M R James – The Mezzotint, 1904,

WolseleyHall staffordshire“What’s this place, Williams?”

“Just what I am going to try to find out,” said Williams, going to the shelf for a gazetteer. “Look at the back. Somethingley Hall, either in Sussex or Essex. Half the name’s gone, you see. You don’t happen to know it, I suppose?”

“It’s from that man Britnell, I suppose, isn’t it?” said Binks. “Is it for the museum?”

“Well, I think I should buy it if the price was five shillings,” said Williams; “but for some unearthly reason he wants two guineas for it. I can’t conceive why. It’s a wretched engraving, and there aren’t even any figures to give it life.”

“It’s not worth two guineas, I should think,” said Binks; “but I don’t think it’s so badly done. The moonlight seems rather good to me; and I should have thought there were figures, or at least a figure just on the edge in front.”

“Let’s look,” said Williams. “Well, it’s true the light is rather cleverly given. Where’s your figure? Oh yes! Just the head, in the very front of the picture.”

And indeed there was–hardly more than a black blot on the extreme edge of the engraving–the head of a man or woman, a good deal muffled up, the back turned to the spectator, and looking towards the house.

Williams had not noticed it before.

“Still,” he said, “though it’s a cleverer thing than I thought, I can’t spend two guineas of museum money on a picture of a place I don’t know.”

Professor Binks had his work to do, and soon went; and very nearly up to Hall time Williams was engaged in a vain attempt to identify the subject of his picture. “If the vowel before the ng had only been left, it would have been easy enough,” he thought; “but as it is, the name may be anything from Guestingley to Langley, and there are many more names ending like this than I thought; and this rotten book has no index of terminations.”

Hall in Mr. Williams’s college was at seven. It need not be dwelt upon; the less so as he met there colleagues who had been playing golf during the afternoon, and words with which we have no concern were freely bandied across the table–merely golfing words, I would hasten to explain.

I suppose an hour or more to have been spent in what is called common-room after dinner. Later in the evening some few retired to Williams’s rooms, and I have little doubt that whist was played and tobacco smoked. During a lull in these operations Williams picked up the mezzotint from the table without looking at it, and handed it to a person mildly interested in art, telling him where it had come from, and the other particulars which we already know.

The gentleman took it carelessly, looked at it, then said, in a tone of some interest:

“It’s really a very good piece of work, Williams; it has quite a feeling of the romantic period. The light is admirably managed, it seems to me, and the figure, though it’s rather too grotesque, is somehow very impressive.”

“Yes, isn’t it?” said Williams, who was just then busy giving whisky-and-soda to others of the company, and was unable to come across the room to look at the view again.

It was by this time rather late in the evening, and the visitors were on the move. After they went Williams was obliged to write a letter or two and clear up some odd bits of work. At last, some time past midnight, he was disposed to turn in, and he put out his lamp after lighting his bedroom candle. The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable–rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

I do not know what is the ideal course to pursue in a situation of this kind. I can only tell you what Mr. Williams did. He took the picture by one corner and carried it across the passage to a second set of rooms which he possessed. There he locked it up in a drawer, sported the doors of both sets of rooms, and retired to bed; but first he wrote out and signed an account of the extraordinary change which the picture had undergone since it had come into his possession.

Sleep visited him rather late; but it was consoling to reflect that the behaviour of the picture did not depend upon his own unsupported testimony. Evidently the man who had looked at it the night before had seen something of the same kind as he had, otherwise he might have been tempted to think that something gravely wrong was happening either to his eyes or his mind. This possibility being fortunately precluded, two matters awaited him on the morrow. He must take stock of the picture very carefully, and call in a witness for the purpose, and he must make a determined effort to ascertain what house it was that was represented. He would therefore ask his neighbour Nisbet to breakfast with him, and he would subsequently spend a morning over the gazetteer.

Nisbet was disengaged, and arrived about 9.30. His host was not quite dressed, I am sorry to say, even at this late hour. During breakfast nothing was said about the mezzotint by Williams, save that he had a picture on which he wished for Nisbet’s opinion. But those who are familiar with University life can picture for themselves the wide and delightful range of subjects over which the conversation of two Fellows of Canterbury College is likely to extend during a Sunday morning breakfast. Hardly a topic was left unchallenged, from golf to lawn-tennis. Yet I am bound to say that Williams was rather distraught; for his interest naturally centred in that very strange picture which was now reposing, face downwards, in the drawer in the room opposite.

