighbour’s Landmark

Those who spend the greater part of their time in reading or writing books are, of course, apt to take rather particular notice of accumulations of books when they come across them. They will not pass a stall, a shop, or even a bedroom-shelf without reading some title, and if they find themselves in an unfamiliar library, no host need trouble himself further about their entertainment. The putting of dispersed sets of volumes together, or the turning right way up of those which the dusting housemaid has left in an apoplectic condition, appeals to them as one of the lesser Works of Mercy. Happy in these employments, and in occasionally opening an eighteenth-century octavo, to see ‘what it is all about’, and to conclude after five minutes that it deserves the seclusion it now enjoys, I had reached the middle of a wet August afternoon at Betton Court —

‘You begin in a deeply Victorian manner,’ I said; ‘is this to continue?’

‘Remember, if you please,’ said my friend, looking at me over his spectacles, ‘that I am a Victorian by birth and education, and that the Victorian tree may not unreasonably be expected to bear Victorian fruit. Further, remember that an immense quantity of clever and thoughtful Rubbish is now being written about the Victorian age. Now,’ he went on, laying his papers on his knee, ‘that article, “The Stricken Years”, in The Times Literary Supplement the other day,-able? of course it is able; but, oh! my soul and body, do just hand it over here, will you? it’s on the table by you.’

‘I thought you were to read me something you had written,’ I said, without moving, ‘but, of course —

‘Yes, I know,’ he said. ‘Very well, then, I’ll do that first. But I should like to show you afterwards what I mean. However —’ And he lifted the sheets of paper and adjusted his spectacles.

— at Betton Court, where, generations back, two country-house libraries had been fused together, and no descendant of either stock had ever faced the task of picking them over or getting rid of duplicates. Now I am not setting out to tell of rarities I may have discovered, of Shakespeare quartos bound up in volumes of political tracts, or anything of that kind, but of an experience which befell me in the course of my search — an experience which I cannot either explain away or fit into the scheme of my ordinary life.

It was, I said, a wet August afternoon, rather windy, rather warm. Outside the window great trees were stirring and weeping. Between them were stretches of green and yellow country (for the Court stands high on a hill-side), and blue hills far off, veiled with rain. Up above was a very restless and hopeless movement of low clouds travelling northwest. I had suspended my work — if you call it work — for some minutes to stand at the window and look at these things, and at the greenhouse roof on the right with the water sliding off it, and the Church tower that rose behind that. It was all in favour of my going steadily on; no likelihood of a clearing up for hours to come. I, therefore, returned to the shelves, lifted out a set of eight or nine volumes, lettered Tracts, and conveyed them to the table for closer examination.

They were for the most part of the reign of Anne. There was a good deal of The Late Peace, The Late War, The Conduct of the Allies: there were also Letters to a Convocation Man; Sermons preached at St Michael’s, Queen hithe; Enquiries in to a late Charge of the Rt. Rev. the Lord Bishop of Winchester (or more probably Winton) to his Clergy: things all very lively once, and indeed still keeping so much of their old sting that I was tempted to betake myself into an arm-chair in the window, and give them more time than I had intended. Besides, I was somewhat tired by the day. The Church clock struck four, and it really was four, for in 1889 there was no saving of daylight.

So I settled myself. And first I glanced over some of the War pamphlets, and pleased myself by trying to pick out Swift by his style from among the undistinguished. But the War pamphlets needed more knowledge of the geography of the Low Countries than I had. I turned to the Church, and read several pages of what the Dean of Canterbury said to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge on the occasion of their anniversary meeting in 1711. When I turned over to a Letter from a Beneficed Clergyman in the Country to the Bishop of C——r, I was becoming languid, and I gazed for some moments at the following sentence without surprise:

‘This Abuse (for I think myself justified in calling it by that name) is one which I am persuaded Your Lordship would (if ’twere known to you) exert your utmost efforts to do away. But I am also persuaded that you know no more of its existence than (in the words of the Country Song)

That which walks in Betton Wood
Knows why it walks or why it cries.’

Then indeed I did sit up in my chair, and run my finger along the lines to make sure that I had read them right. There was no mistake. Nothing more was to be gathered from the rest of the pamphlet. The next paragraph definitely changed the subject: ‘But I have said enough upon this Topick’ were its opening words. So discreet, too, was the namelessness of the Beneficed Clergyman that he refrained even from initials, and had his letter printed in London.

