Number 13

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sorry for the delay, ladies and gentlemen, the semester is coming toward an end and that means finals. Part of my finals is the work on the official “frogfish” website that this blog will migrate to under the “Asterias Media” tab. The Asterias Media side of frogfish is primarily ran by my wife, Laura (aka Olaf the Terrible), and you can read some of her original work at http://olaframbles2.wordpress.com/. Asterias Media will continue to publish classic horror stories like the one below, but we will soon be adding original horror fiction by emerging talent!

Speaking of the story below, this is another classic by M.R. James. If you’re a fan of Stephen King’s “1408” then it will be easy to see how this was one of those “unlucky room” stories that influenced the modern master. It was also adapted by the BBC in 2006. The story is about a man named Mr. Anderson who is staying at a hotel while doing research and discovers  the hotel has rooms 12 and 14, but no 13. Until one night…

NUMBER 13 (1904)

by M.R. James
(1862 – 1936)

Originally from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904)
This copy from The collected ghost stories of M.R. James (1931)
Edward Arnold & Co.: LONDON

This text was copied from Gaslight,  an Internet discussion list which reviews one story a week from the genres of mystery, adventure and The Weird, written between 1800 and 1919

AMONG the towns of Jutland, Viborg justly holds a high place. It is the seat of a bishopric; it has a handsome but almost entirely new cathedral, a charming garden, a lake of great beauty, and many storks. Near it is Hald, accounted one of the prettiest things in Denmark; and hard by is Finderup, where Marsk Stig murdered King Erik Glipping on St. Cecilia’s Day, in the year 1286. Fifty-six blows of square-headed iron maces were traced on Erik’s skull when his tomb was opened in the seventeenth century. But I am not writing a guide-book.There are good hotels in Viborg — Preisler’s and the Phœnix are all that can be desired. But my cousin, whose experiences I have to tell you now, went to the Golden Lion the first time that he visited Viborg. He has not been there since, and the following pages will perhaps explain the reason of his abstention.The Golden Lion is one of the very few houses in the town that were not destroyed in the great fire of 1716, which practically demolished the cathedral, the Sognekirke, the Raadhuus, and so much else that was old and interesting. It is a great red-brick house — that is, the front is of brick, with corbie steps on the gables and a tent over the door; but the courtyard into which the omnibus drives is of black and white “cage-work” in wood and plaster.The sun was declining in the heavens when my cousin walked up to the door, and the light smote full upon the imposing façade of the house. He was delighted with the old-fashioned aspect of the place, and promised himself a thoroughly satisfactory and amusing stay in an inn so typical of old Jutland.It was not business in the ordinary sense of the word that had brought Mr. Anderson to Viborg. He was engaged upon some researches into the Church history of Denmark, and it had come to his. knowledge that in the Rigsarkiv of Viborg there were papers, saved from the fire, relating to the last days of Roman Catholicism in the country. He proposed, therefore, to spend a considerable time — perhaps as much as a fortnight or three weeks — in examining and copying these, and he hoped that the Golden Lion would be able to give him a room of sufficient size to serve alike as a bedroom and a study. His wishes were explained to the landlord, and, after a certain amount of thought, the latter suggested that perhaps it might be the best way for the gentleman to look at one or two of the larger rooms and pick one for himself. It seemed a good idea.The top floor was soon rejected as entailing too much getting upstairs after the day’s work; the second floor contained no room of exactly the dimensions required; but on the first floor there was a choice of two or three rooms which would, so far as size went, suit admirably.The landlord was strongly in favour of Number 17, but Mr. Anderson pointed out that its windows commanded only the blank wall of the next house, and that it would be very dark in the afternoon. Either Number 12 or Number 14 would be better, for both of them looked on the street, and the bright evening light and the pretty view would more than compensate him for the additional amount of noise.Eventually Number 12 was selected. Like its neighbours, it had three windows, all on one side of the room; it was fairly high and unusually long. There was, of course, no fireplace, but the stove was handsome and rather old — a cast-iron erection, on the side of which was a representation of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, and the inscription, “1 Bog Mose, Cap. 22,” above. Nothing else in the room was remarkable; the only interesting picture was an old coloured print of the town, date about 1820.

