A Warning to the Curious Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas


A Warning to the Curious

Christopher Lee reads a chilling tale by Victorian writer MR James. A horrific account of the discovery of the last of the legendary East Anglian Crowns.


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Transcript


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LONE CHORISTER SINGS

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Imagine, if you will,

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King's College, Cambridge, almost one hundred years ago.

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INAUDIBLE

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THUNDER RUMBLES

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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,

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provost of King's -

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scholar, antiquary and writer of ghost stories.

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Seaburgh, on the east coast -

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a long seafront and a street.

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Red cottages, church and distant Martello tower to the south.

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I used to go there pretty regularly in the spring.

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I would put up at the Bear, with a friend called Henry Long.

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We used to take a sitting room and be very happy there.

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Since he died,

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I haven't cared to go there.

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I don't know that I should, anyhow,

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after the particular thing that happened on our last visit.

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It was in April 1902 we were there.

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By some chance, we were almost the only people in the hotel.

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The public rooms were practically empty,

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so we were surprised when, after dinner, our door opened,

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and a young man put his head in.

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He was rather a rabbity, anaemic specimen - light hair, light eyes -

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but he was not unpleasing.

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He made some pretence of reading a book.

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It became plain after a few minutes,

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that our visitor was in a state of nerves.

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I put away my writing and turned to talk to him.

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After some remarks, he became rather confidential.

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"You'll think me odd, but I've had a shock."

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Well, I recommended a drink of some cheering kind.

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We had it, and we settled down to hear what his difficulty was.

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"It began," he said,

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"over a week ago, when I cycled to Froston,

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"to see the church.

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"I'm very interested in architecture.

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"It has a porch with niches and shields.

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"I photographed it, then some coats of arms."

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"One...showed...three crowns.

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"I'm not much of a herald,

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"but I recognised the arms of the kingdom of East Anglia.

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"I looked round and there was the rector coming up the path.

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"He saw where I'd been looking.

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"'Ah yes,' said the rector, 'that's a very curious matter.

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"'But I don't know whether you would be interested in our old stories...'

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"'Oh yes!'"

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"He told me there'd always been a belief here in the three holy crowns.

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"People say they were buried near the coast,

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"to keep off the Danes, or the French, or the Germans.

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"They say one of the three was dug up a long time ago.

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"Another disappeared by the encroaching of the sea.

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"Only one is still left doing its work -

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"keeping off invaders."

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"'Do they say where it is?' I asked.

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"The rector said to me, 'Yes indeed, they do.

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"'But they don't tell.'

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"His manner did not encourage me to put the obvious question."

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"'I have to tell you first about the Agers,' he said.

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"'The Agers?' I repeated.

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"'It's a very old name in these parts,' he informed me.

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"'These Agers say, or said,

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"'that their branch of the family were the guardians of the last crown,

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"'A certain old...Nathaniel Ager was the first one I knew.

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"'He camped out at a place where the crown is said to be hidden.

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"'Young William did the same.

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"'I've no doubt he hastened his end -

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"'for he was consumptive -

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"'from exposure and night watching.

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"'So the last of the holy crowns, if it is there, has no guardian.'"

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"That was what the rector told me," said Mr Paxton to me.

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You can fancy how interesting I found it.

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"All I could think of was how to find where the crown was supposed to be.

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"How I wish I'd left it alone...

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"But there was a sort of... fate in it.

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"For as I cycled past the churchyard,

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"my eye caught a fairly new gravestone.

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"On it was the name of...

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"William Ager, aged 28."

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Paxton carried on,

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"I asked the owner of the curiosity shop about William Ager.

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"Of course, he happened to remember him.

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"He'd lived in the north field, and died there.

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"A woman I met said how sad it was he'd died so young.

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"She was sure it came from spending nights outdoors in the cold weather.

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"Then I had to say,

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"'Did he go out on the sea at night?'

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"Then she said,

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"'Oh, no, on the hill over there with the trees on it.'

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"There I was."

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"I know something about digging in these barrows.

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"I've opened many of them in the Down country.

