John Humphreys

by M.R. James

The first version of this story draft appeared in Ghosts & Scholars 16 (1993), and was reprinted in The Fenstanton Witch and Others (Haunted Library, 1999) and A Pleasing Terror (Ash-Tree Press, 2001). The following, completely new, transcription was published in The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter 11 (2007). It includes many corrections of previous misreadings and some new annotations. The manuscript is full of deletions and alterations, mostly of no significance, but I have added a few of the more interesting and readable ones into the text, in square brackets.

King's MS MRJ/A/11 (18 quarto sheets, untitled, written in ink on the rectos only) is published here by kind permission of N.J.R. James and King's College, Cambridge. It is clearly a forerunner of MRJ's "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance" (1911), although only the basic theme (a young man inherits a country house), the name of the central character, and the "small Irish yew" are common to both tales. "John Humphreys" is also probably the story referred to by MRJ in "Stories I Have Tried to Write" (1929) when he says: "In parenthesis, many common objects may be made the vehicles of retribution, and where retribution is not called for, of malice. Be careful how you handle the packet you pick up in the carriage-drive, particularly if it contains nail-parings and hair. Do not, in any case, bring it into the house. It may not be alone...".

Text copyright (c) 2007 N.J.R. James; annotations copyright (c) 2007 Rosemary Pardoe.

A young man is leaning over a gate that leads into a wood. The wood is on the top of a ridge. The man's back is turned to it, and he is looking at a wide and lovely view. The slope before him is fairly steep, and from its base spreads out a broad vale - perhaps the Vale Royal[1] of England, perhaps another, for I must not be too precise in my indications. When I have said that my hero is gazing at a September sunset over an English river-valley, I have said nearly all that I am competent to put into words: my readers must fill in for themselves the details of the distant layers of moorland glorified in a golden mist, of smoke rising from unseen villages and great houses, and of a pinnacled tower here and there. And now that the scene is set, however sketchily, let the historic present be dropped.

The spectator did not soon tire of the view: few people would. But at length the sun sank in a limpid sky behind the wooded hills in the west, and he remembered that duty called him home. He scaled the gate and took his way down by a path through ancient pastures. He walked quickly, with his eyes for the most part of the time fixed on the ground before him and casting only an occasional glance ahead. A man or woman coming in his direction[2] some two fields off was the only thing that diversified the familiar scene. Familiar it was, for he had been brought up in the manor house a mile or so away; a house which one or two unexpected deaths had thrown, with the surrounding estate, into his possession only a few months before. I do not think it necessary to set forth the genealogy nor to detail the accidents which had made him what he was: but briefly the situation was this, that John Humphreys, an orphan and an only child, aged twenty-two, having just taken a very good degree at Cambridge, and intending to compete for a post in the Home Civil Service, was now a considerable landowner in a beautiful English county, and might expect to figure very respectably in the next issue of Burke's Landed Gentry.

He was not the athletic young giant of sixteen stone dear to some writers, nor the spectacled aesthete disliked by the majority: imagine him attractive, clever above the average, neither hating the conventionalities nor a slave to them, [anxious to do the best for his people and] and thoroughly alive to the delights and the responsibilities of his position, and you have a notion of what he would have wished to be thought if he had reflected on that matter. He was not thinking about such things as he descended the slope, but rather about certain prosaic questions which he would have to discuss at length with his bailiff: and he also asked himself incidentally whether he knew or ought to know the person in black who was coming across the fields, and was by this time within a hundred yards of him. To that, however, he gave only a passing thought, and was just a little amused to see that if [after all] he had ventured on a greeting, it would have been addressed to a tall post newly covered with black and glistening tar which stood by the path on his left.

Two or three little bits of business - a word with the schoolmaster and another with the curate - made his walk home longer by twenty minutes than it need have been, and it was full dusk when he turned into his carriage-drive. But white paper shows up in the dusk and [my friend hated to seen scraps of this sort lying about his grounds. Besides which] an envelope lying in the path did not escape my friend's notice. Even persons who are not offensively tidy dislike to have paper left lying about their premises. [one-word space] picked it up. It was unaddressed, but there seemed to be something in it. He put it in his pocket, and hurried on, anxious to get a letter off by the post which would leave in a quarter of an hour. All the whole of that time must be uninterrupted if the letter were to be finished and sent off: so that the sight of a clerical figure seemingly about to ring the front door bell was rather a vexation. It was a little unreasonable in the neighbouring clergy to select this time for paying their calls. Relief succeeded the next moment. No cleric was there: a pillar of the portico had made for itself a deceptive shadow. "Coming events," he thought (with little originality), "cast their shadows before:[3] probably tomorrow the place will be black with curates."