Supper-time was approaching, but when Anderson, refreshed by the ordinary ablutions, descended the staircase, there were still a few minutes before the bell rang. He devoted them to examining the list of his fellow-lodgers. As is usual in Denmark, their names were displayed on a large blackboard, divided into columns and lines, the numbers of the rooms being painted in at the beginning of each line. The list was not exciting. There was an advocate, or Sagförer, a German, and some bagmen from Copenhagen. The one and only point which suggested any food for thought was the absence of any Number 13 from the tale of the rooms, and even this was a thing which Anderson had already noticed half a dozen times in his experience of Danish hotels. He could not help wondering whether the objection to that particular number, common as it is, was so widespread and so strong as to make at difficult to let a room so ticketed, and he resolved to ask the landlord if he and his colleagues in the profession had actually met with many clients who refused to be accommodated in the thirteenth room.

He had nothing to tell me (I am giving the story as I heard it from him) about what passed at supper; and the evening, which was spent in unpacking and arranging his clothes, books, and papers, was not more eventful. Towards eleven o’clock he resolved to go to bed, but with him, as with a good many other people nowadays, an almost necessary preliminary to bed, if he meant to sleep, was the, reading of a few pages of print; and he now remembered, that the particular book which he had been reading in the train, and which alone would satisfy him at that present moment, was in the pocket of his greatcoat, then hanging on a peg outside the dining-room.

To run down and secure it was the work of a moment, and, as the passages were by no means dark, it was not difficult for him to find his way back to his own door. So, at least, he thought; but when he arrived there, and turned the handle; the door entirely refused to open, and he caught the sound of a hasty movement towards it from within. He had tried the wrong door, of course. Was his own room to the right or to the left? He glanced at the number: it was 13. His room would be on the left; and so it was. And not before he had been in bed for some minutes, had read his wonted three or four pages of his book, blown out his light, and turned over to go to sleep, did it occur to him that, whereas on the blackboard of the hotel there had been no Number 13, there was undoubtedly a room numbered 13 in the hotel. He felt rather sorry he had not chosen it for his own. Perhaps he might have done the landlord a little service by occupying it, and given him the chance of saying that a well-born English gentleman had lived in it for three weeks and liked it very much. But probably it was used as a servant’s room or something of the kind. After all, it was most likely not so large or good a room as his own. And he looked drowsily about the room, which was fairly perceptible in the half-light from the street-lamp. It was a curious effect, he thought. Rooms usually look larger in a dim light than a full one, but this seemed to have contracted in length and grown proportionately higher. Well, well! sleep was more important than these vague ruminations — and to sleep he went.

On the day after his arrival Anderson attacked the Rigsarkiv of Viborg. He was, as one might expect in Denmark, kindly received, and access to all that he wished to see was made as easy for him as possible. The documents laid before him were far more numerous and interesting than he had at all anticipated. Besides official papers, there was a large bundle of correspondence relating to Bishop Jörgen Friis, the last Roman Catholic who held the see, and in these there cropped up many amusing and what are called “intimate” details of private life and individual character. There was much talk of a house owned by the Bishop, but not inhabited by him, in the town. Its tenant was apparently somewhat of a scandal and a stumbling-block to the reforming party. He was a disgrace, they wrote, to the city; he practised secret and wicked arts, and had sold his soul to the enemy. It was of a piece with the gross corruption and superstition of the Babylonish Church that such a viper and bloodsucking Troldmand should be patronized and harboured by the Bishop. The Bishop met these reproaches boldly; he protested his own abhorrence of all such things as secret arts, and required, his antagonists to bring the matter before the proper court — of course, the spiritual court — and sift it to the bottom. No one could be more ready and willing, than himself to condemn Mag. Nicolas Francken if the evidence showed him to have been guilty of any of the crimes informally alleged against him.

Anderson had not time to do more than glance at the next letter of the Protestant leader, Rasmus Nielsen, before the record office was closed for the day, but he gathered its general tenor, which was to the effect that Christian men were now no longer bound by the decisions of Bishops of Rome, and that the Bishop’s Court was not, and could not be, a fit or competent tribunal to judge so grave and weighty a cause.

On leaving the office, Mr. Anderson was accompanied by the old gentleman who presided over it, and, as they walked, the conversation very naturally turned to the papers of which I have just been speaking.

