My completion of an unfinished story by M. R. James
It was in the month of March last year that you put into my hands a mass of papers and MSS belonging to the late John Stedman of Merfield Hall, Beds, and requested me to go through them and extract what I could relative to his experiences in that house of which he left you the heir, and to the death of his friend Mrs Haydon there. I have happily come upon a full narrative of those occurrences in Mr Stedman's own handwriting, signed by himself and attested by his butler and housekeeper for the time being. If not impossibly intended for the human eye I think the narrative will satisfy your curiosity as far as is possible in a case where the attendant circumstances are so mysterious. I enclose the MS without further comment.
John Stedman MS
In 1849 my half brother Charles Horsley, then a young man of 37, succeeded to the possession of Merfield Hall in the county of Bedfordshire. The Home and Park and sufficient income of some 3000 pounds a year were left him by his uncle, with whom he had always been a favourite. The two were much alike in temperament: saturnine, cynical, and secretive, and not a little inclined to seclude themselves. I very well remember, when invited to spend Christmas at Merfield as a boy (Charles having as usual preceded me by some days), how for hours at a time I was left entirely alone to wander about the house and grounds while uncle and nephew, closeted in the library, were elaborating their schemes—or so I thought—to avenge themselves on a society with despised them.
Before I relate the first incident which led me to view them and their proceedings with something like terror, I must devote a few lines to describing the house as it was in my day. It dated from about 1690, and was a fine solid building of red brick, 2 or 3 storied (whichever you call it) with a pediment and round windows pierced in it, 2 wings projecting slightly. The windows large with many panes and conspicuous white wooden framings; a niche with scallop shell head in each wing; a tiled roof and good chimneys. Within, a large hall, paved in squares of black and white marble. Fine staircases and many rooms, most of them, when I knew them first, unoccupied. My uncle's room was in the left wing, towards the west, and Charles was always put next door to him. I was invariably banished to the east wing and put in a room between two empty ones; one a disused bathroom with the bath all cobwebbed over, the other a bedroom with a few books. The garden was pleasant with hedges of yew and hornbeam, and fair trees—elm and lime. The Park had an elm avenue and an ornamental sheet of water with a Fishing Temple—such as the last generation delighted in. The county handbook said of this one that it had been built by the ingenious Mr. Essex in the Gothick Taste and was much admired by all curiosi. As far as I can recollect, some of its details were borrowed from Peterboro' Cathedral and some from King's College Chapel in Cambridge, which the architect was then engaged upon.
But I was passing library windows on my way to the water to fish when I heard the two voices within laughing—a pleasurable laugh of anticipation. This was so unusual a thing that I could not for the life of me help stopping to try and catch a glimpse through the windows of what could possibly have so diverted two such as I had known long and described as above. I had only time to see my uncle and brother pushing away the heavy library table from its usual place in the middle of the room, when the latter caught sight of me standing outside. He came hastily to the window, and with an angry look at me drew down the blinds. I had expected as much for both were exceedingly jealous of an overlooking eye, and walked slowly on, puzzling over the laughter I had heard, when I heard behind me a peculiar quick cry with a sort of ringing sound to it as if a shout carried on a high blustering wind. I had never heard anything in the least like it, so fearfully lonely and desperate a tone was there in it, and I stopped in extreme fear. At the same time—I am sure of what I am saying—a sudden shade seemed to run over the whole landscape—it seemed to me like a shudder of all the nature round me—and it went across to the South-West.
I was cold with terror and hardly knew what I did, but my instinct seemed to tell me to run to the library. I rushed to the window—which a few minutes before had been darkened to me. The blind was gone—torn down or pulled up. I leaned inside, and I saw the two inside lying on the floor. As quickly as I could I got to the door, some of the servants following, and though however it was not locked, I felt for a moment some resistance from within to my efforts. Between us we got it open—it flew back—I had not thought I was pushing so hard—and after a moment's hesitation, or something further that held us back, we all rushed into the room.
My brother was already on his knees, white and shaking, and was trying to bring round my uncle who lay as he had fallen with his head against the wall, completely stunned. Suddenly, he too sat up and looked round about him, then, realising the situation and seeing the servants in the room, he staggered to his feet and would have us all leave. I shall not set down here the terms of his command, but they were most urgent, and seeing he was himself again, we had all nearly left the room when he called me back, and, clutching my arm, "An experiment," he said, speaking to me very fast and low, "a scientific experiment, you know Johnny, and your brother Charles and I might have been killed—think of that! But all's right now and it's not worth making a fuss about. Don't get tattling with the servants about it and making mischief. Now go about your business; you needn't be afraid we shall try any more dangerous experiments." And he smiled, with a glance at Charles who was still shaking like an aspen and clutching the table.