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"But that was with the owner's leave,

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"in broad daylight, and with men to help.

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"Still, the soil was very light and sandy.

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"There was a rabbit hole that might be made into a tunnel.

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"Coming and going at odd hours to the hotel would be the awkward part.

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"When I made up my mind about the way to excavate,

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"I said I'd been called away that night.

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"I spent it out there."

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Our friend carried on with his story.

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"I made my tunnel.

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"I won't bore you with details of how I supported it and filled it in.

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"The main thing is...

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"I've got...the crown."

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Well, naturally, we, Long and I,

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were surprised and interested.

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No-one has ever seen an Anglo-Saxon crown - at least, no-one HAD.

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But our man gave us... a mournful look.

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"Yes," he said,

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"the worst of it is I don't know how to put it back."

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"Put it back?!" we cried out.

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"My dear sir, you've made one of the most exciting finds in this country!"

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All he did was to put his face in his hands and mutter,

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"I don't know how to put it back!"

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At last, Long said,

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"You'll forgive me if I seem impertinent,

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"but are you QUITE sure you have got it?"

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He sat up and said, "Oh yes, no doubt of that.

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"I have it here in my room, locked in my bag.

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"You can come and look at it, if you like. I won't bring it here."

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We weren't likely to let the chance slip.

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We went with him to his room.

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It was only a few doors off.

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The boots-boy was just collecting shoes in the passage.

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Or...so we thought.

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Afterwards, we weren't so sure.

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Mr Paxton was in a worse state of shivers than before.

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He hurried into the room and beckoned us in.

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He shut the door carefully and unlocked his bag,

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producing a bundle of handkerchiefs in which something was wrapped.

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He laid it on the bed, and opened it up.

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It was silver, set with some gemstones.

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The workmanship was plain, almost rough.

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I can now say that I have seen...

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an actual Anglo-Saxon crown.

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I was intensely interested, of course.

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I wanted to turn it over in my hands, but Paxton prevented me.

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"Don't YOU touch it," he said, "I'll do that."

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With a sigh that was dreadful to hear,

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he took it up and turned it about, so we could see every part of it.

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"Er...have you seen enough?", he said at last. We nodded.

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He wrapped it up, locked up his bag, and looked at us forlornly.

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"What is to be done?", was his opening.

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"It's got to go back. I daren't go at night and daytime's impossible.

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"The truth is I've never been alone since I touched it."

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Then it all came out.

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He looked over his shoulder and beckoned us nearer him.

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He began speaking in a low voice, and said,

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"It began...

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"when I was first...prospecting.

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"It put me off again and again.

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"There was always somebody, a man,

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"standing by one of the firs."

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"He was never in front of me.

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"I always saw him with the tail of my eye, on the left or the right.

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"He was never there when I looked straight at him.

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"I'd lie down for a long time and take careful observations.

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"I made sure there was no-one, and when I began prospecting again...

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"..THERE he was."

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"When I was making the tunnel," Paxton continued, "it was worse.

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"It was like someone scraping at my back all the time.

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"I thought it was only soil dropping on me.

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"But, as I got nearer... the...the crown,

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"it was unmistakeable.

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"When I actually laid it bare, put my fingers on it and pulled it OUT,

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"there came a sort of...cry behind me.

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"Oh, I can't tell you how desolate and threatening it was.

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"If I hadn't been the fool that I am...

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"I should have put the thing back and left it, but...I didn't."

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"The rest of the time was just awful.

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"I had hours to get through before I could decently return to the hotel.

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"First I spent time filling my tunnel and covering my tracks.

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"All the while...

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"..he was there.

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"Sometimes you see him, sometimes you don't.

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"Just as HE pleases.

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"He has some...power... over your eyes.

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"I wasn't off the spot very long before sunrise.

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"Then I had to get the train back to Seaburgh.

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"There were always hedges, or gorse bushes, or fences along the road -

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"some sort of cover, I mean.

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"I was never easy for a second.

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"When I began to meet people going to work,

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"they always looked...behind me... very strangely.

