The Stalls of Barchester Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas


The Stalls of Barchester

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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CHORISTER SINGS

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Imagine, if you will,

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Kings College, Cambridge, almost 100 years ago.

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BELL TOLLS

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Every Christmas Eve has its ritual.

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Those invited make their way for the appointed time...

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..out of the darkness, while the master waits.

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Montague Rhodes James, provost of Kings, scholar,

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antiquary...

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and writer of ghost stories.

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Recently, I was cataloguing the manuscripts of the library of a Cambridge college.

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I reached the end of the numbered volumes and asked the librarian

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if there were more papers which I ought to include.

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There was a tin box which was pulled out and dusted.

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Its label was faded

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and on it was inscribed, "Papers of the venerable Archdeacon Haynes,

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"bequeathed in 1834 by his sister, Miss Letitia Haynes."

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I knew the name. I'd read his obituary in a gentleman's magazine.

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Archdeacon Haynes... came to a very odd end at Barchester.

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Dr Haynes,

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already a mature man,

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moved to Barchester with his sister in the year 1810.

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The office of archdeacon had long been the object of his wishes, but his predecessor, Pulteney,

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refused to depart until he had attained the age of 92.

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A week after the celebrations of that 92nd birthday,

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Dr Haynes hurried cheerfully into his breakfast room, rubbing his hands, humming a tune.

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He was greeted by the sight of his sister, seated behind the tea urn,

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bowed forward and sobbing unrestrainedly into her handkerchief.

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"What is the matter? What bad news?" he began.

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"Oh, Johnny, you haven't heard. The poor, dear archdeacon."

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"The archdeacon? Yes?

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"What is it? Ill, is he?"

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"Oh, no, no. They found him

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"on the staircase this morning. It is so shocking."

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"Is this possible? Dear, dear!

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"Poor Pulteney!

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"Did he have a seizure?"

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"They don't think so," said Miss Haynes.

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"That's the worst thing about it. It seems to have been the fault of that stupid maid of theirs, Jane."

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Dr Haynes paused.

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"I don't quite understand, Letitia.

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"How was the maid at fault?"

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"As far as I can make out," Miss Haynes said, "there was a stair rod missing and she never mentioned it.

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"The poor archdeacon set his foot quite on the edge of the step - you know how slippery that oak is.

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"Oh, it seems he must have fallen almost the whole flight

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"and broken his neck."

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After standing in silence for some minutes, Dr Haynes left the room,

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and didn't appear again that morning.

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I need only add that the careless maid-servant was dismissed forthwith,

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but that the missing stair rod was very shortly afterwards found under the stair carpet.

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Additional proof, if any were needed,

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of extreme stupidity and carelessness on her part.

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For a good many years, Dr Haynes had been marked out by his ability -

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which, it seems, was considerable - as the likely successor of Pulteney,

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and he wasn't to be disappointed.

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He was duly installed

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and zealously gave himself over to the responsibilities of his position.

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Functions, as he discovered, sadly neglected by the late Archdeacon Pulteney.

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Look in Haynes' journals,

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he lists what Archdeacon Pulteney had failed to do -

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dues uncollected for 12 years,

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no visits for seven years,

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four churches in disrepair.

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His deputies nearly as incapable as himself.

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In his correspondence, Haynes calculates that a period of three years will just suffice

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to set the business of the archdeaconry upon a proper footing.

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And so it proved.

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He begins to take an interest in the fabric, the furniture, the music.

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There is a draft of a letter to Sylvanus Urban,

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which I do not think was ever sent,

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describing the stalls in the choir.

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"The prayer desk at the east end is carved with three small but remarkable statuettes

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"in the grotesque manner.

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"One is an exquisitely modelled figure of a cat.

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"Opposite to this stands a shape, muffled in a long mantle.

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"This might, at first sight, be mistaken for a monk or a friar,

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"for the head is cowled and a knotted cord hangs down from the waist.

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"A slight inspection, however, will lead to a very different conclusion.

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"The knotted cord is quickly seen to be a halter,

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"held by a hand all but concealed within the draperies,

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"while the sunken features and, horrid to relate,

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"the rent flesh upon the cheekbones proclaim the King of Terrors.

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"These figures are evidently the production of no unskilled chisel."

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"Some late researches among the Chapter accounts

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"have shown me that the carving of the stalls was not, as was usually reported, the work of Dutch artists,

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"but was executed by a native of this city or district named Austin.

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"The timber was procured from an oak copse in the vicinity,

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"the property of the dean and chapter known as Holywood."

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Upon a recent visit to the parish,

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Haynes writes, "I learned from an aged and respectable local

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"some of the history of the oaks employed

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"to furnish the cathedral with its stalls."

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"One tree in particular, which stood near the centre of the grove,

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"is remembered that it was known as the hanging oak."

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"A quantity of human bones was found in the soil."

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To return to his career, as it is to be gathered from his diaries,

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those of his first three years of hard and careful work

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show him throughout in high spirits and, doubtless, during this time,

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that reputation for hospitality and urbanity which is mentioned in his obituary notice...was well deserved.

