FICTION FROM THE PUBLIC DOMAIN.
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Editor’s Note: When looking to blog another work from the public
Domain for this particular date; the following M.R. James
work was selected at random from among hundreds of choices.
You’ll notice the coincidence as you finish reading this story.
A SCHOOL STORY
By Montague Rhodes James
Two men in a smoking-room were talking of their private-school days.
"At our school," said A., "we had a ghost's footmark on the staircase."
" What was it like?"
"Oh, very unconvincing. Just the shape of a shoe, with a square toe,
if I remember right. The staircase was a stone one. I never heard any
story aboutthe thing. That seems odd, when you come to think of it.
Why didn't somebody invent one, I wonder?"
"You never can tell with little boys. They have a mythology of their own.
There's a subject for you, by the way - "The Folklore of Private Schools."
AUTHOR: Montague Rhodes James OM, MA, FBA,
who used the publication name M. R. James, was an
English author, medieval scholar and provost of
King's College, Cambridge, and of Eton College.
"Yes; the crop is rather scanty, though. I imagine,
if you were to investigate the cycle of ghost stories,
for instance, which the boys at private schools tell
each other, they would all turn out to be highly-
compressed versions of stories out of books."
"Nowadays the Strand and Pearson's, and so on, would be periodicals
extensively drawn upon."
"No doubt: they weren't born or thought of in my time. Let's see. I
wonder if I can remember the staple ones that I was told. First, there was
the house with a room in which a series of people insisted on passing a
night; and each of them in the morning was found kneeling in a corner,
andhad just time to say, 'I've seen it,' and died."
"Wasn't that the house in Berkeley Square?"
"Yes. Then there was the man who heard a noise in the
passage at night, opened his door, and saw someone crawling towards
him on all fours with his eye hanging out on his cheek. There was
besides, let me think - Yes! the room where a man was found dead in
bed with a horseshoe mark on his forehead, and the floor under the
bed was covered with marks of horseshoes also; I don't know why.
Also there was the lady who, on locking her bedroom door in a
strange house, heard a thin voice among the bed-curtains say, 'Now
we're shut in for the night.' None of those had any
explanation or sequel. I wonder if they go on still, those stories."
"Oh, likely enough - with additions from the magazines, as I said. You
never heard, did you, of a real ghost at a private school? I thought not,
nobody has that ever I came across."
"From the way in which you said that, I gather that you have."
"I really don't know, but this is what was in my mind. It happened at
my private school 30 odd years ago, and I haven't any explanation of it.
"The school I mean was near London. It was established in a large
and fairly old house - a great white building with very fine grounds
there were large cedars in the garden, as there are in so many of the
older gardens in the Thames valley, and ancient elms in the three or
four fields which we used for our games. I think probably it was
quite an attractive place, but boys seldom allow that their schools
possess any tolerable features.
"I came to the school in a September, soon after the year 1870; and
among the boys who arrived on the same day was one whom I took
to: a Highland boy, McLeod. I needn't spend time in describing him:
the mainthing is that I got to know him very well. He was not an
exceptional boy in any way - not particularly good at books or games,
but he suited me.
"The school was a large one: there must have been from 120 to 130
boys there as a rule, and so a considerable staff of masters was
required, and there were rather frequent changes among them.
"One term, perhaps it was my third or fourth, a new master made
hisappearance. His name was Sampson. He was a tallish, stoutish,
pale, black-bearded man. I think we liked him: he had travelled a
good deal, and had stories which amused us on our school walks,
so that there was somecompetition among us to get within earshot
of him. I have hardly thought of it since that he had a charm on his
watch-chain that attracted my attention one day, and he let me
It was, I now suppose, a gold Byzantine coin; there was an effigy of
Some absurd emperor on one side; the other side had been worn
practically smooth, and he had had cut on it--rather barbarously--his
own initials, G.W.S., and a date, 27 July, 1865. Yes, I can see it now:
he told me he had picked it up in Constantinople: it was about the
size of a florin, perhaps rather smaller. [Florin is 30mm or 1.17 inches
"Well, the first odd thing that happened was this. Sampson was
doing Latin grammar with us. One of his favourite methods--perhaps
it is rather a good one--was to make us construct sentences out of our
own heads to illustrate the rules he was trying to make us learn.
