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Title: Lost Hearts (c. 1894)
Author: M. R. James (1862-1936)
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eBook No.: 0900931.txt
Language: English
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Title: Lost Hearts (c. 1894)
Author: M. R. James (1862-1936)

* * *

It was, as far as I can ascertain, in September of the year
1811 that a post-chaise drew up before the door of Aswarby
Hall, in the heart of Lincolnshire. The little boy who was
the only passenger in the chaise, and who jumped out as soon
as it had stopped, looked about him with the keenest
curiosity during the short interval that elapsed between the
ringing of the bell and the opening of the hall door. He saw
a tall, square, red-brick house, built in the reign of Anne;
a stone-pillared porch had been added in the purer classical
style of 1790; the windows of the house were many, tall and
narrow, with small panes and thick white woodwork. A
pediment, pierced with a round window, crowned the front.
There were wings to right and left, connected by curious
glazed galleries, supported by colonnades, with the central
block. These wings plainly contained the stables and offices
of the house. Each was surmounted by an ornamental cupola
with a gilded vane.

An evening light shone on the building, making the
window-panes glow like so many fires. Away from the Hall in
front stretched a flat park studded with oaks and fringed
with firs, which stood out against the sky. The clock in the
church-tower, buried in trees on the edge of the park, only
its golden weather-cock catching the light, was striking
six, and the sound came gently beating down the wind. It was
altogether a pleasant impression, though tinged with the
sort of melancholy appropriate to an evening in early
autumn, that was conveyed to the mind of the boy who was
standing in the porch waiting for the door to open to him.

The post-chaise had brought him from Warwickshire, where,
some six months before, he had been left an orphan. Now,
owing to the generous offer of his elderly cousin, Mr.
Abney, he had come to live at Aswarby. The offer was
unexpected, because all who knew anything of Mr. Abney
looked upon him as a somewhat austere recluse, into whose
steady-going household the advent of a small boy would
import a new and, it seemed, incongruous element. The truth
is that very little was known of Mr. Abney's pursuits or
temper. The Professor of Greek at Cambridge had been heard
to say that no one knew more of the religious beliefs of the
later pagans than did the owner of Aswarby. Certainly his
library contained all the then available books bearing on
the Mysteries, the Orphic poems, the worship of Mithras, and
the Neo-Platonists. In the marble-paved hall stood a fine
group of Mithras slaying a bull, which had been imported
from the Levant at great expense by the owner. He had
contributed a description of it to the _Gentleman's
Magazine_, and he had written a remarkable series of
articles in the _Critical Museum_ on the superstitions of
the Romans of the Lower Empire. He was looked upon, in fine,
as a man wrapped up in his books, and it was a matter of
great surprise among his neighbours that he should even have
heard of his orphan cousin, Stephen Elliott, much more that
he should have volunteered to make him an inmate of Aswarby

Whatever may have been expected by his neighbours, it is
certain that Mr. Abney--the tall, the thin, the
austere--seemed inclined to give his young cousin a kindly
reception. The moment the front door was opened he darted
out of his study, rubbing his hands with delight.

"How are you, my boy?--how are you? How old are you?" said
he--"that is, you are not too much tired, I hope, by your
journey to eat your supper?"

"No, thank you, sir," said Master Elliott; "I am pretty

"That's a good lad," said Mr. Abney. "And how old are you,
my boy?"

It seemed a little odd that he should have asked the
question twice in the first two minutes of their

"I'm twelve years old next birthday, sir," said Stephen.

"And when is your birthday, my dear boy? Eleventh of
September, eh? That's well--that's very well. Nearly a year
hence, isn't it? I like--ha, ha!--I like to get these things
down in my book. Sure it's twelve? Certain?"

"Yes, quite sure, sir."

"Well, well! Take him to Mrs. Bunch's room, Parkes, and let
him have his tea--supper--whatever it is."

"Yes, sir," answered the staid Mr. Parkes; and conducted
Stephen to the lower regions.

Mrs. Bunch was the most comfortable and human person whom
Stephen had as yet met in Aswarby. She made him completely
at home; they were great friends in a quarter of an hour:
and great friends they remained. Mrs. Bunch had been born in
the neighbourhood some fifty-five years before the date of
Stephen's arrival, and her residence at the Hall was of
twenty years' standing. Consequently, if anyone knew the ins
and outs of the house and the district, Mrs. Bunch knew
them; and she was by no means disinclined to communicate her

Certainly there were plenty of things about the Hall and the
Hall gardens which Stephen, who was of an adventurous and
inquiring turn, was anxious to have explained to him. "Who
built the temple at the end of the laurel walk? Who was the
old man whose picture hung on the staircase, sitting at a
table, with a skull under his hand?" These and many similar
points were cleared up by the resources of Mrs. Bunch's
powerful intellect. There were others, however, of which the
explanations furnished were less satisfactory.

