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The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
by Montague Rhodes James
Page 2 of 2 : First page
So much for the archdeacon's archaeological investigations. To return to
his career as it is to be gathered from his diaries. Those of his first
three years of hard and careful work show him throughout in high spirits,
and, doubtless, during this time, that reputation for hospitality and
urbanity which is mentioned in his obituary notice was well deserved.
After that, as time goes on, I see a shadow coming over him--destined to
develop into utter blackness--which I cannot but think must have been
reflected in his outward demeanour. He commits a good deal of his fears
and troubles to his diary; there was no other outlet for them. He was
unmarried and his sister was not always with him. But I am much mistaken
if he has told all that he might have told. A series of extracts shall be
_Aug. 30th 1816_--The days begin to draw in more perceptibly than
ever. Now that the Archdeaconry papers are reduced to order, I must
find some further employment for the evening hours of autumn and
winter. It is a great blow that Letitia's health will not allow her
to stay through these months. Why not go on with my _Defence of
Episcopacy_? It may be useful.
_Sept. 15._--Letitia has left me for Brighton.
_Oct. 11._--Candles lit in the choir for the first time at evening
prayers. It came as a shock: I find that I absolutely shrink from the
_Nov. 17_--Much struck by the character of the carving on my desk: I
do not know that I had ever carefully noticed it before. My attention
was called to it by an accident. During the _Magnificat_ I was, I
regret to say, almost overcome with sleep. My hand was resting on the
back of the carved figure of a cat which is the nearest to me of the
three figures on the end of my stall. I was not aware of this, for I
was not looking in that direction, until I was startled by what
seemed a softness, a feeling as of rather rough and coarse fur, and a
sudden movement, as if the creature were twisting round its head to
bite me. I regained complete consciousness in an instant, and I have
some idea that I must have uttered a suppressed exclamation, for I
noticed that Mr Treasurer turned his head quickly in my direction.
The impression of the unpleasant feeling was so strong that I found
myself rubbing my hand upon my surplice. This accident led me to
examine the figures after prayers more carefully than I had done
before, and I realized for the first time with what skill they are
_Dec. 6_--I do indeed miss Letitia's company. The evenings, after I
have worked as long as I can at my _Defence_, are very trying. The
house is too large for a lonely man, and visitors of any kind are too
rare. I get an uncomfortable impression when going to my room that
there _is_ company of some kind. The fact is (I may as well formulate
it to myself) that I hear voices. This, I am well aware, is a common
symptom of incipient decay of the brain--and I believe that I should
be less disquieted than I am if I had any suspicion that this was the
cause. I have none--none whatever, nor is there anything in my family
history to give colour to such an idea. Work, diligent work, and a
punctual attention to the duties which fall to me is my best remedy,
and I have little doubt that it will prove efficacious.
_Jan. 1_--My trouble is, I must confess it, increasing upon me. Last
night, upon my return after midnight from the Deanery, I lit my
candle to go upstairs. I was nearly at the top when something
whispered to me, 'Let me wish you a happy New Year.' I could not be
mistaken: it spoke distinctly and with a peculiar emphasis. Had I
dropped my candle, as I all but did, I tremble to think what the
consequences must have been. As it was, I managed to get up the last
flight, and was quickly in my room with the door locked, and
experienced no other disturbance.
_Jan. 15_--I had occasion to come downstairs last night to my
workroom for my watch, which I had inadvertently left on my table
when I went up to bed. I think I was at the top of the last flight
when I had a sudden impression of a sharp whisper in my ear '_Take
care_.' I clutched the balusters and naturally looked round at once.
Of course, there was nothing. After a moment I went on--it was no
good turning back--but I had as nearly as possible fallen: a cat--a
large one by the feel of it--slipped between my feet, but again, of
course, I saw nothing. It _may_ have been the kitchen cat, but I do
not think it was.
_Feb. 27_--A curious thing last night, which I should like to forget.
Perhaps if I put it down here I may see it in its true proportion. I
worked in the library from about 9 to 10. The hall and staircase
seemed to be unusually full of what I can only call movement without
sound: by this I mean that there seemed to be continuous going and
coming, and that whenever I ceased writing to listen, or looked out
into the hall, the stillness was absolutely unbroken. Nor, in going
to my room at an earlier hour than usual--about half-past ten--was I
conscious of anything that I could call a noise. It so happened that
I had told John to come to my room for the letter to the bishop which
I wished to have delivered early in the morning at the Palace. He was
to sit up, therefore, and come for it when he heard me retire. This I
had for the moment forgotten, though I had remembered to carry the
letter with me to my room. But when, as I was winding up my watch, I
heard a light tap at the door, and a low voice saying, 'May I come
in?' (which I most undoubtedly did hear), I recollected the fact, and
took up the letter from my dressing-table, saying 'Certainly: come
in.' No one, however, answered my summons, and it was now that, as I
strongly suspect, I committed an error: for I opened the door and
held the letter out. There was certainly no one at that moment in the
passage, but, in the instant of my standing there, the door at the
end opened and John appeared carrying a candle. I asked him whether
he had come to the door earlier; but am satisfied that he had not. I
do not like the situation; but although my senses were very much on
the alert, and though it was some time before I could sleep, I must
allow that I perceived nothing further of an untoward character.
