My completion of an unfinished story by M. R. James.
|There are two stories I have heard in which a ghost uses a book rather than a planchette to communicate a message. I do not mean that the technique of "drawing the sortes" was used by any living interlocutors. I mean rather that— Oh, but perhaps it is best to give the stories directly.
The first is quickly dispatched. A professor at a certain famous university entertained himself in spare hours with the making of acrostics, which he would record in a series of old ledger books. He left some of these behind in his rooms at the time of his disappearance while visiting the Continent. While the police of two countries were yet investigating, they received a communication from an address in the department of Aube: an envelope containing five slips of paper, each bearing a single five-letter word. The detective who examined these thought them familiar in a way he could not understand, as though he had glimpsed them in a dream; on examining one of the professor's ledgers—for he had the strong impression that is where he had seen them—he found just those words arranged in a square, thusly:
An inquiry was made at the inn from which the envelope had been mailed, and the body of the professor (who had been murdered in consequence of an obscure quarrel over a hat) was found upon the property, whose owner was duly convicted. But when another examination of the ledger book was made, no word square answering to the detective's testimony could be found.
This story was retailed in an ephemeral magazine at a boys' school. So too was the other story, which is clearly a variation on the same theme: no doubt one story was suggested by the other and written in imitation of it. The second was told as a personal experience of the narrator's. His account was something like this:
I was traveling in France and found myself at a place called Châlons-sur-Marne. I went into a curiosity shop in a street not far off the hotel to inquire the price of a drawing I had noticed in the window. The man asked more than I wanted to give so I began looking at other things. There were a few old books, all totally uninteresting to me; but, as it turned out, there was nothing else in the shop that I cared in the least to acquire and so by way of doing something to justify the trouble I had given, I bought five or six of the smallest of the books.
Very early the next morning I boarded the train to Troyes, and when I was tired of looking out of the window I opened my bag and took out at random one of my purchases. It was a volume of an old novel (published in 1786; my edition dated from 1843) called Caroline de Lichtfield, and it is the sort of book that is rarely disturbed from any resting place it may have found; by me at any rate. For all I know it may be a standard work.
I began at the beginning and turned over forty pages or so; the story made very little progress. Then my eye was attracted by some building we were passing and I studied the landscape for two or three miles. After that, I returned to my book and noted that I had reached page 43 and was in the middle of a dialogue which ran something thus (I quote here and later only from memory):
"Where are you staying?"
"At the Hotel des Ambassadeurs," I said.
"Ah, very good," said he. "You have booked a room?"
"No, actually I hadn't even planned to stop there. But I'm sure it will work out. They're not having a festival, are they?"
He shrugged. "Who knows?"
"I thought you knew the city."
"It's been many years since I walked there."
At this point I turned over the page and at the same time glanced up. My eye fell on my opposite neighbor who was an elderly lady, silent, and wearing a slight black moustache and a highly determined expression. She was not otherwise interesting, and I resumed my reading. The words were curiously appropriate.
"You were looking at the woman opposite you," he continued.
"Yes, what's odd about that?"
"Very little, except that you will see her die tonight. Do you know where she lives?"
"How could I, who have never seen her before? And what do you mean by—?"
"I will tell you. She lives in Marcilly-le-Hayer, on the town square, in the house with three gables," he said.
"That may very well be," I retorted, "and possibly all you have said is true. But she still doesn't seem very interesting to me."
"So you may say. But just go to Marcilly-le-Hayer and call at the house with the three gables, and ask the mistress what she keeps under the pavement in the further corner of the stable— Yes, then you will find out whether she is interesting or not."
"How very long-winded this dialogue is," I thought; and I turned over a leaf or two to see where we were getting to. I found that the personage who had volunteered the information about the woman was now disgorging more—in fact was giving her whole biography in a way that suggested in him a faintly repellent fixation on her. She had been a labourer's daughter in the village of Marcilly-le-Hayer, and her good looks had attracted the notice of a middle-aged man who owned a good deal of property in the place, a M. Giraud—Émile Giraud (a name which to me seemed unaccountably familiar). He was, said the book, a thoroughly reputable, honest and amiable person: and his love for the girl—Eugeiné Dupont—was sincere. The match was of course an extremely advantageous one for her. She had no lover of her own rank whom she was in the least inclined to favour, and the marriage took place. After nearly three years of what seemed to all their acquaintances a very happy married life, M. Giraud disappeared, leaving absolutely no trace. Like many country people of his class he used to leave a not inconsiderable sum of ready money in the house towards the end of each week to pay his men. It was on a Friday that he was found to be missing, and the money was gone too. The widow was obliged to procure a further supply from the branch of the Société Générale in the village. She felt the loss of her husband acutely and did not marry again.
