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).
Dick Bramwell had just arrived at Magdalene as a freshman, and had been directed by the porter to his rooms in Staircase G, on the right side of the front court. He had not been able to take any steps about furnishing, as he had only been offered a set in College by wire a day or two before, the tenant of which had unexpectedly decided not to return to Cambridge. It was a ground-floor set, not far from the street, with one high window looking toward the river, and one on the court. Without pictures, without any furniture but a dull-looking table and three hideous chairs, a damaged sofa, a faded and stained carpet and some sunburnt curtains, the room looked entirely slovenly and woe-begone. It smelt nasty and smoky too, and there was something, Dick thought, unfriendly and even sinister about it. He did not like it at all, and even wished he had stuck to his lodgings.
As he stood surveying the room with a growing disgust, a loud and voluble voice behind him said, "Yes, you may well be surprised, sir - Mr Bramwell, I believe - which I can see without asking that you're not pleased, and it didn't ought to look so." Dick turned round, and saw a large, cheerful elderly lady with a bonnet, standing before him with a broom in her hand. "Mrs Humphrey, sir, your bedmaker," she said with a pleasant smile, and continued with great gusto, "Yes, it's a pore room to look at now, and well it may be called so; but it ain't a bad room to live in, as it's been in my work for thirty years, and gentlemen get to like the set, as it's always cheerful from the look-out, and never neither too hot nor too cold. You'll like it well enough, sir, with a few pictures and that, and some pleasant company."
Mrs Humphrey, called Mother Hump from time immemorial, bustled about the room, showing off its conveniences. Dick felt an immediate liking for the pleasant old dame, with her loud inconsequent, rambling talk. A curious recess met his eye in the corner of the room. It looked like a small fireplace, except that it had been bricked up and painted, and it had a trace of Tudor carving in the stone spandrels, which gave it the appearance of being the top of a door, if it only had not been but a couple of feet above the floor of the room. It was a curious object, and Dick whose observation was of the keenest, halted before it. "What on earth is that for?" he said. "Oh, sir, it ain't of no concern that," said Mrs Humphrey, "it was a door, may be, for the old monks as they say lived here once, in their Cathedral or what not - but it's been a Christian room for many years now, thank God!" Mrs Humphrey was evidently a sound Protestant. "What were the monks doing here?" Dick said. "Well may you ask, sir," said Mrs Humphrey, "and it seems to me a pity they were ever allowed in the College - but here they were, Mr Simpson tell me - he's the Bursar, sir, a nice gentleman - conjuring and thieving and that, and worshipping heathen images between whiles, I make no doubt!" Mrs Humphrey's views of history seemed likely to be interesting, Dick thought, but before he could enquire further, Mrs Humphrey was showing him a convenient cupboard, which she assured him was free from mice "which is ever a plague in College rooms, sir, do what you will. Now there's Mrs Bradley, sir, she's bedmaker on staircase Q, and she's a one to talk wild, if ever; she tell me only yesterday that her mice had a wonderful taste for malted liquor, and I only laugh and tell her that my mice had but a taste for groceries, and for all that a mouse might by nature desire. But malted liquor!" And Mrs Humphrey laughed a hollow laugh of derision. "I thought in my mind, though I kep' it back, that it'd be a mouse in Christian petticoats that went after malted liquor - though to be sure it ain't 'ardly delicate for me to relude before a young gentleman to an article of female wear!"
Dick burst into a loud laugh, and Mrs Humphrey smiled approvingly. She liked to have her sallies enjoyed. "That's right, sir," she said. "Now you and me'll get to work on these rooms, and we'll soon have you as neat as a ninepin!"
Dick Bramwell knew two or three men in the College, but they were not back yet - he had come up a day or two early to get straight. He unpacked, he went to report himself to the Tutor, he dined in Hall with half-a-dozen silent and desperately polite freshmen; and he spent the evening rather ruefully in his bare room, writing a letter or two and reading a book. But somehow he did not like the room. What was it? He could not tell. It was sombre and grim. He heard vehicles go past in the street, and the room shook with the passage of waggons; people clattered through the court, and he heard odd scraps of talk. But he found his eyes persistently dwelling on the little recess with its carved corners, much obliterated with old coats of paint. It seemed as if something must be inside it, bricked up, immured, forgotten, but not wholly forgetful. It looked rather a wicked little door, he thought. He would cover it all up somehow, put a table in front of it. And as he sate reading, looking about, wondering what it was all going to be like, the little recess seemed to watch him too with a secret air of disapproval.
