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The Ash Tree

M. R. James



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Everyone who has travelled over Eastern England knows the smaller
country-houses with which it is studded - the rather dank little buildings,
usually in the Italian style, surrounded with parks of some eighty to a
hundred acres. For me they have always had a very strong attraction: with
the grey paling of split oak, the noble trees, the meres with their
reed-beds, and the line of distant woods. Then, I like the pillared portico
- perhaps stuck on to a red-brick Queen Anne house which has been faced with
stucco to bring it into line with the "Grecian" taste of the end of the
eighteenth century; the hall inside, going up to the roof, which hall ought
always to be provided with a gallery and a small organ. I like the library,
too, where you may find anything from a Psalter of the thirteenth century to
a Shakespeare quarto. I like the pictures, of course; and perhaps most of
all I like fancying what life in such a house was when it was first built,
and in the piping times of landlords' prosperity, and not least now, when,
if money is not so plentiful, taste is more varied and life quite as
interesting. I wish to have one of these houses, and enough money to keep it
together and entertain my friends in it modestly.

But this is a digression. I have to tell you of a curious series of
events which happened in such a house as I have tried to describe. It is
Castringham Hall in Suffolk. I think a good deal has been done to the
building since the period of my story, but the essential features I have
sketched are still there - Italian portico, square block of white house,
older inside than out, park with fringe of woods, and mere. The one feature
that marked out the house from a score of others is gone. As you looked at
it from the park, you saw on the right a great old ash-tree growing within
half a dozen yards of the wall, and almost or quite touching the building
with its branches. I suppose it had stood there ever since Castringham
ceased to be a fortified place, and since the moat was filled in and the
Elizabethan dwelling-house built. At any rate, it had wellnigh attained its
full dimensions in the year 1690.

In that year the district in which the Hall is situated was the scene of
a number of witch-trials. It will be long, I think, before we arrive at a
just estimate of the amount of solid reason - if there was any - which lay
at the root of the universal fear of witches in old times. Whether the
persons accused of this offence really did imagine that they were possessed
of unusual powers of any kind; or whether they had the will at least, if not
the power, of doing mischief to their neighbours; or whether all the
confessions, of which there are so many, were extorted by the mere cruelty
of the witch-finders - these are questions which are not, I fancy, yet
solved. And the present narrative gives me pause. I cannot altogether sweep
it away as mere invention. The reader must judge for himself.

Castringham contributed a victim to the auto-da-fŽ. Mrs Mothersole was
her name, and she differed from the ordinary run of village witches only in
being rather better off and in a more influential position. Efforts were
made to save her by several reputable farmers of the parish. They did their
best to testify to her character, and showed considerable anxiety as to the
verdict of the jury.

But what seems to have been fatal to the woman was the evidence of the
then proprietor of Castringham Hall - Sir Matthew Fell. He deposed to having
watched her on three different occasions from his window, at the full of the
moon, gathering sprigs "from the ash-tree near my house". She had climbed
into the branches, clad only in her shift, and was cutting off small twigs
with a peculiarly curved knife, and as she did so she seemed to be talking
to herself. On each occasion Sir Matthew had done his best to capture the
woman, but she had always taken alarm at some accidental noise he had made,
and all he could see when he got down to the garden was a hare running
across the park in the direction of the village.

On the third night he had been at the pains to follow at his best speed,
and had gone straight to Mrs Mothersole's house; but he had had to wait a
quarter of an hour battering at her door, and then she had come out very
cross, and apparently very sleepy, as if just out of bed; and he had no good
explanation to offer of his visit.

Mainly on this evidence, though there was much more of a less striking
and unusual kind from other parishioners, Mrs Mothersole was found guilty
and condemned to die. She was hanged a week after the trial, with five or
six more unhappy creatures, at Bury St Edmunds.