Of course that is athing which gives a silly boy a chance of being
impertinent: there are lots of school stories in which that happens--or
anyhow there might be. But Sampson was too good a disciplinarian
for us to think of trying that on with him.
Now, on this occasion he was telling us how to express remembering
in Latin: and he ordered us each to make a sentence bringing in the
verb memini, 'I remember.' Well, most of us made up some ordinary
sentence such as 'I remember my father,' or 'He remembers his book,'
or something equally uninteresting: and many put down memino
librum meum, and so forth: but the boy I mentioned - McLeod - was
evidently thinking of something more elaborate than that.
The rest of us wanted to have our sentences passed, and get on to
something else, so some kicked him under the desk, and I, who was
next to him, poked him and whispered to him to look sharp. But he
didn't seem to attend. I looked at his paper and saw he had put down
nothing at all. So I jogged him again harder than before and
upbraided him sharply for keeping us all waiting. That did have some
effect. He started and seemed to wake up, and then very quickly he
scribbled about a couple of lines on his paper, and showed it up
with the rest.
As it was the last, or nearly the last, to come in, and as Sampson had
a good deal to say to the boys who had written meminiscimus patri meo
and the rest of it, it turned out that the clock struck twelve before he
had got to McLeod, and McLeod had to wait afterwards to have his
There was nothing much going on outside when I got out, so I waited
for him to come.
He came very slowly when he did arrive, and I guessed there had been
somesort of trouble. 'Well,' I said, 'what did you get?'
'Oh, I don't know,' said McLeod, 'nothing much: but I think Sampson's
rather sick with me.'
Why, did you show him up some rot?'
'No fear,' he said. 'It was all right as far as I could see: it was like this:
Memento - that's right enough for remember, and it takes a genitive,
memento putei inter quatuor taxos.'
'What silly rot!' I said. 'What made you shove that down? What does it
mean?' 'That's the funny part,' said McLeod. 'I'm not quite sure what it
does mean. All I know is, it just came into my head and I corked it down.
I know what I think it means, because just before I wrote it down I had
a sort of picture of it in my head: I believe it means "Remember the well
among the four"... what are those dark sort of trees that have red berries
'Mountain ashes, I s'pose you mean.'
'I never heard of them,' said McLeod; 'probably, I meant - yews.'
'Well, and what did Sampson say?' 'Why, he was jolly odd about it.
When he read it he got up and went to the mantel-piece and stopped
quite a long time without saying anything, with his back to me.
And then he said, without turning round, and rather quiet, "What do
You suppose that means?" I told him what I thought; only I couldn't
remember the name of the silly tree: and then he wanted to know why
I put it down, and I had to say something or other. And after that he
left off talking about it, and asked me how long I'd been here, and
where my people lived, and things like that: and then I left the room:
but he wasn't looking good.'
"I don't remember any more that was said by either of us about this.
Next day McLeod took to his bed with a chill or something of the kind,
and it was a week or more before he was in school again. And as much
as a month went by without anything happening that was noticeable.
Whether or not Mr. Sampson was really startled, as McLeod had
thought, he didn't show it. I am pretty sure, of course, now, that
there was something very curious in his past history, but I'm not
going to pretend that we boys were sharp enough to guess any
"There was one other incident of the same kind as the last which
I told you. Several times since that day we had had to make up
examples in school to illustrate different rules, but there had never
been any row except when we did them wrong. At last there came
a day when we were going through those dismal things which people
call Conditional Sentences, and we were told to make a conditional
sentence, expressing a future consequence.
We did it, right or wrong, and showed up our bits of paper, and
Sampson began looking through them. All at once he got up, made
some odd sort of noise in his throat, and rushed out by a door that
was just by his desk.
We sat there for a minute or two, and then--I suppose it was
incorrect--but we went up, I and one or two others, to look at the
papers on his desk.
Of course I thought someone must have put down some nonsense
or other, and Sampson hadgone off to report him. All the same,
I noticed that he hadn't taken any of the papers with him when
he ran out.
Well, the top paper on the desk was written in red ink--which no
one used--and it wasn't in anyone's hand who was in the class.
They all looked at it--McLeod and all--and took their dying oaths that
it wasn't theirs. Then I thought of counting the bits of paper. And of
this I made quite certain: that there were 17 bits of paper on the desk,
and 16 boys in the class. Well, I bagged the extra paper, and kept it,
and I believe I have it now. And now you will want to know what
was written on it. It was simple enough, and harmless enough,
I should have said.