The riddle was of a kind that might faintly interest anyone: to me, who have dabbled a good deal in works of folk-lore, it was really exciting. I was set upon solving it — on finding out, I mean, what story lay behind it; and, at least, I felt myself lucky in one point, that, whereas I might have come on the paragraph in some College Library far away, here I was at Betton, on the very scene of action.

The Church clock struck five, and a single stroke on a gong followed. This, I knew, meant tea. I heaved myself out of the deep chair, and obeyed the summons.

My host and I were alone at the Court. He came in soon, wet from a round of landlord’s errands, and with pieces of local news which had to be passed on before I could make an opportunity of asking whether there was a particular place in the parish that was still known as Betton Wood.

‘Betton Wood,’ he said, ‘was a short mile away, just on the crest of Betton Hill, and my father stubbed up the last bit of it when it paid better to grow corn than scrub oaks. Why do you want to know about Betton Wood?’

‘Because,’ I said, ‘in an old pamphlet I was reading just now, there are two lines of a country song which mention it, and they sound as if there was a story belonging to them. Someone says that someone else knows no more of whatever it may be —

Than that which walks in Betton Wood
Knows why it walks or why it cries.’

‘Goodness,’ said Philipson, ‘I wonder whether that was why . . . I must ask old Mitchell.’ He muttered something else to himself, and took some more tea, thoughtfully.

‘Whether that was why —?’ I said.

‘Yes, I was going to say, whether that was why my father had the Wood stubbed up. I said just now it was to get more plough-land, but I don’t really know if it was. I don’t believe he ever broke it up: it’s rough pasture at this moment. But there’s one old chap at least who’d remember something of it — old Mitchell.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Blest if I don’t go down there and ask him. I don’t think I’ll take you,’ he went on; ‘he’s not so likely to tell anything he thinks is odd if there’s a stranger by.’

‘Well, mind you remember every single thing he does tell. As for me, if it clears up, I shall go out, and if it doesn’t, I shall go on with the books.’

It did clear up, sufficiently at least to make me think it worth while to walk up the nearest hill and look over the country. I did not know the lie of the land; it was the first visit I had paid to Philipson, and this was the first day of it. So I went down the garden and through the wet shrubberies with a very open mind, and offered no resistance to the indistinct impulse — was it, however, so very indistinct? — which kept urging me to bear to the left whenever there was a forking of the path. The result was that after ten minutes or more of dark going between dripping rows of box and laurel and privet, I was confronted by a stone arch in the Gothic style set in the stone wall which encircled the whole demesne. The door was fastened by a spring-lock, and I took the precaution of leaving this on the jar as I passed out into the road. That road I crossed, and entered a narrow lane between hedges which led upward; and that lane I pursued at a leisurely pace for as much as half a mile, and went on to the field to which it led. I was now on a good point of vantage for taking in the situation of the Court, the village, and the environment; and I leant upon a gate and gazed westward and downward.

I think we must all know the landscapes — are they by Birket Foster, or somewhat earlier? — which, in the form of wood-cuts, decorate the volumes of poetry that lay on the drawing-room tables of our fathers and grandfathers — volumes in ‘Art Cloth, embossed bindings’; that strikes me as being the right phrase. I confess myself an admirer of them, and especially of those which show the peasant leaning over a gate in a hedge and surveying, at the bottom of a downward slope, the village church spire — embosomed amid venerable trees, and a fertile plain intersected by hedgerows, and bounded by distant hills, behind which the orb of day is sinking (or it may be rising) amid level clouds illumined by his dying (or nascent) ray. The expressions employed here are those which seem appropriate to the pictures I have in mind; and were there opportunity, I would try to work in the Vale, the Grove, the Cot, and the Flood. Anyhow, they are beautiful to me, these landscapes, and it was just such a one that I was now surveying. It might have come straight out of Gems of Sacred Song, selected by a Lady and given as a birthday present to Eleanor Philipson in 1852 by her attached friend Millicent Graves. All at once I turned as if I had been stung. There thrilled into my right ear and pierced my head a note of incredible sharpness, like the shriek of a bat, only ten times intensified — the kind of thing that makes one wonder if something has not given way in one’s brain. I held my breath, and covered my ear, and shivered. Something in the circulation: another minute or two, I thought, and I return home. But I must fix the view a little more firmly in my mind. Only, when I turned to it again, the taste was gone out of it. The sun was down behind the hill, and the light was off the fields, and when the clock bell in the Church tower struck seven, I thought no longer of kind mellow evening hours of rest, and scents of flowers and woods on evening air; and of how someone on a farm a mile or two off would be saying ‘How clear Betton bell sounds tonight after the rain!’; but instead images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower, and forgotten graves and their ugly contents below, and of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life. And just then into my left ear — close as if lips had been put within an inch of my head, the frightful scream came thrilling again.