Sir Matthew Fell, then Deputy-Sheriff, was present at the execution. It
was a damp, drizzly March morning when the cart made its way up the rough
grass hill outside Northgate, where the gallows stood. The other victims
were apathetic or broken down with misery; but Mrs Mothersole was, as in
life so in death, of a very different temper. Her "poysonous Rage", as a
reporter of the time puts it, "did so work upon the Bystanders - yea, even
upon the Hangman - that it was constantly affirmed of all that saw her that
she presented the living Aspect of a mad Divell. Yet she offer'd no
Resistance to the Officers of the Law; onely she looked upon those that laid
Hands upon her with so direfull and venomous an Aspect that - as one of them
afterwards assured me - the meer Thought of it preyed inwardly upon his Mind
for six Months after."

However, all that she is reported to have said was the seemingly
meaningless words: "There will be guests at the Hall." Which she repeated
more than once in an undertone.

Sir Matthew Fell was not unimpressed by the bearing of the woman. He had
some talk upon the matter with the Vicar of his parish, with whom he
travelled home after the assize business was over. His evidence at the trial
had not been very willingly given; he was not specially infected with the
witch-finding mania, but he declared, then and afterwards, that he could not
give any other account of the matter than that he had given, and that he
could not possibly have been mistaken as to what he saw. The whole
transaction had been repugnant to him, for he was a man who liked to be on
pleasant terms with those about him; but he saw a duty to be done in this
business, and he had done it. That seems to have been the gist of his
sentiments, and the Vicar applauded it, as any reasonable man must have

A few weeks after, when the moon of May was at the full, Vicar and Squire
met again in the park, and walked to the Hall together. Lady Fell was with
her mother, who was dangerously ill, and Sir Matthew was alone at home; so
the Vicar, Mr Crome, was easily persuaded to take a late supper at the Hall.

Sir Matthew was not very good company this evening. The talk ran chiefly
on family and parish matters, and, as luck would have it, Sir Matthew made a
memorandum in writing of certain wishes or intentions of his regarding his
estates, which afterwards proved exceedingly useful.

When Mr Crome thought of starting for home, about half-past nine o'clock,
Sir Matthew and he took a preliminary turn on the gravelled walk at the back
of the house. The only incident that struck Mr Crome was this: they were in
sight of the ash-tree which I described as growing near the windows of the
building, when Sir Matthew stopped and said:

"What is that that runs up and down the stem of the ash? It is never a
squirrel? They will all be in their nests by now."

The Vicar looked and saw the moving creature, but he could make nothing
of its colour in the moonlight. The sharp outline, however, seen for an
instant, was imprinted on his brain, and he could have sworn, he said,
though it sounded foolish, that, squirrel or not, it had more than four

Still, not much was to be made of the momentary vision, and the two men
parted. They may have met since then, but it was not for a score of years.

Next day Sir Matthew Fell was not downstairs at six in the morning, as
was his custom, nor at seven, nor yet at eight. Hereupon the servants went
and knocked at his chamber door. I need not prolong the description of their
anxious listenings and renewed batterings on the panels. The door was opened
at last from the outside, and they found their master dead and black. So
much you have guessed. That there were any marks of violence did not at the
moment appear; but the window was open.

One of the men went to fetch the parson, and then by his directions rode
on to give notice to the coroner. Mr Crome himself went as quick as he might
to the Hall, and was shown to the room where the dead man lay. He has left
some notes among his papers which show how genuine a respect and sorrow was
felt for Sir Matthew, and there is also this passage, which I transcribe for
the sake of the light it throws upon the course of events, and also upon the
common beliefs of the time:

"There was not any the least Trace of an Entrance having been
forc'd to the Chamber: but the Casement stood open, as my poor
Friend would always have it in this Season. He had his Evening
Drink of small Ale in a silver vessel of about a pint measure, and
tonight had not drunk it out. This Drink was examined by the
Physician from Bury, a Mr Hodgkins, who could not, however, as he
afterwards declar'd upon his Oath, before the Coroner's quest,
discover that any matter of a venomous kind was present in it.
For, as was natural, in the great Swelling and Blackness of the
Corpse, there was talk made among the Neighbours of Poyson. The
Body was very much Disorder'd as it laid in the Bed, being twisted
after so extream a sort as gave too probable Conjecture that my
worthy Friend and Patron had expir'd in great Pain and Agony. And
what is as yet unexplain'd, and to myself the Argument of some
Horrid and Artfull Designe in the Perpetrators of this Barbarous
Murther, was this, that the Women which were entrusted with the
laying-out of the Corpse and washing it, being both sad Persons
and very well Respected in their Mournfull Profession, came to me
in a great Pain and Distress both of Mind and Body, saying, what
was indeed confirmed upon the first View, that they had no sooner
touch'd the Breast of the Corpse with their naked Hands than they
were sensible of a more than ordinary violent Smart and Acheing in
their Palms, which, with their whole Forearms, in no long time
swell'd so immoderately, the Pain still continuing, that, as
afterwards proved, during many weeks they were forc'd to lay by
the exercise of their Calling; and yet no mark seen on the Skin.

