The Strange Case
of Mr Naylor

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).

There is, or there used to be, in the College Library at Magdalene, a fine copy of that well-known curiosity of literature, the Psychomachia of Matthaeus Grondoburgensis (Kronberg?). The sub-title is long and complex - De gesticulationibus Daemonum, etc. It is full of all sorts of miscellaneous absurdities, charms, incantations, magical formulae, and so forth. The copy, as I remember it, was a fine one, on thick, wrinkled paper, with large margins, and in a yellow parchment binding, with the arms and coronet of some French Count, I fancy, on the title. I used to prowl about in the library in those days, and take down all sorts of books; this was in a bottom shelf in the inner room, under the window, I think.

When I pulled it out, a few scraps of closely-written paper fell out of the book. In examining the place where they had been lying, it seemed as if at some time or other, two pages must have been fastened together at the top and side, because the margins were discoloured, and that the loose sheets had been pushed in at the bottom. The paste, or whatever it was, had perished. On the previous page there comes the famous incantation Quam bonus, etc., "for the relief of the spirits of distressed and scrupulous scholars."

The written papers seemed to be a rough diary, and to have been cut out of a book. The date, I should imagine, the earlier part of the eighteenth century. The writing began in the middle of a sentence. I will give a few extracts before I make any comment:

"spite of ye Ill News from home, I contrived to enjoy myself fairly, with Gibbs and Lestrange. When they were gone, I drank the end of my Posset, which was cold and sweet, and pulled my curtain aside before going to bed. Looking across ye Pondyard [the former name of the Garden] - it was a fine, moonlight night - I saw ye Figure of a Man, I knew not whom, stand in a long black coat, under ye Terrace, just where ye Caslamon [?] Bushes grow thickly. He seemed to hold something white in his hand, and to consider it attentively. I wondered very much at this, but believing it to be a falling Shadow of a Tree or what not, I thought no more of it at that time."

Then follow several brief entries such as "Saw ye Man again, as fixed as ever. I do not much like this."

The writer seems to have become somewhat anxious about the sight, and to have consulted one of his friends.

"Got Gibbs to look with me at ye Figure, which I saw plain enough, and asked him if he saw anything. He said 'Nothing that I can see,' and looked at me so strangely that I begged him to promise to say nothing of it. I wish I had not spoken with him, for he chatters. He said he would not speak of it."

The sight of the figure seems to have affected the writer's spirits, and he began to consider it in some way as a warning sent to him. A long entry of rather morbid self-examination follows. Then there comes a statement connecting the pages with the Psychomachia.

"Got ye Psych. out of ye library and read much in it. God deliver me, how troubled I am."

A night or two later he took a decisive step.

"Begged ye key of ye Terrace from old Rigg, and though much afraid, walked to ye place, & saw what amazed me strangely. The man was there, but ye Blackness of his Cloathes seemed to be dispersed as I approached. Yet I saw what he held in his hand, and it was a small white Bone. Coming closer, I saw a horrid sight, which vexes me extreamly to remember. A face, very pale, with holes where eyes and mouth should be, hung in ye air. Yet on coming quite close, it was gone of a sudden."

Then follows a curious entry:

"Came to-day on some strange writing in ye Psych., ye Footsteps, it seemed, of one who had been before me. In one place was 'Feci. Kal. Mart. Jno. Naylor', at another 'Computavi et feci'. But what displeased me most was to find a note about ye Bone, which is too ill to set down here."

The last reference no doubt is to a disgusting form of incantation which may be found in a foot note on p.342 of the Psychomachia. The writer made up his mind to consult the Tutor of the College.

"I went to Dr Summers, and with much discomfort told him of ye sight. He was kind and cheerful, and advised me against Suppers and Smoaking, and to less reading. Then I asked him if there was ever a Master of ye College called Naylor; at which he turned and looked very oddly upon me for a minute, holding a Book in his hand, and answered to my surprise that he would ask ye Master, which seemed to me no answer."

He appears to have prosecuted further enquiries.

"To-day as I cd perform no work, I talked with old Rigg about Mr Naylor. He was not a Fellow, but a Member who lived in ye College and was much given to study. He dyed by ye Terrace, having fallen in a Fitt. There was much ado to prevent an Inquest, yet was it prevented."

Then follows:

"Ye Master sent for me and advised me not to studdy so late. He said no more, but seemed vexed."

The end of the story is not complete. The writer seems to have got entirely unhinged by his experience, and to have become able to discern the figure, even on dark nights. "The Bone seemed to burn with a lowish light, and to send out sparks."

He finally consulted a Parson, unnamed, who lived in the town, perhaps the incumbent of St Giles. "Told ye Parson all ye story and he said he could deliver me."

"We went together to ye Copped-Hall Field, and so through ye Gate to ye Terrace, where he left me, bidding me to fall to prayer. Then he went forwards, and I heard him speak in a loud voice, when I was suddenly delivered from my Fear, God be praised! He came back pale and trembling, and I noticed that he sweated much. Later he had me to ye Parsonage, where I spoke freely to him, and purpose to amend. He told me that it was a sore Business, and that this kind went not out but by..."

The MS ends at this point. It is hopeless to conjecture with any certainty what the facts are. There is the recorded burial of a Mr Naylor in the St Giles' Register "of Magdalen Coll. M.A.". But whether the writer of the diary, who was evidently an undergraduate, had been prosecuting studies into occult matters, before the apparition occurred, what the 'ill news' were, whether the sight was a mere figment of his imagination, or whether it was a species of psychical obsession, it is impossible to say. I confess that the brevity and simplicity of the entries gives the story a strong sense of verisimilitude, and it is perhaps just as well that it is impossible to investigate the matter further. I remember that I myself, after finishing the pages, was seized with a sort of horror at the whole business. I did just turn a few further leaves of the Psychomachia, and saw a few more of Mr Naylor's neat annotations; though it seemed to me that as the book went on a kind of agitation crept into the notes, both in their substance and in their calligraphy. Beyond that I could not go; and what is become of the old volume I do not care to enquire. I replaced it in its dusty corner beneath the window, shutting the MS in among the pages. I should like to have destroyed the record and the book as well, and I hope with all my heart that someone at once more sensible and independent than myself may have lighted on it all and committed book and diary alike to the cleansing fire!

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