Herr Scavenius, the Archivist of Viborg, though very well informed as to the general run of the documents under his charge, was not a specialist in those of the Reformation period. He was much interested in what Anderson had to tell him about them. He looked forward with great pleasure, he said, to seeing the publication in which Mr. Anderson spoke of embodying their contents. “This house of the Bishop Friis,” he added, “it is a great puzzle to me where it can have stood. I have studied carefully the topography of old Viborg, but it is most unlucky — of the old- terrier of the Bishop’s property, which was made in 1560, and of which we have the greater part in the Arkiv, just the piece which had the list of the town property is missing. Never mind. Perhaps I shall some day, succeed to find him.”

After taking some exercise — I forget exactly how or where — Anderson went back to the Golden Lion, his supper, his game of patience, and his bed. On the way to his room it occurred to him that he had forgotten to talk to the landlord about the omission of Number 13 from the hotel, and also that he might as well make sure that Number 13 did actually exist before he made any reference to the matter.

The decision was not difficult to arrive at. There was the door with its number as plain as could be, and work of some kind was evidently going on inside it, for as he neared the door he could hear footsteps and voices, or a voice, within. During the few seconds in which he halted to make sure of the number, the footsteps ceased, seemingly very near the door, and he was a little startled at hearing a quick hissing breathing as of a person in strong excitement. He west on to his own room, and again he was surprised to find how much smaller it seemed now than it had when he selected it. It was a slight disappointment, but only slight. If he found it really not large enough, he could very easily shift to another. In the meantime he wanted something — as far as I remember it was a pocket-handkerchief — out of his portmanteau, which had been placed by the porter on a very inadequate trestle or stool against the wall at the farthest end of the room from his bed. Here was a very curious thing: the portmanteau was not to be seen. It had been moved by officious servants; doubtless the contents had been put in the wardrobe. No, none of them were there. This was vexatious. The idea of a theft he dismissed at once. Such things rarely happen in Denmark, but some piece of stupidity had certainly been performed (which is not so un- common), and the stuepige must be severely spoken to. Whatever it was that he wanted, it was not so necessary to his comfort that he could not wait till the morning for it, and he therefore settled not to ring the bell and disturb the servants. He went to the window — the right-hand window it was — and looked out on the quiet street. There was a tall building opposite, with large spaces of dead wall; no passersby; a dark night; and very little to be seen of any kind.

The light was behind him, and he could see his own shadow clearly cast on the wall opposite. Also the shadow of the bearded man in Number 11 on the left, who passed to and fro in shirtsleeves once or twice, and was seen first brushing his hair, and later on in a nightgown. Also the shadow of the occupant of Number 13 on the right. This might be more interesting. Number 13 was, like himself, leaning on his elbows on the window-sill looking out into the street. He seemed to be a tall thin man — or was it by any chance a woman? — at least, it was someone who covered his or her head with some kind of drapery before going to bed, and, he thought, must be possessed of a red lamp-shade — and the lamp must be flickering very much. There was a distinct playing up and down of a dull red light on the opposite wall. He craned out a little to see if he could make any more of the figure, but beyond a fold of some light, perhaps white, material on the window-sill he could see nothing.

Now came a distant step in the street, and its approach seemed to recall Number 13 to a sense of his exposed position, for very swiftly and suddenly he swept aside from the window, and his red light went out. Anderson, who had been smoking a cigarette, laid the end of it on the window-sill and went to bed.

Next morning he was woke by the stuepige with hot water, etc. He roused himself, and after thinking out the correct Danish words, said as distinctly, as he could:

“You mast not move my portmanteau. Where is it?”

As is not uncommon, the maid laughed, and went away without making any distinct answer.

Anderson, rather irritated, sat up in bed, intending to call her back, but he remained sitting up, staring straight in front of him. There was his portmanteau on its trestle, exactly where he had seen the porter put it when he first arrived. This was a rude shock for a man who prided himself on his accuracy of observation. How it could possibly have escaped him the night before he did not pretend to understand; at any rate, there it was now.

The daylight showed more than the portmanteau; it let the true proportions of the room with its three windows appear, and satisfied its tenant that his choice after all had not been a bad one. When he was almost dressed he walked to the middle one of the three windows to look out at the weather. Another shock awaited him. Strangely unobservant he must have been last night. He could have sworn ten times over that he had been smoking at the right-hand window the last thing before he went to bed, and here was his cigarette-end on the sill of the middle window.

