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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LONE CHORISTER SINGS
Imagine, if you will,
King's College, Cambridge, almost one hundred 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 King's -
scholar, antiquary and writer of ghost stories.
Seaburgh, on the east coast -
a long seafront and a street.
Red cottages, church and distant Martello tower to the south.
I used to go there pretty regularly in the spring.
I would put up at the Bear, with a friend called Henry Long.
We used to take a sitting room and be very happy there.
Since he died,
I haven't cared to go there.
I don't know that I should, anyhow,
after the particular thing that happened on our last visit.
It was in April 1902 we were there.
By some chance, we were almost the only people in the hotel.
The public rooms were practically empty,
so we were surprised when, after dinner, our door opened,
and a young man put his head in.
He was rather a rabbity, anaemic specimen - light hair, light eyes -
but he was not unpleasing.
He made some pretence of reading a book.
It became plain after a few minutes,
that our visitor was in a state of nerves.
I put away my writing and turned to talk to him.
After some remarks, he became rather confidential.
"You'll think me odd, but I've had a shock."
Well, I recommended a drink of some cheering kind.
We had it, and we settled down to hear what his difficulty was.
"It began," he said,
"over a week ago, when I cycled to Froston,
"to see the church.
"I'm very interested in architecture.
"It has a porch with niches and shields.
"I photographed it, then some coats of arms."
"I'm not much of a herald,
"but I recognised the arms of the kingdom of East Anglia.
"I looked round and there was the rector coming up the path.
"He saw where I'd been looking.
"'Ah yes,' said the rector, 'that's a very curious matter.
"'But I don't know whether you would be interested in our old stories...'
"He told me there'd always been a belief here in the three holy crowns.
"People say they were buried near the coast,
"to keep off the Danes, or the French, or the Germans.
"They say one of the three was dug up a long time ago.
"Another disappeared by the encroaching of the sea.
"Only one is still left doing its work -
"keeping off invaders."
"'Do they say where it is?' I asked.
"The rector said to me, 'Yes indeed, they do.
"'But they don't tell.'
"His manner did not encourage me to put the obvious question."
"'I have to tell you first about the Agers,' he said.
"'The Agers?' I repeated.
"'It's a very old name in these parts,' he informed me.
"'These Agers say, or said,
"'that their branch of the family were the guardians of the last crown,
"'A certain old...Nathaniel Ager was the first one I knew.
"'He camped out at a place where the crown is said to be hidden.
"'Young William did the same.
"'I've no doubt he hastened his end -
"'for he was consumptive -
"'from exposure and night watching.
"'So the last of the holy crowns, if it is there, has no guardian.'"
"That was what the rector told me," said Mr Paxton to me.
You can fancy how interesting I found it.
"All I could think of was how to find where the crown was supposed to be.
"How I wish I'd left it alone...
"But there was a sort of... fate in it.
"For as I cycled past the churchyard,
"my eye caught a fairly new gravestone.
"On it was the name of...
"William Ager, aged 28."
Paxton carried on,
"I asked the owner of the curiosity shop about William Ager.
"Of course, he happened to remember him.
"He'd lived in the north field, and died there.
"A woman I met said how sad it was he'd died so young.
"She was sure it came from spending nights outdoors in the cold weather.
"Then I had to say,
"'Did he go out on the sea at night?'
"Then she said,
"'Oh, no, on the hill over there with the trees on it.'
"There I was."
"I know something about digging in these barrows.
"I've opened many of them in the Down country.
"But that was with the owner's leave,
"in broad daylight, and with men to help.
"Still, the soil was very light and sandy.
"There was a rabbit hole that might be made into a tunnel.
"Coming and going at odd hours to the hotel would be the awkward part.
"When I made up my mind about the way to excavate,
"I said I'd been called away that night.
"I spent it out there."
Our friend carried on with his story.
"I made my tunnel.
"I won't bore you with details of how I supported it and filled it in.
"The main thing is...
"I've got...the crown."
Well, naturally, we, Long and I,
were surprised and interested.
No-one has ever seen an Anglo-Saxon crown - at least, no-one HAD.
But our man gave us... a mournful look.
"Yes," he said,
"the worst of it is I don't know how to put it back."
"Put it back?!" we cried out.
"My dear sir, you've made one of the most exciting finds in this country!"
All he did was to put his face in his hands and mutter,
"I don't know how to put it back!"
At last, Long said,
"You'll forgive me if I seem impertinent,
"but are you QUITE sure you have got it?"
He sat up and said, "Oh yes, no doubt of that.