Dick soon settled down at Magdalene, and the sense of loneliness and strangeness wore away very quickly. He found that the freshmen were not either so silent or so polite as he had fancied. His friends of the second and third years were glad to see him, and he was soon very much at home. He was a simple-minded and cheerful young man, with no fancies or prejudices, and prepared to take people as they came; he was neither embarrassed nor superior, but fell into line at once. He had made a very different place out of his rooms, with pictures, arm-chairs, books and ornaments, and people took to dropping in a good deal, for Dick was never inconveniently busy. But he could not quite get over his dislike of the room, though he found that he became entirely oblivious of the noise of the street. The little doorway continued to be unpleasant to him. There was not room to put a table in front of it, so he nailed a curtain over it; but he found that he had a curious dislike to sitting with his back to it, a sense as if someone or something might look out of it, even lean over him. It was all right when other people were there; but if he had been sitting with his back to the recess all the evening, when he was left alone, he always took a chair opposite it. He thought at one time of having it opened, but it was evidently carefully built up, and it seemed likely to be a troublesome job to hack the brickwork away. Neither, he found, did he quite like to speak about it.
One evening he had been sitting and talking with half-a-dozen friends. They melted away, and he was left alone. He was sitting smoking and reading in a low chair opposite the recess; it was a chilly evening and the fire was a little low. He got up to poke it, and put a bit of coal on. He laid his pipe down on the chimney-piece, when out of the corner of his eye he suddenly saw something run out of the recess and across the room. It was a very curious object, so far as he could make it out - but the light was dim, and it was gone before he could fix it. It looked about the size of a hare, and it seemed to him to have long ears; it did not run on all-fours, but on its hind-legs, with its fore-paws stretched out in front of it. It flitted quickly across the room and vanished in the shade. To say that he was surprised would be a very mild expression to represent his feelings. He was startled, horrified, almost sickened. The creature had the look of escaping from captivity. He stood staring after it for a moment, and then he had a wild impulse to rush out and find someone; but he did not know what he could say to explain himself. Then he pulled himself together, and decided that it must be a cat, which had got in from the garden. He took the poker in his hand and made a thorough examination of the room. He thrust the poker under the sofa, he turned up the table-cloth, he beat the room out, but there was no trace of any living thing - and then he saw that the window on the garden was closed. He did the same with his bedroom, but in a few minutes it was clear to him that there was nothing there. At last he decided that he must have been mistaken, and went to bed. But he could not sleep; he read, he tossed about, and he could not bring himself to extinguish the light, while all the time he kept his glance apprehensively fixed on the door into his sitting-room. But sleep intervened; and he woke at last with a start, to find his candle burnt out, and to hear the welcome sound of Mrs Humphrey clattering the fire-irons. With the morning light his confidence returned to him, and he called himself a silly ass with deep conviction.
However, when Mrs Humphrey came to take away the breakfast things, he felt an irresistible impulse to speak to her. "Mrs Humphrey," he said standing before the fire," I want to ask you a question. Don't think it ridiculous, but I want to know..."
"Ah," interrupted Mrs Humphrey, "I know what you are going to say, sir, without talking. I saw in a minute when I come in that something had happened... I said, 'Mr Bramwell ain't had a good night, and he's hurt in his mind'; I said so, sure enough."
Dick smiled uneasily, "Well, then, if you know about it, Mrs Humphrey," he said, "I needn't tell you - but you shall tell me what you think."
"I suppose then, sir," said Mrs Humphrey, "that you seen what they call the Hare - well, and what if you have, sir? It don't do no harm, that little thing, sir. I see it myself half-a-dozen times, and some of my gentlemen have seen it too - but it ain't a thing to talk about, if I may be bold to advise. I tell the Bursar about it once, sir, and he said it was stupid nonsense, and so I hold my tongue and mind my business. But it's there, sure enough! And it's my rule, sir, not to talk about things what I don't understand, because if you do, why other folks get jerking up their arm and talking about the whiskey bottle and that. But there ain't a soberer woman than myself in the place, sir, and yet I see the Hare plain enough. Now, Mr Makins, that's my last gentleman but one, he see the Hare, and he never touched no form of strong drink. But it never done no harm, sir, that I heard of. It just do skip out, once in a while."
