When the Door is Shut

by 'B'

(from When the Door is Shut and other ghost stories by 'B'.)
While researching amongst M.R. James's papers in King's College Library, Cambridge, in the early eighties, I came across a galley-proof of a story from a 1913 edition of the Magdalene College Magazine, entitled "The Stone Coffin" and signed only with a manuscript letter 'B'. It turned out to be an antiquarian ghost tale of distinct charm and scholarship, with a Latin speaking ghost which would certainly have pleased M.R. James. Further investigation in the Magdalene College Magazine revealed that a total of seven supernatural tales by 'B' had appeared between 1911 and 1914. In the Haunted Library booklet When the Door is Shut and other ghost stories by 'B' (1986), I reprinted five: "The Strange Case of Mr Naylor" (June 1911), "When the Door is Shut" (June 1912), "The Strange Fate of Mr Peach" (December 1912), "Quia Nominor" (June 1913), and "The Hole in the Wall" (June 1914). A sixth tale, "The Hare" (December 1914), appeared in Ghosts & Scholars 8; while "The Stone Coffin" itself (December 1913) was published in the Ghosts & Scholars hard-cover anthology which Richard Dalby and I edited in 1987 for Crucible (Thorsons).

In my Introduction to When the Door is Shut, I discussed the possible identity of 'B'. Certainly it is generally thought at Magdalene that he was A.C. Benson, whose association with that College began in 1904 when he was elected a Fellow. He became Master in 1915. There are some textual similarities between the tales of 'B' and those of A.C. Benson ("The Slype House", "Basil Netherby", "The Uttermost Farthing", etc.), but just as many differences, and the case remains unproven. However, that 'B' was (like Benson) a member of MRJ's close circle of friends seems certain, not only because the galley-proof of "The Stone Coffin" was amongst MRJ's papers, but also because a character called "Swain" appears in "Quia Nominor". He was surely named for E.G. Swain, MRJ's good friend and the author of The Stoneground Ghost Tales (1912).

When the houses in Magdalene Street, beyond the Old Lodge, were recently being demolished, the clearing away of some flimsy lath-and-plaster accretions revealed a large solid chimney-stack of brick, of Tudor workmanship, with some pleasantly designed buttressing and chamfering, indicating that it was a portion of a substantial mansion. It stood a little way North of the new building, a few yards inside the wall. Beyond the chimney-stack, up the slope towards St Giles' Church, a fragment of ancient wall was discernible, with the base of a mullioned window, and further North still an old doorway. These were undoubtedly the remains of Copped Hall, a house of some size, which stood detached in a little close, called The Green Peele, with an avenue of lime-trees running East towards the Pond-yard, now the Fellows' Garden. The houses on the Chesterton road abutted on the close and overlooked it. It was the property of the College, was partially demolished at the end of the eighteenth century, and became merged in the street. I have no doubt in my own mind that the doorway was the scene of two tragedies which took place in the eighteenth century.

The first incident is purely traditional, but there is an unmistakable allusion to the second event in that curious book, Things Fleshly and Ghostly, by Thomas Peck, in the chapter entitled "Of Foul and Lubberly Insecution". The incident is clumsily and obscurely hinted at, and Peck evidently took pains to avoid identification. But there is a singular entry in one of the College record books, which makes the story somewhat plainer. This entry is entitled "Concerning the death of Mr Richard Mauleverer", and contains a few facts, leanly told, with notes of a conversation. The record is written in the first person, and is signed "Jno Bellamy, Fellow of Magdalene College"; it seems to have been inscribed in the book on the day of Mr Mauleverer's funeral. Out of these two records I have pieced together the story as far as I can, just bridging one or two gaps by supplying obvious inferences, and I will tell it as a connected narrative, without undue citations.