I do not recall whether at the time I believed him or not. I am not certain there was anything in his words that would have required belief. It seemed easy enough to assume that he and my brother had made victims of themselves in some way, for there were none but the pair in the library when I looked in. I suppose that insofar as I doubted any word of my uncle's, it was his promise that they would no longer engage themselves in their "experiment." I do know that I had lost the taste for sport, and when I arrived at the water I amused myself for some time after only in chucking some small pebbles into it and watching the ripples spread across its placid surface. They spread very wide and very far, I noticed, and returned from the far edge of the pool little diminished in height or vigor. Other ripples there were too: the fish were biting, I supposed, though it was a little out of the ordinary that they should continue active after one had been tossing stones into the mere.
There was no further discussion of the morning's matter over the dinner table—but there was never any discussion over the table of any sort, for neither my uncle nor my brother ever had anything to say to me, and would not discuss their own affairs in my presence—and it would not have been raised again that night at all but that Charles knocked at my bedroom door afterward to peevishly ask if I had gone away with one of his books. I disclaimed any knowledge of the matter, and he turned with a mutter against one of the servants, when of a sudden impulse I asked him what had happened down in the library. "It's no affair of yours," he said sharply over his shoulder. Then he hesitated, as though listening. I said nothing, but an expression must have come onto my face as I waited on him, for when he stirred again to look at me, his lip curved in an ugly way. "Did it frighten you?" he said. "It was just the stopper coming out of the bottle, that's all." His sneer turned into a gloat as he left me.
I did not sleep well that night. I did not sleep at all until long after the moon had begun to fall toward the western horizon. I knew her position because, sleepless as I was with the memory of that shout in my ears, I wrapped myself in the counterpane and sat myself upon the little bench at the casement to look out over the park. It was very clear and cold, and the moon—which was full—shone down with a very white light. It illumined nothing except the surface of the mere, which rippled like the scales of a fish, but its glare put a sharp white edge on all the black shapes below. I thought I was growing sleepy at last when two muffled figures began to creep across the lawn, but when I sat up and blinked I saw that they were no dream or fancy. They were bundled in coats and cloaks, with hoods over their heads, but by their size I knew that they were my uncle and brother. I pressed my cheek against the icy windowpane as they traversed the lawn to the water, where they stood for a very long time, unmoving on the edge of the pool with their arms raised. Though they were some distance off, I was able to perceive that they each held a wide, shallow bowl over their heads. When they had reached some sort of climax in the ceremony, they tipped these over, and poured long streams into the pool, which sank without sending up a ripple, splash or wave of any kind.
Perhaps what I witnessed was only a dream—though I do not think so—for when I was next sensible I was in my bed again, wrapped tightly in the blankets and shivering in the cold morning air.
After breakfast, which as usual I took alone, I moped about the house with more than my usual restlessness. I was, you will not be surprised to learn, uncertain and unsettled about what I had heard and seen the previous morning and night, and I wanted company. When I was heartily sick of my own, I sought out the scullery, where I found Hodges, the butler, and Mrs. Timmons, the housekeeper. They greeted me very kindly and let me sit in the corner by a fire and listen as they talked. They had no secrets from me—they only ever talked of the day's labors—until Mrs. Timmons went to fill a basin with water from the pump. She had worked at the handle some few times when the water of a sudden ceased to spurt, and the lever became very stiff and refused to move at all. After some ineffectual attempts to get it moving again, she called Hodges. He too had little success until, by straddling the pump and pulling at the handle with both hands in an effort that left him very red in the face, he succeeded in wrenching it loose.
From deep below the stone floor came a low groan and a shuddering gurgle, and something black and wet shot from the spout and spattered in the basin. A terrible, noxious odor, as of a thing dead and mouldering, rose into the room. Mrs. Timmons covered her nose and mouth with her apron, and Hodges did the same with his handkerchief, as they stared into the basin. I couldn't see what it was that had come out, but they turned very gray in the face, and looked at each other with grave countenances. "It's not her as got in the pipes, do you think, Mr. Hodges?" said Mrs. Timmons.