"But what it is?" said Dick.
"Well, in my mind, sir," said Mrs Humphrey, "it's some conjuring of the old monks, drat 'em! They never should have been let into the College, I say - there was the mistake!"
"But I don't like it," said Dick.
"Well, it did give me a start, sir," said Mrs Humphrey. "But I look at it like this. Let it 'ave its run, pore thing, if it 'as a mind to. It won't do right-thinking people any 'arm. Why, I take no more notice of it than if it were poultry."
"Well, I don't know," said Dick. "It makes me feel rather queer. I think I shall tell the Tutor about it."
"You take my advice, sir," said Mrs Humphrey, "and say nothing about it - it makes people think you are queer in your head, if you say you seen a Hare in your room at midnight, with the door sported. They don't come about College rooms much, don't Hares! Mark my words, sir, it ain't going to do you no harm; what'll do you harm is if you get brooding about it and talking of it. There are many queer things about, and this is one of them. The less said the better, says I!"
"You're quite right, Mrs Humphrey," said Dick. "I won't say anything about it. And now that I know that you have seen it and other people have seen it, I don't care a rap."
"It's numbers as does it!" said Mrs Humphrey. "But if we let the pore thing alone, it'll let us alone. It's prying into things as does the 'arm."
The matter of the Hare slowly faded from Dick's mind as the weeks went on, and the more he thought about it all, the wiser it seemed to hold his tongue. Also the fact that there were others who had seen the little apparition gave him much comfort, especially when one of these was the robust and cheerful Mother Hump. It would have depressed him to think that he was exceptional in the matter, and exposed to psychical experience. Dick took a very straightforward and concrete view of life, and had no curiosity whatever about the Borderland. Moreover, the oppressive atmosphere of the room seemed to have been cleared away by the vision.
However, some four weeks later, the sense of tension began again quite suddenly, and in a new form. He could hardly have put the feeling into words, but it was as though someone, he could not tell where or how, was waiting for an opportunity to communicate with him. He saw and heard nothing; but when he was alone, there was a sense of some entreaty in the air. This did not exactly frighten him, but rather aroused a feeling of adventurous expectation. There was no hint of ill-will about it, but more as if someone or something was attempting to familiarise him with its presence. It hardly interrupted him in his work; and if he could have made a comparison, it was almost as though there were a friendly dog in the room, not intrusive, but hoping to be summoned for a walk.
One day this was very strong indeed; so strong that, as he sate in his room alone and late at night, he raised his head quickly once or twice as if some acquaintance had drawn near. When he went to bed it was stronger than ever; and though he did not put his feelings into words, he went to sleep with a half-formed invitation in his mind - as though he had said "Well, tell me if you can, and whatever you can?" It was like a little surrender of his will to an insistent influence which he had learned not to mistrust. At some dumb hour, late in the night, he awoke with a start, with the impression of a very vivid dream upon him.
He had seen a large room, sparely furnished, with a heavy roof of wooden beams and white-washed walls. There were seats along the walls, and dark figures seated; but this was all a very faintly perceived background. His attention had been riveted on a particular group. An old man, in a loose dark robe, clean-shaven and ascetic-looking, with an air of some nobleness, but as if deeply perplexed and anxious, sate at a table, leaning back in a chair, with his hands clasping the arms of it; on each side of him sate two others similarly attired; and he knew from their shaven scalps that they were monks. Immediately opposite the three, on the other side of the table, stood a figure which absorbed the interest and compassion of Dick. He was a young man, hardly more than a boy, with beautiful features, but indicating by the open lips, the dark shadows under the eyes, the pallor of the whole face, that he was labouring under a sensation of deep anxiety and terror. But what most surprised and struck Dick was that he held clasped in his arm a hare, evidently very tame. Its fore-paws were resting on the boy's arm, its ears were pricked up, and it was regarding the old man in the centre with wide-open hazel eyes. Presently the old man began to speak in a low, severe and yet regretful tone. What he said was hardly intelligible to Dick, but it appeared to be the announcement of some decision. When it was finished, the boy said some hurried sentences, which seemed to be an explanation and a plea of some kind. But presently the old man shook his head, and looked first to one and then to the other of the men who sate beside him. One of them frowned and shook his head, and the other laid his hand on a paper which lay on the table, and said a few words.