There was no mistake possible now. It was from outside. ‘With no language but a cry’ was the thought that flashed into my mind. Hideous it was beyond anything I had heard or have heard since, but I could read no emotion in it, and doubted if I could read any intelligence. All its effect was to take away every vestige, every possibility, of enjoyment, and make this no place to stay in one moment more. Of course there was nothing to be seen: but I was convinced that, if I waited, the thing would pass me again on its aimless, endless beat, and I could not bear the notion of a third repetition. I hurried back to the lane and down the hill. But when I came to the arch in the wall I stopped. Could I be sure of my way among those dank alleys, which would be danker and darker now! No, I confessed to myself that I was afraid: so jarred were all my nerves with the cry on the hill that I really felt I could not afford to be startled even by a little bird in a bush, or a rabbit. I followed the road which followed the wall, and I was not sorry when I came to the gate and the lodge, and descried Philipson coming up towards it from the direction of the village.

‘And where have you been?’ said he.

‘I took that lane that goes up the hill opposite the stone arch in the wall.’

‘Oh! did you? Then you’ve been very near where Betton Wood used to be: at least, if you followed it up to the top, and out into the field.’

And if the reader will believe it, that was the first time that I put two and two together. Did I at once tell Philipson what had happened to me? I did not. I have not had other experiences of the kind which are called super-natural, or — normal, or — physical, but, though I knew very well I must speak of this one before long, I was not at all anxious to do so; and I think I have read that this is a common case.

So all I said was: ‘Did you see the old man you meant to?’

‘Old Mitchell? Yes, I did; and got something of a story out of him. I’ll keep it till after dinner. It really is rather odd.’

So when we were settled after dinner he began to report, faithfully, as he said, the dialogue that had taken place. Mitchell, not far off eighty years old, was in his elbow-chair. The married daughter with whom he lived was in and out preparing for tea.

After the usual salutations: ‘Mitchell, I want you to tell me something about the Wood.’

‘What Wood’s that, Master Reginald?’

‘Betton Wood. Do you remember it?’

Mitchell slowly raised his hand and pointed an accusing forefinger. ‘It were your father done away with Betton Wood, Master Reginald, I can tell you that much.’

‘Well, I know it was, Mitchell. You needn’t look at me as if it were my fault.’

‘Your fault? No, I says it were your father done it, before your time.’

‘Yes, and I dare say if the truth was known, it was your father that advised him to do it, and I want to know why.’ Mitchell seemed a little amused. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘my father were woodman to your father and your grandfather before him, and if he didn’t know what belonged to his business, he’d oughter done. And if he did give advice that way, I suppose he might have had his reasons, mightn’t he now?’

‘Of course he might, and I want you to tell me what they were.’

‘Well now, Master Reginald, whatever makes you think as I know what his reasons might ’a been I don’t know how many year ago?’

‘Well, to be sure, it is a long time, and you might easily have forgotten, if ever you knew. I suppose the only thing is for me to go and ask old Ellis what he can recollect about it.’

That had the effect I hoped for.

‘Old Ellis!’ he growled. ‘First time ever I hear anyone say old Ellis were any use for any purpose. I should ’a thought you know’d better than that yourself, Master Reginald. What do you suppose old Ellis can tell you better’n what I can about Betton Wood, and what call have he got to be put afore me, I should like to know. His father warn’t woodman on the place: he were ploughman — that’s what he was, and so anyone could tell you what knows; anyone could tell you that, I says.’

‘Just so, Mitchell, but if you know all about Betton Wood and won’t tell me, why, I must do the next best I can, and try and get it out of somebody else; and old Ellis has been on the place very nearly as long as you have.’