"I have it here in my room, locked in my bag.
"You can come and look at it, if you like. I won't bring it here."
We weren't likely to let the chance slip.
We went with him to his room.
It was only a few doors off.
The boots-boy was just collecting shoes in the passage.
Or...so we thought.
Afterwards, we weren't so sure.
Mr Paxton was in a worse state of shivers than before.
He hurried into the room and beckoned us in.
He shut the door carefully and unlocked his bag,
producing a bundle of handkerchiefs in which something was wrapped.
He laid it on the bed, and opened it up.
It was silver, set with some gemstones.
The workmanship was plain, almost rough.
I can now say that I have seen...
an actual Anglo-Saxon crown.
I was intensely interested, of course.
I wanted to turn it over in my hands, but Paxton prevented me.
"Don't YOU touch it," he said, "I'll do that."
With a sigh that was dreadful to hear,
he took it up and turned it about, so we could see every part of it.
"Er...have you seen enough?", he said at last. We nodded.
He wrapped it up, locked up his bag, and looked at us forlornly.
"What is to be done?", was his opening.
"It's got to go back. I daren't go at night and daytime's impossible.
"The truth is I've never been alone since I touched it."
Then it all came out.
He looked over his shoulder and beckoned us nearer him.
He began speaking in a low voice, and said,
"when I was first...prospecting.
"It put me off again and again.
"There was always somebody, a man,
"standing by one of the firs."
"He was never in front of me.
"I always saw him with the tail of my eye, on the left or the right.
"He was never there when I looked straight at him.
"I'd lie down for a long time and take careful observations.
"I made sure there was no-one, and when I began prospecting again...
"..THERE he was."
"When I was making the tunnel," Paxton continued, "it was worse.
"It was like someone scraping at my back all the time.
"I thought it was only soil dropping on me.
"But, as I got nearer... the...the crown,
"it was unmistakeable.
"When I actually laid it bare, put my fingers on it and pulled it OUT,
"there came a sort of...cry behind me.
"Oh, I can't tell you how desolate and threatening it was.
"If I hadn't been the fool that I am...
"I should have put the thing back and left it, but...I didn't."
"The rest of the time was just awful.
"I had hours to get through before I could decently return to the hotel.
"First I spent time filling my tunnel and covering my tracks.
"All the while...
"..he was there.
"Sometimes you see him, sometimes you don't.
"Just as HE pleases.
"He has some...power... over your eyes.
"I wasn't off the spot very long before sunrise.
"Then I had to get the train back to Seaburgh.
"There were always hedges, or gorse bushes, or fences along the road -
"some sort of cover, I mean.
"I was never easy for a second.
"When I began to meet people going to work,
"they always looked...behind me... very strangely.
"The porter at the train was like that too.
"The guard held open the door...
"AFTER I'd got into the carriage.
"Just as he would if...
"there was...somebody else coming, you know.
"Oh, you may be very sure it isn't my fancy,"
he said, with a mirthless sort of laugh.
Then he went on,
"Even if I do put it back,
"he won't...forgive me. I can tell that."
"I was so happy a fortnight ago..."
He dropped into a chair.
I believe...he began to cry.
We didn't know what to say,
but felt we must rescue him somehow.
We said if he was set on putting the crown back, we'd help him.
I must say, after what we'd heard...
it did seem the right thing.
If all that Paxton had said was true,
might there not be something in the original idea
that the crown had some curious power bound up with it,
to guard the coast?
It was nearly half past ten.
There was a brilliant moon.
We were off on this strange errand
before we had time to think how very much out of the way it was.
Paxton had a large coat over his arm.
Under it was the wrapped-up crown.
There was nobody about, nobody at all.
We went up the road to the church, and turned in at the churchyard gate.
I confess to having thought that there was, or there might be,
someone...lying there, who might be conscious of our business.
As we neared the mound on the ridge,
Henry Long felt, and I felt too,
that there were, what I can only call,
..waiting for us...
..as well as a far more actual one...
Paxton breathed like a hunted beast - we couldn't look at his face.
How he would manage when we got there we hadn't thought about.
He'd seemed so sure that it would not be difficult.
Nor was it.
I never saw anything like the dash with which he flew at the mound.
He tore at it and in a few minutes most of his body was out of sight.
We stood holding the coat and the bundle of handkerchiefs,
looking very fearfully, I must admit, about us.
There was nothing to be seen.
Paxton pulled himself out the hole, stretching a hand back to us.
"Give it to me," he whispered.
We pulled off the handkerchiefs and he took the crown.