The letter was despatched, and not long afterwards the bailiff, Mr Runton, entered upon the scene; his business was long and he succeeded in making it appear highly intricate by starting in the middle and going alternately back to the beginning and forward to the end. So that by the time a policy was settled, Humphreys was more than ready for dinner.

In the course of dressing he turned out the pockets of the coat he had been wearing, with the view, I am afraid, of taking his pipe and tobacco downstairs with him: and among the letters which were gathering fluff and comminuted tobacco in these pockets he recognised the envelope which he had picked up in the drive that evening. It was closed but he could not feel much delicacy about opening it, since therein lay the only chance of returning it to its owner. The contents did not take him much further. Two or three pins, somewhat bent,[4] a small ball of thread tightly rolled, a few withered leaves, and some brown dust: but no letter nor fragment of writing. He doubled up envelope and contents and threw them into the fender.


"Has anyone called here today?[5] I didn't happen to look at the card tray in the hall," he asked the footman as he entered the small room where he dined.

"Yes sir, there was a lady called to see the grounds."

"Oh really? Who was that?"

"She didn't give no name, sir, and she 'adn't got a card, she said."

"And didn't you know who she was? Where did she come from? Was she driving?"

"No sir, not driving, sir: she came on foot - a holdish lady, very respectable - quite the lady, sir. I don't know if I done wrong, sir, but I told her I didn't think there'd be any objection to her walking round the grounds, because I knew the men was about. I 'ope..."

"No, I daresay it's all right: and did she walk around the grounds?"

"Yes sir, she wasn't only about ten minutes to a quarter of an hour, and I see her go out again by the drive."

"Well, I think another time it would be better if you asked anyone who came if they would kindly leave a card or write their names: keep a little book in the hall. I rather prefer to know who comes here."

"Yes sir, very well, sir. I hope I didn't do wrong, but it was such a very respectable person - not like what'd be probable to do no mischief..."

"Oh no. I don't think any harm's done. I am quite willing that people should see the place; only, as I said, I rather like to know who they are."

The problem of how to spend the evening alone in a large house was one which Humphreys had had some practice in solving of late. Neighbours were not many, and it happened that several of those families who would in the ordinary way have provided him with society were abroad. But he had just hit upon an employment which would dispose of his leisure for some days to come; and there were but a few days to be tided over before a friend of his own standing was to come for a long visit. This employment was the arranging of the library.

The manor house possessed something really deserving of the name of a library. It was a large room, specially built in the early years of the nineteenth century to contain books. The windows were on one side only, leaving the whole of the other long wall available for books and fireplaces, of which there were two. Projecting bookcases divided the room into three sections. The fittings were stately and solid. And the shelves held something like five and twenty thousand volumes, hardly a hundred of which were later than 1830. The good man who had brought the collection together had intended to digest it carefully into subjects, and had drawn up a plan of the classes. But he must have been cut off before he had had time to carry out his design; and his successors, though they kept the books as an appanage[6] of a gentleman's establishment, had done very little more than put them on the shelves. By way of a catalogue there was a handsome series of volumes with gilt and lettered backs, and completely blank insides. Until quite lately the room had been lived in and kept warm, and though there was a musty flavour of unused paper, damp and mice had happily been kept aloof.

No one could have been better suited for the drudgery of getting the books into order than Humphreys, who was thoroughly fond of a library, and inquisitive about old things, if not deeply versed in them. He had determined to follow out the old collector's plan of arrangements, and had already spent two evenings in clearing out a division to contain the first class (which as usual was that of divinity). The ejected books were in rows on the floor, and he was gleaning the theology out of the other shelves and depositing it temporarily on long tables set out in the windows. He was getting them into sizes - folio, quarto, octavo and less - for such was the natural and also the ancestral plan - and [every now and then he would] at the same time taking rough notes of titles and dates upon a series of sheets of paper which lay ready. A long, interesting, tranquil process, and he felt at peace with everyone - except perhaps the untimely servant who was heading about with occasional knocks and raps in the passage. He could not be sure whether some of the noises were not knocks on the door, and in some irritation he eventually called out, "Come in, do! Come in, if you want to!" Upon which the noise maker desisted and was heard no more. Humphreys pursued his work for another ten minutes, and then was shaken by a sudden sneeze. He was working in his shirtsleeves and the moment he was thus interrupted he felt that the room was colder than it had been. The reason was not far to seek; the door stood half open; a mistake easily rectified but one which he could not think he had made himself. Probably the footman had left the door on the latch when he had come to see to the fire and bring in the whisky.