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"The porter at the train was like that too.

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"The guard held open the door...

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"AFTER I'd got into the carriage.

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"Just as he would if...

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"there was...somebody else coming, you know.

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"Oh, you may be very sure it isn't my fancy,"

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he said, with a mirthless sort of laugh.

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Then he went on,

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"Even if I do put it back,

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"he won't...forgive me. I can tell that."

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"I was so happy a fortnight ago..."

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He dropped into a chair.

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I believe...he began to cry.

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We didn't know what to say,

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but felt we must rescue him somehow.

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We said if he was set on putting the crown back, we'd help him.

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I must say, after what we'd heard...

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it did seem the right thing.

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If all that Paxton had said was true,

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might there not be something in the original idea

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that the crown had some curious power bound up with it,

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to guard the coast?

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It was nearly half past ten.

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There was a brilliant moon.

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We were off on this strange errand

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before we had time to think how very much out of the way it was.

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Paxton had a large coat over his arm.

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Under it was the wrapped-up crown.

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There was nobody about, nobody at all.

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We went up the road to the church, and turned in at the churchyard gate.

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I confess to having thought that there was, or there might be,

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someone...lying there, who might be conscious of our business.

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As we neared the mound on the ridge,

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Henry Long felt, and I felt too,

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that there were, what I can only call,

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dim presences...

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..waiting for us...

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..as well as a far more actual one...

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accompanying us.

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Paxton breathed like a hunted beast - we couldn't look at his face.

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How he would manage when we got there we hadn't thought about.

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He'd seemed so sure that it would not be difficult.

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Nor was it.

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I never saw anything like the dash with which he flew at the mound.

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He tore at it and in a few minutes most of his body was out of sight.

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We stood holding the coat and the bundle of handkerchiefs,

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looking very fearfully, I must admit, about us.

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There was nothing to be seen.

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Paxton pulled himself out the hole, stretching a hand back to us.

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"Give it to me," he whispered.

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"Unwrapped."

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We pulled off the handkerchiefs and he took the crown.

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The moonlight just fell on it as he snatched it.

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We hadn't touched that metal ourselves.

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I've thought since that it was just as well.

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In a moment, Paxton was out again and shovelling back the soil.

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His hands were now bleeding.

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Some hundred yards from the hill, Long said to him,

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"I say, you've left your coat there,

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"that won't do, see?"

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Our eyes certainly...

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did see...

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a long, dark overcoat lying where the tunnel had been.

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Paxton hadn't stopped, however.

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He only shook his head,

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and held up...the coat on his arm.

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When we joined him, he said -

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without any excitement, as if nothing mattered any more -

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"That wasn't my coat."

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And indeed,

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when we looked back again,

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that dark thing...was not to be seen.

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Back in our room, we did our very best to make Paxton cheerful.

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"There's the crown safe back," we said.

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"Very likely you shouldn't have touched it,"

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he agreed with that,

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"but no real harm has been done.

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"We'll never give this away to anyone who'd be so mad as to go near it."

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Paxton turned to thank us.

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But we told him no thanks were due, and that we'd meet again tomorrow.

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Next day dawned as beautiful an April morning as you could desire.

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Long and I had lunch at the Links early, so as not to be late back.

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When we did get back, we found Paxton peaceably reading.

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"Ready to come out?", said Long,

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"Say, in half an hour's time?"

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"Oh, certainly!", he said.

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I had my bath first, lay on my bed and slept for 10 minutes.

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Long and I came out of our rooms at the same time.

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We went together to the sitting room.

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Paxton wasn't there - only his book.

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Nor was he in his room, or downstairs. We shouted for him.

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A servant girl came out and said,

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"Why, I thought you gentlemen was gone out already.

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"So did the other gentleman.

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"He heard you...

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"calling from the path...there.

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"He run out in a hurry.

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"I looked out the window, but I didn't see YOU.

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"However, he run off.

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"Down the beach, that way."

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Without a word, we ran that way too.

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It was the opposite direction to that of last night's expedition.