Hodges's brow darkened, and I thought he caught me briefly by the eye as he straightened up. But his address was to her, the substance of which was that he did not know what business Mrs. Timmons might be thinking of if she was going to refer to silt and sediments with the female pronoun. His voice became very shrill as he further averred that if some thing—and I do recall that he emphasized that word—if some thing had got into the pipes it would have only been some poor creature as had insinuated itself through a crevice and come to drown in an underground water course.
How long he might have continued in this way I don't know, but he was interrupted by a thin, whistling shriek from below, and the pump handle began to work violently on its own as the pipes banged and rang. "Get the boy out," he said in a very sharp voice, and Mrs. Timmons seized me by the shoulder and with me fled the scullery. But as I went I saw a liquid, thick and viscous, pour from the pump; and though I caught sight of it for only an instant, I had the strong impression that it was red in color, and I saw flecks of crimson appear on Hodges's face and waistcoat as he frantically tried to stanch the flood.
I was banished out of doors after that until lunchtime, which I took with Charles, who ignored me. Later that afternoon, when I was by the fire in the parlor with a book, I saw Hodges and asked him cautiously if everything was alright in the kitchen. He told me it was. "I don't suppose you know much about the workings of pipes and such," he said with a bonhomie that even as a child I thought was rather false. "But we get our water from a spring, and sometimes we get a bit of mud in it, that's all, and when such happens, why, then we just has to work the pumps hard to get it out. I shouldn't speak of it to the master, your uncle, if you don't mind," he added after a moment's thought. "He's more for the books than the pipes, you know, as you will be too, I'm sure."
I remarked to myself that now it was the servants advising me not to share confidences with my uncle after he had warned me not to share his confidences with them.
The next few days passed without incident, and my trepidations gradually lessened. In part my spirits rose in proportion to my absences from the Hall. I do not know when it occurred to my uncle to send me in to town to spend several days with the rector of the church. Possibly it was the day after the affair in the scullery. That morning I had noticed that the water by the Temple was very active, and I had decided again to fish in it. As I passed toward it, I heard my uncle call my name, and he summoned me to the library window to ask what I was about. "I would rather you not," he told me when I said where I was doing. "There was a small earth tremor some days ago. Yes, you remember that morning, it was what upset us in the library." I didn't remind him it was a "scientific experiment" that he said had caused the upset. "It broke something in the spring that feeds the water courses all about here. Something has got in the water, and I'd be obliged if you left off fishing until it has passed through."
That was all he said to me that day, but the next morning he told me that he would be sending me to spend the day with the rector. "I'm quite certain he will have many interesting and useful things to tell you," he said contemptuously. "Pay him heed until I fetch you back this evening." That was the first of several days that he sent me—without Charlse—to visit the rector and his wife, where I read and talked and looked about the church and town. When I returned the first night, my uncle told me that he was busy making repairs to some pipes that he said had gotten twisted, and that he didn't want me to disturb him or to be myself disturbed, and that that was the reason he would be sending me in to town each day. "I'm opening up the bathroom next to your bedroom as well," he said, rubbing his hands. "Won't that be pleasant for you? No more having to tramp downstairs for a bath, eh?" He looked far more pleased at this than I felt.
I come now to the climax of my time as a child at Merfield Hall. A week had passed since the first incident, and on being brought back to the Hall one evening I found my uncle—his breath clouding the wintry air—standing at the door to greet me with far more warmth than I had ever received from him. "A cold night, isn't it, Johnny? I am quite certain you'd be glad of a hot bath, wouldn't you?" With an unseemly excitement that I greatly disliked, he fingered and tugged at my coat to help me from it. "We've finished up the work on your bathroom, Charles and I," he continued. "I'm really quite envious, and I almost wish it were my own. Come, let me show you." I noticed my brother peeping at me from another room as my uncle led me to the stairs. A shadow lay across his face, so what emotions of wariness, anticipation, fear or something else I could not clearly read. I note now, in recollection, only that he hung back in a way that suggested trepidation.