It was now verging on eleven o'clock and Humphreys was conscious of approaching sleep - so he put his papers together and resolved to look through a book for a few minutes in his arm chair. He took a large one at random and settled himself with something to drink and something to smoke. But sleep was coming nearer and nearer, and even to open the book required something of an effort. When he did open it, he was disgusted to find that it was a volume of the projected Catalogue of the library, in which, as I said, not one word had been written, though the pages had been numbered. It was too much trouble to get another. He gradually but quickly allowed sleep to come as near as it would.

The next experience was that he was still in the big chair, and eagerly reading in the book. How was this? He had no time to think, but there was the printed page before him - curiously difficult to read - impossible somehow to glance ahead and take in the sense of the next lines, yet at the same time quite clear: and, though the type looked old - very old - the language was modern English. And as he read, the sentences seemed to fix themselves easily and certainly in his brain. It seemed to be partly a dialogue and partly his own thought, and partly something that he was seeing and doing.

"You will have to come with me."

"Where to?" I said. He said, "A long walk, hard work. It gets darker and I go. You go on. Rain always, and wind: darker still. Is it someone following? Not sure; don't quite like to stop. Nearly all dark now: one break lighter in the sky there on the left. Someone's head looking over a rock: gone now - moved down quickly. Must go on. Is that someone following? Wind too loud to hear. I don't like this. Shall I run? Shall I call out? Who's there? Something like shouting down the wind."

"Don't!" I said. "Don't! I know there's something I want to think of."

"Yes, I daresay, but there's no time. If you could it might be better for you."

"Listen, isn't that someone. Which way was I going? Let me remember. No time: if I stop to think they'll catch up. Don't let me lose my head. I'm getting frightened. Why did I come?"

"Yes, why indeed?" he said. "But turn over and see who's after you."

That was the last line on the page, and Humphreys felt a horror of turning over the leaf. Yet he could not by any means avoid it: it was inevitable, and with a sort of helpless moan he did turn over, and gazed heavily at a great face that was painted on the other side. I really do not know exactly what it was: but it was so terrible an image of corruption and malice and fear, peering out of a dark background, that it scared him clean out of sleep, and he flung the book away with a loud cry, and lay shivering in his chair. There was an oppression on his scalp and his forehead. It felt, he said, like a ragged hand - so much so that he durst not put up his own hand for fear of touching it. But he cowered his head down, and upon the movement it was gone.

He jumped up and for some time stood, back to the fire, warming himself and gazing over the brightly lit room, where, to be sure, there was nothing to cause him the least uneasiness. Then his eye fell on the accursed book which had given him the nightmare. He picked it up with no very friendly feelings, and it fell open at the leaf whose number he remembered too well. It was, of course, as blank as ever, though it did seem slightly discoloured. The sight of it brought the words of his dream back in a flash, and he determined to write them down as a good specimen of dream-literature. For a minute or two he had a difficulty in beginning; the first sentences were unwilling to come: then he happened to glance at the blank leaf of the open book, and from that moment he was certain of his ground. If a word ever failed him, he had but to look towards its probable position, and his brain at once supplied it. When it was done, he read it through. "Yes," he said, "it seems to be mostly what someone else was trying to make me think - putting words into my mouth, and also answering for himself. I wonder what it was that I ought to have remembered: and where I was supposed to be?" [And by the way dare I turn over the page?]

Without much purpose, he turned over the leaf, and his heart gave a jump of fear, for the horror of the dream picture suddenly seized on him. It can only have been association. There was nothing but the slight discoloration which had been noticeable on the other side of the leaf.