"'Si tu non veneris ad me, ego veniam ad te,' which means,
I suppose, 'If you don't come to me, I'll come to you.'"
"Could you show me the paper?" interrupted the listener.
"Yes, I could: but there's another odd thing about it. That same
afternoon I took it out of my locker - I know for certain it was the
samebit, for I made a finger-mark on it and no single trace of writing
of any kind was there on it. I kept it, as I said, and since that time
I have tried various experiments to see whether sympathetic ink had
been used, but absolutely without result.
"So much for that. After about half an hour Sampson looked in
again: said he had felt very unwell, and told us we might go. He came
rather gingerly to his desk, and gave just one look at the uppermost
paper: and I suppose he thought he must have been dreaming:
anyhow, he asked no questions.
"That day was a half-holiday, and next day Sampson was in school
again, much as usual. That night the third and last incident in my
"We--McLeod and I--slept in a dormitory at right angles to the main
building. Sampson slept in the main building on the first floor.
There was a very bright full moon. At an hour which I can't tell exactly,
but some time between one and two, I was woken up by somebody
It was McLeod, and a nice state of mind he seemed to be in. 'Come,'
he said, - 'come there's a burglar getting in through Sampson's window.'
As soon as I could speak, I said, 'Well, why not call out and wake
'No, no,' he said, 'I'm not sure who it is: don't make a row: come
Naturally I came and looked, and naturally there was no one there.
I was cross enough, and should have called McLeod plenty of names:
only - I couldn't tell why - it seemed to me that there was something
wrong - something that made me very glad I wasn't alone to face it.
We were still at the window looking out, and as soon as I could, I
asked him what he had heard or seen. 'I didn't hear anything at all,'
he said, 'but about five minutes before I woke you, I found myself
looking out of this window here, and there was a man sitting or
kneeling on Sampson's window-sill, and looking in, and I thought
he was beckoning.' 'What sort of man?' McLeod wriggled. 'I don't
know,' he said, 'but I can tell you one thing - he was beastly thin:
and he looked as if he was wet all over: and,' he said, looking round
and whispering as if he hardly liked to hear himself, 'I'm not at all
sure that he was alive.'
"We went on talking in whispers some time longer, and eventually
crept back to bed. No one else in the room woke or stirred the whole
time. I believe we did sleep a bit afterwards, but we were very cheap
"And next day Mr. Sampson was gone: not to be found: and I believe
no trace of him has ever come to light since. In thinking it over, one
of the oddest things about it all has seemed to me to be the fact that
neither McLeod nor I ever mentioned what we had seen to anyone
Of course no questions were asked on the subject, and if they had
been, I am inclined to believe that we could not have made any
answer: we seemed unable to speak about it.
"That is my story," said the narrator. "The only approach to a ghost
story connected with a school that I know, but still, I think, an
approach to such a thing."
* * * * *
The sequel to this may perhaps be reckoned highly conventional;
but a sequel there is, and so it must be produced. There had been
more than one listener to the story, and, in the latter part of that
same year, or of the next, one such listener was staying at a country
house in Ireland.
One evening his host was turning over a drawer full of odds and ends
In the smoking-room. Suddenly he put his hand upon a little box.
"Now," he said, "you know about old things; tell me what that is."
My friend opened the little box, and found in it a thin gold chain
with an object attached to it. He glanced at the object and then took
off his spectacles to examine it more narrowly. "What's the history of
this?" he asked.
"Odd enough," was the answer. "You know the yew thicket in the
shrubbery: well, a year or two back we were cleaning out the old
well that used to be in the clearing here, and what do you suppose
"Is it possible that you found a body?" said the visitor, with an odd
feeling of nervousness.
"We did that: but what's more, in every sense of the word, we
"Good Heavens! Two? Was there anything to show how they got
there? Was this thing found with them?"
"It was. It was among the clothes that had turned to rags on one of
the bodies. A bad business, whatever the story of it may have been.
One body had the arms tight round the other. They must have been
there 30 years or more--long enough before we came to this place.
You may judge we filled the well up fast enough. Do you make
anything of what's cut on that gold coin you have there?"
"I think I can," said my friend, holding it to the light (but he read it
without much difficulty); "it seems to be G.W.S., 27 July, 1865."
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