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Whistle

Illustration by James McBryde for "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" (1904).

"Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. The story was read at a Christmas gathering in 1903 then published the following year as part of the anthology Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. The title of the story is taken from a 1793 poem by Robert Burns written to an old Scottish air.

In the story, a young, scientifically-minded college professor finds an old bronze whistle while exploring the ruins of a Knights Templars' preceptory. That night, he blows on the whistle and a vision comes to him of a dark expanse with a lonely figure in its midst. The sound also appears to call up a gust of wind, but the sensible professor dismisses it as a coincidence. More strange incidents follow, however, to shake his disbelief in the supernatural.

"Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" has been adapted for radio and television.

Plot

Professor Parkins of St. James's College has planned a golfing vacation for himself. He will be staying at the Globe Inn in the village of Burnstow on the East Coast. He plans to do some work between golfing, so he has reserved a large room at the inn. A colleague asks him to take a look at the nearby site of the Templars' preceptory to see if it is worth excavating. Another colleague named Rogers, upon hearing the room has two beds, decides to tease the young professor by offering to join him and help keep the ghosts off. Parkins, a serious man and an outspoken rationalist, politely but firmly refuses to joke about ghosts, lest he give credence to such unscientific beliefs.

Parkins arrives at the Globe the next day and settles into his large room. Before retiring, he sets up his work area in the outer side of the room which faces the sea and has windows on three sides. He spends the following day playing golf with another guest at the inn, Colonel Wilson. The Colonel grows ill-tempered in the afternoon, so Parkins decides to walk over to the beach to look for the ruins rather than return to the inn with him.

Parkins stumbles on to the ruins on the way to the shingle beach. The broken ground is covered with depressions and mounds, with the foundation of the preceptory still largely intact at shallow depth. Remembering that the Templars built round churches, Parkins looks around and spots a circular formation of mounds. To the east of the center of the circle is an oblong eminence which appears to be the base of an altar. He scrapes away some earth with his knife and discovers a small rectangular cavity in the masonry. Parkins puts his hand in the hole and finds an old metal tube about four inches long. He puts the artifact in his pocket before heading back to the inn for dinner.

Parkins goes through the shingles to the sandy strip of the beach and walks briskly, going over wooden groynes every few yards. He looks back once and sees someone following him at a distance. The man seems to be running yet does not appear to be making much progress. Although company would be welcome on the lonely beach, Parkins decides not to wait as he is already running late for dinner. He finds Colonel Wilson in a better mood back at the Globe, and they play bridge together after dinner. It is nearly midnight by the time Parkins retires to his room.

Parkins had forgotten about the artifact earlier in his rush to dress for dinner. Now he examines it in the candle light and sees that it is made of bronze and shaped like a dog whistle. He tries to blow on it but finds it caked with dirt on the inside. He takes out his knife and cleans out the dirt carefully over a piece of paper. Then he opens the window to throw out the dirt. The night is clear and he is surprised to see at such a late hour a figure on the shore in front of the inn. He closes the window and takes a closer look at the whistle. It is inscribed on two sides in Latin; FUR FLA FLE BIS on one side and QUIS EST ISTE QUI VENIT on the other. Parkins is unsure of the meaning of the first inscription,[1] but translates the second as "Who is this who is coming?"

Parkins blows on the whistle tentatively. The note, although soft, appears to reach infinite distances. It also causes him to have a vision of a dark windy expanse with a lonely figure in its midst. The vision is broken by a sudden gust of wind against the window. Parkins blows on the whistle again, more boldly this time, but the sound is no louder and no vision follows. The wind gust is so strong now that it blows the window open and blows out the candles. Parkins struggles to close the window. The pressure is so strong that it feels like a burglar trying to force his way in. Then suddenly it slackens and the window bangs shut. Parkins relights the candles and examines the room. Fortunately there are no damages.

The wind continues to blow and Parkins has trouble getting to sleep. As he lies awake, he hears someone else tossing and turning in their bed. He shuts his eyes determined to get some sleep. Every time he does, however, a disturbing picture forms in his closed eyes. He sees a long stretch of shore like the scene from his afternoon walk. The shore is empty at first then a man appears in the distance. The man is running, climbing over groynes and looking back anxiously every few seconds. He is clearly frightened and at the end of his strength. As the man collapses and crouches under a groyne, something else appears far up the shore. The figure, in light-colored fluttering draperies, approaches rapidly. It moves strangely, stopping at intervals and standing upright with arms raised, then running stooped across the beach. When it darts toward the groyne the runner is hiding under, Parkins always fails to keep his eyes shut. After a while, he gives up and lights a match. The noise and the light seem to startle some creatures, and he hears them scurry away from the side of his bed. He begins to read and, before long, falls asleep over the book.

After breakfast the following morning, the maid brings an extra blanket and asks Parkins which bed he wants it put on. Parkins is puzzled to learn that they had to make up both beds because the second bed was disordered as if someone had a poor night.

Out on the golf course, Colonel Wilson comments on the extraordinary wind they had during the night. Where he comes from, the Colonel says to Parkins, people would say someone was whistling for it. Parkins tells the Colonel that he is a strong disbeliever in the supernatural. He theorizes that the superstition about whistling for the wind comes from simple folk giving meaning to coincidences. Then he mentions that he himself was whistling during the night and tells the Colonel about the artifact he found. Colonel Wilson advises Parkins to be careful about using such a thing.