There are few things more beautiful than a full September moon shining on the smooth lawns and dark trees of an English garden, and on the oak-grown slopes of an English park. The tide of the year's life is at the full - just past the full [and on the turn]: there is a lucid interval before death, before the great winds set in and the funereal pomp of the woods is put on. Humphreys felt something of the delight and the foreboding of the time when he threw open his bedroom window that night. Absolute stillness: everything might have been holding its breath and listening for the first whisper of a breeze from the distant sea. Only one prosaic thought crossed his mind as he gazed out - "I'll have that tree down tomorrow: it spoils that lawn badly". The tree he meant was a small Irish yew which stood very blackly in the near foreground. And with that he retired to bed, and spent, I fear, but a broken night of beginnings to set out on his "long walk" and unavailing efforts to remember something which constantly just eluded him: while all the time he knew that if he could but secure it he would be safe and quiet.


After breakfast next morning Humphreys strolled round the garden [with his pipe] smoking: and, chancing to meet the head gardener, he remembered his unknown visitor of the day before, and asked if the men had noticed her.

"Yes, I think I did see the lady, Mr [Humphreys 'Erbert] Humphreys, I should say, Sir," thus the gardener began [for he was afflicted with a propensity always to mention the name of the late deceased owner of the mansion]: "she come - well, I was down at that bed [Mr 'Erbert] what we 'ad the lobelias last year in it, if you recollect - no, to be sure you wasn't come among us, was you, Mr - well there - Humphreys - you'll excuse me, and one of the lads 'elping me.

"And all in a minute someone passed by goin' along the walk towards the 'ouse, and I says, 'William, do you know who that was?' 'No,' he says, 'I don't, Mr Barker.'[7] 'Well,' I says, 'it's a funny thing to me as people should be coming round about 'ere as if the place belonged to 'em. You go and ask 'er, my lad, if she's any business 'ere. And mind you be'ave civil and touch your cap,' I says for, mark you Mr Humphreys, she was quite the lady in 'er [ways] appearance. And so the lad 'e went after 'er, and by what I could understand she was 'alfway up the drive goin' out when he see her, and not wishin' to keep me waitin' he come back: and reely that is the last Mr ['Erb] - there again Mr Humphreys..."

"I see, thanks," put in Humphreys. "I thought perhaps the lady might have been someone from the village whom you knew by sight."

"No Sir, no, Mr Humphreys, no one from the village, not that I know," said Mr Barker with ready zeal. "Quite a visitor to this part I took her to be, Sir."

"Just so. Well, Mr Barker, there's one little matter I wanted to mention - that little Irish yew just below my bedroom window. It rather spoils that bit of lawn, and it isn't much of a tree. I'd like you to make away with it altogether, please."

Mr Barker put his hand to his mouth as one who reflects. "To be sure, Sir," he said. "Well - there. If you don't mind the trouble, Mr Humphreys, I should be very obliged to you just to step round and point it hout to me. Then there won't be no mistake about it. The reason why I hask you is because in the late Mr 'Erbert's time there was one of these fancy maple trees we 'ad - I could show you the place now not an 'undred yards away - very well, another time, Sir: any time I could point out the spot and welcome - and I recollect as well as possible 'im saying to me one morning..." The rest of the short journey was occupied with the recital of how the maple had been cut down and how subsequently Mr Herbert had repudiated all knowledge of this matter and had spoken "really very short" about it. "And 'aving that in my view," concluded Mr Barker, "I like to avoid what mistakes I can do, and if you'll be so good as point me out the tree, Sir, I'll see to the matter at once."

But there was no tree.

After some moments of silent astonishment - for he felt that he could not explain the situation to himself, and much less to Mr Barker - Humphreys was fain to point out for destruction a perfectly inoffensive and rather handsome shrub which grew about forty yards off and palpably did not intrude on the lawn. And then had first to be told - what he knew already - that this was not an Irish yew, and next persuaded by much superfluous pleading, to spare it. ["Very well," he said at last, "perhaps you are the best judge."] He returned to the library and to his morning's interview with the bailiff, feeling rather small.

The bailiff was not there but the curate had looked in. "Were you reading this?" he said, after his business was settled. "I found the book open on the table. These old preachers are very fine - Jeremy Taylor[8] in particular. I don't know who this is: the first pages are gone and there's no title on the back."

"No, I wasn't reading it," said Humphreys, taking the little book from him. "It must have blown open, I suppose. What is it? Oh, a Meditation on Death!"

"Well, just look at that page," said the curate; "full of imagination, isn't it?"