He started to go down to breakfast. Rather late; but. Number 13 was later: here were his boots still outside his door — a gentleman’s boots. So then Number 13 was a man, not a woman. Just then he caught, sight of the number on the door. It was 14. He thought he must have passed Number 15 without noticing it. Three stupid mistakes in twelve hours were too much for a methodical, accurate-minded man, so he turned back to make sure. The next number to 14 was number 12, his own room. There was no Number 13 at all.

After some minutes, devoted to a careful consideration of everything he had had to eat and drink during the last twenty-four hours, Anderson decided to give the question up. If his sight or his brain were giving way he would have plenty of opportunities for ascertaining that fact; if not, then he was evidently being treated to a very interesting experience. In either case the development of events would certainly be worth watching.

During the day he continued his examination of the episcopal correspondence which I have already summarized. To his disappointment, it was incomplete. Only one other letter could be found which referred to the affair of Mag. Nicolas Francken. It was from the Bishop Jörgen Friis to Rasmus Nielsen. He said:

“Although we are not in the least degree inclined to assent to your judgment concerning our court, and shall be prepared if need be to withstand you to the uttermost in that behalf, yet forasmuch as our trusty, and well-beloved Mag. Nicolas Francken, against whom you have dared to allege certain false and malicious charges, hath been suddenly removed from among us, it is apparent that the question for this time falls. But forasmuch as you further allege that the Apostle and Evangelist St. John in his heavenly Apocalypse describes the Holy Roman Church under the guise and symbol of the Scarlet Woman, be it known to you,” etc.

Search as he might, Anderson could find no sequel to this letter nor any clue to the cause or manner of the “removal” of the casus belli. He could only suppose that Francken had died suddenly; and as there were only two days between the date of Nielsen’s last letter — when Francken was evidently still in being — and that of the Bishop’s letter, the death must have been completely unexpected.

In the afternoon he paid a short visit to Hald, and took his tea at Baekkelund; nor could he notice, though he was in a somewhat nervous frame of mind, that there was any indication of such a failure of eye or brain as his experiences of the morning had led him to fear.

At supper he found himself next to the landlord.

“What,” he asked him, after some indifferent conversation, “is the reason why in most of the hotels one visits in this country the number thirteen is left out of the list of roams? I see you have none here.”

The landlord seemed amused.

“To think that you should have noticed a thing like that! I’ve thought about it once or twice myself, to tell the truth. An educated man, I’ve said, has no business with these superstitious notions. I was brought up myself here in the High School of Viborg, and our old master was always a man to set his face against anything of that kind. He’s been dead now this many years — a fine upstanding man he was, and ready with his hands as well as his head. I recollect us boys, one snowy day ——”

Here he plunged into reminiscence.

“Then you don’t think there is any particular objection to having a Number 13?” said Anderson.

“Ah! to be sure. Well, you understand, I was brought up to the business by my poor old father. He kept an hotel in Aarhuus first, and then, when we were born, he moved to Viborg here, which was his native place, and had the Phœnix here until he died. That was in 1876. Then I started business in Silkeborg, and only the year before last I moved into this house.”

Then followed more details as to the state of the house and business when first taken over.

“And when you came here, was there a Number 13?”

“No, no. I was going to tell you about that. You see, in a place like this, the commercial class — the travellers — are what we have to provide for in general. And put them in Number 13? Why, they’d as soon sleep in the street, or sooner. As far as I’m concerned myself, it wouldn’t make a penny difference to me what the number of my room was, and so I’ve often said to them; but they stick, to it that it brings them bad luck. Quantities of stories they have among them of men that have slept in a Number 13, and never been the same again, or lost their best customers, or — one thing and another,” said the landlord, after searching for a more graphic phrase.

“Then, what do you use your Number 13 for?” said Anderson, conscious as he said the words of a curious anxiety quite disproportionate to the importance of the question.

“My Number 13? Why, don’t I tell you that there isn’t such a thing in the house? I thought you might have noticed that. If there was it would be next door to your own room.”

“Well, yes; only I happened to think — that is, I fancied last night that I had seen a door numbered thirteen in that passage; and, really, I am almost certain I must have been right, for I saw it the night before as well.”

Of course, Herr Kristensen laughed this notion to scorn, as Anderson had expected, and emphasized with much iteration the fact that no Number 13 existed or had existed before him in that hotel.

Anderson was in some ways relieved by his certainty but still puzzled, and he began to think that the best way to make sure whether he had indeed been subject to an illusion or not was to invite the landlord to his room to smoke a cigar later on in the evening. Some photographs of English towns which he had with him formed a sufficiently good excuse.

