The Stone Coffin

by 'B'

This neat little story, set in Magdalene College, Cambridge, is firmly in the tradition of M.R. James. It was published in the December 1913 edition of the Magdalene College Magazine, where it was simply signed 'B'. The mystery of 'B's' identity remains unsolved, although it must have been known to M.R. James, for a proof copy of the story exists among his papers at King's College. The most likely candidate seems to be A.C. Benson, who had close connections with Magdalene and became Master of the College in 1915. However, "The Stone Coffin" is not written in his usual style, and the author may yet prove to have been someone else entirely. Five other supernatural tales by the mysterious 'B' have been collected together and published under the title When the Door is Shut, and other ghost stories (Haunted Library, 1986). [All of the 'B' stories can be found in the G&S Archive]

~ 1 ~

The year was 1754, the month October. The Chapel at Magdalene had been undergoing renovation all the summer, at the hands of the ingenious Mr Collins, of Clare Hall - indeed, since the beginning of the Easter Term the College services had been held in St Giles' Church adjacent.

~ 2 ~

Mr Dobree the Bursar, a big bluff man, was pacing in the Court in the autumn sunshine. Some workmen were carrying planks and poles out of the doorway of the Chapel staircase. The Bursar's companion, a little meagre figure in rusty black, peering about him through big horn spectacles, was Mr Janeway, the President of the College. Presently they went in at the Chapel door, and stood regarding the building. "Dear now!" said Mr Janeway, staring about him, "I hardly see where I am! A great change, no doubt! But it is a chaste design!"

It certainly was a change! but out of a Gothic building with an open roof, much as we see it now, the ingenious Mr Collins had made a place more like, one would have said, the dining-room of a Roman consul than a Christian church. The roof was cut off by a flat plaster ceiling, heavily ornamented. A classical arch spanned the sanctuary, and the East window was obliterated by a columned piece of statuary. The floor was elegantly paved with black and white marble.

Mr Dobree looked complacently about him. "It is not such a change to my eyes," he said, "Because I have watched the work from the beginning. It seems to me a very respectable place!"

"And pray what does the Master(*) think of it all?" said Mr Janeway.

"That I cannot tell," said Mr Dobree rather curtly. "Has he seen the progress of the work?" said Mr Janeway.

"The Master," said Mr Dobree, "Has been, to my knowledge, twice in the chapel since the work began. He ran in once without his wig, in a greasy cassock, and spoke rudely to the workmen about the noise they made - as if such work could be done in silence! He was disturbed at his accounts, he said. Once again he met Mr Collins in the chapel, when the carved piece over the table was up. He said to Mr Collins that he was given to understand that the figures were those of saints and angels, but that they appeared to him to be something much more indelicate. Then he laughed, and said he supposed it was the effect of the plaster work, at which Mr Collins was greatly mortified. But so long as he can find fault and has nothing to pay, the College may go hang for him. He has gotten a Prebend of Durham, they say, by interest, this last week, and that is all he cares for."

"Tut, tut" said Mr Janeway soothingly.

"Now," said Mr Dobree, striding up the chapel. "Come hither with me, and I will relate to you a curiosity. About six weeks ago the workmen were laying the floor, and one came to me and said they had found somewhat. It was hereabouts, by this step." He stamped on the pavement, and then continued, "When I came in, they had uncovered and broken in pieces the lid of a stone coffin just here, and I bade them take the bits out. I tell you it was a strange sight underneath! There lay a man, his head in a niche made for it in the stone, robed from head to foot in an embroidered robe, of the colour of a butterfly - one of the orange-brown ones that you may see sitting on summer flowers - with figures and patterns inwrought. The flesh was all perished, and the skull, with its dark eye-holes, stared very dismally out, with something like hair atop of it. I doubt he had lain there since monkish days, and it displeased me very much. I stooped down and picked at the robe, and it all came away in my hands, falling to dust, leaving but a few coloured threads. The bones had mouldered too, all but the thigh-bones, and they were brittle. 'Come,' said I, 'the less we look on this the better!' So I took a besom in my hand and swept the whole carcase, bones and dust and robe and all, to one end of the coffin; and it made but a little heap there. I prodded the skull out of its niche, and that all came to dust too. But while I brushed, I heard a tinkling, and I picked out of the mess a little cup and platter of some metal, very dark, and a big ring with a blue stone - all very Popish and disgraceful to my eyes. I have them in my chamber, and I shall send them to Mr Gray, at Pembroke Hall, who cares about such oddities. Then I had the coffin broken up, and carried to the stonemasons' yard, and dropt all the dust into the hole thus made, saw that they put soil on the place and battered it well down. A good riddance, I think!"

