Autodidact: self-taught


James, M.R.

by V. L. Craven

Stories from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and The Thin Ghost & Others

‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book’
001. The whole place bore, as does the rest of Comminges, the aspect of decaying age.
002. But in another minute they were in the sitting-room of the house, a small, high chamber with a stone floor, full of moving shadows cast by a wood-fire that flickered on a great hearth.

‘Casting the Runes’
001 It was written in no style at all–split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise. Then there was nothing that the man didn’t swallow: mixing up classical myths, and stories out of the Golden Legend with reports of savage customs of today–all very proper, no doubt, if you know how to use them, but he didn’t: he seemed to put the Golden Legend and the Golden Bough exactly on a par, and to believe both: a pitiable exhibition, in short.

‘Count Magnus’
001. These books usually treated of some unknown district on the Continent. They were illustrated with woodcuts or steel plates. They gave details of hotel accommodation and of means of communication, such as we now expect to find in any well-regulated guide-book, and they dealt largely in reported conversations with intelligent foreigners, racy innkeepers, and garrulous peasants. In a word, they were chatty.

‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’
001 His interrupter was one of those intelligent men with pointed beard and a flannel shirt, of whom the last quarter of the nineteenth century was, it seems to me, very prolific.
002 As for him, he was naturally somewhat dashed by the consciousness of duty unfulfilled, but more so by the prospect of a lawn-tennis party, which, though an inevitable evil in August, he had thought there was no occasion to fear in May.

‘Lost Hearts’
001. An evening light shone on the building, making the window-panes glow like so many fires. Away from the Hall in front stretched a flat park studded with oaks and fringed with firs, which stood out against the sky. The clock in the church-tower, buried in trees on the edge of the park, only its golden weather-cock catching the light, was striking six, and the sound came gently beating down the wind. It was altogether a pleasant impression, though tinged with the sort of melancholy appropriate to an evening in early autumn, that was conveyed to the mind of the boy who was standing in the porch waiting for the door to open to him.

002. He was looked upon, in fine, as a man wrapped up in his books, and it was a matter of great surprise among his neighbours that he should ever have heard of his orphan cousin, Stephen Elliott, much more that he should have volunteered to make him an inmate of Aswarby Hall.

003. We have now arrived at March 24, 1812. It was a day of curious experiences for Stephen: a windy, noisy day, which filled the house and the gardens with a restless impression.

004. As Stephen stood by the fence of the grounds, and looked out into the park, he felt as if an endless procession of unseen people were sweeping past him on the wind, borne on resistlessly and aimlessly, vainly striving to stop themselves, to catch at something that might arrest their flight and bring them once again into contact with the living world of which they had formed a part.

‘Martin’s Close’
001 Such crimes as this you may perhaps reckon to be not uncommon, and, indeed, in these times, I am sorry to say it, there is scarce any fact so barbarous and unnatural but what we may hear almost daily instances of it.

‘The Mezzotint’
001. And so he passed without much excitement of anticipation to the ordinary labours of the day.
002. It was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is, perhaps, the worst form of engraving known.
003. …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.
004. 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.
005. he was the last of his line: kind of spes ultima gentis

‘Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance’
001 He stopped, feeling that the words were not fitting themselves together in the happiest way.

002 the party settled themselves on elaborate chairs in the drawing-room, Humphreys, for his part, perspiring quietly in the consciousness that stock was being taken of him.

003 he felt that Wilsthorpe was a place in which he could be happy, and especially happy, it might be, in its library.

004 The walks, too, were next door to impassable.

005 a brief glance at the figures convinced him that it was one of those mysterious things called celestial globes, from which, one would suppose, no one ever yet derived any information about the heavens.

006 He had all the predisposition to take interest in an old library, and there was every opportunity for him here to make systematic acquaintance with one, for he had learned from Cooper that there was no catalogue save the very superficial one made for purposes of probate. The drawing up of a catalogue raisonné would be a delicious occupation for winter.

007 As he pursued his round the sense came upon him (as it does upon most of us in similar places) of the extreme unreadableness of a great portion of the collection. ‘Editions of Classics and Fathers, and Picart’s Religious Ceremonies, and the Harleian Miscellany, I suppose are all very well, but who is ever going to read Tostatus Abulensis, or Pineda on Job, or a book like this?’