Herr Kristensen was flattered by the invitation, and most willingly accepted it. At about ten o’clock he was to make his appearance, but before that Anderson had some letters to write, and retired for the purpose of writing them. He almost blushed to himself, at confessing it, but he could not deny that it was the fact that he was becoming quite nervous about the question of the existence of Number 13; so much so that he approached his room by way of Number 11, in order that he might not be obliged to pass the door, or the place where the door ought to be. He looked quickly and suspiciously about the room when he entered it, but there was nothing, beyond that indefinable air of being smaller than usual, to warrant any misgivings. There was no question of the presence or absence of his portmanteau to-night. He had himself emptied it of its contents and lodged it under his bed. With a certain effort, he dismissed the thought of Number 13 from his mind, and sat down to his writing.

His neighbours were quiet enough. Occasionally a door opened in the passage and a pair of boots was thrown out, or a bagman walked past humming to himself, and outside, from time to time a cart thundered over the atrocious cobble-stones, or a quick step hurried along the flags.

Anderson finished his letters, ordered whisky and soda, and then went to the window studied the dead wall opposite and the shadows upon it.

As far as he could remember, Number 14 had been occupied by the lawyer, a staid man, who said little at meals, being generally engaged in studying a small bundle of papers beside his plate. Apparently, however, he was in the habit of giving vent to his animal spirits when alone. Why else should he be dancing? The shadow from the next room evidently showed that he was. Again and again his thin form crossed the window, his arms waved, and a gaunt leg was kicked up with surprising agility. He seemed to be barefooted, and the floor must be well laid, for no sound betrayed his movements: Sagförer Herr Anders Jensen, dancing at ten o’clock at night in a hotel bedroom, seemed a fitting subject for a historical painting in the grand style; and Anderson’s thoughts, like those of Emily in the Mysteries of Udolpho, began to “arrange themselves in the following lines”:

When I return to my hotel,At ten o’clock p.m.,The waiters think I am unwell;I do not care for them.But when I’ve locked my chamber door,And put my boots outside,I dance all night upon the floor.And even if my neighbours swore,I’d go on dancing all the more,For I’m acquainted with the law,And in despite of all their jaw,Their protests I deride.”

Had not the landlord at this moment knocked at the door, it is probable that quite a long poem might have been laid before the reader. To judge from his look of surprise when he found himself in the room, Herr Kristensen was struck, as Anderson had been, by something unusual in its aspect. But he made no remark. Anderson’s photographs interested him mightily, and formed the text of many autobiographical discourses. Nor is it quite clear how the conversation could have been diverted into the desired channel of Number 13, had not the lawyer at this moment begun to sing, and to sing in a manner which could leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was either exceedingly drunk or raving mad. It was a high, thin voice that they heard, and it seemed dry, as if from long disuse. Of words or tune there was no question. It went sailing up to a surprising height, and was carried down with a despairing moan as of a winter wind in a hollow chimney, or an organ whose wind fails suddenly. It was a really horrible sound, and Anderson felt that if he had been alone he must have fled for refuge and society to some neighbour bagman’s room.

The landlord sat open-mouthed.

“I don’t understand it,” he said at last; wiping his forehead. “It is dreadful. I have heard it once before, but I made sure it was a cat.”

“Is he mad?” said Anderson.

“He must be; and what a sad thing! Such a good customer, too, and so successful in his business; by what I hear, and a young family, to bring up.”

Just then came an impatient knock at the door, and the knocker entered, without waiting to be asked. It was the lawyer, in deshabille and very rough-haired; and very angry he looked.

“I beg pardon, sir,” he said, “but I should be much obliged if you would kindly desist. desist ——”

Here he stopped, for it was evident that neither of the persons before him was responsible for the disturbance; and after a moment’s lull it swelled forth again more wildly than before.

“But what in the name of Heaven does it mean?” broke out the lawyer. “Where is it? Who is it? Am I going out of my mind?”

“Surely, Herr, Jensen, it comes from your room next door? Isn’t there a cat or something stuck in the chimney?”

This was the best that occurred to Anderson to say, and he realized its futility as he spoke; but anything was better than to stand and listen to that horrible voice, and look at the broad, white face of the landlord, all perspiring and quivering as he clutched the arms of his chair.