‘That he ain’t, not by eighteen months! Who says I wouldn’t tell you nothing about the Wood? I ain’t no objection; only it’s a funny kind of a tale, and ‘taint right to my thinkin’ it should be all about the parish. You, Lizzie, do you keep in your kitchen a bit. Me and Master Reginald wants to have a word or two private. But one thing I’d like to know, Master Reginald, what come to put you upon asking about it today?’

‘Oh! well, I happened to hear of an old saying about something that walks in Betton Wood. And I wondered if that had anything to do with its being cleared away: that’s all.’

‘Well, you was in the right, Master Reginald, however you come to hear of it, and I believe I can tell you the rights of it better than anyone in this parish, let alone old Ellis. You see it came about this way: that the shortest road to Allen’s Farm laid through the Wood, and when we was little my poor mother she used to go so many times in the week to the farm to fetch a quart of milk, because Mr Allen what had the farm then under your father, he was a good man, and anyone that had a young family to bring up, he was willing to allow ’em so much in the week. But never you mind about that now. And my poor mother she never liked to go through the Wood, because there was a lot of talk in the place, and sayings like what you spoke about just now. But every now and again, when she happened to be late with her work, she’d have to take the short road through the Wood, and as sure as ever she did, she’d come home in a rare state. I remember her and my father talking about it, and he’d say, “Well, but it can’t do you no harm, Emma,” and she’d say, “Oh! but you haven’t an idear of it, George. Why, it went right through my head,” she says, “and I came over all bewildered-like, and as if I didn’t know where I was. You see, George,” she says, “it ain’t as if you was about there in the dusk. You always goes there in the daytime, now don’t you?” and he says: “Why, to be sure I do; do you take me for a fool?” And so they’d go on. And time passed by, and I think it wore her out, because, you understand, it warn’t no use to go for the milk not till the afternoon, and she wouldn’t never send none of us children instead, for fear we should get a fright. Nor she wouldn’t tell us about it herself. “No,” she says, “it’s bad enough for me. I don’t want no one else to go through it, nor yet hear talk about it.” But one time I recollect she says, “Well, first it’s a rustling-like all along in the bushes, coming very quick, either towards me or after me according to the time, and then there comes this scream as appears to pierce right through from the one ear to the other, and the later I am coming through, the more like I am to hear it twice over; but thanks be, I never yet heard it the three times.” And then I asked her, and I says: “Why, that seems like someone walking to and fro all the time, don’t it?” and she says, “Yes, it do, and whatever it is she wants, I can’t think”: and I says, “Is it a woman, mother?” and she says, “Yes, I’ve heard it is a woman.”

‘Anyway, the end of it was my father he spoke to your father, and told him the Wood was a bad wood. “There’s never a bit of game in it, and there’s never a bird’s nest there,” he says, “and it ain’t no manner of use to you.” And after a lot of talk, your father he come and see my mother about it, and he see she warn’t one of these silly women as gets nervish about nothink at all, and he made up his mind there was somethink in it, and after that he asked about in the neighbourhood, and I believe he made out somethink, and wrote it down in a paper what very like you’ve got up at the Court, Master Reginald. And then he gave the order, and the Wood was stubbed up. They done all the work in the daytime, I recollect, and was never there after three o’clock.’ ‘Didn’t they find anything to explain it, Mitchell? No bones or anything of that kind?’

‘Nothink at all, Master Reginald, only the mark of a hedge and ditch along the middle, much about where the quickset hedge run now; and with all the work they done, if there had been anyone put away there, they was bound to find ’em. But I don’t know whether it done much good, after all. People here don’t seem to like the place no better than they did afore.’

‘That’s about what I got out of Mitchell,’ said Philipson, ‘and as far as any explanation goes, it leaves us very much where we were. I must see if I can’t find that paper.’

‘Why didn’t your father ever tell you about the business?’ I said.

‘He died before I went to school, you know, and I imagine he didn’t want to frighten us children by any such story. I can remember being shaken and slapped by my nurse for running up that lane towards the Wood when we were coming back rather late one winter afternoon: but in the daytime no one interfered with our going into the Wood if we wanted to — only we never did want.’

‘Hm!’ I said, and then, ‘Do you you think you’ll be able to find that paper that your father wrote?’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I do. I expect it’s no farther away than that cupboard behind you. There’s a bundle or two of things specially put aside, most of which I’ve looked through at various times, and I know there’s one envelope labelled Betton Wood: but as there was no Betton Wood any more, I never thought it would be worth while to open it, and I never have. We’ll do it now, though.’