One November evening Stephen was sitting by the fire in the
housekeeper's room reflecting on his surroundings.

"Is Mr. Abney a good man, and will he go to heaven?" he
suddenly asked, with the peculiar confidence which children
possess in the ability of their elders to settle these
questions, the decision of which is believed to be reserved
for other tribunals.

"Good?--bless the child!" said Mrs. Bunch. "Master's as kind
a soul as ever I see! Didn't I never tell you of the little
boy as he took in out of the street, as you may say, this
seven years back? and the little girl, two years after I
first come here?"

"No. Do tell me all about them, Mrs. Bunch--now this

"Well," said Mrs. Bunch, "the little girl I don't seem to
recollect so much about. I know master brought her back with
him from his walk one day, and give orders to Mrs. Ellis, as
was housekeeper then, as she should be took every care with.
And the pore child hadn't no one belonging to her--she
telled me so her own self--and here she lived with us a
matter of three weeks it might be; and then, whether she
were somethink of a gipsy in her blood or what not, but one
morning she out of her bed afore any of us had opened a eye,
and neither track nor yet trace of her have I set eyes on
since. Master was wonderful put about, and had all the ponds
dragged; but it's my belief she was had away by them
gipsies, for there was singing round the house for as much
as an hour the night she went, and Parkes, he declare as he
heard them a-calling in the woods all that afternoon. Dear,
dear! a hodd child she was, so silent in her ways and all,
but I was wonderful taken up with her, so domesticated she

"And what about the little boy?" said Stephen.

"Ah, that pore boy!" sighed Mrs. Bunch. "He were a
foreigner--Jevanny he called hisself--and he come a-tweaking
his 'urdy-gurdy round and about the drive one winter day,
and master 'ad him in that minute, and ast all about where
he came from, and how old he was, and how he made his way,
and where was his relatives, and all as kind as heart could
wish. But it went the same way with him. They're a hunruly
lot, them foreign nations, I do suppose, and he was off one
fine morning just the same as the girl. Why he went and what
he done was our question for as much as a year after; for he
never took his 'urdy-gurdy, and there it lays on the shelf."

The remainder of the evening was spent by Stephen in
miscellaneous cross-examination of Mrs. Bunch and in efforts
to extract a tune from the hurdy-gurdy.

That night he had a curious dream. At the end of the passage
at the top of the house, in which his bedroom was situated,
there was an old disused bathroom. It was kept locked, but
the upper half of the door was glazed, and, since the muslin
curtains which used to hang there had long been gone, you
could look in and see the lead-lined bath affixed to the
wall on the right hand, with its head towards the window.

On the night of which I am speaking, Stephen Elliott found
himself, as he thought, looking through the glazed door. The
moon was shining through the window, and he was gazing at a
figure which lay in the bath.

His description of what he saw reminds me of what I once
beheld myself in the famous vaults of St. Michan's Church in
Dublin, which possess the horrid property of preserving
corpses from decay for centuries. A figure inexpressibly
thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a
shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and
dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of
the heart.

As he looked upon it, a distant, almost inaudible moan
seemed to issue from its lips, and the arms began to stir.
The terror of the sight forced Stephen backwards, and he
awoke to the fact that he was indeed standing on the cold
boarded floor of the passage in the full light of the moon.
With a courage which I do not think can be common among boys
of his age, he went to the door of the bathroom to ascertain
if the figure of his dream were really there. It was not,
and he went back to bed.

Mrs. Bunch was much impressed next morning by his story, and
went so far as to replace the muslin curtain over the glazed
door of the bathroom. Mr. Abney, moreover, to whom he
confided his experiences at breakfast, was greatly
interested, and made notes of the matter in what he called
"his book."

The spring equinox was approaching, as Mr. Abney frequently
reminded his cousin, adding that this had been always
considered by the ancients to be a critical time for the
young: that Stephen would do well to take care of himself,
and to shut his bedroom window at night; and that Censorinus
had some valuable remarks on the subject. Two incidents that
occurred about this time made an impression upon Stephen's

The first was after an unusually uneasy and oppressed night
that he had passed--though he could not recall any
particular dream that he had had.

The following evening Mrs. Bunch was occupying herself in
mending his nightgown.

"Gracious me, Master Stephen!" she broke forth rather
irritably, "how do you manage to tear your nightdress all to
flinders this way? Look here, sir, what trouble you do give
to poor servants that have to darn and mend after you!"