After a full day of golf, Parkins and Colonel Wilson head back to the Globe together in the early evening. As they approach the inn, a boy runs into the Colonel at full speed. He holds on to the Colonel for dear life then, after catching his breath, begins to howl. It appears the child was frightened by something while playing in front of the inn. From his description, Parkins and the Colonel determine that there was a strange figure in white waving from the window of Parkins' room. They send the boy home then go to the room to investigate.

The door is locked. Parkins unlocks it with his key. The room is undisturbed except for the second bed which is in a twisted mess. The maid swears she has not been in the room since the morning. The landlord has the only spare key, and he and his wife assure Parkins that they did not give the key to anyone. The Colonel is silent and pensive during and after dinner. He examines the whistle before retiring to his room and declares he would throw it into the sea if it were his.

There are no blinds or curtains on the windows in Parkins' room, and he is forced to rig up a makeshift screen to keep the moonlight off his bed. He sleeps soundly for a while then wakes to the noise of the screen collapsing. The moon shines directly on his face. He is pondering whether to reconstruct the screen when he hears something moving in the spare bed on the other side of the room. Parkins turns over to look and the noise stops. Then the commotion begins again. It grows till finally a figure sits up in what should have been an empty bed.

Whistle and I'll come to you illustration

Illustration by James McBryde for "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" (1904).

Terrified, Parkins dashes to the window and picks up the stick he had used to prop up his screen. The figure spreads its arms and, with a sudden smooth motion, positions itself between the two beds, blocking Parkins' access to the door. Then it stoops over Parkins' bed and blindly gropes around. Finding the bed empty, the figure then moves forward and faces the window. In the moonlight, Parkins sees it has a horrible face of crumpled linen. Then the figure quickly moves into the middle of the room groping and waving. Its draperies brush across Parkins' face, and the professor cries out. Instantly, the figure leaps towards him. Parkins backs up screaming. He is half way out the window with the linen face close to his own when Colonel Wilson bursts open the door. By the time the Colonel gets to the window, there is only Parkins left, with just a heap of bedclothes on the floor in front of him. Parkins collapses. The Colonel gets him into his bed and spends the rest of the night in the spare bed.

Rogers arrives at the Globe Inn the following morning, and the three men have a long meeting in Parkins' room. Afterwards Colonel Wilson leaves the inn carrying a small object and casts it into the sea.

Adaptations

"Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" was adapted for television in 1968 as an episode of the BBC series Omnibus. The episode, entitled "Whistle and I'll Come to You", stars Michael Hordern as Professor Parkin, a middle-aged, eccentric and socially-awkward academic. He does not play golf, and he simply finds the whistle at a grave while taking a walk. The vision he has after blowing the whistle is of himself being chased on the beach. In the understated denouement, Parkin is frightened by the sheets rising but the apparition does not move to threaten him.

A new BBC version, also entitled "Whistle and I'll Come to You", was broadcast in the United Kingdom on December 24, 2010, as part of the series A Ghost Story for Christmas.[2] The second version is a very loose adaptation and retains little of the original short story. James Parkin (played by John Hurt) is a retired astronomer with a wife (played by Gemma Jones) who suffers from senile dementia. After placing his wife in a care facility, Parkin revisits a seaside hotel where they used to stay as a young couple. He finds a ring with the Latin inscription on the inside. There is no whistle, and the only reference to the title is made when Parkin whispers the folk song to his wife before reluctantly leaving her. Parkin is haunted and tormented more by his wife's condition than by the mysterious figure on the beach or the strange occurrences in his hotel room. In the end, he is attacked by an apparition which takes a form completely different from the one in the story.

An abridged version of the story is read by Robert Powell in the fourth episode of the five-part BBC TV mini series Classic Ghost Stories.[3] The episode was first shown on British television on December 29, 1986.

A fifteen-minute radio play based on "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" was produced as the first episode of the five-part mini-series M.R. James Ghost Stories.[4] The play first aired on BBC Radio 4 in the United Kingdom on December 24, 2007.

Footnotes

  1. The meaning of the first inscription, FUR FLA FLE BIS (originally typeset with FLA raised and FLE lowered, with the two words vertically aligned), is disputed. "FUR FLABIS FLEBIS" (interpreting the typesetting to mean BIS applies to both FLA and FLE in the middle) can be translated as "Thief, you will blow, you will weep." Other suggestions include applying BIS to all three preceding words (where FURBIS means "you will go mad") and reading BIS separately (to mean "twice", since Parkins blows the whistle twice).
  2. The BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas consists of twelve TV movies that were first shown on British television between 1971 and 2013. Of the other eleven films in the series, two are original stories. The rest are adaptations of the short stories "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", "A Warning to the Curious", "Lost Hearts", "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas", "The Ash-tree", "A View from a Hill", "Number 13" and "The Tractate Middoth" by M.R. James and the short story "The Signalman" by Charles Dickens.
  3. In the five-part BBC TV mini-series Classic Ghost Stories, first shown in December 1986, actor Robert Powell reads a different short story by M.R. James in each episode. Other stories told in the series are "The Mezzotint", "The Ash-tree", "Wailing Well" and "The Rose Garden".
  4. Other episodes of the BBC radio mini-series M.R. James Ghost Stories, which first aired in December 2007, are based on "Number 13", "The Tractate Middoth", "Lost Hearts" and "The Rose Garden". Each episode is introduced by Derek Jacobi in the character of M.R. James.

External links

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