Then two of the dark figures in the background came forward and stood beside the table; and presently, at a sign given, they came close to the boy, who bowed low to the three seated figures, and was then led away, his guides bowing similarly. They left the room; when the old man, who had given the decision, rose up, and made a sign; and the whole assembly fell on their knees. Some sentences were said and responses made; but they all remained kneeling in silence, till at last the two guides came back, but without the boy, made a short statement, and then the whole assembly silently dispersed.
Dick had a sense that something very solemn and dreadful had happened. The emotion of the whole company was evidently profound, as of men who, in spite of natural compassion, had felt obliged to carry out some stern decree; indeed, Dick had no doubt that the death of the boy was involved, rather than any lesser punishment.
He woke with a sense of deep depression and anxiety, and at the same time became aware that his presence was needed in the next room. He lit a candle, and holding it high over his head hurried into the room, which stood quiet, just as he had left it. He fixed his eyes upon the little recess, and as he did so, in a moment, the figure of the hare appeared. But instead of moving across the floor, it stopped, sate down just by the recess, and Dick became aware that its yellow eyes were turned upon him. Then for the briefest instant a cloudy figure appeared standing by it. There was no question of recognition; indeed, he never saw the figure clearly enough for that; but he had no sort of doubt in his mind that it was the boy of his dream. The figure outlined itself very faintly on the air like a reflection in a dim glass; he saw a hand outstretched, a youthful hand, pointing to the recess; and then followed the strangest sound he had ever heard, thin and faint and infinitely remote - no word audible, just a cry of poignant entreaty, and then both the figures faded slowly from his view.
To his amazement Dick found himself hardly terrified; he had one moment of intolerable awe, as though his body rebelled against being confronted with a presence so incorporeal; but there followed a sense of entire reassurance, and a clear knowledge as to what was demanded of him. He made his way back to bed; while so strong and secure was his belief that the purpose of the secret visitant had been made clear, that soon after he got into bed he fell asleep quietly, and slept undisturbed until the morning.
The next morning Dick went to work with a will. He went round to the shop of the decorator who had done up his rooms for him, and he arranged for a bricklayer to be sent into College that very afternoon, saying that he wanted to have an alteration made. When the man arrived, Dick sported the outer door and instructed him to pierce the wall of the recess. It proved to have been filled with brick-work and plastered over, and he noticed that a curious device, like a five-pointed star, had been scratched deep on the plaster. Some boards of the floor had to be taken up, as the recess went down beneath the flooring. This was soon done and the bricks were disengaged. A dark little passage appeared, leading into the wall, with a close and musty smell. Dick then sent the man away for a quarter of an hour, flashed a ray of light from his reading-lamp into the recess, procured a broom and a shovel, and cleared out the contents of the passage. It was mostly dust of a fine white kind. But among the dust he could discern some bones, both entire and in fragments, and also some teeth. He put the whole mass into a box, and then when the man returned, the wall was built up again and plastered over, and the curtain replaced. Dick heard several people come to his door and go away; but the whole was finished by Hall-time, and he went into Hall with an extraordinary sense of relief. He spent the evening in a friend's rooms, but late at night, when he returned to his own room, he filled up the spaces of the box, above the dust and bones, with straw and paper, fastened it all securely and went to bed, where he spent the first entirely tranquil night that he had for some time enjoyed.