With the return of spring, when his sister came to live with him for some
months, Dr Haynes's entries become more cheerful, and, indeed, no symptom
of depression is discernible until the early part of September when he
was again left alone. And now, indeed, there is evidence that he was
incommoded again, and that more pressingly. To this matter I will return
in a moment, but I digress to put in a document which, rightly or
wrongly, I believe to have a bearing on the thread of the story.
The account-books of Dr Haynes, preserved along with his other papers,
show, from a date but little later than that of his institution as
archdeacon, a quarterly payment of £25 to J. L. Nothing could have been
made of this, had it stood by itself. But I connect with it a very dirty
and ill-written letter, which, like another that I have quoted, was in a
pocket in the cover of a diary. Of date or postmark there is no vestige,
and the decipherment was not easy. It appears to run:
I have bin expctin to her off you theis last wicks, and not Haveing
done so must supose you have not got mine witch was saying how me and
my man had met in with bad times this season all seems to go cross
with us on the farm and which way to look for the rent we have no
knowledge of it this been the sad case with us if you would have the
great [liberality _probably, but the exact spelling defies
reproduction_] to send fourty pounds otherwise steps will have to be
took which I should not wish. Has you was the Means of me losing my
place with Dr Pulteney I think it is only just what I am asking and
you know best what I could say if I was Put to it but I do not wish
anything of that unpleasant Nature being one that always wish to have
everything Pleasant about me.
Your obedt Servt,
About the time at which I suppose this letter to have been written there
is, in fact, a payment of £40 to J.L.
We return to the diary:
_Oct. 22_--At evening prayers, during the Psalms, I had that same
experience which I recollect from last year. I was resting my hand on
one of the carved figures, as before (I usually avoid that of the cat
now), and--I was going to have said--a change came over it, but that
seems attributing too much importance to what must, after all, be due
to some physical affection in myself: at any rate, the wood seemed to
become chilly and soft as if made of wet linen. I can assign the
moment at which I became sensible of this. The choir were singing the
words (_Set thou an ungodly man to be ruler over him and let Satan
stand at his right hand_.)
The whispering in my house was more persistent tonight. I seemed not
to be rid of it in my room. I have not noticed this before. A nervous
man, which I am not, and hope I am not becoming, would have been much
annoyed, if not alarmed, by it. The cat was on the stairs tonight. I
think it sits there always. There _is_ no kitchen cat.
_Nov. 15_--Here again I must note a matter I do not understand. I am
much troubled in sleep. No definite image presented itself, but I was
pursued by the very vivid impression that wet lips were whispering
into my ear with great rapidity and emphasis for some time together.
After this, I suppose, I fell asleep, but was awakened with a start
by a feeling as if a hand were laid on my shoulder. To my intense
alarm I found myself standing at the top of the lowest flight of the
first staircase. The moon was shining brightly enough through the
large window to let me see that there was a large cat on the second
or third step. I can make no comment. I crept up to bed again, I do
not know how. Yes, mine is a heavy burden. [Then follows a line or
two which has been scratched out. I fancy I read something like
'acted for the best'.]
Not long after this it is evident to me that the archdeacon's firmness
began to give way under the pressure of these phenomena. I omit as
unnecessarily painful and distressing the ejaculations and prayers which,
in the months of December and January, appear for the first time and
become increasingly frequent. Throughout this time, however, he is
obstinate in clinging to his post. Why he did not plead ill-health and
take refuge at Bath or Brighton I cannot tell; my impression is that it
would have done him no good; that he was a man who, if he had confessed
himself beaten by the annoyances, would have succumbed at once, and that
he was conscious of this. He did seek to palliate them by inviting
visitors to his house. The result he has noted in this fashion:
_Jan. 7_--I have prevailed on my cousin Allen to give me a few days,
and he is to occupy the chamber next to mine.
_Jan. 8_--A still night. Allen slept well, but complained of the
wind. My own experiences were as before: still whispering and
whispering: what is it that he wants to say?