"Société Générale," I said to myself: "I didn't think that existed in the eighteenth century." And with that I put the book away and took another.
The train to Troyes was very full, and I realized to my disgust, before my journey was over, that a large cattle-show was going on there. I had very great difficulty in finding any room at all: at last I was accommodated with a bed in a rather second-rate establishment called the Hotel Terminus. The only part of the place which had any pretension to novelty was the name which was palimpsested over the door. I amused myself by deciphering the old sign, still partly visible underneath: "Hotel des Ambassadeurs."
Before exploring the city, I took time to study a map of the department that hung in the lobby. There I found, as you might find, the name of Marcilly-le-Hayer occupying a very prominent place in the midst of the uplands which no railway touches. You may easily believe that I was struck by the coincidence; but then reflected that it was likely not so unusual after all: it was merely the case that my seeing the name during my morning read had primed me, as it were, to notice it here. And yet it did seem curious that Marcilly should have been mentioned at all in the novel. "Perhaps," I said to myself, "there are some interesting buildings in or near it, which explain the author's placing it in her narrative." The idea gave some impetus to an already exigent urge I had to quit Troyes, at least briefly, on account of the crowds. So I procured a bicycle and after a laborious ride arrived at Marcilly in the middle of the afternoon.
I had not prepared to spend the night, but there was an inn on the Place which was quite satisfactory, and the people of the house were able to fit me out with comforts enough for one night. I had some talk with them too, and asked if there were any interesting features in the town. They told me of a very fine carved chimney-piece "chez Mme. Giraud." And where did she live? I naturally asked (we were at the door of the inn). "Straight opposite," said my informant, pointing to a house with three gables.
I pondered and pondered: but no light came. The persistence of names in a place like Marcilly must be a marked feature. One other question was inevitable. What, I asked, was Mme. Giraud's maiden name? "Dupont, Monsieur. Eugeiné Dupont." As this was said, I saw the door to the house opposite open, and from it descended the formidable-seeming woman whom I had seen on the train. "That is Mme. Giraud," I said aloud without thinking, "who is a widow, and none know what became of her husband." "What makes you say that?" asked the waiter. "Only a fancy," I replied. He laughed, though a little queerly. On recurring to my earlier question, he could not tell me of any other interesting aspects to the town; but those who dwell in a place are often the last to hear of such things.
I spent the balance of the afternoon poking about Marcilly with a mounting sense of dissatisfaction. There was little to see, except for the small, Romanesque church with its square tower and crowded gravestones. I shouldn't have come, I thought to myself when I returned to the inn, and I felt more than slightly ridiculous to have let myself be beguiled by such a trivial coincidence as the twin appearances of the name Marcilly-le-Hayer in one morning. However it was too late to return to Troyes. I had brought with me a bag containing some small number of items as I thought might be useful, including a ledger of some good paper into which I was in the habit of composing acrostics during unoccupied moments. This I took out along with a rough pencil, and I found to my surprise I had swept into the bag also that volume of Caroline de Lichtfield, Only now did I think to consult it for possible local landmarks: I should have done that before setting out for Marcilly, of course, but now I ruefully thought I might as well do so as I was on the scene. I thumbed through the first forty-odd pages, searching for that conversation concerning its Mme. Giraud, but I did not find it before my eye was arrested by an occurrence of the word "chimney-piece." I groped backward until I found where the talk—what a tedious lot of it there was—had taken a turn toward that subject.
"Oh, they do not lock their doors," he said. "Anyone can get in anywhere, if they have a mind to."
"They must not often take advantage of their neighbours' trust," I said. "Or else they would all learn to use their locks."
"It would strike her neighbours as a thing suspicious if she locked her doors. So she does not."
"'She'? Who? Mme. Giraud?"
"Naturellement. It is to your advantage too that she does not lock it."
"I do not understand."
"Shall I make my meaning clear? How else do you propose to procure a close examination of her famous chimney-piece?"
"I do not propose it at all," I said. "It is true I have heard it is very fine, but I would ask her permission if I felt a strong a curiosity to see it."