"Upon hearing this, I sent for the Physician, who was still in
the House, and we made as carefull a Proof as we were able by the
Help of a small Magnifying Lens of Crystal of the condition of the
Skinn on this Part of the Body: but could not detect with the
Instrument we had any Matter of Importance beyond a couple of
small Punctures or Pricks, which we then concluded were the Spotts
by which the Poyson might be introduced, remembering that Ring of
Pope Borgia, with other known Specimens of the Horrid Art of the
Italian Poysoners of the last age.

"So much is to be said of the Symptoms seen on the Corpse. As
to what I am to add, it is meerly my own Experiment, and to be
left to Posterity to judge whether there be anything of Value
therein. There was on the Table by the Beddside a Bible of the
small size, in which my Friend - punctuall as in Matters of less
Moment, so in this more weighty one - used nightly, and upon his
First Rising, to read a sett Portion. And I taking it up - not
without a Tear duly paid to him which from the Study of this
poorer Adumbration was now pass'd to the contemplation of its
great Originall - it came into my Thoughts, as at such moments of
Helplessness we are prone to catch at any the least Glimmer that
makes promise of Light, to make trial of that old and by many
accounted Superstitious Practice of drawing the Sortes: of which a
Principall Instance, in the case of his late Sacred Majesty the
Blessed Martyr King Charles and my Lord Falkland, was now much
talked of. I must needs admit that by my Trial not much Assistance
was afforded me: yet, as the Cause and Origin of these Dreadful
Events may hereafter be search'd out, I set down the Results, in
the case it may be found that they pointed the true Quarter of the
Mischief to a quicker Intelligence than my own.

" I made, then, three trials, opening the Book and placing my
Finger upon certain Words: which gave in the first these words,
from Luke xiii 7, Cut it down; in the second, Isaiah xiii 20, It
shall never be inhabited; and upon the third Experiment, Job xxxix
30, Her young ones also suck up blood."

This is all that need be quoted from Mr Crome's papers. Sir Matthew Fell
was duly coffined and laid into the earth, and his funeral sermon, preached
by Mr Crome on the following Sunday, has been printed under the title of
"The Unsearchable Way; or, England's Danger and the Malicious Dealings of
Anti-christ", it being the Vicar's view, as well as that most commonly held
in the neighbourhood, that the Squire was the victim of a recrudescence of
the Popish Plot.

His son, Sir Matthew the second, succeeded to the title and estates. And
so ends the first act of the Castringham tragedy. It is to be mentioned,
though the fact is not surprising, that the new Baronet did not occupy the
room in which his father had died. Nor, indeed, was it slept in by anyone
but an occasional visitor during the whole of his occupation. He died in
1735, and I do not find that anything particular marked his reign, save a
curiously constant mortality among his cattle and livestock in general,
which showed a tendency to increase slightly as time went on.

Those who are interested in the details will find a statistical account
in a letter to the Gentleman's Magazine of 1772, which draws the facts from
the Baronet's own papers. He put an end to it at last by a very simple
expedient, that of shutting up all his beasts in sheds at night, and keeping
no sheep in his park. For he had noticed that nothing was ever attacked that
spent the night indoors. After that the disorder confined itself to wild
birds, and beasts of chase. But as we have no good account of the symptoms,
and as all-night watching was quite unproductive of any clue, I do not dwell
on what the Suffolk farmers called the "Castringham sickness".

