The Hole in the Wall

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).

~ 1 ~

"What is the matter with you, Melon?"

"What do you mean by 'the matter' with me?"

"Well, you are quite different - snappish - jumpy - you may call it what you like!"

"I suppose a man may be a bit below the mark without having it called attention to?"

The first speaker sate silent for a time, and looked at his companion, who fidgeted under the scrutiny.

They were two undergraduates, sitting in a big comfortable room on the first floor of the front court of the college. The questioner, Jim Redford by name, whose room it was, was a tall, thin good-humoured looking man, with a face at once indolent and intelligent. He looked as if he took life easily, and found it interesting. The second man, Harry Bradley, was a short, sturdy, shaggy-haired man, commonly called Melon, from a supposed resemblance to the rugged plumpness of that fruit. They were in their second year at Magdalene, and were close companions and friends.

It may be added for the sake of clearness that the college at that date, the early sixties, was by no means full. On the particular staircase, which contained six sets of rooms, both the ground-floor sets were tenanted, but only one of the first-floor sets, Jim Redford being the occupier of them. Higher up, only one of the two attic sets was in use, Harry Bradley being the occupant; his rooms were over the empty set, while the attics over Redford's room were vacant.

It was the afternoon of a sunny day in May; the two had been having tea together; Redford's room was comfortably and handsomely furnished, and gave evidence of considerable wealth.

They sate thus in silence for a time, and then Bradley said:

"Yes, you are right, Jim! It's no use snapping and growling as I am doing - I'm not well, and it's difficult to explain - but I'll tell you about it. I should like to tell you, though it won't be of much use, and yet I ought to have spoken before."

Jim sate up in his chair and looked at Harry, who showed signs of considerable agitation. "All right, old man," he said, "out with it - take your time."

Presently Harry said, "You remember that day about a month or five weeks ago - it was Wednesday, the 21st of April, as a matter of fact - when I had that nasty tumble on the stairs here? I slipped on the narrow step at the corner near the top, and came down, giving my head a bump. Well, it was that which began it, I believe; I have never been right since, and it was the next day that..." he broke off and looked rather gloomily at Jim, "that the dreams began. That's the mischief!" he went on. "I can't sleep properly. I don't know half the time if I am asleep or awake, and the dreams, or whatever they are, come and go."

Jim bent forward and said, "Yes, it's the devil if you can't sleep; but tell me what the dreams are!"

"That's just the difficulty!" said Harry. "They are like nothing else I ever had - they are so confused and indistinct, but the same thing is always happening; it will all sound so idiotic, but I'll try. Let me have a moment to think."

He thought with knitted brows for a moment. Then he said, "I begin always by thinking about a little place, or village, near my home - it is called Kirkby - I always seem to think of that first, but I don't know why; it has no connection with what happens. Then suddenly in the middle of it, I become aware that someone is drawing near. I don't know who or what it is, but he - or it - comes upstairs, I think, very cautiously, as if it was all dark, feeling his way; he is afraid of something, afraid of being seen, and he is carrying something. I don't know what he carries - it is all so mixed. There is something red about it, with a pattern; then there is something to do with Virgil. I can't describe it. Something printed or written. Perhaps it is a book, but it isn't quite like a book. It's heavier, but I can't make out what it is, because the person who carries it does not want me to know. I don't think he likes to think of it himself." He stopped and shook his head. Presently he went on. "Then suddenly he is quite near me; and he pushes something away with his foot and he puts his hand down to the floor. I don't know what he does. I can't see him, I can only hear him. It takes a long time. Then there comes a noise, a curious noise, loud but muffled, not very near - a thud, and something clicks; and then an awful fear comes over me. That's the worst part of the whole thing. A horrible fear. I don't know what about; and then I know that the man has crept away.