Humphreys read these sentences:

"And what when your feet stumble upon this dark mountains as it is in Jeremy,[9] when you go with Job, whence you shall not return, into a land of darkness and the shadow of death, without any order and where the light is as darkness:[10] ubi umbra mortis saith Hierome,[11] et nullus ordo, sed sempiternus horror inhabitat.[12] Some, nay the most, and that warrantably, speak of fire and the company of tormented and tormentors: but here is figured no kind of light or society, what our ill dreams not seldom present, namely a solitude and yet no security. What purposeless journeyings, what unseen pursuings, what ambushes feared, what visages faintly seen and in part suspected, shall vex and scare poor souls nearly stript of their familiar raiment! Alone he shall find himself who but now talked with friends: houseless who lately sat."

"Oh, some pages gone!" said Humphreys. "Yes, it is imaginative; not very encouraging, though!", and he shuddered a little, for the words had brought back his dream.

"No, it isn't exactly," the curate said slowly, looking at him. "Perhaps it would have got more cheerful as it went on."

"Perhaps it would," answered Humphreys vaguely. "Oh, by the way, Evans, couldn't you dine with me tonight? It would be kind."

So that was settled. It was a relief to Humphreys, for the atmosphere of the house was becoming just a little oppressive to him, and he was not in the mood for another solitary evening. However, he would not have been condemned to solitude in any case, for later in the day a telegram arrived from George Rowland, the friend he was expecting, to ask if he might come that very afternoon [instead of two days later], and of course nothing could have been more welcome.

After luncheon, Humphreys was obliged to take the way he had gone the previous evening, through the fields and up the hill overlooking the valley. It is not clear how the thought came to him, but as he entered the field path, he found himself wondering why the post he had seen had been placed in the middle of one of the pastures - he remembered the spot exactly. The placing of the post may have been odd, but it was still odder to find that during the night it had been taken away so cleanly as to leave no mark. A labourer was not far off.

"Was there a black tarred post somewhere in this field by the path?" asked Humphreys.

No, that there wasn't, and as the man passed through the field twice a day or more, he could speak to it.

"Well, all right, thank you: my mistake," said Humphreys and went on, wondering what further tricks his eyes proposed to play him. Two, no, three in one day so far, for he recollected the fancied figure in the porch: and on the top of that, the feeling that a hand was on his head the night before. Was he going to be a - well, a case for a brain specialist? There was nothing whatever in the history of his family to countenance such a fear, nor anything in his present physical condition. He felt as well, as unexcitable, as at any time of his life. No, it must be either an accumulation of coincidences or - what was that touching his arm? It might have been a branch, if he had not happened to be in the open field! Whatever it was, the effect was curious: it brought back the dream - he was beginning to think of it as the vision - of the evening before. The homely well known pasture seemed in a moment to widen into an illimitable grey expanse - an acute feeling of extreme loneliness and of being on a hopeless and aimless journey came over him and his whole being cried out for companionship and protection, and yet he felt that there was none, none whatever to be had: he was helpless in a world of hostile shadows.[13] Nothing was interesting any more, nothing was or could be important, and for all that, there was an instant pressure of hurry and no time to stop and think. It was a bitterness of despair which could not, he said, be put into any human words, and he believes he sank down under it and cowered on the ground - fortunately not in sight of any passer-by - and here for how long he couldn't tell he wrestled for his life and his reason.

Of two things he felt convinced all the while: one was that this deadly fever came from someone outside himself, someone who was near to him then; the other that there was something which he ought to remember and could remember if the pressure [of dreadful images] on his brain would only relax for an instant! The only words he could summon were words of fear, that he had read that morning. They droned through his head incessantly, "ubi umbra mortis et nullus ordo sed sempiternus horror inhabitat". Over and over again they came back and he felt himself being sucked away from the world of men, and indeed he does not see how he could have helped yielding to the strain that was on him, and giving up hope and reason if not life itself, had he not paused on the words umbra mortis. They brought to his mind in a moment the image of some lettering in a brass on a tomb - this is how he puts it - that he had been taken to see years before. "Umbra mortis," he seemed to say to himself, "to be sure, that was it - etsi ambulavero."[14] He raised his head and drew breath. "Absurd," he said again. "Of course that was what I wanted. Dear me. Why couldn't I think of that before?" The strain was relaxed. He rose to his feet and looked about him: the field was its own familiar self again and the sun bright in the sky. An exaltation of spirit came upon him which he could hardly repress, and he does not know what surprises of laughter and singing he may have inflicted on casual hearers as he went home. [Upon his graver feelings there is no need to dwell]

The satisfaction he felt was complete and permanent: he [was sure now that even the bare unhoused spirit has nothing to fear] had a talisman now which could always [dispel the darkness] rout the influence that had been deliberately trying to kill his physical life and blind his mental eye. And soon he began to think what that influence could be. He had felt when he rose from the ground as if someone had hastily moved away, and that in anger. What more he thought, I do not think it necessary to set forth now.