The morning pipe was at last lighted, and the moment had arrived for which he looked. With very considerable–almost tremulous–excitement, he ran across, unlocked the drawer, and, extracting the picture–still face downwards–ran back, and put it into Nisbet’s hands.

“Now,” he said, “Nisbet, I want you to tell me exactly what you see in that picture. Describe it, if you don’t mind, rather minutely. I’ll tell you why afterwards.”

“Well,” said Nisbet, “I have here a view of a country-house–English, I presume–by moonlight.

“Moonlight? You’re sure of that?”

“Certainly. The moon appears to be on the wane, if you wish for details, and there are clouds in the sky.”

“All right. Go on. I’ll swear,” added Williams in an aside, “there was no moon when I saw it first.”

“Well, there’s not much more to be said,” Nisbet continued. “The house has one–two–three rows of windows, five in each row, except at the bottom, where there’s a porch instead of the middle one, and—-”

“But what about figures?” said Williams, with marked interest.

“There aren’t any,” said Nisbet; “but—-”

“What! No figure on the grass in front?”

“Not a thing.”

“You’ll swear to that?”

“Certainly I will. But there’s just one other thing.”

“What?”

“Why, one of the windows on the ground-floor–left of the door–is open.”

“Is it really? My goodness! he must have got in,” said Williams, with great excitement; and he hurried to the back of the sofa on which Nisbet was sitting, and, catching the picture from him, verified the matter for himself.

It was quite true. There was no figure, and there was the open window. Williams, after a moment of speechless surprise, went to the writing-table and scribbled for a short time. Then he brought two papers to Nisbet, and asked him first to sign one–it was his own description of the picture, which you have just heard–and then to read the other which was Williams’s statement written the night before.

“What can it all mean?” said Nisbet.

“Exactly,” said Williams. “Well, one thing I must do–or three things, now I think of it. I must find out from Garwood”–this was his last night’s visitor–“what he saw, and then I must get the thing photographed before it goes further, and then I must find out what the place is.”

“I can do the photographing myself,” said Nisbet, “and I will. But, you know, it looks very much as if we were assisting at the working out of a tragedy somewhere. The question is, Has it happened already, or is it going to come off? You must find out what the place is. Yes,” he said, looking at the picture again, “I expect you’re right: he has got in. And if I don’t mistake there’ll be the devil to pay in one of the rooms upstairs.”

“I’ll tell you what,” said Williams: “I’ll take the picture across to old Green” (this was the senior Fellow of the College, who had been Bursar for many years). “It’s quite likely he’ll know it. We have property in Essex and Sussex, and he must have been over the two counties a lot in his time.”

“Quite likely he will,” said Nisbet; “but just let me take my photograph first. But look here, I rather think Green isn’t up to-day. He wasn’t in Hall last night, and I think I heard him say he was going down for the Sunday.”

“That’s true, too,” said Williams; “I know he’s gone to Brighton. Well, if you’ll photograph it now, I’ll go across to Garwood and get his statement, and you keep an eye on it while I’m gone. I’m beginning to think two guineas is not a very exorbitant price for it now.”

In a short time he had returned, and brought Mr. Garwood with him. Garwood’s statement was to the effect that the figure, when he had seen it, was clear of the edge of the picture, but had not got far across the lawn. He remembered a white mark on the back of its drapery, but could not have been sure it was a cross. A document to this effect was then drawn up and signed, and Nisbet proceeded to photograph the picture.

“Now what do you mean to do?” he said. “Are you going to sit and watch it all day?”

“Well, no, I think not,” said Williams. “I rather imagine we’re meant to see the whole thing. You see, between the time I saw it last night and this morning there was time for lots of things to happen, but the creature only got into the house. It could easily have got through its business in the time and gone to its own place again; but the fact of the window being open, I think, must mean that it’s in there now. So I feel quite easy about leaving it. And, besides, I have a kind of idea that it wouldn’t change much, if at all, in the daytime. We might go out for a walk this afternoon, and come in to tea, or whenever it gets dark. I shall leave it out on the table here, and sport the door. My skip can get in, but no one else.”