"She would not grant it."
"Then I will not examine it."
"But you shall, I think."
There followed a very detailed description of the plan and furnishings of the house with three gables, including details that could not have had any bearing on the novel's plot. These included such imbecilities as the provenance of certain very expensive pieces of furniture purchased, said the narrator's garrulous companion, within the last year; a loose carpet rod that troubled the stairs; and an accounting of M. Giraud's wardrobe, including a gray double-breasted suit "that is with him still." I closed the book when this catalog had reached the bottom of the page while yet giving no sign of abatement.
I went down to dinner shortly after this, taking my ledger with me so that I might entertain myself in a more worthwhile manner. As I sat I saw the proprietor in conversation with an angular man with a bony chin: by his dress I deduced he was the curé. I did not wish to insert myself into their company, but I thought that if he took an interest in me as a foreigner and a visitor I might take the opportunity to ask him about his church. But they were wrapped in intense conversation, and I amused myself with my acrostics.
This caught their attention after some time and both sat down to join me, and we had some fine talk about puzzles and riddles and other such games; the curé proved a most amiable and intelligent man. He gave me a history of his church, and I asked him if there were any other notable features of the town. "I have already heard about the chimney-piece of Mme. Giraud."
"That is fine workmanship," he agreed. "It was made by his widow in memory of a Monsieur who never returned."
"Returned from what?"
"The wars of Louis XV."
"Ah. A distant grandfather of the present M. Giraud?" I asked.
"There is no M. Giraud at present," he said, "and there is not likely to be one again. Nor was it his grandfather, distant or otherwise, who is memorialized by the chimney-piece. It was a different family who had the house in those days."
This did not fit with what I had read in my novel, but after all it would be easy for its author to have become confused on points of fact that were certainly not germane to her narrative. "But they were a notable family, that Monsieur who did not return from the wars of Louis XV, and his widow who made the chimney-piece?" I asked. I anticipated a positive answer, but the curé only shrugged. Impelled by curiosity I asked after another detail mentioned in the novel: "Did anyone ever look under the further corner of the pavement in the stable there? Did anyone ever find anything interesting under it?"
"Eh, what's that?" asked the innkeeper sharply, and he glared most balefully at me. I repeated my question, and he roughly demanded to know why I asked.
"Because it is mentioned in a book I am reading," I explained, and told him and the curé of the novel and how it had drawn me to Marcilly-le-Hayer; I told too what it had to say about the house with three gables and its owners. The innkeeper grew very icy and angry, and the curé shushed him when he accused me of uttering lies. "I will show you," I said, and excused myself to fetch the book from my room.
They were speaking in low, quarrelsome tones when I returned, and were very silent as I sought to find the dialogue I had told them of. But although the narrative was most loquacious on the subject of Count Waltstein, and his enormous scar, livid countenance, round shoulders and single dark eye, I could find nothing relating to M. or Mme. Giraud. When his patience was exhausted, the innkeeper stood with a very angry sigh and bid me good-night, followed by an accompanying caution as to my safety.
"He has a temper," said the curé, as though I had not noticed. Then he leaned in close. "He is very fond of Madame," he said very quietly, then wished me his own farewells.
In a bewildered spirit I took up the book where I had broken off, and found three characters now engaged in a curiously apt conversation about the count:
"He has a temper," said the curé. "He is very fond of Madame."
"Indeed," said my friend. "He courted her in his youth. He felt it deeply when she married Monsieur. You should not have mentioned the stable to him, but I did not stop you, for reasons of my own. He is deeper in this affair than even she knows."
"How am I to repair my folly?" I begged.
"Go to the house with three gables," he told me. "Do not trouble over the chimney-piece, it is nothing. Only find yourself Monsieur's bedroom, it is unchanged as I have described it, and there you will take up his beaver hat and place it on your head. Madame will take you for Monsieur, and it will open her heart and eyes."
At this point Count Waltstein joined the party and a violent row ensued. I broke off before reaching its climax, for the count's oaths were offensive in the extreme.
I laid the book aside thoughtfully. There was some mystery here, I was now convinced, connecting Caroline de Lichtfield to Marcilly-le-Hayer and some obscure event that had occurred there in the middle of the eighteenth century. Surely others who felt more amiable toward the novel had noticed it and solved it. But if not? Then surely there was a monograph in it, and I fancied making a minor ripple in a field not my own by writing up the results of a literary investigation. The place to start, of course, was the house with three gables.