The house had no taps in those days, and the water had to be heated over a fire and taken to the tub in basins. My uncle must have given orders to make the bath ready as soon as he had sent the chaise to fetch me from town, for the bathtub was already brimming and the room filled with a lovely steam. I was much pleased to see that, as part of the repairs, the old tub had been removed, for I much disliked the thought of bathing in a receptacle so lately covered over in cobwebs. The new tub was white and shaped like a marble box, and I marveled a little to see it, for I was certain even then—and am far more certain now—that my uncle must have had it long in readiness, along with other fixtures in the bathroom, and had not ordered it up on a sudden and recent whim. It and the tile work were decorated with shallow bas relief carvings showing pools and fountains, in the waters of which disported fish and other creatures with a Roman or Greek flavoring to them. The greatest of these was a panel nearly five feet in height that hung over the foot of the basin, so that the figure looked down on the bather. It was of a woman whose hair flowed and rippled like waves down the side of her head and draped around her naked form like a sheet. I didn't much like her face, which at the time I thought showed mere hunger. Only later, after I had inherited the hall and again examined that panel—dusty and cobwebbed over—did I recognize in her glance the true carnality of her expression.
My uncle pushed Hodges outside and himself helped me to undress. Before he let me into the tub he added some oils and spices to the water, and lit four candles that rested at the corners. "You are a very handsome boy, and are growing up into a very handsome man," he said to me. "I would never be so discourteous as to say such in front of your brother, but you resemble your father as Charles resembles my late brother. To the fortune of us all, I pray," he added. He bid me a good bathe after that, and took my clothes with him as he shut me in. I looked about, and almost went after him, for he had left neither robe nor towels for me. But in the end I preferred to postpone for the end of the bath the moment of embarrassment when I would have to go looking for some. Besides, I thought, he might remember and send Hodges up later with some things.
I felt a vast reluctance to enter the tub, and to rest under the gaze of that watery nymph, but at last I put a foot in the water. It was wonderfully hot and silky, and my trepidations drained off as I slid into it. The tub was deep and long, so that I could, if I wanted, stretch myself out entirely on its bottom without crooking my knees. But I sat upright with the water rising just to the top of my breastbone, and stared at the feet of the figure opposite me. The water felt delicious, and I was in no mood to spoil my delight by raising my eyes to meet hers.
I remember making some small currents in the water that, like small, hot tendrils, curled about me in a caressing way, giving me some pleasant shivers as they sucked the cold out of my bones. Then, too, the oils my uncle had added also relaxed me, for as I stirred the water it released scents of rose and cinnamon and honey. These charmed me, and my lids grew heavy; and though I soon ceased to stir the water, still those currents played about me, and tugged me lower into the tub.
I revived only when my chin touched the top of the water, and if I had not woken at that moment I do not like to think what would have happened. As it was, I blinked stupidly through a fog that had settled over the top of the water. The figure of the woman in the bas relief seemed to be in motion, with her hair flowing and rippling—though when I fixed my eye at any particular point the marble seemed still enough. But the illusion was sufficiently striking that I raised up a little and gripped the sides of the tub. It was probably this that saved me.
For as I did so, I felt another one of those watery tendrils curl about my leg. But this one was firm and solid, and it was cold to the touch, and it did not caress me but grasped my thigh like a tentacle. I gasped. And when another of these tentacles wrapped about the ankle of my other foot, I pulled myself up and kicked.
But I did not shout, not yet, for now I saw a thing that froze my throat. I had, at the moment of being grasped, formed a terrifying picture in my head of a cuttlefish putting its arms up through the drain to clutch at me. And now, at that very spot between my feet, a dark shape rose out of the water—a round hump, a little smaller than a football. The water drained off it as it pierced the surface, but it never stopped draining, as though it was the water itself bubbling up like a fountain and taking the shape of a head. There were two dark hollows in the front, like sockets for eyes, I thought, but they were empty, and there was no gleam within them. As it stared at me in this eyeless way, the froth of water that flowed off it spread over my chest with a touch like seaweed, and grasped me about the neck and shoulders. Once it had me, it gave a might tug, as though to pull me down to the bottom.
But I was gripping the sides of the tub, and I braced myself against that sucking pull, and kicked and shouted I know not what words. All the time I struggled I felt a malevolence—more bestial than intelligent—beating at my brain as the thing stared and groped at me.
