Haunted Short Stories – 14 – ‘Rats’ by Montague Rhodes James (1931)
Courtesy of A Passion for Horror- Steve Calvert
‘And if you was to walk through the bedrooms now, you’d see the ragged, mouldy bedclothes a-heaving and a-heaving like seas.’ ‘And a-heaving and a-heaving with what?’ he says. Why, with the rats under ’em.’
But was it with the rats? I ask, because in another case it was not. I cannot put a date to the story, but I was young when I heard it, and the teller was old. It is an ill-proportioned tale, but that is my fault, not his.
It happened in Suffolk, near the coast. In a place where the road makes a sudden dip and then a sudden rise; as you Go northward, at the top of that rise, stands a house on the left of the road. It is a tall red-brick house, narrow for its height; perhaps it was built about 1770. The top of the front has a low triangular pediment with a round window in the centre. Behind it are stables and offices, and such garden as it has is behind them. Scraggy Scotch firs are near it: an expanse of gorse-covered land stretches away from it. It commands a view of the distant sea from the upper windows of the front. A sign on a post stands before the door; or did so stand, for though it was an inn of repute once, I believe it is so no longer.
Story continues after the break:
To this inn came my acquaintance, Mr Thomson, when he was a young man, on a fine spring day, coming from the University of Cambridge, and desirous of solitude in tolerable quarters and time for reading. These he found, for the landlord and his wife had been in service and could make a visitor comfortable, and there was no one else staying in the inn. He had a large room on the first floor commanding the road and the view, and if it faced east, why, that could not be helped; the house was well built and warm.
He spent very tranquil and uneventful days: work all the morning, an afternoon perambulation of the country round, a little conversation with country company or the people of the inn in the evening over the then fashionable drink of brandy and water, a little more reading and writing, and bed; and he would have been content that this should continue for the full month he had at disposal, so well was his work progressing, and so fine was the April of that year-which I have reason to believe was that which Orlando Whistlecraft chronicles in his weather record as the ‘Charming Year’.
One of his walks took him along the northern road, which stands high and traverses a wide common, called a heath. On the bright afternoon when he first chose this direction his eye caught a white object some hundreds of yards to the left of the road, and he felt it necessary to make sure what this might be. It was not long before he was standing by it, and found himself looking at a square block of white stone fashioned somewhat like the base of a pillar, with a square hole in the upper surface. Just such another you may see at this day on Thetford Heath. After taking stock of it he contemplated for a few minutes the view, which offered a church tower or two, some red roofs of cottages and windows winking in the sun, and the expanse of sea-also with an occasional wink and gleam upon it-and so pursued his way.
In the desultory evening talk in the bar, he asked why the white stone was there on the common.
‘A old-fashioned thing, that is,’ said the landlord (Mr Betts), ‘we was none of us alive when that was put there.’ ‘That’s right,’ said another. ‘It stands pretty high,’ said Mr Thomson, ‘I dare say a sea-mark was on it some time back.’ ‘Ah! yes,’ Mr Betts agreed, ‘I ‘ave ‘eard they could see it from the boats; but whatever there was, it’s fell to bits this long time.’ ‘Good job too,’ said a third, ”twarn’t a lucky mark, by what the old men used to say; not lucky for the fishin’, I mean to say.’ ‘Why ever not?’ said Thomson. ‘Well, I never see it myself,’ was the answer, ‘but they ‘ad some funny ideas, what I mean, peculiar, them old chaps, and I shouldn’t wonder but what they made away with it theirselves.’
It was impossible to get anything clearer than this: the company, never very voluble, fell silent, and when next someone spoke it was of village affairs and crops. Mr Betts was the speaker.
Not every day did Thomson consult his health by taking a country walk. One very fine afternoon found him busily writing at three o’clock. Then he stretched himself and rose, and walked out of his room into the passage. Facing him was another room, then the stair-head, then two more rooms, one looking out to the back, the other to the south. At the south end of the passage was a window, to which he went, considering with himself that it was rather a shame to waste such a fine afternoon. However, work was paramount just at the moment; he thought he would just take five minutes off and go back to it, and those-five minutes he would employ-the Bettses could not possibly object-to looking at the other rooms in the passage, which he had never seen. Nobody at all, it seemed, was indoors; probably, as it was market day, they were all gone to the town, except perhaps a maid in the bar. Very still the house was, and the sun shone really hot; early flies buzzed in the window-panes. So he explored. The room facing his own was undistinguished except for an old print of Bury St Edmunds; the two next him on his side of the passage were gay and clean, with one window apiece, whereas his had two. Remained the south-west room, opposite to the last which he had entered. This was locked; but Thomson was in a mood of quite indefensible curiosity, and feeling confident that there could be no damaging secrets in a place so easily got at, he proceeded to fetch the key of his own room, and when that did not answer, to collect the keys of the other three. One of them fitted, and he opened the door. The room had two windows looking south and west, so it was as bright and the sun as hot upon it as could be. Here there was no carpet, but bare boards; no pictures, no washing-stand, only a bed, in the farther corner: an iron bed, with mattress and bolster, covered with a bluish check counterpane. As featureless a room as you can well imagine, and yet there was something that made Thomson close the door very quickly and yet quietly behind him and lean against the window-sill in the passage, actually quivering all over. It was this, that under the counterpane someone lay, and not only lay, but stirred. That it was some one and not some thing was certain, because the shape of a head was unmistakable on the bolster; and yet it was all covered, and no one lies with covered head but a dead person; and this was not dead, not truly dead, for it heaved and shivered. If he had seen these things in dusk or by the light of a flickering candle, Thomson could have comforted himself and talked of fancy. On this bright day that was impossible. What was to be done? First, lock the door at all costs. Very gingerly he approached it and bending down listened, holding his breath; perhaps there might be a sound of heavy breathing, and a prosaic explanation. There was absolute silence. But as, with a rather tremulous hand, he put the key into its hole and turned it, it rattled, and on the instant a stumbling padding tread was heard coming towards the door. Thomson fled like a rabbit to his room and locked himself in: futile enough, he knew it was; would doors and locks be any obstacle to what he suspected? but it was all he could think of at the moment, and in fact nothing happened; only there was a time of acute suspense-followed by a misery of doubt as to what to do. The impulse, of course, was to slip away as soon as possible from a house which contained such an inmate. But only the day before he had said he should be staying for at least a week more, and how if he changed plans could he avoid the suspicion of having pried into places where he certainly had no business? Moreover, either the Bettses knew all about the inmate, and yet did not leave the house, or knew nothing, which equally meant that there was nothing to be afraid of, or knew just enough to make them shut up the room, but not enough to weigh on their spirits: in any of these cases it seemed that not much was to be feared, and certainly so far as he had had no sort of ugly experience. On the whole the line of least resistance was to stay.