Mr Richard Mauleverer came of a good Worcestershire family, and was born in 1705. He entered Magdalene in 1723, as a commoner, where he did not waste much time in study; in 1726, by private influence, he was elected a Bye Fellow on the Spendluffe foundation, on taking his degree. He did not reside very long, and soon after, succeeded to some landed property; nothing is known of his movements until 1756, when he reappeared at Cambridge, and took a lease of Copped Hall; he was then a man of means and kept riding-horses. He was a bachelor, and lived at Copped Hall with a manservant and an old housekeeper. He was cordially received by the Fellows, the Master, Thomas Chapman, being apparently a distant connection; his chief crony, however, was John Bellamy, Wray Fellow, who had been a contemporary of Mauleverer's, and was a man of convivial habits. If Mr Bellamy had never been seen drunk, it was equally certain that he had seldom been seen what is ordinarily called sober; but he was a civil, witty man, given to harmless expletives, a good raconteur, and excellent company when he was free of the gout, to which he was a martyr. Mauleverer usually dined in Hall at two o'clock dinner, after his morning ride, and spent the afternoon in the combination room. He was a strong and hearty man, of scanty discourse, good humoured enough, but very stubborn when he had once made up his mind.

The front door of Copped Hall was in the street, and admitted you to a small paved hall lighted by two slits of windows on either side of the door. To left and right were two parlours running through the house; behind the hall, entered by a door opposite the front door, was a small study, where Mr Mauleverer mostly sat. The room had two windows, with a considerable space between them, looking out on the lime avenue. The fireplace was on the right, and to the left was a door which communicated with the garden by a short passage, which seemed to have been taken out of the room. If you went out into the avenue and looked back at the house, you saw the two windows of the study, with a bedroom above it with three windows; between the two windows of the study, and under the centre window of the bedroom, was a curious projection of brick like a large flat buttress.

Mr Mauleverer found the room dark when the summer foliage was out; he got into his head that a window had been stopped up in the centre, and on tapping about the panelling of the room he found that the space between the windows sounded hollow. So he had the panelling removed. In the space an archway appeared, with a strong nail-studded oak door, which had been very elaborately fastened up; the interstices had been plastered; but what at once attracted Mr Mauleverer's attention were two broad strips of lead, one nailed from the top of the door to the bottom, and one across the door halfway up, on which were traced some curious geometrical figures. Mr Mauleverer had the external buttress taken down, and the outer side of the door appeared, with similar strips of lead affixed. He decided to have the door reopened, and the lead was torn away.

It seems that the same day on which this was done, Mr Mauleverer received a note from an old Fellow of Jesus, Mr Hinde. He went to see him, but soon afterwards returned, asked for the strips of lead, and took them away with him, after which they were never seen again intact. He came back apparently rather troubled; and it seems that the same evening he told Mr Bellamy a confused story, related to him by Mr Hinde, of a murder that had been done at Copped Hall some seventy years before. The circumstances were obscure. But it is clear that a woman living at Copped Hall with her husband, a drunken brute, had been attacked by him in the garden, had fled to the house, and had endeavoured to close the door; the ruffian had burst it open, and killed her with an axe, for which he was very properly hanged at Huntingdon. Mr Hinde, he said, had urgently advised him to have the door closed up again, but that he said he would not do, for it was a convenience.

The first day that the door was opened a curious event happened; a bird flew in at the open door, as if chased by a hawk, with a loud out-cry, and was killed against a mirror in the room, making an ugly splash of blood on the glass, and cracking the mirror; a week later a very inexplicable thing occurred. Mr Mauleverer opening the door one evening saw something looking round one of the jambs, and perceived that it was a little ape, with white teeth and large eyes; it looked wickedly at him, and tried to dodge into the house; but Mr Mauleverer was too quick for it, and straddled across the threshold; the little creature ran quickly to the nearest lime-tree, climbed up the trunk, and Mr Mauleverer could not discover where it was, though he heard it hiss and chatter in the branches. It was thought that it was one of a pair of apes kept by Dr Long, Master of Pembroke Hall. Mr Mauleverer went across to Pembroke to see if it was so, but saw the two apes snug enough, and found little comfort in the sight.