Dusk had fallen hard when I left the inn and crossed the street, and the house of M. Giraud reared up sharply before me, as though flinching back from my approach. I mounted the stone steps and was on the point of pressing the bell when I noticed the front door was ajar. I hesitated, then stepped inside.
The front hall struck me with a forceful impression of familiarity, and no feature of it surprised me. Its most impressive quality was the heaviness with which it was decorated with brocades and other fabrics. Draped over a small table by the door was a great green cloth with its ends trailing on the floor, which was covered with a deep, crimson rug woven through with golden threads; dark curtains hung in the windows and a tapestry muffled the far wall of the short hallway that ran next to carpeted staircase that led up to the upper floors. I called, but my voice seemed to die amidst all that cloth.
On my right there spilled light from a parlour, and it was in there that I next sought the woman of the house. I found—though this too was no surprise—instead the famous chimney-piece dominating a room. I bent to examine it—it was after all prominently mentioned in the narrative. It was of white marble, and across the lintel were carved several heads in a classical style. Two I recognized as Alexander and Caesar, and deduced that the others must have represented other military worthies: Achilles or perhaps Cyrus; Charlemagne; Charles VIII; Louis XV. The work was exquisite but marred by a marked asymmetry in the two end pieces. These were very wide and executed in the style of draperies. One of these was closed, but the other showed them drawn back to reveal a tall and narrow tableau: a man standing very erect while holding an open book very close to his face. Before him, crouching in a supplicating manner, was a creature that was hard to make out, except that it was horribly thin and seemed to have very large and staring eyes. One hand it raised and laid its palm upon the spine of the man's book. I studied it for some time, but could not pierce the allegory.
I returned to the entryway and called again, and this time I thought I heard an answering cry from upstairs. I called Madame's name, but hearing no second reply went up the stairs, slipping near the top on a stair where the carpet was very loose. There was a stout-looking door directly at the top of the stairs. It silently opened as I put my foot on the landing, and I thought I heard a rustling from within. "Mme. Giraud?" I said, and pushed it open.
It was a man's bedroom by its style, and it had a very cold, musty and closed-in odor, most unpleasant. I sniffed and was on the point of turning away when my attention was caught by an object on the bed. It was a very large beaver hat of a fashion more than fifty years old.
I cannot account for what I did next, except that I found myself thinking of my grandfather, who had worn a hat quite similar in his day. His hat had never fascinated me particularly, but I thought of it and of him now as I picked up this one, and I came all over with a feeling of loss and nostalgia for things I had once seen and felt and accepted as eternities but which were now but stains upon the memory. On an impulse I put the hat upon my head, and those feelings stole intensely over me as I did: so that I thought of time, the slayer of childhood and of youth and, yes, the slayer even of middle age; and I thought too, though not of anything in particular, of the many goodly things that are taken from us prematurely, stolen when we are not looking.
I was in this reverie when I heard a sharp gasp behind me, and I turned. The formidable woman with the slight moustache stood in the doorway, staring hard at me with horror in her eyes. I parted my lips to speak, and put out a hand to reassure her, but she drew rapidly back. Then with a cry she vanished, and I heard the sickening rumble of a large and heavy person tumbling down some stairs.
She was at the bottom when I caught up to her, and her neck was quite broken.
I have set down this account on the contingency that I am ever questioned concerning the accidental death of Mme. Giraud; I have drawn up this record directly upon returning—unobserved—from the house with three gables. I have not yet decided whether to return there, to replace a certain old-fashioned beaver hat which is now sitting on my bed.
Only one more thing must I add, though it will not prove creditable to my defense should I be caught up in an investigation of this matter. I have looked into the volume of Caroline de Lichtfield so that I might transcribe the passages I have recollected above. I find it is a defective copy, in which pp. 33–80 are absent, and had evidently never been bound up in it. Also, on the flyleaf, I find a name: Émile Giraud.
It would be pleasant—though perhaps obvious—to say that I have not been able to lay my hands upon the magazine that contains these stories; more pleasant still to pretend that although I have a bound copy of all the issues of that ephemeral, I can find in it no issue containing these stories, which I so clearly remember. But that would not be accurate. I have them here laid before me. And if you look carefully at the magazine you are reading, you will see that you have them before you too.