The second Sir Matthew died in 1735, as I said, and was duly succeeded by
his son, Sir Richard. It was in his time that the great family pew was built
out on the north side of the parish church. So large were the Squire's ideas
that several of the graves on that unhallowed side of the building had to be
disturbed to satisfy his requirements. Among them was that of Mrs
Mothersole, the position of which was accurately known, thanks to a note on
a plan of the church and yard, both made by Mr Crome.

A certain amount of interest was excited in the village when it was known
that the famous witch, who was still remembered by a few, was to be exhumed.
And the feeling of surprise, and indeed disquiet, was very strong when it
was found that, though her coffin was fairly sound and unbroken, there was
no trace whatever inside it of body, bones, or dust. Indeed, it is a curious
phenomenon, for at the time of her burying no such things were dreamt of as
resurrection-men, and it is difficult to conceive any rational motive for
stealing a body otherwise than for the uses of the dissecting-room.

The incident revived for a time all the stories of witch-trials and of
the exploits of the witches, dormant for forty years, and Sir Richard's
orders that the coffin should be burnt were thought by a good many to be
rather foolhardy, though they were duly carried out.

Sir Richard was a pestilent innovator, it is certain. Before his time the
Hall had been a fine block of the mellowest red brick; but Sir Richard had
travelled in Italy and become infected with the Italian taste, and, having
more money than his predecessors, he determined to leave an Italian palace
where he had found an English house. So stucco and ashlar masked the brick;
some indifferent Roman marbles were planted about in the entrance-hall and
gardens; a reproduction of the Sibyl's temple at Tivoli was erected on the
opposite bank of the mere; and Castringham took on an entirely new, and, I
must say, a less engaging, aspect. But it was much admired, and served as a
model to a good many of the neighbouring gentry in after years.

One morning (it was in 1754) Sir Richard woke after a night of
discomfort. It had been windy, and his chimney had smoked persistently, and
yet it was so cold that he must keep up a fire. Also something had so
rattled about the window that no man could get a moment's peace. Further,
there was the prospect of several guests of position arriving in the course
of the day, who would expect sport of some kind, and the inroads of the
distemper (which continued among his game) had been lately so serious that
he was afraid for his reputation as a game-preserver. But what really
touched him most nearly was the other matter of his sleepless night. He
could certainly not sleep in that room again.

That was the chief subject of his meditations at breakfast, and after it
he began a systematic examination of the rooms to see which would suit his
notions best. It was long before he found one. This had a window with an
eastern aspect and that with a northern; this door the servants would be
always passing, and he did not like the bedstead in that. No, he must have a
room with a western look-out, so that the sun could not wake him early, and
it must be out of the way of the business of the house. The housekeeper was
at the end of her resources.

"Well, Sir Richard," she said, "you know that there is but one room like
that in the house."

"Which may that be?" said Sir Richard. "And that is Sir Matthew's - the
West Chamber."

"Well, put me in there, for there I"ll lie tonight," said her master.
"Which way is it? Here, to be sure"; and he hurried off.

"Oh, Sir Richard, but no one has slept there these forty years. The air
has hardly been changed since Sir Matthew died there." Thus she spoke, and
rustled after him.

"Come, open the door, Mrs Chiddock. I'll see the chamber, at least."

So it was opened, and, indeed, the smell was very close and earthy. Sir
Richard crossed to the window, and, impatiently, as was his wont, threw the
shutters back, and flung open the casement. For this end of the house was
one which the alterations had barely touched, grown up as it was with the
great ash-tree, and being otherwise concealed from view.

"Air it, Mrs Chiddock, all today, and move my bed-furniture in in the
afternoon. Put the Bishop of Kilmore in my old room."

"Pray, Sir Richard," said a new voice, breaking in on this speech, "might
I have the favour of a moment's interview?"

Sir Richard turned round and saw a man in black in the doorway, who

"I must ask your indulgence for this intrusion, Sir Richard. You will,
perhaps, hardly remember me. My name is William Crome, and my grandfather
was Vicar here in your grandfather's time."

"Well, sir," said Sir Richard, "the name of Crome is always a passport to
Castringham. I am glad to renew a friendship of two generations" standing.
In what can I serve you? for your hour of calling - and, if I do not mistake
you, your bearing - shows you to be in some haste."