_Jan. 9_--Allen thinks this a very noisy house. He thinks, too, that
my cat is an unusually large and fine specimen, but very wild.
_Jan. 10_--Allen and I in the library until 11. He left me twice to
see what the maids were doing in the hall: returning the second time
he told me he had seen one of them passing through the door at the
end of the passage, and said if his wife were here she would soon get
them into better order. I asked him what coloured dress the maid
wore; he said grey or white. I supposed it would be so.
_Jan. 11_--Allen left me today. I must be firm.
These words, _I must be firm_, occur again and again on subsequent days;
sometimes they are the only entry. In these cases they are in an
unusually large hand, and dug into the paper in a way which must have
broken the pen that wrote them.
Apparently the archdeacon's friends did not remark any change in his
behaviour, and this gives me a high idea of his courage and
determination. The diary tells us nothing more than I have indicated of
the last days of his life. The end of it all must be told in the polished
language of the obituary notice:
The morning of the 26th of February was cold and tempestuous. At an
early hour the servants had occasion to go into the front hall of the
residence occupied by the lamented subject of these lines. What was
their horror upon observing the form of their beloved and respected
master lying upon the landing of the principal staircase in an
attitude which inspired the gravest fears. Assistance was procured,
and an universal consternation was experienced upon the discovery
that he had been the object of a brutal and a murderous attack. The
vertebral column was fractured in more than one place. This might
have been the result of a fall: it appeared that the stair-carpet was
loosened at one point. But, in addition to this, there were injuries
inflicted upon the eyes, nose and mouth, as if by the agency of some
savage animal, which, dreadful to relate, rendered those features
unrecognizable. The vital spark was, it is needless to add,
completely extinct, and had been so, upon the testimony of
respectable medical authorities, for several hours. The author or
authors of this mysterious outrage are alike buried in mystery, and
the most active conjecture has hitherto failed to suggest a solution
of the melancholy problem afforded by this appalling occurrence.
The writer goes on to reflect upon the probability that the writings of
Mr Shelley, Lord Byron, and M. Voltaire may have been instrumental in
bringing about the disaster, and concludes by hoping, somewhat vaguely,
that this event may 'operate as an example to the rising generation'; but
this portion of his remarks need not be quoted in full.
I had already formed the conclusion that Dr Haynes was responsible for
the death of Dr Pulteney. But the incident connected with the carved
figure of death upon the archdeacon's stall was a very perplexing
feature. The conjecture that it had been cut out of the wood of the
Hanging Oak was not difficult, but seemed impossible to substantiate.
However, I paid a visit to Barchester, partly with the view of finding
out whether there were any relics of the woodwork to be heard of. I was
introduced by one of the canons to the curator of the local museum, who
was, my friend said, more likely to be able to give me information on the
point than anyone else. I told this gentleman of the description of
certain carved figures and arms formerly on the stalls, and asked whether
any had survived. He was able to show me the arms of Dean West and some
other fragments. These, he said, had been got from an old resident, who
had also once owned a figure--perhaps one of those which I was inquiring
for. There was a very odd thing about that figure, he said. 'The old man
who had it told me that he picked it up in a woodyard, whence he had
obtained the still extant pieces, and had taken it home for his children.
On the way home he was fiddling about with it and it came in two in his
hands, and a bit of paper dropped out. This he picked up and, just
noticing that there was writing on it, put it into his pocket, and
subsequently into a vase on his mantelpiece. I was at his house not very
long ago, and happened to pick up the vase and turn it over to see
whether there were any marks on it, and the paper fell into my hand. The
old man, on my handing it to him, told me the story I have told you, and
said I might keep the paper. It was crumpled and rather torn, so I have
mounted it on a card, which I have here. If you can tell me what it means
I shall be very glad, and also, I may say, a good deal surprised.'
He gave me the card. The paper was quite legibly inscribed in an old
hand, and this is what was on it:
When I grew in the Wood
I was water'd w'th Blood
Now in the Church I stand
Who that touches me with his Hand
If a Bloody hand he bear
I councell him to be ware
Lest he be fetcht away
Whether by night or day,
But chiefly when the wind blows high
In a night of February.
This I drempt, 26 Febr. Anno 1699. JOHN AUSTIN.
'I suppose it is a charm or a spell: wouldn't you call it something of
that kind?' said the curator.
'Yes,' I said, 'I suppose one might. What became of the figure in which
it was concealed?'
'Oh, I forgot,' said he. 'The old man told me it was so ugly and
frightened his children so much that he burnt it.'
This copyright-expired work is in the public domain