The key was in the lock of the door, but I had not turned it, and my shouts became cries for help when I heard someone fumbling at the handle. A moment later Hodges burst in. I don't know when the thing released me, whether it was when he laid his hand on the door or when he was inside, but by the time he had put a strong hand under my shoulder I had kicked most of the water from the bathtub, and he had only to pull me from the tub and drop me onto a tile floor that was swimming. Then he bent over the side of the tub, and I saw a look of intense loathing pass over his face. He stared into the water for only a moment before plunging his arm in. A hard gurgle came from the pipes as the water rushed out through the unstopped drain.
Hodges half-led and half-carried me to my bedroom, which was cold and dark, and I huddled with chattering teeth on the bed as he ran off to bring me warm blankets. Once I was bundled in those he led me toward the back of the house, where he and Mrs. Timmons had their quarters. We passed my uncle—looking astonished—in the hallway, and for the first time I heard Hodges address him in a hard tone; I might even say there was a snarl in his voice. I spent the night in a very small room, wrapped up in rugs before a fire, while he and the housekeeper kept a kind of watch over me. Neither spoke to the other, and when I tried speaking they told me to shut my eyes and get some sleep, that we would talk of it in the morning.
I do not think I had any dreams that night. Possibly the incident was so brief and unexpected that it didn't "take" at the time. Only some years later, after I had read some other things and meditated on the incident did I begin to have nightmares.
The next morning I woke alone, but found clothes set out for me. Mrs. Timmons, looking very grave, was in the dining room when I came down. She made me some breakfast as was customary, and showed me no special affection or deference, and when I made mention of her kindness the previous night she brusquely told me it was not a fit subject for conversation. She left for a bit, then came back to tell me that my uncle wished to see me in the library. I heard raised voices on the other side of the door as I waited outside, but I could make out no words. When the doors opened, Hodges came out. He only glanced at me as he went past. Like Mrs. Timmons he too had a very steely expression, but I thought I saw satisfaction mixed in it.
My uncle looked to have aged a decade overnight. He was very pale and didn't smile. "I'm told you very nearly had an accident in your bathroom last night, Johnny," he said. "I'm very sorry to hear that, as I had taken very special pains to prepare it for you." A sour expression crossed his face, as though he had bitten into a bitter piece of fruit. "I thank you for your company these last few weeks," he said, "but it is time you went home." It was a brutal enough dismissal, but I was glad of it just the same, and Hodges helped me to pack, and I was on my way shortly after lunch.
I never saw my uncle again, though Charles continued to visit him. Hodges, I have since learned, never lost his position, and resigned for a new situation in another house only when my uncle died and Charles came into his inheritance.
Regarding my brother and our relations after that, I can only say that we were never close, and I never visited him at Merfield Hall, until that summer ten years ago when he felt his premature end drawing upon him. I found the Fishing Temple closed up when I arrived, and a tall fence raised around the pond. "I put it up after your friend, Mrs. Haydon, drowned there," he told me. "A charming woman, and I'm sorry for it. Animals had been turning up dead at the bottom, but I didn't think—" But then he broke off. Inside the Hall, he saved the old bathroom for the last stop on the tour. "We keep it locked up," he told me. "You'll find you won't have any trouble with the pipes or pumps as long as it's undisturbed." He became very distracted. "We tried closing up the spring again, uncle and I, but we could never get the seal right. It only ever comes up through the drain in there, and as long as you don't go fussing with the pipes it will keep to its path. And the room itself is safe enough, so long as you don't put any water in the basins." And that is all that he would say about it.
I did look in the bathroom again, once, after I had inherited the place, and I found it cobwebbed all over again. I have kept it that way.
Only one other thing will I add, and this will exhaust all that I have learned about Merfield Hall and the spring that lies beneath it. At some point, my brother Charles burned all the papers left by our uncle, and I believe he disposed of a great number of his books as well. But a year after inheriting the Hall, on the end papers of a rather indifferent book on Greek mythology, I found the following passage written in my uncle's graceful hand:
It is my belief that the story of Salmacis stands not as a singular myth but as a memory of widespread ancient oracular practice, whereby the naiad of a spring would be bound and made one with the body of a young boy, and by this fusion be made susceptible to inspection and interrogation to the profit of those who knew how to understand its answers. As there is a longstanding tradition that the spring beneath Merfield Hall is the abode of a watery spirit—one that freely troubled the land about until sealed during the days of Edward the Confessor—might it not prove worth the effort and sacrifice to hazard this experiment if a way could be found to channel the presence and action of the spirit into a private receptacle?