A chilling tale by Victorian writer MR James, read by Christopher Lee. A fearful tale of intrigue, murder and the haunted Stalls of Barchester.
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Imagine, if you will,
Kings College, Cambridge, almost 100 years ago.
Every Christmas Eve has its ritual.
Those invited make their way for the appointed time...
..out of the darkness, while the master waits.
Montague Rhodes James, provost of Kings, scholar,
and writer of ghost stories.
Recently, I was cataloguing the manuscripts of the library of a Cambridge college.
I reached the end of the numbered volumes and asked the librarian
if there were more papers which I ought to include.
There was a tin box which was pulled out and dusted.
Its label was faded
and on it was inscribed, "Papers of the venerable Archdeacon Haynes,
"bequeathed in 1834 by his sister, Miss Letitia Haynes."
I knew the name. I'd read his obituary in a gentleman's magazine.
Archdeacon Haynes... came to a very odd end at Barchester.
already a mature man,
moved to Barchester with his sister in the year 1810.
The office of archdeacon had long been the object of his wishes, but his predecessor, Pulteney,
refused to depart until he had attained the age of 92.
A week after the celebrations of that 92nd birthday,
Dr Haynes hurried cheerfully into his breakfast room, rubbing his hands, humming a tune.
He was greeted by the sight of his sister, seated behind the tea urn,
bowed forward and sobbing unrestrainedly into her handkerchief.
"What is the matter? What bad news?" he began.
"Oh, Johnny, you haven't heard. The poor, dear archdeacon."
"The archdeacon? Yes?
"What is it? Ill, is he?"
"Oh, no, no. They found him
"on the staircase this morning. It is so shocking."
"Is this possible? Dear, dear!
"Did he have a seizure?"
"They don't think so," said Miss Haynes.
"That's the worst thing about it. It seems to have been the fault of that stupid maid of theirs, Jane."
Dr Haynes paused.
"I don't quite understand, Letitia.
"How was the maid at fault?"
"As far as I can make out," Miss Haynes said, "there was a stair rod missing and she never mentioned it.
"The poor archdeacon set his foot quite on the edge of the step - you know how slippery that oak is.
"Oh, it seems he must have fallen almost the whole flight
"and broken his neck."
After standing in silence for some minutes, Dr Haynes left the room,
and didn't appear again that morning.
I need only add that the careless maid-servant was dismissed forthwith,
but that the missing stair rod was very shortly afterwards found under the stair carpet.
Additional proof, if any were needed,
of extreme stupidity and carelessness on her part.
For a good many years, Dr Haynes had been marked out by his ability -
which, it seems, was considerable - as the likely successor of Pulteney,
and he wasn't to be disappointed.
He was duly installed
and zealously gave himself over to the responsibilities of his position.
Functions, as he discovered, sadly neglected by the late Archdeacon Pulteney.
Look in Haynes' journals,
he lists what Archdeacon Pulteney had failed to do -
dues uncollected for 12 years,
no visits for seven years,
four churches in disrepair.
His deputies nearly as incapable as himself.
In his correspondence, Haynes calculates that a period of three years will just suffice
to set the business of the archdeaconry upon a proper footing.
And so it proved.
He begins to take an interest in the fabric, the furniture, the music.
There is a draft of a letter to Sylvanus Urban,
which I do not think was ever sent,
describing the stalls in the choir.
"The prayer desk at the east end is carved with three small but remarkable statuettes
"in the grotesque manner.
"One is an exquisitely modelled figure of a cat.
"Opposite to this stands a shape, muffled in a long mantle.
"This might, at first sight, be mistaken for a monk or a friar,
"for the head is cowled and a knotted cord hangs down from the waist.
"A slight inspection, however, will lead to a very different conclusion.
"The knotted cord is quickly seen to be a halter,
"held by a hand all but concealed within the draperies,
"while the sunken features and, horrid to relate,
"the rent flesh upon the cheekbones proclaim the King of Terrors.
"These figures are evidently the production of no unskilled chisel."
"Some late researches among the Chapter accounts
"have shown me that the carving of the stalls was not, as was usually reported, the work of Dutch artists,
"but was executed by a native of this city or district named Austin.
"The timber was procured from an oak copse in the vicinity,
"the property of the dean and chapter known as Holywood."
Upon a recent visit to the parish,
Haynes writes, "I learned from an aged and respectable local
"some of the history of the oaks employed
"to furnish the cathedral with its stalls."
"One tree in particular, which stood near the centre of the grove,
"is remembered that it was known as the hanging oak."
"A quantity of human bones was found in the soil."