"I wake sometimes then, all in a sweat, in a perfect agony; but it's no use; I can't do anything; or stop what is going on, and after a bit he is back again. I never can make out what happens. I see curious things; a stick or rod - it is a yellow colour, rather bright, but spotted, and there is something white twisted round it, and there is a thing like a hook, two hooks, the sort of hooks they hang meat on in a larder, and there comes a curious scratching sound, very soft; but it all seems of no use, and then I hear sighs; whatever it is that is done, it's of no use - and then I am afraid again, but afraid in a different way, and sometimes I see men sitting in a lighted room round a table, talking rather seriously; that does not always come, - and then the whole thing begins again; the man creeping near, the sound which frightens me, and then there's the soft scratching."

"What an extraordinary dream!" said Jim, leaning forwards with a curious look on his face. "Is that all - does nothing more happen?"

"No," said Harry, "nothing more happens, that's the worst of it. It sounds perfectly idiotic, and is idiotic; but it simply drives me mad; night after night it goes on, and I can't help thinking..." he broke off with a gesture of misery.

"Thinking what?" said Jim.

"Why, is that how people do go out of their minds?" said Harry, "for ever thinking of something they can't stop or forget, and thinking it over and over again - that knock on the head I mean - did that set up something wrong? You see, I feel I'm in a bad way, and can't get out of it. What can you advise me to do? Oh, I'm so wretched!" He broke off suddenly.

"I suppose you won't see a doctor?" said Jim.

"What's the use?" said Harry. "There's nothing wrong with me in other ways; and I can't tell him all this nonsense."

"Do you ever feel it by day?" said Jim.

"Not much," said Harry. "I don't like being alone in my rooms - you have noticed that I'm always dropping in here. I feel in my rooms that there's something bad about, but I don't feel as if it meant any particular harm to me; it is more as if I had just got in the way of something that was going on."

"You won't get leave to go home for a bit?" said Jim. "I think that would help."

"I can't," said Harry. "I have nowhere to go to; my people are away, and my exams are coming on. I must just stick it out."

Jim pondered for a bit. Then he said, "How would it be if you could change your rooms? I think that it is possible to get a place on one's nerves. Why not get leave to change into the empty attics? You can easily make an excuse to Cooper. He won't care; they are the same rent, and rather better rooms. Then you would be over my head, and if you thumped on the floor, I could come up, and have a talk. I really believe that might be of some use."

Harry looked a little relieved, but presently shook his head. "I would be glad to get out of the rooms at any price," he said, "but it would cost something, and I haven't a halfpenny to spare!"

"It wouldn't cost anything," said Jim. "You haven't got much to move, and you could do most of the moving yourself. The empty rooms don't want doing up. We could just get a man in for an hour or two to help, but you could settle in all right in an afternoon. I'd come and help."

"I really believe it would be a good plan," said Harry. "I don't want to move off the staircase. I'd like to be near you. What could I say to Cooper?"

"Just say you would like the other rooms better," said Jim. "He's a good-natured old boy, he wouldn't mind. He would only say, 'Certainly, Mr -, by all means; the other room's a bit more cheerful, hey?'" He imitated the genial accents of the worthy tutor, and Harry smiled. "I'll do it to-morrow," he said; "I'll get leave to-night - it's a good idea of yours!"

"And I'll come up to-night and sleep on your sofa," said Jim. "It will rather amuse me. Then you can sing out if you are inclined."

"What do you think about it all?" said Harry.

"I think it's all natural enough," said Jim. "I expect that little knock you had started it, and now you have got into a habit of remembering certain things which have got all mixed up together, and which you probably happened to see without particularly noticing - it seems a regular mess of absurdities. You are all right, old man! You look better already!"