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After that,

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as time goes on, I see a shadow coming over him

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destined to develop into utter blackness,

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which I can only think must have been reflected in his outward demeanour.

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He commits a good deal of his fears and troubles to his diary - there was no other outlet for them.

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He was not married, and his sister was not always with him.

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But I am much mistaken if he has told all that he might have told.

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I shall give you gentlemen some extracts.

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"August 30th 1816.

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"The days begin to draw in more perceptively than ever.

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"Now that the archdeaconry papers

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"are reduced to order,

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"I must find employment for the evening's hours of autumn and winter.

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"It is a great blow

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"that Letitia's health will not allow her to stay these months.

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"Why not go on with my Defence of Episcopacy?

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"It may be useful."

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"September 15th.

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"Letitia has left me for Brighton."

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"October 11th 1816.

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"Candles lit in the choir for the first time at evening prayers.

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"It came as a shock. I find that I absolutely...

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"shrink from the dark season."

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"November 17th 1816.

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"During the Magnificat I was, I regret, almost overcome with sleep.

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"My hand was resting on the back of the carved figure of a cat.

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"It was the nearest figure to me. I was not aware of this.

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"I was not looking in that direction

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"until I was startled by what seemed a...

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"softness...a feeling of rather rough and coarse fur,

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"and sudden movement

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"as if the creature were twisting round its head to bite me.

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"The impression of the unpleasant feeling was so strong

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"that I found myself rubbing my hand upon my surplice."

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"December 6th 1816.

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"I do, indeed, miss Letitia's company.

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"The evenings after I've worked as long as I can at my...my...

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"Defence of Episcopacy

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"are very trying.

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"This house is too large for a lonely man. Visitors are too rare.

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"I get an uncomfortable impression, going to my room, that...

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"there is...company of some kind.

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"The fact is - I may as well formulate it to myself -

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"that...I...

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"I hear voices.

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"This, I am well aware, is a symptom of incipient decay of the brain.

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"Work, diligent work

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"and punctual attention to duties that fall to me is my best remedy.

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"I have little doubt that it will prove efficacious."

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C-R-E-A-K

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"January 15th 1817.

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"I had occasion to come downstairs last night for my watch which I had inadvertently left on my table.

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"I was on the last flight when I had an impression

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"of a sharp whisper in my ear - 'Take...care!'

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"I clutched the banister and naturally looked round.

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"Of course, there was nothing.

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"After a moment, I went on. But I had, as nearly as possible, fallen.

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"A cat... A cat - a large one, by the feel of it -

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"slipped...between...my feet.

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"But, again, of course, I SAW nothing.

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"It... It may have been the kitchen cat but...

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"I do not think it was."

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Now,

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I digress to mention a document which, rightly or wrongly,

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I believe to have a bearing on the thread of my story.

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The account books of Dr Haynes show,

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from a date a little later from that of his institution as archdeacon,

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the quarterly payment of £25 to...JL.

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Nothing could have been made of this had it stood by itself.

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But I connect with it a very soiled and ill-written letter

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which was in a pocket in the cover of a diary.

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There's no date, no postmark, and deciphering is difficult.

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It appears to run:

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"Dear sir, I have been expecting to hear off you these last weeks

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"and must suppose you have not got mine which was saying how me and my man had met bad times this season.

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"All seems to go cross with us on the farm.

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"Which way to look for the rent, we have no knowledge of it.

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"This being the sad case with us,

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"if you would have the great..." "liberality" probably, but the exact spelling defies reproduction,

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"..to send £40, otherwise steps will have to be took which I should not wish.

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"As you was the means of me

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"losing my place with Dr Pulteney,

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"I think it is only just what I am asking.

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"And you know best what I could say if I was put to it.

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"Your OBEDIENT servant...

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"..Jane Lee."

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About the time at which I suppose this letter had been written,

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there is, in fact, a payment of £40 to JL.

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We return to the diary.

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"October 22nd 1817.

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"At evening prayers, during the psalms,

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"I had that same experience which I recollect from last year.

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"I was resting my hand on one of Austin's carved figures as before -

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"I usually avoid that of the cat now -

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"and I was going to have said a change came over it

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"but that seems to be making too much of what was a physical upset in myself.

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"At any rate, the wood seemed to become chilly...

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"and soft,

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"as if made of wet linen.

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"The whispering in my house was more persistent tonight.

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"I seemed not to be rid of it in my room.

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"A nervous man - which I am NOT, and hope I am not becoming -

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"would have been annoyed, if not alarmed, by it.

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"The cat was on the stairs tonight.

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"I think it sits there always.

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"There is no kitchen cat."

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"November 15th

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"1817.

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"Here, again, I must note a matter I do not understand.

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"I have been much troubled in my sleep.

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"No definite image presented itself

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"but I was pursued by the very vivid impression that...

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"wet lips were whispering into my ear -

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"very rapidly,

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"over and over.