The three agreed that this would be a good plan; and, further, that if they spent the afternoon together they would be less likely to talk about the business to other people; for any rumour of such a transaction as was going on would bring the whole of the Phasmatological Society about their ears.

We may give them a respite until five o’clock.

At or near that hour the three were entering Williams’s staircase. They were at first slightly annoyed to see that the door of his rooms was unsported; but in a moment it was remembered that on Sunday the skips came for orders an hour or so earlier than on week-days. However, a surprise was awaiting them. The first thing they saw was the picture leaning up against a pile of books on the table, as it had been left, and the next thing was Williams’s skip, seated on a chair opposite, gazing at it with undisguised horror. How was this? Mr. Filcher (the name is not my own invention) was a servant of considerable standing, and set the standard of etiquette to all his own college and to several neighbouring ones, and nothing could be more alien to his practice than to be found sitting on his master’s chair, or appearing to take any particular notice of his master’s furniture or pictures. Indeed, he seemed to feel this himself. He started violently when the three men came into the room, and got up with a marked effort. Then he said:

“I ask your pardon, sir, for taking such a freedom as to set down.”

“Not at all, Robert,” interposed Mr. Williams. “I was meaning to ask you some time what you thought of that picture.”

“Well, sir, of course I don’t set up my opinion again yours, but it ain’t the pictur I should ‘ang where my little girl could see it, sir.”

“Wouldn’t you, Robert? Why not?”

“No, sir. Why, the pore child, I recollect once she see a Door Bible, with pictures not ‘alf what that is, and we ‘ad to set up with her three or four nights afterwards, if you’ll believe me; and if she was to ketch a sight of this skelinton here, or whatever it is, carrying off the pore baby, she would be in a taking. You know ‘ow it is with children; ‘ow nervish they git with a little thing and all. But what I should say, it don’t seem a right pictur to be laying about, sir, not where anyone that’s liable to be startled could come on it. Should you be wanting anything this evening sir? Thank you, sir.”

With these words the excellent man went to continue the round of his masters, and you may be sure the gentlemen whom he left lost no time in gathering round the engraving. There was the house, as before, under the waning moon and the drifting clouds. The window that had been open was shut, and the figure was once more on the lawn: but not this time crawling cautiously on hands and knees. Now it was erect and stepping swiftly, with long strides, towards the front of the picture. The moon was behind it, and the black drapery hung down over its face so that only hints of that could be seen, and what was visible made the spectators profoundly thankful that they could see no more than a white dome-like forehead and a few straggling hairs. The head was bent down, and the arms were tightly clasped over an object which could be dimly seen and identified as a child, whether dead or living it was not possible to say. The legs of the appearance alone could be plainly discerned, and they were horribly thin.

From five to seven the three companions sat and watched the picture by turns. But it never changed. They agreed at last that it would be safe to leave it, and that they would return after Hall and await further developments.

When they assembled again, at the earliest possible moment, the engraving was there, but the figure was gone, and the house was quiet under the moonbeams. There was nothing for it but to spend the evening over gazetteers and guide-books. Williams was the lucky one at last, and perhaps he deserved it. At 11.30 p.m. he read from Murray’s Guide to Essex the following lines:

“16½ miles, Anningley. The church has been an interesting building of Norman date, but was extensively classicized in the last century. It contains the tombs of the family of Francis, whose mansion, Anningley Hall, a solid Queen Anne house, stands immediately beyond the churchyard in a park of about 80 acres. The family is now extinct, the last heir having disappeared mysteriously in infancy in the year 1802. The father, Mr. Arthur Francis, was locally known as a talented amateur engraver in mezzotint. After his son’s disappearance he lived in complete retirement at the Hall, and was found dead in his studio on the third anniversary of the disaster, having just completed an engraving of the house, impressions of which are of considerable rarity.

M R James, 1862-1936        The Mezzotint, 1904, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Image: Wolseley Hall, Staffordshire. Etching. 19th Century. Courtesy of the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust

Full text of The Mezzotint. http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/mezztint.htm  

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space - creator of art projects - writer on art

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