~ 2 ~

Jim did as he suggested; he took possession of the sofa in Harry's room, and slept well. Once he awoke, hearing Harry cry out, and lighting a candle went into the bedroom. Harry was lying on his back, his hands twisted into the counterpane, breathing heavily, much flushed. Jim did not like the look of him; and he suddenly had a sense that there was something very uncanny about - was there someone standing behind him? He turned hurriedly, but there was nothing visible but the bare white attic, with a row of pegs, and clothes hanging on them. He was rather afraid of waking up Harry suddenly, but he stood by him, put his hand on his shoulder, and called him softly by his name. Harry woke with a start, and sate up, in an obvious agony of fear. "Good God!" he said, "get away - get away, I say - let me alone..." ...he recognised Jim suddenly, and sank back with a look of relief. "Oh, it's you!" he said. "Well, I've had a damnable time; it has all been going on as usual, over and over again." "Never mind, old man!" said Jim. "Now just lie down and go to sleep. I'll bring a chair in here, and you won't mind if I have a pipe?" He dragged a chair in, sate down, wrapped a rug round him and smoked. Harry slept again, tossing about at times, and once or twice crying out. Jim did not wake him again; and at last the daylight came softly in, and the birds began to twitter in the ivy; and then Harry sank into a quiet sleep. Presently Jim went softly out, and down to his own rooms, where he went to bed; but he did not sleep; he lay open-eyed, wondering and pondering. He did not like the look of things at all.

~ 3 ~

The next morning Harry declared that he had had an awful night, worse than ever; but he had got leave to move his rooms; and that afternoon the two men, with a carpenter to help them, got the furniture across, nailed up pictures, hung curtains. The old bedmaker entirely approved. "I always thought, sir," she said, "that there was something nasty-like, in a manner of speaking, about the other room. And I have wondered why you didn't change, sir; but it was not in my duty to say so. And I have been thinking, too, sir, that you was not, as one may say, quite yourself."

Harry was much delighted with the change, and declared that he felt quite different already; Jim told him to be sure and knock on the floor if he felt disturbed; but no knock came, and Harry, marching into breakfast, announced that he had had an excellent night. "Just a touch of the old thing," he said, "but no more. The person was about, you know. Yes, he was creeping about a bit - but he didn't bother me."

In the course of the morning, Jim, who was a decided young man, went off and told the whole story to a doctor in the town whom he knew, a kind-hearted old fellow, who heard him attentively. "You did quite right, Mr Redford,", said the Doctor, when he had heard all. "Most sensible! I wouldn't press your friend to come and see me, till you have seen how the change works. I think you are right - there has been a little mischief resulting from the blow. He ought probably to have rested, and he ought to rest; but he is evidently not much amiss, and I daresay it would worry him less to go in for his examination. In a state like that he had better have something ordinary to think about, if the work doesn't bother him; get him to take exercise regularly and not overdo it; and come and tell me again how he is getting on. I expect it will be all right now."

From that moment all went well. Harry ceased to be troubled by dreams, his spirits came back to him; it was Jim's turn to be preoccupied. He wrote down all he could remember of the dream - he had a taste for the investigation of problems, and he now indulged it to the full. He discovered a lot of old Boat records and account books in the Library, and he studied them with infinite care. He got the bedmaker to let him have the keys of the two vacant sets, and he made a careful examination of Harry's former bedroom; while he did so, one fine morning, he was conscious of very great uneasiness and considerable qualms, so that once or twice he thought he must desist. What he found he kept to himself.

Another day he sent for a carpenter, and made a similar investigation of the rooms opposite his own. The side of the room further from the door, and thus immediately underneath the wall which separated the attics above, was panelled. He got the carpenter to take down and remove with very great care the panelling which was in the corner of the room near the window, and thus more or less under the corner in which the bed in the attic above stood. A dusty wall was revealed, with immense festoons of cobwebs, among which he made a very careful search, removing them with the utmost care.

At last the examination was complete. He arranged with the bedmaker that the room should be kept carefully locked, and that evening he made a number of notes on some sheets of paper. When he had finished, he read it all over very carefully, and looked round with an air of satisfaction.

~ 4 ~

The same day Harry finished his examination. The two spent the evening together. Harry was in high spirits at the recovery of his health, and rather rallied Jim on his thoughtfulness. "You would think I had shifted it all on to you!" he said. Jim smiled and said nothing at the time. But the following morning, when Harry proposed that they should go out together, Jim said to him, "Now, are you perfectly sure you are all right, Melon?"

"Yes, indeed," said Harry; "what on earth is the matter?"

"Well, sit down there," said Jim, "and let me tell you a story, which I think will interest you." He spread his notes before him. "Do you mind if I ask you some questions about your dreams?"