There was indeed a most destructive and apparently wanton
series of slits or scorings in the garment, which would
undoubtedly require a skilful needle to make good. They were
confined to the left side of the chest--long, parallel
slits, about six inches in length, some of them not quite
piercing the texture of the linen. Stephen could only
express his entire ignorance of their origin: he was sure
they were not there the night before.

"But," he said, "Mrs. Bunch, they are just the same as the
scratches on the outside of my bedroom door; and I'm sure I
never had anything to do with making _them_."

Mrs. Bunch gazed at him open-mouthed, then snatched up a
candle, departed hastily from the room, and was heard making
her way upstairs. In a few minutes she came down.

"Well," she said, "Master Stephen, it's a funny thing to me
how them marks and scratches can 'a' come there--too high up
for any cat or dog to 'ave made 'em, much less a rat: for
all the world like a Chinaman's finger-nails, as my uncle in
the tea-trade used to tell us of when we was girls together.
I wouldn't say nothing to master, not if I was you, Master
Stephen, my dear; and just turn the key of the door when you
go to your bed."

"I always do, Mrs. Bunch, as soon as I've said my prayers."

"Ah, that's a good child: always say your prayers, and then
no one can't hurt you."

Herewith Mrs. Bunch addressed herself to mending the injured
nightgown, with intervals of meditation, until bed-time.
This was on a Friday night in March, 1812.

On the following evening the usual duet of Stephen and Mrs.
Bunch was augmented by the sudden arrival of Mr. Parkes, the
butler, who as a rule kept himself rather _to_ himself in
his own pantry. He did not see that Stephen was there: he
was, moreover, flustered, and less slow of speech than was
his wont.

"Master may get up his own wine, if he likes, of an
evening," was his first remark. "Either I do it in the
daytime or not at all, Mrs. Bunch. I don't know what it may
be: very like it's the rats, or the wind got into the
cellars; but I'm not so young as I was, and I can't go
through with it as I have done."

"Well, Mr. Parkes, you know it is a surprising place for the
rats, is the Hall."

"I'm not denying that, Mrs. Bunch; and, to be sure, many a
time I've heard the tale from the men in the shipyards about
the rat that could speak. I never laid no confidence in that
before; but to-night, if I'd demeaned myself to lay my ear
to the door of the further bin, I could pretty much have
heard what they was saying."

"Oh, there, Mr. Parkes, I've no patience with your fancies!
Rats talking in the wine-cellar indeed!"

"Well, Mrs. Bunch, I've no wish to argue with you: all I say
is, if you choose to go to the far bin, and lay your ear to
the door, you may prove my words this minute."

"What nonsense you do talk, Mr. Parkes--not fit for children
to listen to! Why, you'll be frightening Master Stephen
there out of his wits."

"What! Master Stephen?" said Parkes, awaking to the
consciousness of the boy's presence. "Master Stephen knows
well enough when I'm a-playing a joke with you, Mrs. Bunch."

In fact, Master Stephen knew much too well to suppose that
Mr. Parkes had in the first instance intended a joke. He was
interested, not altogether pleasantly, in the situation; but
all his questions were unsuccessful in inducing the butler
to give any more detailed account of his experiences in the

* * * * *

We have now arrived at March 24, 1812. It was a day of
curious experiences for Stephen: a windy, noisy day, which
filled the house and the gardens with a restless impression.
As Stephen stood by the fence of the grounds, and looked out
into the park, he felt as if an endless procession of unseen
people were sweeping past him on the wind, borne on
resistlessly and aimlessly, vainly striving to stop
themselves, to catch at something that might arrest their
flight and bring them once again into contact with the
living world of which they had formed a part. After luncheon
that day Mr. Abney said:

"Stephen, my boy, do you think you could manage to come to
me to-night as late as eleven o'clock in my study? I shall
be busy until that time, and I wish to show you something
connected with your future life which it is most important
that you should know. You are not to mention this matter to
Mrs. Bunch nor to anyone else in the house; and you had
better go to your room at the usual time."

Here was a new excitement added to life: Stephen eagerly
grasped at the opportunity of sitting up till eleven
o'clock. He looked in at the library door on his way
upstairs that evening, and saw a brazier, which he had often
noticed in the corner of the room, moved out before the
fire; an old silver-gilt cup stood on the table, filled with
red wine, and some written sheets of paper lay near it. Mr.
Abney was sprinkling some incense on the brazier from a
round silver box as Stephen passed, but did not seem to
notice his step.