008 The brambles and weeds that had obscured the column and globe were now all cleared away, and it was for the first time possible to see clearly what these were like. The column was featureless, resembling those on which sundials are usually placed. Not so the globe. I have said that it was finely engraved with figures and inscriptions, and that on a first glance Humphreys had taken it for a celestial globe: but he soon found that it did not answer to his recollection of such things. One feature seemed familiar; a winged serpent–Draco–encircled it about the place which, on a terrestrial globe, is occupied by the equator: but on the other hand, a good part of the upper hemisphere was covered by the outspread wings of a large figure whose head was concealed by a ring at the pole or summit of the whole. Around the place of the head the words princeps tenebrarum could be deciphered. In the lower hemisphere there was a space hatched all over with cross-lines and marked as umbra mortis. Near it was a range of mountains, and among them a valley with flames rising from it. This was lettered (will you be surprised to learn it?) vallis filiorum Hinnom Above and below Draco were outlined various figures not unlike the pictures of the ordinary constellations, but not the same. Thus, a nude man with a raised club was described, not as Hercules but as Cain. Another, plunged up to his middle in earth and stretching out despairing arms, was Chore, not Ophiuchus, and a third, hung by his hair to a snaky tree, was Absolon. Near the last, a man in long robes and high cap, standing in a circle and addressing two shaggy demons who hovered outside, was described as Hostanes magus (a character unfamiliar to Humphreys). The scheme of the whole, indeed, seemed to be an assemblage of the patriarchs of evil, perhaps not uninfluenced by a study of Dante.

009 He spent a rather exciting evening in the library, for he lighted tonight upon a cupboard where some of the rarer books were kept.

010 The main occupation of this evening at any rate was settled. The tracing of the plan for Lady Wardrop and the careful collation of it with the original meant a couple of hours’ work at least. Accordingly, soon after nine Humphreys had his materials put out in the library and began. It was a still, stuffy evening; windows had to stand open, and he had more than one grisly encounter with a bat. These unnerving episodes made him keep the tail of his eye on the window. Once or twice it was a question whether there was–not a bat, but something more considerable–that had a mind to join him. How unpleasant it would be if someone had slipped noiselessly over the sill and was crouching on the floor!


‘Number 13′
001. 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 great-coat, then hanging on a peg outside the dining-room.

002. If his eyes 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.

003. …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.

‘Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’
001. It was, as you might suppose, a person of antiquarian pursuits who said this, but, since he merely appears in this prologue, there is no need to give his entitlements.

002. Few people can resist the temptation to try a little amateur research in a department quite outside their own, if only for the satisfaction of showing how successful they would have been had they only taken it up seriously.

003. A very little rubbing rendered the deeply-cut inscription quite legible, but the Professor had to confess, after some earnest thought, that the meaning of it was as obscure to him as the writing on the wall to Belshazzar.

004. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain. He saw quite clearly for a moment a vision of a wide, dark expanse at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the midst a lonely figure–how employed, he could not tell.

005. ‘Now,’ he went on, ‘if the servants are in the habit of going into one’s room during the day when one is away, I can only say that–well, that I don’t approve of it at all.’ Conscious of a somewhat weak climax, he busied himself in opening the door (which was indeed locked) and in lighting candles.

006. …but the reader will hardly, perhaps, imagine how dreadful it was to him to see a figure suddenly sit up in what he had known was an empty bed.

007. …the personage in the empty bed, with a sudden smooth motion, slipped from the bed and took up a position, with outspread arms, between the two beds, and in front of the door. Parkins watched it in a horrid perplexity. Somehow, the idea of getting past it and escaping through the door was intolerable to him; he could not have borne–he didn’t know why–to touch it; and as for its touching him, he would sooner dash himself through the window than have that happen. It stood for the moment in a band of dark shadow, and he had not seen what its face was like. Now it began to move, in a stooping posture, and all at once the spectator realized, with some horror and some relief, that it must be blind, for it seemed to feel about it with its muffled arms in a groping and random fashion.