“Impossible,” said the lawyer, “impossible. There is no chimney. I came here because I was convinced the noise was going on here. It was certainly in the next room to mine.”

“Was there no door between yours and mine?” said Anderson eagerly.

“No,” sir,” said Herr Jensen, rather sharply. “At least, not this morning.”

“Ah!” said Anderson. “Nor to-night?”

“I am not sure,” said the lawyer, with some hesitation.

Suddenly the crying or singing voice in the nest room died away, and the singer was heard seemingly to laugh to himself in a crooning manner. The three men actually shivered at the sound. Then there was a silence.

“Come,” said the lawyer, “what have you to say; Herr Kristensen? What does this mean?”

“Good Heaven!” said Kristensen. “How should I tell! I know no more than you, gentlemen. I pray I may never hear such a noise again.”

“So do I,” said Herr Jensen, and he added something under his breath. Anderson thought it sounded like the last words of the Psalter, “omnis spiritus laudet Dominum,” but he could not be sure.

“But we must do something,” said Anderson — “the three of us. Shall we go and investigate in the next room?”

“But that is Herr Jensen’s room,” wailed the landlord. “It is no use; he has come from there himself.”

“I am not so sure,” said Jensen. “I think this gentleman is right: we must go and see.”

The only weapons of defence that could be mustered on the spot were a stick and umbrella. The expedition went out into the passage, not without quakings. There was a deadly quiet outside, but a light shone from under the next door. Anderson and Jensen approached it. The latter turned the handle, and gave a sudden vigorous push. No use. The door stood fast.

“Herr Kristensen,” said Jensen, “will you go and fetch the strongest servant you have in the place? We must see this through.”

The landlord nodded, and hurried off, glad to be away from the scene of action. Jensen and Anderson remained outside looking at the door.

“It is Number 13, you see,” said the latter.

“Yes; there is your door; and there is mine,” said Jensen.

“My room has three windows in the daytime,” said Anderson, with difficulty suppressing a nervous laugh.

“By George, so has mine!” said the lawyer, turning and looking at Anderson. His back was now to the door. In that moment the door opened, and an arm came out and clawed at his shoulder. It was clad in ragged, yellowish linen, and the bare skin, where it could be seen, had long grey hair upon it.

Anderson was just in time to pull Jensen out of its reach with a cry of disgust and fright, when the door shut again, and a low laugh was heard.

Jensen had seen nothing, but when Anderson hurriedly told him what a risk he had run, he fell into a great state of agitation, and suggested that they should retire from the enterprise and lock themselves up in one or other of their rooms.

However, while he was developing this plan, the landlord and two able-bodied men arrived on the scene, all looking rather serious and alarmed. Jensen met them with a torrent of description and explanation, which did not at all tend to encourage them for the fray.

The men dropped the crowbars they had brought, and said flatly that they were not going to risk their throats in that devil’s den. The landlord was miserably nervous and undecided, conscious that if the danger were not faced his hotel was ruined, and very loth to face it himself. Luckily Anderson hit upon a way of rallying the demoralized force.

“Is this,” he said, “the Danish courage I have heard so much of? It isn’t a German in there; and if it was, we are five to one.”

The two servants and Jensen were stung into action by this, and made a dash at the door.

“Stop!” laid Anderson. “Don’t lose your heads. You stay out here with the light, landlord, and one of you two men break in the door, and don’t go in when it gives way.”

The men nodded, and the younger stepped forward, raised his crowbar, and dealt a tremendous blow on the upper panel. The result was not in the least what any of them anticipated. There was no cracking or rending of wood — only a dull sound, as if the solid wall had been struck. The man dropped his tool with a shout, and began rubbing his elbow. His cry drew their eyes upon him for a moment; then Anderson looked at the door again. It was gone; the plaster wall of the passage stared him in the face, with a considerable gash in it where the crowbar had struck it. Number 13 had passed out of existence.

For a brief space they stood perfectly still, gazing at the blank wall. An early cock in the yard beneath was heard to crow; and as Anderson glanced in the direction of the sound, he saw through the window at tie end of the long passage that the eastern sky was paling to the dawn.

* * * * * *

“Perhaps,” said the landlord, with hesitation, “you gentlemen would like another room for to-night — a double-bedded one?”

Neither Jensen nor Anderson was averse to the suggestion. They felt inclined to hunt in couples after their late experience. It was found convenient, when each of them went to his room to collect the articles he wanted for the night, that the other should go with him and hold the candle. They noticed that both Number 12 and Number 14 had three windows.

