A School Story
Scary Books: Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary
: 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 about the 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
'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 extensively
'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,
and had just time to say, "I've seen it," and died.'
'Wasn't that the house in Berkeley Square?'
'I dare say it was. 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
'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 thirty 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 about it;
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
'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, whom I will call McLeod. I needn't spend time in describing him: the
main thing 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
'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 his
appearance. 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
some competition among us to get within earshot of him. I remember
too--dear me, I have hardly thought of it since then!--that he had a
charm on his watch-chain that attracted my attention one day, and he let
me examine it. 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, 24 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.
'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 a
thing 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 I dare say a good 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 sentence corrected. 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 some
sort 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 on them?" "Mountain ashes, I s'pose you
mean." "I never heard of them," said McLeod; "no, _I'll_ tell you--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 mantelpiece 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 came away: but he wasn't looking a bit
'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 such thing.
'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 had gone 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 seventeen bits of paper on the
desk, and sixteen boys in the form. 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
'"_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 same
bit, 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 story
'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 shaking me. 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 everybody
up?" "No, no," he said, "I'm not sure who it is: don't make a row: come
and look." 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 next day.
'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 any third person
whatever. 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 we found?'
'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 found two.'
'Good Heavens! Two? Was there anything to show how they got there? Was
this thing found with them?'
'It was. Amongst the rags of the clothes that were 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 thirty 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., 24 July, 1865.'