008. Turning half away from him, it became suddenly conscious of the bed he had just left, and darted towards it, and bent and felt over the pillows in a way which made Parkins shudder as he had never in his life thought it possible. In a very few moments it seemed to know that the bed was empty, and then, moving forward into the area of light and facing the window, it showed for the first time what manner of thing it was. Parkins, who very much dislikes being questioned about it, did once describe something of it in my hearing, and I gathered that what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen.

‘The Residence at Whitminster’
001 The truth is, he has here no boys of his age or quality to consort with, and is given to moping about in our raths and graveyards: and he brings home romances that fright my servants out of their wits.

002 When Lord Saul came up the steps into the light of the lamp in the porch to be greeted by Dr. Ashton, he was seen to be a thin youth of, say, sixteen years old, with straight black hair and the pale colouring that is common to such a figure.

003 “Why, you know our ignorant people pretend that some are able to foresee what is to come—sometimes in a glass, or in the air, maybe, and at Kildonan we had an old woman that pretended to such a power.

004 ‘I told Mary only to-day that I thought you had some vestiges of sense in your head.’ (I bowed my acknowledgements.) [the character is a woman]

005 I always read something for a few minutes before I drop off to sleep. A dangerous habit: I don’t recommend it:

006 and then (you remember it was perfectly dark) something seemed to rush at me, and there was—I don’t know how to put it—a sensation of long thin arms, or legs, or feelers, all about my face, and neck, and body. Very little strength in them, there seemed to be, but Spearman, I don’t think I was ever more horrified or disgusted in all my life, that I remember…

‘The Rose Garden’
001. Then a bird (perhaps) rustled in the box-bush on her left, and she turned and started at seeing what at first she took to be a Fifth of November mask peeping out among the branches. She looked closer. It was not a mask. It was a face–large, smooth, and pink. She remembers the minute drops of perspiration which were starting from its forehead: she remembers how the jaws were clean-shaven and the eyes shut. She remembers also, and with an accuracy which makes the thought intolerable to her, how the mouth was open and a single tooth appeared below the upper lip. As she looked the face receded into the darkness of the bush. The shelter of the house was gained and the door shut before she collapsed.

‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’
001 The choir were singing the words (Set thou an ungodly man to be ruler over him and let Satan stand at his right hand.)
002 The writer goes on to reflect upon the probability that the writings of Mr Shelley, Lord Byron, and M. Voltaire may have been instrumental in bringing about the disaster, and concludes by hoping, somewhat vaguely, that this event may ‘operate as an example to the rising generation’; but this portion of his remarks need not be quoted in full.

‘The Tractates Middoth’
001 Mr Eldred returned to his hotel at dusk and spent, I fear, but a dull evening.

‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’
001. ‘Well, what would any human being have been tempted to do, my dear Gregory, in my place? Could he have helped setting off, as I did, to Steinfeld, and tracing the secret literally to the fountain-head? I don’t believe he could. Anyhow, I couldn’t, and, as I needn’t tell you, I found myself at Steinfeld as soon as the resources of civilization could put me there…

002. Then I heard him call softly, “All right, sir,” and went on pulling out the great bag, in complete darkness. It hung for an instant on the edge of the hole, then slipped forward on to my chest, and put its arms round my neck. ‘My dear Gregory, I am telling you the exact truth. I believe I am now acquainted with the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind. I can only just manage to tell you now the bare outline of the experience. I was conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and moving slowly over it, and of several–I don’t know how many–legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body. I screamed out, Brown says, like a beast, and fell away backward from the step on which I stood, and the creature slipped downwards, I suppose, on to that same step.

003. ‘it was just this way. Master was busy down in front of the ‘ole, and I was ‘olding the lantern and looking on, when I ‘eard somethink drop in the water from the top, as I thought. So I looked up, and I see someone’s ‘ead lookin’ over at us. I s’pose I must ha’ said somethink, and I ‘eld the light up and run up the steps, and my light shone right on the face. That was a bad un, sir, if ever I see one! A holdish man, and the face very much fell in, and larfin’, as I thought. And I got up the steps as quick pretty nigh as I’m tellin’ you, and when I was out on the ground there warn’t a sign of any person.

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