"Dear now!" said Mr Janeway, musing. "That is a strange story - a very strange story! But, Mr Dobree, if you will pardon me, I do not like your action very well. It seems to me that the man, whoever he was, was piously bestowed here, and had a right to his rest - so it appears to me, but I speak under correction!"

"Pish!" said Mr Dobree. "Here's a pother about a parcel of old Popish bones! I am one who hold by the glorious Reformation, and I would cleanse the temple of all such recusants, if I had my choice. Why, the thought of that ugly figure, under my feet, would have made me very squeamish at my prayers. I wonder at you, Mr Janeway, indeed I do!"

"Well, well," said Mr Janeway, "There are many opinions; but I cannot like the business. May be he was a holy man, even if he died in sad error. I doubt if he could have known better."

"A sincere study of the Word would have shown him his abominations," said Mr Dobree. "I am a Protestant, born and bred, and I have no patience with old mummeries."

Mr Janeway sighed and said no more, and presently they went away.

~ 3 ~

It might have been a week later that Mr Dobree awoke suddenly at night in his room, which was in the right-hand corner of the first Court, as you come in by the gate, on the ground floor. He awoke half in terror and half in anger, troubled by a dream, and thought that he heard someone moving very softly about his room; which was lighted only by a little high window in a deep recess that looked out towards the river, on to what was then a little street or lane of houses, running parallel to the College. The window was bare of any curtain, and Mr Dobree thought that he saw a very faint figure cross the glimmering panes, it being bright moonlight without.

Mr Dobree was as bold as a lion. He sate up in bed and shouted out in his great voice, EH, WHAT? HOLLA-HO! WHO IS THAT? EH, WHAT DID YOU SAY? WHAT DO YOU THERE, SIRRAH?

His voice reverberated in the little bare room, and died away, leaving a shocking silence. Nothing moved or spoke. He felt for his tinder-box and made a light, and then jumping out of bed, in nightcap and nightgown, looked about everywhere, first in his bedroom, then through his two keeping-rooms, and even in his cupboards, but he saw no sign of anything living. After some time he went back to bed, but not to sleep. He was angry with himself for being afraid, and half suspected a trick; but his door was firmly latched, and no one seemed to have come in that way, while the windows into the court were safely shuttered.

In the morning, after a draught of small beer, which he used for his breakfast, and when he had made his toilet, he felt better; but for all that he wished for company, and made his way to Mr Janeway's rooms in the second Court as soon as might be. He found Mr Janeway reading in a book, with coffee beside him, and sitting down he told him his adventure rather shamefacedly. Mr Janeway nodded his head and said very little, save this, that he too, when his stomach was at all disordered, suffered from disturbing dreams. "A little sick fancy, no doubt!" he added comfortably.

"It may be!" said Mr Dobree moodily; "But I think there was someone with me in the room. Yet what sticks even more in my mind was a dream I had dreamed, which I cannot fully recall."

"What was it like?" said Mr Janeway.