To return to his career, as it is to be gathered from his diaries,
those of his first three years of hard and careful work
show him throughout in high spirits and, doubtless, during this time,
that reputation for hospitality and urbanity which is mentioned in his obituary notice...was well deserved.
as time goes on, I see a shadow coming over him
destined to develop into utter blackness,
which I can only think must have been reflected in his outward demeanour.
He commits a good deal of his fears and troubles to his diary - there was no other outlet for them.
He was not married, and his sister was not always with him.
But I am much mistaken if he has told all that he might have told.
I shall give you gentlemen some extracts.
"August 30th 1816.
"The days begin to draw in more perceptively than ever.
"Now that the archdeaconry papers
"are reduced to order,
"I must find employment for the evening's hours of autumn and winter.
"It is a great blow
"that Letitia's health will not allow her to stay these months.
"Why not go on with my Defence of Episcopacy?
"It may be useful."
"Letitia has left me for Brighton."
"October 11th 1816.
"Candles lit in the choir for the first time at evening prayers.
"It came as a shock. I find that I absolutely...
"shrink from the dark season."
"November 17th 1816.
"During the Magnificat I was, I regret, almost overcome with sleep.
"My hand was resting on the back of the carved figure of a cat.
"It was the nearest figure to me. I was not aware of this.
"I was not looking in that direction
"until I was startled by what seemed a...
"softness...a feeling of rather rough and coarse fur,
"and sudden movement
"as if the creature were twisting round its head to bite me.
"The impression of the unpleasant feeling was so strong
"that I found myself rubbing my hand upon my surplice."
"December 6th 1816.
"I do, indeed, miss Letitia's company.
"The evenings after I've worked as long as I can at my...my...
"Defence of Episcopacy
"are very trying.
"This house is too large for a lonely man. Visitors are too rare.
"I get an uncomfortable impression, going to my room, that...
"there is...company of some kind.
"The fact is - I may as well formulate it to myself -
"I hear voices.
"This, I am well aware, is a symptom of incipient decay of the brain.
"Work, diligent work
"and punctual attention to duties that fall to me is my best remedy.
"I have little doubt that it will prove efficacious."
"January 15th 1817.
"I had occasion to come downstairs last night for my watch which I had inadvertently left on my table.
"I was on the last flight when I had an impression
"of a sharp whisper in my ear - 'Take...care!'
"I clutched the banister and naturally looked round.
"Of course, there was nothing.
"After a moment, I went on. But I had, as nearly as possible, fallen.
"A cat... A cat - a large one, by the feel of it -
"But, again, of course, I SAW nothing.
"It... It may have been the kitchen cat but...
"I do not think it was."
I digress to mention a document which, rightly or wrongly,
I believe to have a bearing on the thread of my story.
The account books of Dr Haynes show,
from a date a little later from that of his institution as archdeacon,
the quarterly payment of £25 to...JL.
Nothing could have been made of this had it stood by itself.
But I connect with it a very soiled and ill-written letter
which was in a pocket in the cover of a diary.
There's no date, no postmark, and deciphering is difficult.
It appears to run:
"Dear sir, I have been expecting to hear off you these last weeks
"and must suppose you have not got mine which was saying how me and my man had met bad times this season.
"All seems to go cross with us on the farm.
"Which way to look for the rent, we have no knowledge of it.
"This being the sad case with us,
"if you would have the great..." "liberality" probably, but the exact spelling defies reproduction,
"..to send £40, otherwise steps will have to be took which I should not wish.
"As you was the means of me
"losing my place with Dr Pulteney,
"I think it is only just what I am asking.
"And you know best what I could say if I was put to it.
"Your OBEDIENT servant...
About the time at which I suppose this letter had been written,
there is, in fact, a payment of £40 to JL.
We return to the diary.
"October 22nd 1817.
"At evening prayers, during the psalms,
"I had that same experience which I recollect from last year.
"I was resting my hand on one of Austin's carved figures as before -
"I usually avoid that of the cat now -
"and I was going to have said a change came over it
"but that seems to be making too much of what was a physical upset in myself.
"At any rate, the wood seemed to become chilly...
"as if made of wet linen.
"The whispering in my house was more persistent tonight.
"I seemed not to be rid of it in my room.
"A nervous man - which I am NOT, and hope I am not becoming -
"would have been annoyed, if not alarmed, by it.
"The cat was on the stairs tonight.
"I think it sits there always.
"There is no kitchen cat."
"Here, again, I must note a matter I do not understand.
"I have been much troubled in my sleep.
"No definite image presented itself
"but I was pursued by the very vivid impression that...
"wet lips were whispering into my ear -
"over and over.
"After this, I fell asleep but I was awakened with a start...
"by a feeling as if a hand were laid on my shoulder.
"To my alarm I found myself standing at the top of the lowest flight of the staircase.