"Not a bit," said Harry, "it would rather amuse me - by Jove, though, they were bad at the time!"

"There's only one thing I don't understand," said Jim. "You said that your dreams always began with your thinking about a village, near your home. Kirkby, you said it was. I can't get that in."

"Yes," said Harry, "Kirkby Basset - Kirkby for short!"

"Kirkby what?" said Jim sharply.

"Kirkby Basset!" said Harry. "There's a Kirkby Lestrange some miles away, but we always spoke of Kirkby Basset as Kirkby."

"Well, upon my word!" said Jim, striking his hand on the table, "but this simply tops everything. That was the very thing I wanted!

"Now, look here! You must attend to this. In the year 1826 there was a man here called Basset - he was an extravagant man, I have reason to believe, and he got into difficulties. He wanted money. The Boat subscriptions were kept in a cash-box, which stood on the secretary's table. One day it was missing. There's an entry about the theft of the money in the Boating-book, and it was thought to have been bagged by an errand-boy.

"Basset kept in these rooms of mine. The attics were both empty. Well, it was Basset who took the cash-box. No, don't interrupt me now! He kept it in his room for a day or two, but when it all came out about the theft of the box, he got frightened. He wrapped it up in a bit of paper - I don't quite know why, but we shall see - he had a reason; and he wrapped it all up in an old handkerchief, a red bandana handkerchief with an odd pattern on it, which he took, I believe, from another man's rooms. Then he got the key of the empty attic - your rooms - then one night, very late, he crept upstairs, and he went into your bedroom, and he got a bit of the wainscot off, and he pushed the cash-box into the wall; but he hadn't examined the place. There was a hole through the wall there, which communicated with the sitting-room; and the flooring comes to an end, so that anything pushed in there falls down behind the panelling of the sitting-room beneath. And when he pushed it in, it fell down, and made an awful clatter down below.

"He was in a horrible fright, thinking it would wake up the man who kept there; but I suppose it didn't wake him.

"Then he was in a dreadful state. I don't quite know why. I am not sure whether he had taken the money out or not. I rather think not. He did nothing more that night, but went back to bed.

"In the morning, he felt he must get the box up again: and I suppose he had been planning how to do it. He stole a meat-hook, which he tied on to an old curtain-rod, and then he pushed it down into the hole, and tried fishing for the box; he felt it, I believe, but he couldn't hook it up; and then he let go of the rod by accident, and it slipped down out of his reach, and then he gave it all up as a bad job, pushed the wainscot back, and made it as firm as he could. And then I don't know what happened."

Jim stopped for a moment, and Harry sate staring at him. "I see," he said, "I more or less see, it fits in some of the things, but it's only a bit of clever guessing, it seems to me. Have you any proof of all this, or is it just a detective sort of affair?"

"Come and see," said Jim, getting up. Harry followed him; Jim went out on to the landing, and opened the door of the rooms opposite. He looked at Harry, "You are quite sure you won't mind?" he said. "It will be rather a surprise to you."

"Mind?" said Harry, "No, we'll see this out!"

~ 5 ~

Jim opened the door of the room opposite, and they went in together; then Jim carefully closed the door. They stood together in a big room, bare of all furniture. The wall opposite them was panelled, and a piece of the panelling had been removed. Jim pointed at an object which lay on the floor close to the wall. Harry went over to it. It was a small bundle, tied up in an old red wrapper, covered with dust. Against the wall, partly concealed by the panelling which was still standing, stood a thin metal rod, with traces of brass veneer upon it; at the end of the rod which touched the ground was a big double meat hook, tied to the rod with a piece of what had once been white window-cord.

"There it all is!" said Jim. "I haven't touched them. Now we will examine them."

He took the bundle and laid it on the window-seat. It was fastened up with a rough knot, which Jim undid. He laid the corners on the window-seat, and there appeared an object tied up in what had once been white paper with a piece of red tape. He undid the red tape. A bit of manuscript appeared, and an old japanned cash-box. "Wait a minute," said Jim. "Just look at these." The MS., on examination, appeared to be a piece of Latin hexameters, in the Virgilian style. There was a name at the top, "Sedley". "Yes, that was one of the names in the club," said Jim. "Stop - look at the handkerchief."