A week later Mr Mauleverer had a strange conversation with Mr Bellamy in the latter's room. He told Mr Bellamy that he had awaked at night, and he had heard something moving about in the room below, the dining parlour. He had gone down, and he had there seen and smelt something "which sickened him". "What was it?" said Mr Bellamy. "I do not know," said Mr Mauleverer. Then, after a pause, he said, "I do not know, but I reckon it must have been a bear!" "God-a-mercy!" said Mr Bellamy, putting down a tankard which he was raising to his lips, "Why a bear?" "Well," said Mr Mauleverer, slowly and painfully, "it was about that bigness and very heavy; it shuffled to and fro; it put its foot softly and lumberingly to the ground, and then there fell a little clattering of claws upon the boards, as it pushed forwards." "God-a-mercy!" said Mr Bellamy again. "Yes, and worse than that," said Mr Mauleverer, as though finding some relief in the telling, "it smelt strong and rank like some great hairy beast, and when I came near it puffed its hot breath upon me - Faugh!" said Mr Mauleverer, with a kind of sickness upon him, and he took up his tankard and drank. Mr Bellamy sat musing, and then said, "I have heard of a man - indeed he was own uncle to myself - who saw snakes when no snakes were there; but that was under - under somewhat different circumstances; and I do not think he smelled them!" "I have had enough of it," said Mr Mauleverer suddenly, in a fury; "I will not have quadrupeds, with birds and feathered fowl, to make free of my house and garden. By God, I will not!" "I would not!" said Mr Bellamy, "but how did the matter end?" "The beast shuffled away," said Mr Mauleverer, "through the hall, into the study, and was hidden from my sight; the door stood open into the garden, though I am sure I closed it over-night." "I think I would tell the Mayor," said Mr Bellamy soothingly; and here the notes come to an end.

A week later - it was always on Saturday nights that the events had occurred - Mr Mauleverer did not dine in hall, but was busy all day in his study, the door being bolted. He had seen Mr Hinde again in the morning. The manservant was puzzled, because there came a smell from the study of something boiling. Mr Mauleverer ate a poor meal in haste, and went back to his study at nightfall, and the servant said that his hands were dirty and discoloured.

Late that night the servant was awaked by a sudden outcry in the garden. It was a moonlight night; he got hastily up and went to the window. He saw Mr Mauleverer flying, as for his life, into the house, screaming horribly aloud. After him ran something big and dusky. Mr Mauleverer got to the door, slipped in, closed it, and there was a silence of a minute or two while the creature sniffed about the door. Then came a great crash; the servant fled downstairs, and came into the study in great haste. He saw that the door was wide open, and a table had been overset. He made a light, and found Mr Mauleverer lying, his feet to the door, with a great gash on his forehead, quite dead. There was nothing else inside the room. When the body was examined, the inside of the hands were found all white, as if with chalk; and a lump of chalk was found broken on the carpet. In the orchard was found a little firebucket lying in the grass in the avenue, which seemed to have been bitten and spurned; there were some cinders hereabouts, and some lumps of what appeared to have been molten lead.

The only other thing of note in the room was that on the inner side of the door was found scrawled very hurriedly in chalk some words in Greek which appeared to be:

rusai hemas apo tou...*

But at the end of the last letter there was a great line, as if the door had been dashed in on the hand of the writer.

Mr Hinde died on the following day in his rooms at Jesus, of a stroke of palsy. He had been heavily affected by the news of the death, and it was thought to have hastened his end.

There was an inquest held, and the verdict given was that Mr Mauleverer died of a fall, occasioned by a sudden stroke of apoplexy. I daresay he did! After the apoplexy, the fall, But what did the apoplexy follow after? I hope with all my heart that Mr Mauleverer was knocked senseless by the blow, when the door was stove in.


* [alla] rusai hemas apo tou [ponerou] - "but deliver us from the evil one": i.e. the line in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew vi,13; Luke xi, 4) in the original Greek. Jesus's parable of the locked door ("Trouble me not: the door is now shut"), immediately after the Lord's Prayer in Luke (xi, 5-10), is clearly significant here, especially in relation to the story's title. Although the problems for Mr Mauleverer only begin when the door is opened, they are caused because his spiritual door to God has, for some unexplained reason, been shut. RAP

back to top

back to Ghosts & Scholars Archive

back to Ghosts & Scholars Home Page

Bar by Syruss