"The moon was shining brightly enough through the window to let me see a large cat
"upon the second or third step.
"I can make no comment.
"I crept up to bed again. I do NOT know how.
"Mine IS a heavy burden."
Then follows a line or two which has been scratched out.
I fancy I read something like:
"Acted for the best."
Soon after, it's evident to me that his firmness began to give way
under pressure of these phenomena.
I omit, as they are too painful,
all the lamentations, the beseeching, the praying.
Throughout this time, he's obstinate in clinging to his post.
He tried to distract himself, inviting visitors to his house.
"January 7th 1818. I've prevailed on my cousin, Alan, to give me a few days.
"He's to occupy the chamber next to mine.
"A still night. Alan slept well but complained of the noise of the wind.
"My own experiences were as before -
"still whispering, whispering.
"What is it that he wants to SAY?"
"Alan thinks this is a very noisy house.
"He thinks, too, that my cat is an unusually large and fine specimen,
"but very wild."
"January 10th 1818.
"Alan and I in the library until 11.
"He left me twice to see what the maids were doing in the hall.
"On the second time, he said he had seen one going through the door at the end of the passage and said
"if his wife were here, she would soon get them into better order.
"I asked him what coloured dress the maid wore.
"I supposed it would be so."
HE LETS OUT A SIGH
"January 11th 1818.
"Alan left me today."
"January 20th. I must be firm.
"I must be FIRM. I must be firm.
"I must be firm. I MUST
These words, "I must be firm", occur again and again
on subsequent days.
Sometimes, they're the only entry.
They are in an unusually large hand.
"I must be firm."
Dug into the paper so it must have broken the pen that wrote them.
The archdeacon's friends did not remark any change in his behaviour
and this gives me a high idea of his courage and determination.
The diary tells us nothing more than I have indicated
of the last days of his life.
The end of it all must be told in the polished language of the obituary notice.
"The morning of the 26th of February was cold and tempestuous.
"At an early hour, the servants had occasion to go into the front hall
"of the residence occupied by the lamented subject of these lines.
"What was their horror upon observing the form of their beloved and respected master
"lying upon the landing of the principal staircase
"in an attitude which inspired the gravest fears.
"The vertebral column was fractured in more than one place.
"This might have been the result of a fall.
"It appeared that the stair carpet was loosened at one point.
"But, in addition to this,
"there were injuries inflicted upon the eyes, nose and mouth
"as if by the agency of some savage animal
"which, dreadful to relate, rendered those features
"The vital spark was, it is needless to add,
I had already formed the conclusion that Dr Haynes was responsible for the death of Dr Pulteney.
Haynes' ambition, the missing stair rod,
the maid's dismissal, her demand for money
all point to his guilty hand.
But the incident connected with the carved figure of death on the archdeacon's stall
was a very perplexing feature
was that it had been cut out of the wood of the hanging oak.
That might have been obvious enough,
but also impossible to substantiate.
However, I paid a visit to Barchester -
partly with a view of finding out whether there were any relics of the woodwork.
I was introduced to the curator of the local museum.
I told this gentleman of the description of certain carved figures formerly on the stalls,
and asked whether any had survived.
He was able to show me the arms of Dean West and some other fragments.
These had been got from an old resident who'd once owned a figure,
perhaps one of those which I was inquiring for.
There was a very odd thing about that figure, he said.
The old man who had it told him that he'd picked it up in a woodyard,
where he'd obtained the other pieces,
and had taken it home for his children.
On the way home he was fiddling with it and it came in two in his hands.
A bit of paper dropped out.
This he picked up and mounted on a card.
The paper was quite legibly inscribed
in old-fashioned script, and this is what was on it.
"When I grew in the wood, I was watered with blood.
"Now, in the church I stand.
"Who so touches me with his hand...
"..if a bloody hand he bear
"I counsel him...to beware...
"..lest he be fetched away either by night or day...
"..but chiefly when the wind blows high
"on a night in February."
"This I dreamt,
"the 25th February, anno domini 1699.
"I suppose it's a...charm or spell. Something of that sort," said the curator.
"Yes," I said, as one might. "What became of the figure it was hidden inside?"
"Oh, I forgot," said he.
"The old man told me it was so ugly,
"and frightened his children so much,
"that he burnt it."
LONE CHORISTER SINGS AND BELL TOLLS
Subtitles by Hugo Allen and Fran Welland, BBC - 2000
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Christopher Lee reads the disturbing Victorian ghost stories of writer MR James. A century ago, it was James's habit to read one aloud by candlelight every Christmas Eve to a select group of students in his study at King's College, Cambridge. Lee tells the fearful tale of intrigue, murder and the haunted Stalls of Barchester.