"That is no more than the truth, sir. I am riding from Norwich to Bury St
Edmunds with what haste I can make, and I have called in on my way to leave
with you some papers which we have but just come upon in looking over what
my grandfather left at his death. It is thought you may find some matters of
family interest in them."

"You are mighty obliging, Mr Crome, and, if you will be so good as to
follow me to the parlour, and drink a glass of wine, we will take a first
look at these same papers together. And you, Mrs Chiddock, as I said, be
about airing this chamber . . . Yes, it is here my grandfather died . . .
Yes, the tree, perhaps, does make the place a little dampish . . . No; I do
not wish to listen to any more. Make no difficulties, I beg. You have your
orders - go. Will you follow me, sir?"

They went to the study. The packet which young Mr Crome had brought - he
was then just become a Fellow of Clare Hall in Cambridge, I may say, and
subsequently brought out a respectable edition of Polyaenus - contained
among other things the notes which the old Vicar had made upon the occasion
of Sir Matthew Fell"s death. And for the first time Sir Richard was
confronted with the enigmatical Sortes Biblicae which you have heard. They
amused him a good deal.

"Well," he said, "my grandfather's Bible gave one prudent piece of advice
- Cut it down. If that stands for the ash-tree, he may rest assured I shall
not neglect it. Such a nest of catarrhs and agues was never seen."

The parlour contained the family books, which, pending the arrival of a
collection which Sir Richard had made in Italy, and the building of a proper
room to receive them, were not many in number.

Sir Richard looked up from the paper to the bookcase.

"I wonder," says he, "whether the old prophet is there yet? I fancy I see

Crossing the room, he took out a dumpy Bible, which, sure enough, bore on
the flyleaf the inscription: "To Matthew Fell, from his Loving Godmother,
Anne Aldous, 2 September, 1659."

"It would be no bad plan to test him again, Mr Crome. I will wager w get
a couple of names in the Chronicles. H'm! what have we here? "Thou shalt
seek me in the morning, and I shall not be." Well, well! Your grandfather
would have made a fine omen of that, hey? No more prophets for me! They are
all in a tale. And now, Mr Crome, I am infinitely obliged to you for your
packet. You will, I fear, be impatient to get on. Pray allow me - another

So with offers of hospitality, which were genuinely meant (for Sir
Richard thought well of the young man's address and manner), they parted.

In the afternoon came the guests - the Bishop of Kilmore, Lady Mary
Hervey, Sir William Kentfield, etc. Dinner at five, wine, cards, supper, and
dispersal to bed.

Next morning Sir Richard is disinclined to take his gun with the rest. He
talks with the Bishop of Kilmore. This prelate, unlike a good many of the
Irish Bishops of his day, had visited his see, and, indeed, resided there
for some considerable time. This morning, as the two were walking along the
terrace and talking over the alterations and improvements in the house, the
Bishop said, pointing to the window of the West Room:

"You could never get one of my Irish flock to occupy that room, Sir

"Why is that, my lord? It is, in fact, my own."

"Well, our Irish peasantry will always have it that it brings the worst
of luck to sleep near an ash-tree, and you have a fine growth of ash not two
yards from your chamber window. Perhaps," the Bishop went on, with a smile,
"it has given you a touch of its quality already, for you do not seem, if I
may say it, so much the fresher for your night's rest as your friends would
like to see you."

"That, or something else, it is true, cost me my sleep from twelve to
four, my lord. But the tree is to come down tomorrow, so I shall not hear
much more from it."

"I applaud your determination. It can hardly be wholesome to have the air
you breathe strained, as it were, through all that leafage."

"Your lordship is right there, I think. But I had not my window open last
night. It was rather the noise that went on - no doubt from the twigs
sweeping the glass - that kept me open-eyed."

"I think that can hardly be. Sir Richard. Here - you see it from this
point. None of these nearest branches even can touch your casement unless
there were a gale, and there was none of that last night. They miss the
panes by a foot."

"No, sir, true. What, then, will it be, I wonder, that scratched and
rustled so - ay, and covered the dust on my sill with lines and marks?"