Next morning the same party reassembled in Number 12. The landlord was naturally anxious to avoid engaging outside help, and yet it was imperative that the mystery attaching to that part of the house should be cleared up. Accordingly the two servants had been induced to take upon them the function of carpenters. The furniture was cleared away, and, at the cost of a good many irretrievably damaged planks, that portion of the floor was taken up which lay nearest to Number 14.

You will naturally suppose that a skeleton — say that of Mag. Nicolas Francken — was discovered. That was not so. What they did find lying between the beams which supported the flooring was a small copper box. In it was a neatly-folded vellum document, with about twenty lines of writing. Both Anderson and Jensen (who proved to be something of a palæographer) were much excited by this discovery, which promised to afford the key to these extraordinary phenomena.

* * * * * *

I possess a copy of an astrological work which I have never read. It has by way of frontispiece, a woodcut by Hans Sebald Beham, representing a number of sages seated round a table. This detail may enable connoisseurs to identify the book. I cannot myself recollect its title, and it is not at this moment within reach; but the fly-leaves of it are covered with writing, and, during the ten years in which I have owned the volume, I have not been able to determine which way up this writing ought to be read, much less in what language it is. Not dissimilar was the position of Anderson and Jensen after the protracted examination to which they submitted the document in the copper box.

After two days’ contemplation of it, Jensen, who was the bolder, spirit of the two, hazarded the conjecture that the language was either Latin or Old Danish.

Anderson ventured upon no surmises, and was very willing to surrender the box and the parchment to the Historical Society of Viborg to be placed in their museum.

I had the whole story from him a few months later, as we sat in a wood near Upsala, after a visit to the library there, where we — or, rather, I — had laughed over the contract by which Daniel Salthenius (in later life Professor of Hebrew at Königsberg) sold himself to Satan. Anderson was not really amused.

“Young idiot!” he said, meaning Salthenius, who was only an undergraduate when he committed that indiscretion, “how did he know what company he was courting?”

And when I suggested the usual considerations he only grunted. That same afternoon he told me what you have read; but he refused to draw any inferences from it, and to assent to any that I drew for him.

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The Mezzotint

M.R. James may be considered the father of the modern ghost story. He abandoned Gothic horror for more realistic contemporary settings. According to his wikipedia page, the classic Jamesian tale consists of:

  1. a characterful setting in an English village, seaside town or country estate; an ancient town in France, Denmark or Sweden; or a venerable abbey or university
  2. a nondescript and rather naive gentleman-scholar as protagonist (often of a reserved nature)
  3. the discovery of an old book or other antiquarian object that somehow unlocks, calls down the wrath, or at least attracts the unwelcome attention of a supernatural menace, usually from beyond the grave.

His story “The Mezzotint” seems to have had a direct influence on Stephen King’s “The Road Virus Head North.”  Of his stories that I have read, this one is perhaps my favorite. It is a great read for Halloween and sure to entertain. Be sure to leave a comment below and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear suggestions on other classic horror stories you’d like to read here.

The Mezzotint

by M.R. James

from The collected ghost stories of M.R. James
Edward Arnold & Co., (1931, 1944 ed.)
This story was originally published in 1904.

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 over 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 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 unexpectedly introduced.

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 as follows:

DEAR SIR,–

We beg to call your attention to No. 978 in our accompanying catalogue, which we shall be glad to send on approval.

Yours faithfully,

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. £2 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 £2 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 judgment 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 persons.

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 terminations.”

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 explain.

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 some interest:

“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 impressive.”

“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 that 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 9.30. 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 presume–by moonlight.

“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.”

“What?”

“Why, one of the windows on the ground-floor–left of the door–is open.”

“Is it really? 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 himself.

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 upstairs.”

“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 his time.”

“Quite likely he will,” said Nisbet; “but just let me take my photograph first. But look here, I rather think Green isn’t up to-day. He wasn’t in Hall last night, and I think I heard him say he was going down for the Sunday.”

“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 all day?”

“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 ears.

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 week-days. 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 came into 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 again 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 developments.

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:

“16½ miles, Anningley. The church has been an interesting building of Norman date, but was extensively classicized in the last century. It contains the tombs 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 considerable rarity.”

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 of the D’Urbervilles?” 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.