The moonlight just fell on it as he snatched it.
We hadn't touched that metal ourselves.
I've thought since that it was just as well.
In a moment, Paxton was out again and shovelling back the soil.
His hands were now bleeding.
Some hundred yards from the hill, Long said to him,
"I say, you've left your coat there,
"that won't do, see?"
Our eyes certainly...
a long, dark overcoat lying where the tunnel had been.
Paxton hadn't stopped, however.
He only shook his head,
and held up...the coat on his arm.
When we joined him, he said -
without any excitement, as if nothing mattered any more -
"That wasn't my coat."
when we looked back again,
that dark thing...was not to be seen.
Back in our room, we did our very best to make Paxton cheerful.
"There's the crown safe back," we said.
"Very likely you shouldn't have touched it,"
he agreed with that,
"but no real harm has been done.
"We'll never give this away to anyone who'd be so mad as to go near it."
Paxton turned to thank us.
But we told him no thanks were due, and that we'd meet again tomorrow.
Next day dawned as beautiful an April morning as you could desire.
Long and I had lunch at the Links early, so as not to be late back.
When we did get back, we found Paxton peaceably reading.
"Ready to come out?", said Long,
"Say, in half an hour's time?"
"Oh, certainly!", he said.
I had my bath first, lay on my bed and slept for 10 minutes.
Long and I came out of our rooms at the same time.
We went together to the sitting room.
Paxton wasn't there - only his book.
Nor was he in his room, or downstairs. We shouted for him.
A servant girl came out and said,
"Why, I thought you gentlemen was gone out already.
"So did the other gentleman.
"He heard you...
"calling from the path...there.
"He run out in a hurry.
"I looked out the window, but I didn't see YOU.
"However, he run off.
"Down the beach, that way."
Without a word, we ran that way too.
It was the opposite direction to that of last night's expedition.
We ran on as far as the top of the shingle bank and stopped.
Long said he saw Paxton some distance ahead...
..running and waving his stick,
as if he wanted to signal to people who were on ahead of him.
I couldn't be sure.
One of these sea mists was coming up quickly from the south.
That's all I could say.
There WERE tracks on the sand like someone running who wore shoes,
and there were other tracks, made before those -
for the shoes sometimes trod in them and interferred with them -
not in shoes.
There they were, over and over again.
We had no doubt that what we saw was the track...
the track of a...bare foot.
It showed more bones than flesh.
The notion of Paxton running after anything like that
and supposing it to be his friends...
We were terrified to think about it -
how the thing he was following might stop suddenly.
If it turned around on him...
what sort of face would it show,
half-seen in the mist, which was getting thicker and thicker?
As I ran on,
wondering how he could have been lured into mistaking that...
OTHER thing for us,
I remembered him saying...
.."he has some...
"over your eyes."
It was weird...eerie.
Like some sorcery, how the sun could be high in the sky, and yet...
we were seeing nothing.
We got to the old battery just by the Martello tower.
We clambered to the top to look over the shingle -
if the mist would let us see anything.
We needed to rest, we'd run a mile at least.
Nothing whatever was visible ahead of us on that long, shingle spit.
We were just turning to get down and run on, with no more hope,
and it was then that we heard...
..what I can only call...
It came from below and swerved away into the mist.
We bent over the wall...
..Paxton was there at the bottom.
You don't need to be told that he was dead.
His tracks showed he'd run along the battery.
He turned around the corner of it.
Then...he must have dashed
straight into...the open arms
of someone...who was waiting there.
His mouth was full of sand and stones,
and his teeth and jaw
were broken to bits.
I only glanced once at his face.
What were we to say at the inquest?
It was a duty, we felt,
NOT to tell the secret of the crown and have it published in every paper.
I don't know how much YOU would have told.
But what we DID agree upon was this:
To say that we'd only made Paxton's acquaintance the day before,
and that he'd told us he was under some apprehension of danger
at the hands of a man called...
Also, that we'd seen some other tracks, besides Paxton's,
when we followed him on the beach.
Of course, by that time, everything was gone from the sands.
It was just as well no-one had any knowledge
of any William Ager living in the district.
The evidence of the man -
a caretaker at the Martello tower who saw Paxton fall -
freed us from all suspicion.
All that could be done
was to return a verdict of wilful murder
by person or persons unknown.
Nothing more was discovered about Paxton.
And so, the legal business reached, so to speak,
been at Seaburgh,
or even near it,
Subtitles by Isabel Plaza, BBC - 2000
E-mail us at [email protected]
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.