"What was it?" said Mr Dobree; "That I cannot quite tell - but it was an ill dream. I was in a dull place, methought between buildings. They were buildings, I believe; and a dark sort of thing poked its head out in front of me in an ugly way. It seems to me now that it had on a parti-coloured robe, of black or white, or both - like a gown, and like a surplice. There was something drawn over the head of it; and the face was very white; now, as I think of it, I believe it had no eyes; it said something to me, which still sounds in my ears like Latin, in a very low voice; and it seemed to be angry - Yes, Sir, it was angry, was that person!"

"Dear now!" said Mr Janeway, looking over his glasses at Mr Dobree, "That's a bad story and a confused story! Is it your way to dream like that, Mr Dobree? It seems to me a dark affair."

"Why, Sir!" said Mr Dobree with a sudden anger, "It appears to me that you are but very poor company this morning! I come to my old friend to be made cheer with, and you can only shake your head and look dismal. This is not friendly, Sir! You are not speaking your mind!"

"Nay, Sir," said Mr Janeway, "Be not so peevish! There is something that presses upon my spirits, since you spoke your dream, and I am grown very heavy. You must think no more of it, Sir. It was but a touch of vapours, such as comes to us lonely men, as we get older and more solitary."

Mr Dobree got up, shaking his head and looking very sullen, and marched off without a word. He went about his business as usual, but found himself day by day in a disordered mood. He ate little and spoke not at all, though he had been ever ready with his tongue. He slept brokenly; and presently as he sate alone in his room, he began to hear whispers in his ear, or he would think that he was called; and his brother Fellows began to be concerned about him, wondering why he peered so often into the corners of the room, and why he wheeled round so sharply in the street to look behind him as he walked alone.

~ 4 ~

It was a very wet and dull afternoon at the end of November, and Mr Dobree had sate all day indoors. Just about dusk he remembered that he had a word to say to the stonemason who worked for the College, about some tiling on the roof. He went out of his rooms and found the whole place very still, with a light rain falling. He walked out of the gate, and turned to the left at once, down the lane that ran close by the College, the stonemason's yard being at the end of it, by the water's edge.

When he got there he found the mason with a lantern in his hand looking about among some piled-up stones in the yard. Mr Dobree went to speak to him, and broke off in the middle. He felt very much displeased to see what was evidently the head-piece of the old stone coffin lying on the ground. "How comes that there?" he said with a sudden sharpness. "Why, Sir," said the mason "You ordered me to take it and break it all up, and it has lain there ever since." "What is that which lies inside it?" said Mr Dobree in a loud voice. The mason turned his lantern on the piece. It was roughly worked, the strokes of the chisel being visible where the head had lain, and it was pierced with a hole, the use of which Mr Dobree did not like to guess. "There is nothing here!" said the mason. "No," said Mr Dobree, "There is not - I see plainly now. I was dazzled - It was but the shadow. Yet I certainly thought..." He broke off, turned on his heel and went away, the business being still unsettled. The mason stood, lantern in hand, watching him as he marched out of the yard. Then he shook his head, and went into the house.

A moment later Mr Dobree was hurrying up the lane. It was very dark, and the rain kept all men at home. On his right, the wall of the College towered up in the misty air, and he could see a few lighted windows, very high above. The houses on his left seemed all dark and comfortless. He went on until he was close outside his own rooms, which lay next the street.

Suddenly out of the window of his own bedroom, just above him, not a yard away, there came with a silent haste the head and shoulders of a man, wrapped up, it seemed to Mr Dobree, in a parti-coloured robe, black and white, with a hood over the face, but the face itself was visible, a dead yellow-white, like baked clay, with holes for eyes. There came a faint, thin voice upon the air, and words that sounded in Mr Dobree's agonised ears like "Quare inquietasti me ut suscitarer?"(**) But Mr Dobree heard no more. He fell all his length in the wet road, and presently turned over on his back, where they afterwards found him, still looking upwards.


(*) (Author's Note) Dr Chapman.

(**) A quote from the Vulgate, 1 Samuel 28, v.15 - given in the King James Bible as: "Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?". This is what the ghost of Samuel says to King Saul after it has been raised by the Witch of Endor. (RAP)


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