He turned it over, and a name was visible, written in a space, "H.P. Sedley".

"There!" said Jim. "That's the last clue, or nearly the last! He tied it up, you see, in Sedley's paper, and in Sedley's handkerchief. He meant the suspicion, if there was any suspicion, to fall on him!"

Then Jim took up the cash-box. It was heavy, and he shook it in the air, so that money clinked within. "Yes," he said, "he left the money in it, sure enough - let us get back and examine this!"

He put the paper and the handkerchief carefully together; both were frail, stained and tattered. He looked at Harry, who stood seemingly bewildered.

"Good Heavens!" said Harry, "it all comes back to me bit by bit - it's all here! It was that he was feeling for in the wall - that was what he was after!"

They went back to Jim's room, who after a minute's fumbling with the rusty cash-box, prized it open and tumbled the contents out on the table - several gold coins, guineas and sovereigns, some tarnished silver, and a few coppers.

"Count it all!" said Jim; and they slowly counted the contents. It came to a sum of £32 4s 8d. Jim looked on his table, found an old account-book, and showed Harry the same amount totalled up on one of the pages. Underneath was a blurred note. "This sum in the club cash-box was abstracted from J. Faning's rooms on May 10, 1826. A fresh levy of subscriptions was made. The thief remains undiscovered."

The two looked at each other in silence. Then Harry said, "This man Basset, what became of him?" Jim searched among the papers, and held out a slip of print before his eyes. It was an obituary notice, of some two years before, of the death of Mr Henry Basset, of Friars' Norton Hall in the County of Hunts., who, the paper said, had been educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and had taken his degree in the year 1826. The notice went on to speak of him as an active magistrate, and a man of many charities.

~ 6 ~

A few days later, the two were sitting together; there had been a long silence, when Harry suddenly said, "I'm hanged if I can make anything of this business, Jim! I don't like it, it's very uncanny; but I don't really see that it can be coincidence or imagination. I should like to think it could."

"Yes," said Jim, "it would be convenient, no doubt! But it's rather a grim affair, you know! I would like to think of the old man as better occupied, and more piously engaged over there. It rather knocks one's idea of Heaven on the head; because he seems to have ended by being a good old man, and yet forced to come back here, and go fretting about over this old prank of his; and what good could he do either, tell me that? It isn't a case of restitution, because all the people whose money he took are gone long ago. No-one is being wronged in consequence. It's just a windfall for the club, and, by the way, I propose to pay it in quietly, through the Bursar. It's no use talking about all this; we should only be thought to be mad."

"Well then, what do you think?" said Harry.

"If you ask me," said Jim, "it looks to me as if dying didn't make very much difference to us! I expect that the old man had worried and fretted all his life long about the cash-box: he didn't like to own up, but I expect he went through the performance simply millions of times, thinking what a fool he had been; and now it is such a habit with him, that he comes back here and worries us to death. I tell you, I was frightened about you; but it was as you said: it wasn't you he was after. You merely got in the way."

"But he died some time ago," said Harry, "and why did I suddenly become aware of it?"

"Oh, that was the knock you got," said Jim. "I have no doubt of it. A thing like that shakes one up; it's like starting a leak in the mind, and the water rushes in. You simply became aware of something that had been going on for a long time. And I'm thankful - yes, I'm devoutly thankful that something worse didn't happen! But for all that I don't believe that the old man meant any harm - he wasn't thinking about you."

There was a pause, and then Harry said, "It makes me rather uncomfortable to think of all sorts of things like that going on, shadows running all kinds of errands, going in and out. Do you really think we are in the middle of all that, Jim?"

Jim looked at him very seriously. "Yes," he said, "I think that is so. I believe we are right in the middle of some very queer things indeed, and I believe it's lucky for us that we so rarely knock up against them!"

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