Well, he stayed out his week. Nothing took him past that door, and, often as he would pause in a quiet hour of day or night in the passage and listen, and listen, no sound whatever issued from that direction. You might have thought that Thomson would have made some attempt at ferreting out stories connected with the inn-hardly perhaps from Betts, but from the parson of the parish, or old people in the village; but no, the reticence which commonly falls on people who have had strange experiences, and believe in them, was upon him. Nevertheless, as the end of his stay drew near, his yearning after some kind of explanation grew more and more acute. On his solitary walks he persisted in planning out some way, the least obtrusive, of getting another daylight glimpse into that room, and eventually arrived at this scheme. He would leave by an afternoon train-about four o’clock. When his fly was waiting, and his luggage on it, he would make one last expedition upstairs to look round his own room and see if anything was left unpacked, and then, with that key, which he had contrived to oil (as if that made any difference!), the door should once more be opened, for a moment, and shut.
So it worked out. The bill was paid, the consequent small talk gone through while the fly was loaded: ‘pleasant part of the country-been very comfortable, thanks to you and Mrs Betts-hope to come back some time’, on one side: on the other, ‘very glad you’ve found satisfaction, sir, done our best-always glad to ‘ave your good word-very much favoured we’ve been with the weather, to be sure.’ Then, ‘I’ll just take a look upstairs in case I’ve left a book or something out-no, don’t trouble, I’ll be back in a minute.’ And as noiselessly as possible he stole to the door and opened it. The shattering of the illusion! He almost laughed aloud. Propped, or you might say sitting, on the edge of the bed was-nothing in the round world but a scarecrow! A scarecrow out of the garden, of course, dumped into the deserted room…Yes; but here amusement ceased. Have scarecrows bare bony feet? Do their heads loll on to their shoulders? Have they iron collars and links of chain about their necks? Can they get up and move, if never so stiffly, across a floor, with wagging head and arms close at their sides? and shiver?
The slam of the door, the dash to the stair-head, the leap downstairs, were followed by a faint. Awakening, Thomson saw Betts standing over him with the brandy bottle and a very reproachful face. ‘You shouldn’t a done so, sir, really you shouldn’t. It ain’t a kind way to act by persons as done the best they could for you.’ Thomson heard words of this kind, but what he said in reply he did not know. Mr Betts, and perhaps even more Mrs Betts, found it hard to accept his apologies and his assurances that he would say no word that could damage the good name of the house. However, they were accepted. Since the train could not now be caught, it was arranged that Thomson should be driven to the town to sleep there. Before he went the Bettses told him what little they knew. ‘They says he was landlord ‘ere a long time back, and was in with the ‘ighwaymen that ‘ad their beat about the ‘eath. That’s how he come by his end: ‘ung in chains, they say, up where you see that stone what the gallus stood in. Yes, the fishermen made away with that, I believe, because they see it out at sea and it kep’ the fish off, according to their idea. Yes, we ‘ad the account from the people that ‘ad the ‘ouse before we come. “You keep that room shut up,” they says, “but don’t move the bed out, and you’ll find there won’t be no trouble.” And no more there ‘as been; not once he haven’t come out into the ‘ouse, though what he may do now there ain’t no sayin’. Anyway, you’re the first I know on that’s seen him since we’ve been ‘ere: I never set eyes on him myself, nor don’t want. And ever since we’ve made the servants’ rooms in the stablin’, we ain’t ‘ad no difficulty that way. Only I do ‘ope, sir, as you’ll keep a close tongue, considerin’ ‘ow an ‘ouse do get talked about’: with more to this effect.
The promise of silence was kept for many years. The occasion of my hearing the story at last was this: that when Mr Thomson came to stay with my father it fell to me to show him to his room, and instead of letting me open the door for him, he stepped forward and threw it open himself, and then for some moments stood in the doorway holding up his candle and looking narrowly into the interior. Then he seemed to recollect himself and said: ‘I beg your pardon. Very absurd, but I can’t help doing that, for a particular reason.’ What that reason was I heard some days afterwards, and you have heard now.