The wind had fallen, and there was a still night and a full
moon. At about ten o'clock Stephen was standing at the open
window of his bedroom, looking out over the country. Still
as the night was, the mysterious population of the distant
moonlit woods was not yet lulled to rest. From time to time
strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers sounded
from across the mere. They might be the notes of owls or
water-birds, yet they did not quite resemble either sound.
Were not they coming nearer? Now they sounded from the
nearer side of the water, and in a few moments they seemed
to be floating about among the shrubberies. Then they
ceased; but just as Stephen was thinking of shutting the
window and resuming his reading of _Robinson Crusoe_, he
caught sight of two figures standing on the gravelled
terrace that ran along the garden side of the Hall--the
figures of a boy and girl, as it seemed; they stood side by
side, looking up at the windows. Something in the form of
the girl recalled irresistibly his dream of the figure in
the bath. The boy inspired him with more acute fear.

Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands
clasped over her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black
hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an
appearance of menace and of unappeasable hunger and longing.
The moon shone upon his almost transparent hands, and
Stephen saw that the nails were fearfully long and that the
light shone through them. As he stood with his arms thus
raised, he disclosed a terrifying spectacle. On the left
side of his chest there opened a black and gaping rent; and
there fell upon Stephen's brain, rather than upon his ear,
the impression of one of those hungry and desolate cries
that he had heard resounding over the woods of Aswarby all
that evening. In another moment this dreadful pair had moved
swiftly and noiselessly over the dry gravel, and he saw them
no more.

Inexpressibly frightened as he was, he determined to take
his candle and go down to Mr. Abney's study, for the hour
appointed for their meeting was near at hand. The study or
library opened out of the front hall on one side, and
Stephen, urged on by his terrors, did not take long in
getting there. To effect an entrance was not so easy. The
door was not locked, he felt sure, for the key was on the
outside of it as usual. His repeated knocks produced no
answer. Mr. Abney was engaged: he was speaking. What! why
did he try to cry out? and why was the cry choked in his
throat? Had he, too, seen the mysterious children? But now
everything was quiet, and the door yielded to Stephen's
terrified and frantic pushing.

* * * * *

On the table in Mr. Abney's study certain papers were found
which explained the situation to Stephen Elliott when he was
of an age to understand them. The most important sentences
were as follows:

"It was a belief very strongly and generally held by the
ancients--of whose wisdom in these matters I have had such
experience as induces me to place confidence in their
assertions--that by enacting certain processes, which to us
modems have something of a barbaric complexion, a very
remarkable enlightenment of the spiritual faculties in man
may be attained: that, for example, by absorbing the
personalities of a certain number of his fellow-creatures,
an individual may gain a complete ascendancy over those
orders of spiritual beings which control the elemental
forces of our universe.

"It is recorded of Simon Magus that he was able to fly in
the air, to become invisible, or to assume any form he
pleased, by the agency of the soul of a boy whom, to use the
libellous phrase employed by the author of the _Clementine
Recognitions_, he had 'murdered.' I find it set down,
moreover, with considerable detail in the writings of Hermes
Trismegistus, that similar happy results may be produced by
the absorption of the hearts of not less than three human
beings below the age of twenty-one years. To the testing of
the truth of this receipt I have devoted the greater part of
the last twenty years, selecting as the _corpora vilia_ of
my experiment such persons as could conveniently be removed
without occasioning a sensible gap in society. The first
step I effected by the removal of one Phoebe Stanley, a girl
of gipsy extraction, on March 24, 1792. The second, by the
removal of a wandering Italian lad, named Giovanni Paoli, on
the night of March 23, 1805. The final 'victim'--to employ a
word repugnant in the highest degree to my feelings--must be
my cousin, Stephen Elliott. His day must be this March 24,

"The best means of effecting the required absorption is to
remove the heart from the _living_ subject, to reduce it to
ashes, and to mingle them with about a pint of some red
wine, preferably port. The remains of the first two
subjects, at least, it will be well to conceal: a disused
bathroom or wine-cellar will be found convenient for such a
purpose. Some annoyance may be experienced from the psychic
portion of the subjects, which popular language dignifies
with the name of ghosts. But the man of philosophic
temperament--to whom alone the experiment is
appropriate--will be little prone to attach importance to
the feeble efforts of these beings to wreak their vengeance
on him. I contemplate with the liveliest satisfaction the
enlarged and emancipated existence which the experiment, if
successful, will confer on me; not only placing me beyond
the reach of human justice (so-called), but eliminating to a
great extent the prospect of death itself."

* * * * *

Mr. Abney was found in his chair, his head thrown back, his
face stamped with an expression of rage, fright, and mortal
pain. In his left side was a terrible lacerated wound,
exposing the heart. There was no blood on his hands, and a
long knife that lay on the table was perfectly clean. A
savage wild-cat might have inflicted the injuries. The
window of the study was open, and it was the opinion of the
coroner that Mr. Abney had met his death by the agency of
some wild creature. But Stephen Elliott's study of the
papers I have quoted led him to a very different conclusion.


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