‘Before you do,’ I said (I was still reluctant, but I thought this was perhaps the moment for my disclosure), ‘I’d better tell you I think Mitchell was right when he doubted if clearing away the Wood had put things straight.’ And I gave the account you have heard already: I need not say Philipson was interested. ‘Still there?’ he said. ‘It’s amazing. Look here, will you come out there with me now, and see what happens?’

‘I will do no such thing,’ I said, ‘and if you knew the feeling, you’d be glad to walk ten miles in the opposite direction. Don’t talk of it. Open your envelope, and let’s hear what your father made out.’

He did so, and read me the three or four pages of jottings which it contained. At the top was written a motto from Scott’s Glenfinlas, which seemed to me well-chosen:

Where walks, they say, the shrieking ghost.

Then there were notes of his talk with Mitchell’s mother, from which I extract only this much. ‘I asked her if she never thought she saw anything to account for the sounds she heard. She told me, no more than once, on the darkest evening she ever came through the Wood; and then she seemed forced to look behind her as the rustling came in the bushes, and she thought she saw something all in tatters with the two arms held out in front of it coming on very fast, and at that she ran for the stile, and tore her gown all to finders getting over it.’

Then he had gone to two other people whom he found very shy of talking. They seemed to think, among other things, that it reflected discredit on the parish. However, one, Mrs Emma Frost, was prevailed upon to repeat what her mother had told her. ‘They say it was a lady of title that married twice over, and her first husband went by the name of Brown, or it might have been Bryan [‘Yes, there were Bryans at the Court before it came into our family,’ Philipson put in], and she removed her neighbour’s landmark: leastways she took in a fair piece of the best pasture in Betton parish what belonged by rights to two children as hadn’t no one to speak for them, and they say years after she went from bad to worse, and made out false papers to gain thousands of pounds up in London, and at last they was proved in law to be false, and she would have been tried and put to death very like, only she escaped away for the time. But no one can’t avoid the curse that’s laid on them that removes the landmark, and so we take it she can’t leave Betton before someone take and put it right again.’

At the end of the paper there was a note to this effect. ‘I regret that I cannot find any clue to previous owners of the fields adjoining the Wood. I do not hesitate to say that if I could discover their representatives, I should do my best to indemnify them for the wrong done to them in years now long past: for it is undeniable that the Wood is very curiously disturbed in the manner described by the people of the place. In my present ignorance alike of the extent of the land wrongly appropriated, and of the rightful owners, I am reduced to keeping a separate note of the profits derived from this part of the estate, and my custom has been to apply the sum that would represent the annual yield of about five acres to the common benefit of the parish and to charitable uses: and I hope that those who succeed me may see fit to continue this practice.’

So much for the elder Mr Philipson’s paper. To those who, like myself, are readers of the State Trials it will have gone far to illuminate the situation. They will remember how between the years 1678 and 1684 the Lady Ivy, formerly Theodosia Bryan, was alternately Plaintiff and Defendant in a series of trials in which she was trying to establish a claim against the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s for a considerable and very valuable tract of land in Shadwell: how in the last of those trials, presided over by L. C. J. Jeffreys, it was proved up to the hilt that the deeds upon which she based her claim were forgeries executed under her orders: and how, after an information for perjury and forgery was issued against her, she disappeared completely — so completely, indeed, that no expert has ever been able to tell me what became of her.

Does not the story I have told suggest that she may still be heard of on the scene of one of her earlier and more successful exploits?

* * * *

‘That,’ said my friend, as he folded up his papers, ‘is a very faithful record of my one extraordinary experience. And now —’

But I had so many questions to ask him, as for instance, whether his friend had found the proper owner of the land, whether he had done anything about the hedge, whether the sounds were ever heard now, what was the exact title and date of his pamphlet, etc., etc., that bed-time came and passed, without his having an opportunity to revert to the Literary Supplement of The Times.

[Thanks to the researches of Sir John Fox, in his book on The Lady Ivie’s Trial (Oxford, 1929), we now know that my heroine died in her bed in 1695, having — heaven knows how — been acquitted of the forgery, for which she had undoubtedly been responsible.]

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11