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We ran on as far as the top of the shingle bank and stopped.

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Long said he saw Paxton some distance ahead...

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..running and waving his stick,

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as if he wanted to signal to people who were on ahead of him.

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I couldn't be sure.

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One of these sea mists was coming up quickly from the south.

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There was...someone.

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That's all I could say.

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There WERE tracks on the sand like someone running who wore shoes,

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and there were other tracks, made before those -

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for the shoes sometimes trod in them and interferred with them -

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of someone...

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not in shoes.

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There they were, over and over again.

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We had no doubt that what we saw was the track...

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the track of a...bare foot.

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It showed more bones than flesh.

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The notion of Paxton running after anything like that

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and supposing it to be his friends...

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We were terrified to think about it -

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how the thing he was following might stop suddenly.

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If it turned around on him...

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what sort of face would it show,

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half-seen in the mist, which was getting thicker and thicker?

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As I ran on,

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wondering how he could have been lured into mistaking that...

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OTHER thing for us,

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I remembered him saying...

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.."he has some...

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"power...

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"over your eyes."

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It was weird...eerie.

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Like some sorcery, how the sun could be high in the sky, and yet...

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we were seeing nothing.

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We got to the old battery just by the Martello tower.

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We clambered to the top to look over the shingle -

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if the mist would let us see anything.

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We needed to rest, we'd run a mile at least.

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Nothing whatever was visible ahead of us on that long, shingle spit.

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We were just turning to get down and run on, with no more hope,

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and it was then that we heard...

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..what I can only call...

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a laugh.

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It came from below and swerved away into the mist.

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That...was enough.

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We bent over the wall...

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..Paxton was there at the bottom.

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You don't need to be told that he was dead.

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His tracks showed he'd run along the battery.

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He turned around the corner of it.

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Then...he must have dashed

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straight into...the open arms

0:25:480:25:52

of someone...who was waiting there.

0:25:520:25:57

His mouth was full of sand and stones,

0:26:050:26:10

and his teeth and jaw

0:26:100:26:12

were broken to bits.

0:26:120:26:15

I only glanced once at his face.

0:26:180:26:21

What were we to say at the inquest?

0:26:350:26:38

It was a duty, we felt,

0:26:380:26:40

NOT to tell the secret of the crown and have it published in every paper.

0:26:400:26:45

I don't know how much YOU would have told.

0:26:450:26:50

But what we DID agree upon was this:

0:26:500:26:54

To say that we'd only made Paxton's acquaintance the day before,

0:26:540:26:58

and that he'd told us he was under some apprehension of danger

0:26:580:27:03

at the hands of a man called...

0:27:030:27:07

William Ager.

0:27:070:27:10

Also, that we'd seen some other tracks, besides Paxton's,

0:27:100:27:15

when we followed him on the beach.

0:27:150:27:17

Of course, by that time, everything was gone from the sands.

0:27:170:27:22

It was just as well no-one had any knowledge

0:27:220:27:26

of any William Ager living in the district.

0:27:260:27:30

The evidence of the man -

0:27:300:27:32

a caretaker at the Martello tower who saw Paxton fall -

0:27:320:27:37

freed us from all suspicion.

0:27:370:27:39

All that could be done

0:27:410:27:43

was to return a verdict of wilful murder

0:27:430:27:47

by person or persons unknown.

0:27:470:27:51

Nothing more was discovered about Paxton.

0:27:520:27:56

And so, the legal business reached, so to speak,

0:27:560:28:01

a...dead end.

0:28:010:28:03

I've never...

0:28:120:28:14

been at Seaburgh,

0:28:140:28:17

or even near it,

0:28:170:28:20

since.

0:28:200:28:24

CLOCK CHIMES

0:28:240:28:28

Subtitles by Isabel Plaza, BBC - 2000

0:29:060:29:09

E-mail us at [email protected]

0:29:090:29:13

Christopher Lee reads a chilling tale by Victorian writer MR James. A horrific account, based on a true story, of the discovery of the last of the legendary East Anglian Crowns.


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