At last they agreed that the rats must have come up through the ivy. That
was the Bishop's idea, and Sir Richard jumped at it.

So the day passed quietly, and night came, and the party dispersed to
their rooms, and wished Sir Richard a better night.

And now we are in his bedroom, with the light out and the Squire in bed.
The room is over the kitchen, and the night outside still and warm, so the
window stands open.

There is very little light about the bedstead, but there is a strange
movement there; it seems as if Sir Richard were moving his head rapidly to
and fro with only the slightest possible sound. And now you would guess, so
deceptive is the half-darkness, that he had several heads, round and
brownish, which move back and forward, even as low as his chest. It is a
horrible illusion. Is it nothing more? There! something drops off the bed
with a soft plump, like a kitten, and is out of the window in a flash;
another - four - and after that there is quiet again.

"Thou shalt seek me in the morning, and I shall not be."

As with Sir Matthew, so with Sir Richard - dead and black in his bed! A
pale and silent party of guests and servants gathered under the window when
the news was known. Italian poisoners, Popish emissaries, infected air - all
these and more guesses were hazarded, and the Bishop of Kilmore looked at
the tree, in the fork of whose lower boughs a white tom-cat was crouching,
looking down the hollow which years had gnawed in the trunk. It was watching
something inside the tree with great interest.

Suddenly it got up and craned over the hole. Then a bit of the edge on
which it stood gave way, and it went slithering in. Everyone looked up at
the noise of the fall.

It is known to most of us that a cat can cry; but few of us have heard, I
hope, such a yell as came out of the trunk of the great ash. Two or three
screams there were - the witnesses are not sure which - and then a slight
and muffled noise of some commotion or struggling was all that came. But
Lady Mary Hervey fainted outright, and the housekeeper stopped her ears and
fled till she fell on the terrace,

The Bishop of Kilmore and Sir William Kentfield stayed. Yet even they
were daunted, though it was only at the cry of a cat; and Sir William
swallowed once or twice before he could say:

"There is something more than we know of in that tree, my lord. I am for
an instant search."

And this was agreed upon. A ladder was brought, and one of the gardeners
went up, and, looking down the hollow, could detect nothing but a few dim
indications of something moving. They got a lantern, and let it down by a

"We must get at the bottom of this. My life upon it, my lord, but the
secret of these terrible deaths is there."

Up went the gardener again with the lantern, and let it down the hole
cautiously. They saw the yellow light upon his face as he bent over, and saw
his face struck with an incredulous terror and loathing before he cried out
in a dreadful voice and fell back from the ladder - where, happily, he was
caught by two of the men - letting the lantern fall inside the tree.

He was in a dead faint, and it was some time before any word could be got
from him.

By then they had something else to look at. The lantern must have broken
at the bottom, and the light in it caught upon dry leaves and rubbish that
lay there, for in a few minutes a dense smoke began to come up, and then
flame; and, to be short, the tree was in a blaze.

The bystanders made a ring at some yards' distance, and Sir William and
the Bishop sent men to get what weapons and tools they could; for, clearly,
whatever might be using the tree as its lair would be forced out by the

So it was. First, at the fork, they saw a round body covered with fire -
the size of a man's head - appear very suddenly, then seem to collapse and
fall back. This, five or six times; then a similar ball leapt into the air
and fell on the grass, where after a moment it lay still. The Bishop went as
near as he dared to it, and saw - what but the remains of an enormous
spider, veinous and seared! And, as the fire burned lower down, more
terrible bodies like this began to break out from the trunk, and it was seen
that these were covered with greyish hair.

All that day the ash burned, and until it fell to pieces the men stood
about it, and from time to time killed the brutes as they darted out. At
last there was a long interval when none appeared, and they cautiously
closed in and examined the roots of the tree.

"They found," says the Bishop of Kilmore, "below it a rounded hollow
place in the earth, wherein were two or three bodies of these creatures that
had plainly been smothered by the smoke; and, what is to me more curious, at
the side of this den, against the wall, was crouching the anatomy or
skeleton of a human being, with the skin dried upon the bones, having some
remains of black hair, which was pronounced by those that examined it to be
undoubtedly the body of a woman, and clearly dead for a period of fifty

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