A few days later the term came to an end, and Dick went home, taking the box with him. The Vicar of the country parish where Dick lived was an old friend of his family, John Marsh by name, and Dick had known him ever since he was a boy. The Vicar was a considerable antiquarian, and he was further a very kindly and sensible man. Dick went to see him, and told him that he had found in his rooms at Magdalene some things which he did not understand, and asked if he might show them to him. The Vicar wanted to know some particulars, but Dick said that he would like him to look at the things first. He carried the box with him, and presently the whole contents were turned out on some newspapers on the Vicar's huge oak table, which was cleared for the purpose. The Vicar began poking and prodding among the dust. "H'm," he said, "bones - yes human bones! teeth, I see - yes, teeth of a young man or woman, age about twenty or a little less. Hullo, what is this? H'm, teeth of some small rodent, a rabbit, I think. No, too big for that! A hare, I expect. Ah, a horn button, a bit of cord, some fragments of frieze or serge. What on earth is this?" He drew from the fragments a rough metal crucifix. "Very interesting that!" he said. "Early fifteenth century, I should say - beads! - yes, probably attached to the crucifix - well, that seems to be all!" He turned and looked at Dick through his spectacles. "A queer find!" he said. "I should say it was some monk, to judge from what remains - a young monk. But I'm blessed if I know how the hare comes in. He can't have swallowed it whole, hey? In that case, probably the cause of death! You know we ought to have a coroner's inquest over all this!"
Dick thereupon told him the whole story from first to last. The Vicar heard him with amazement. He asked a few questions, and then he said, "Now does anyone know about this?" "Not a soul," said Dick. "Very well," said the Vicar, "that was very sensible of you! I'll think it all over; and look here; I'll just get the sexton to dig a hole in the churchyard, and I'll put the bones and dust away - perhaps say a few prayers when no one is looking. If the young fellow has had Christian burial already it won't matter - but I very much doubt it!" Presently the Vicar said, "What about the crucifix, by the way, and the cord and button?" "Oh, you keep them," said Dick. The Vicar beamed with delight, the instinct of the collector rising to the surface. "Are you sure, my dear boy, that you wouldn't prefer to keep them?" "Not I," said Dick with a shudder. "Well, that's very kind," said the Vicar. "I'll think it all over - very interesting problem! But mind, Dick" - he held up a warning finger, "No more dreams and visions!"
Dick heard no more about it, except that the Vicar one day after Church walked with him round the Churchyard, and pointed to a little heap of earth in a quiet corner, by a yew-tree. "There he lies," he said, "all that is mortal of him! Poor fellow! Well, it's over and done with now!" But a few days after Dick got back to Magdalene, the Vicar wrote to him as follows:
Jan. 20, 18--
I have ferreted it all out, and it is pretty bad, I think. Just read the enclosed, which I have translated from the Croyland Register, some fragments of which are preserved. It's disgraceful Latin, and you wouldn't be able to construe it. It's only a fragment, and it belongs to the middle of the 15th century or thereabouts:
"...great and heavy trouble among the novices, Brother Paul, much beloved, and of whom much was hoped, being grievously drawn away by Satan into magical practices and devices hated of God. The Lord Abbot himself went thither to examine and enquire into the matter. Testimony there was little, but many heinous things were alleged; and this was at least certain, that an evil spirit resorted to him in the shape of a hare, that was seen to have a devilish craft and wit surpassing the wit of hares, which are silly creatures, it is well-known. Being much exhorted to make confession, he was dumb and stubborn, and when holy relics were applied to him, he was much oppressed and astonished, and the hare itself spake in a human voice, and said, 'I am Sycorax the accursed'. And when all this had been done and observed evidently, the Lord Abbot condemned him for his soul's health to be immured alive, as the law is, for the practice of magical arts; which was done presently, with great fear and trembling, and to the glory of Mother Church. And the Lord Abbot made charge that no one to whom the place of his death was known should reveal it under pain of excommunication. So that it is said of him, as it was said of the Prophet Moses, that no man knoweth of his sepulchre..."
That is the whole passage, and I leave it to you to draw your conclusions; it gives me a turn to think of it - but we have done the best we can.
Believe me, dear Dick, your affectionate old friend.
Dick sate musing over the letter when a voice broke in upon his reverie. "Excuse me, sir," said Mrs Humphrey, "but I seen what you 'ad a-done to the wall there. I know I ought to tell the Bursar, but I shall hold my tongue, you may be sure; and the air does seem a bit fresher after all; and I seem to know in myself that the pore creature won't be seen no more. Let it rest, I say! If ever there was a Hare that 'ad a secret on its little mind, it was that! And I make so bold as to thank you, sir, for having done what was right and proper; and for having given them old monks a set-back, in a manner of speaking." And Mrs Humphrey gave a short laugh of satisfaction, and went her way.
back to top
back to Ghosts & Scholars Archive
back to Ghosts & Scholars Home Page
Bar by Syruss