[new sheet] At eleven o'clock after a cheerful evening, the curate left Humphreys and his friend in the library and set off down the drive. [the rest of the sheet is blank]


[new sheet] It was a very cheerful trio that met at dinner. Humphreys was just in the mood to make an evening 'go'.

After the curate had left them, Rowland and Humphreys settled themselves in the library and the story we have heard came out.

"Well, of course," Rowland said, "if I hadn't seen something of you before you told me all this, I should have put it down to softening of the brain, but there isn't much wrong with you, John. What do you suppose is the reason for it yourself?"

"I can only be sure of one thing about it; that it comes from outside, and I'm rather driven to the supposition that somebody must be trying to frighten me out of my mind."

"Oh well," said Rowland, "I can't see much in that idea. Who is there to do a thing like that, I mean? It's a very far-fetched way of managing the job."

"Why, no doubt it would be simpler to take a shotgun, but if you come to think of it, this isn't such a very bad plan. If it succeeds no one can trace it to you, and if it doesn't, I suppose you're very much where you were. It isn't quite a new thing either; I was reading only the other day about a wizard[15] sending a lot of spirits to plague a young woman."

"Well, if you can find anybody whose interest it is to get you off the scenes and who practises secret arts, I'll accept your theory. Who's the heir-at-law?"

"Of this place? I don't know - nobody I ever saw. I can find out though. But, George, I doubt if you realise even now what a well-defined set of experiences it's been. First I see someone coming to meet me, and he turns out to be a post - and next day the post isn't there and never has been; then someone standing in the porch, and there's nobody there; then my dream in this room and the feeling a hand on my head - which I know wasn't only fancy; then seeing a tree out of the window where there wasn't one. Then next morning that funny little book turned up and set my thoughts going again. By the way, I was going to show it to you. It's on the table there - that little brown book - yes, that's it: it was page 69. You read it."

[But it was not page] "Are you sure you hadn't seen this before you fell asleep and had that dream?" said Rowland.

"Quite certain. I'd never opened the book before Evans showed it me today. And then there was that awful fright I had this afternoon in the field. All in twenty four hours. And I tell you, if I hadn't got out of that sort of fit in the way I did, I'm quite sure I must have gone under altogether! No, it really is something altogether external to me. I'm not in the habit of thinking about death and unhoused souls and those things."

"It is odd, certainly," said Rowland. "Very odd. But, well, let's leave it at that for the present. I'm not sure what I think."


They were in the library next day, Humphreys writing, Rowland exploring the shelves. Outside, the cheerful sound of the lawnmower made an agreeable accompaniment. Suddenly there was a pause in its whining, and voices were heard in eager conversation. ["Oh lor," said a boy's voice a moment later, "what ever is it] Rowland looked out and saw the two gardeners examining a small object which one of them was holding.

"Found something?" he called to them.

The head man looked up, touched his hat and advanced slowly to the window, still looking curiously at what he held.

"Good morning, Sir," he said. "I just see this in the grass to one side of the mower. We should 'a broke it to pieces next turn."

"What is it?" said Humphreys, who had come to the window.

"Well, Mr Humphreys, that's the puzzle. Meself I should 'azzard the guess it was a child's plaything. Only for it bein' reely so very unsightly. But - well there - you take a look at it yourself, Sir; that's the best plan. Then you'll be hable to form your own notion what it might be. Per'aps it's more of a fancy curio than anythink helse."

With this verdict he handed the thing in. It was a small dirty tin box in which lay a very horrid little doll of black wax - roughly fashioned to look like a corpse. Round this was wound a strip of paper. They shook out the image and unwound the paper, and thereon was written:

"esto hic timor mortis"[16]

[about three or four lines left blank]

[one word space] was still waiting for an opinion. "I suppose it is a fancy curio as you say. [said Humphreys when] I'll keep it and see if I can find an owner for it. Much obliged to you." And as soon as the mowing machine had resumed work: "Now then, George; doesn't this look like secret arts? What an infernal piece of spite. Did you ever hear of anything to touch it? I declare, if I can find who put that thing there, I'll..." He stamped about the room inarticulate with anger.