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"After this, I fell asleep but I was awakened with a start...

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"by a feeling as if a hand were laid on my shoulder.

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"To my alarm I found myself standing at the top of the lowest flight of the staircase.

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"The moon was shining brightly enough through the window to let me see a large cat

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"upon the second or third step.

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"I can make no comment.

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"I crept up to bed again. I do NOT know how.

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"Yes.

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"Mine IS a heavy burden."

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Then follows a line or two which has been scratched out.

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I fancy I read something like:

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"Acted for the best."

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Soon after, it's evident to me that his firmness began to give way

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under pressure of these phenomena.

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I omit, as they are too painful,

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all the lamentations, the beseeching, the praying.

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Throughout this time, he's obstinate in clinging to his post.

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He tried to distract himself, inviting visitors to his house.

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"January 7th 1818. I've prevailed on my cousin, Alan, to give me a few days.

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"He's to occupy the chamber next to mine.

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"A still night. Alan slept well but complained of the noise of the wind.

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"My own experiences were as before -

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"still whispering, whispering.

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"What is it that he wants to SAY?"

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"January 9th.

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"Alan thinks this is a very noisy house.

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"He thinks, too, that my cat is an unusually large and fine specimen,

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"but very wild."

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"January 10th 1818.

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"Alan and I in the library until 11.

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"He left me twice to see what the maids were doing in the hall.

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"On the second time, he said he had seen one going through the door at the end of the passage and said

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"if his wife were here, she would soon get them into better order.

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"I asked him what coloured dress the maid wore.

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"He said,

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"grey...white.

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"I supposed it would be so."

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HE LETS OUT A SIGH

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"January 11th 1818.

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"Alan left me today."

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"January 15th.

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"I...must...be...firm."

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"January 20th. I must be firm.

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"I must be FIRM. I must be firm.

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"I must be firm. I MUST

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"BE FIRM."

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These words, "I must be firm", occur again and again

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on subsequent days.

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Sometimes, they're the only entry.

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They are in an unusually large hand.

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"I must be firm."

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Dug into the paper so it must have broken the pen that wrote them.

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The archdeacon's friends did not remark any change in his behaviour

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and this gives me a high idea of his courage and determination.

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The diary tells us nothing more than I have indicated

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of the last days of his life.

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The end of it all must be told in the polished language of the obituary notice.

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"The morning of the 26th of February was cold and tempestuous.

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"At an early hour, the servants had occasion to go into the front hall

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"of the residence occupied by the lamented subject of these lines.

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"What was their horror upon observing the form of their beloved and respected master

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"lying upon the landing of the principal staircase

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"in an attitude which inspired the gravest fears.

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"The vertebral column was fractured in more than one place.

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"This might have been the result of a fall.

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"It appeared that the stair carpet was loosened at one point.

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"But, in addition to this,

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"there were injuries inflicted upon the eyes, nose and mouth

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"as if by the agency of some savage animal

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"which, dreadful to relate, rendered those features

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"unrecognisable.

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"The vital spark was, it is needless to add,

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"completely extinct."

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I had already formed the conclusion that Dr Haynes was responsible for the death of Dr Pulteney.

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Haynes' ambition, the missing stair rod,

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the maid's dismissal, her demand for money

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all point to his guilty hand.

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But the incident connected with the carved figure of death on the archdeacon's stall

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was a very perplexing feature

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My conjecture

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was that it had been cut out of the wood of the hanging oak.

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That might have been obvious enough,

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but also impossible to substantiate.

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However, I paid a visit to Barchester -

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partly with a view of finding out whether there were any relics of the woodwork.

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I was introduced to the curator of the local museum.

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I told this gentleman of the description of certain carved figures formerly on the stalls,

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and asked whether any had survived.

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He was able to show me the arms of Dean West and some other fragments.

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These had been got from an old resident who'd once owned a figure,

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perhaps one of those which I was inquiring for.

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There was a very odd thing about that figure, he said.

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The old man who had it told him that he'd picked it up in a woodyard,

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where he'd obtained the other pieces,

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and had taken it home for his children.

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On the way home he was fiddling with it and it came in two in his hands.

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A bit of paper dropped out.

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This he picked up and mounted on a card.

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The paper was quite legibly inscribed

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in old-fashioned script, and this is what was on it.

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"When I grew in the wood, I was watered with blood.

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"Now, in the church I stand.

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"Who so touches me with his hand...

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"..if a bloody hand he bear

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"I counsel him...to beware...

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"..lest he be fetched away either by night or day...

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"..but chiefly when the wind blows high

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"on a night in February."

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"This I dreamt,

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"the 25th February, anno domini 1699.

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"John Austin."

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Oh!

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"I suppose it's a...charm or spell. Something of that sort," said the curator.

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"Yes," I said, as one might. "What became of the figure it was hidden inside?"

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"Oh, I forgot," said he.

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"The old man told me it was so ugly,

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"and frightened his children so much,

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"that he burnt it."

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LONE CHORISTER SINGS AND BELL TOLLS

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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.


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