[I should say you had a very fair chance of finding who it was if you want to do that, Rowlands said.] "Now come, Johnny, do you really believe that anyone can give you the jumps by leaving dolls about on the front lawn?"

"Well, I don't know," said Humphreys, stopping. "It's pretty plain at least that someone thought they could. Isn't it?"

"Yes, perhaps they did. But -

- and also that [the manuscript ends here][17]

Copyright (c) N.J.R. James 2007


[1] An area of northwest Cheshire, around the town of Frodsham.

[2] "coming in his direction" is above the line, replacing "approaching him" (which is not crossed out). On several occasions in the text, my earlier transcription opted for original words which had, in fact, been replaced by others above the line. In this new transcription I have always preferred the replacement words above the line.

[3] "'Tis the sunset of life gives me mystical lore, And coming events cast their shadows before", from "Lochiel's Wedding" by the Scottish poet, Thomas Campbell, 1777-1844.

[4] According to the entry on pins in the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore (Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, OUP 2000), "One important folkloric function of pins was to symbolize attack". They were used by witches in various forms of cursing magic, but pins (often bent) were also placed in witch bottles (along with urine, hair and nail clippings) as a counterspell against witchcraft.

[5] Originally MRJ started writing this section before the previous paragraph, and then crossed it out.

[6] "Appanage" in this context means an adjunct.

[7] Barker was the name of a comic character, originally a Suffolk tradesman, invented by MRJ in exchanges with his brother Herbert.

[8] Jeremy Taylor, 1613-1667, cleric and latterly bishop of Down and Connor; known as the "Shakespeare of Divines" because of his poetic style in such works as The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living (1650) and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651).

[9] Jeremiah xiii, 16: "Give glory to the Lord your God, before he cause darkness, and before your feet stumble upon the dark mountains, and, while ye look for light, he turn it into the shadow of death, and make it gross darkness".

[10] Job x, 21-22: "Before I go whence I shall not return, even to the land of darkness and the shadow of death; A land of darkness, as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is as darkness".

[11] i.e. the Vulgate Latin Bible of St Jerome, made in the early fifth century.

[12] Job x, 22. See note 9 for the version in the King James Bible; the Latin is not quite the same: "where [there is] the shadow of death, and no order, but everlasting horror dwells".

[13] This excellent description of panic fear is not the only one in MRJ's stories. It is comparable with the scene in "A Neighbour's Landmark" (1924) where the narrator, just after hearing the terrible cry for the first time, no longer sees the beauty of the lovely English landscape before him, but instead: "images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower, and forgotten graves and their ugly contents below, and of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life".

[14] From the Vulgate Psalms xxiii, 4: "sed et si ambulavero in valle umbrae mortis non timebo malum..." ("though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil"). The words "umbra mortis" also appear on an area of the globe in "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance".

[15] "a wizard" is above the line, replacing "Cyprian". MRJ was evidently thinking of the story of Saint Cyprian and Saint Justina in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend. Justina was a pious Christian woman of Antioch, with whom both Cyprian and a young man called Acladius were in love. Cyprian, a powerful necromancer and sorcerer, summoned several demons which he sent to stir up lustful feelings in Justina, but she repelled them with the sign of the cross. Then Cyprian sent the "prince of the devils", who tempted her in various guises, but he too was thwarted by the sign of the cross. Eventually the "prince of the devils" admitted to Cyprian that the symbol of the "crucified God" was greater than the greatest of demons; at which Cyprian, renouncing evil, made the sign of the cross himself and "the devil departed all confused". The new convert was baptised and later became a bishop before being martyred, along with Justina, in c.280 under the Emperor Diocletian. This Cyprian is sometimes wrongly conflated with the historical Cyprian, a third century bishop of Carthage.

Interestingly, the legend of SS Cyprian and Justina resembles "John Humphreys" itself, inasmuch as the evil spell or curse on Humphreys is similarly removed by resorting to religious symbols: in this case, words from the 23rd Psalm. It is an unusual theme for MRJ: religious symbols rarely have any major effect on the supernatural phenomena in his stories (the notable exception being "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" in which the demon, like those invoked by Cyprian, is repelled by a cross).

[16] "Let this be the fear of death."

[17] The manuscript ends at the bottom of a sheet, so it is possible that there were further pages which have been lost.

Notes copyright (c) 2007 Rosemary Pardoe

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