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Recent illustration for "The Residence at Whitminster" by an amateur artist known as Loneanimator.

"The Residence at Whitminster" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. It was first published in 1919 as part of the anthology A Thin Ghost and Others. The anthology's title is taken from a line in the story, "a withered heart makes an ugly thin ghost".

The story takes place in a house next to a church over two different time periods. The first part of the story takes place in the year 1730. The second part takes place about a hundred years later. In the first part of the story, two adolescent boys, who are supposed to be under the care of the clergyman who lives in the house, dabble in the occult and die soon afterwards. In the second part of the story, a new clergyman and his niece move into the house. The housekeeper complains that one unused bedroom is infested with insects. The niece sees visions of the two boys who lived in the house a century earlier.

Plot

In 1500, some large red brick buildings are put up next to the collegiate church in Whitminster. The buildings are intended to house the many clergymen and other people who work in the church. Over time, the number of people required to work in the church decreases. In the early 18th century, the clergyman Dr. Thomas Ashton and his wife occupy a house that was originally intended for many more people.

Dr. Ashton has no children of his own. Frank Sydall, the orphaned 11 year-old son of his wife's sister, comes under his care. A few months later, the Irish nobleman Lord Kildonan writes to Dr. Ashton. Lord Kildonan is going to take up a position at the British embassy in Portugal. He decides that he does not want to take his 16 year-old son Saul with him. He asks Dr. Ashton to tutor Saul. Lord Kildonan warns Dr. Ashton that Saul's behavior is strange. The boy enjoys hanging around old ruins and graveyards. He often tells stories that frighten the servants witless. One of Saul's old nurses even recently called the boy possessed. Dr. Ashton agrees to look after Lord Kildonan's son because he will be paid two hundred guineas a year. He also believes that he will probably be rewarded with an Irish bishopric.

Saul is thin and pale skinned with straight black hair. In September 1730, Saul arrives in Whitminster. When he gets out of the carriage that brings him to he town, he frightens the horse that pulled the carriage and causes a minor accident. Soon after his arrival, the Ashtons' servants begin to leave the house and Mrs. Ashton has difficulty finding more people who are willing to work there. In spite of their difference in age, Saul and Frank appear to get on very well with each other and often play together. Mrs. Ashton has a rooster the feathers of which are all entirely black. On more than one occasion, Dr. Ashton comments that the bird would make a fine sacrifice to Aesculapius.[1] One morning, the rooster disappears. Saul and Frank look for it. Saul show the Ashtons some partially burned black feathers that he has found. It is, however, generally assumed that the rooster must have been carried off by a cat or a fox.

On the same day, Dr. Ashton looks out of a window into the garden and sees Saul and Frank playing a strange game. Frank is looking at something in his hand. Saul stands behind him and listens. He then puts his hand on Frank's head. Frank drops the thing in his hand, puts his hands over his eyes and falls down on the grass. Saul picks up the thing that Frank dropped, Dr. Ashton can see that it is glittering, and puts it in his pocket. He is about to go and leave Frank lying on the ground. Dr. Ashton taps on the window. Saul then brings Frank inside the house. Dr. Ashton later asks the boys what they had been doing. Saul replies that they had been acting out the story of Rhadamistus.[2] Saul explains that, in the story, the heroine sees into the future by looking at a piece of glass that she holds in her hand. She is overcome with horror when she sees what will happen to her father's kingdom. Frank says nothing and appears ill.

Frank's sickness seems to be worse the next day. In the afternoon, he runs into the house, grabs hold of Mrs. Ashton and keeps shouting, "Keep them off! Keep them off!" He is put to bed. A doctor says that a fever has affected Frank's brain and that he is likely to die unless he has complete quiet.

Dr. Ashton asks Saul what he knows about Frank's condition. Saul says that he may have frightened Frank the day before when they were acting out the play by telling him about what in Ireland they call the "second sight". He explains that some people in Ireland claim to be able to see into the future by looking into pieces of glass. Saul says that he told Frank about an old woman in Kildonan who claimed to have the "second sight" and obviously frightened the boy more than he intended.

Mrs. Ashton comes into the room and says that Frank is dying. A maid sees Saul cover his face with his hands. She is certain that Saul is trying to hide the fact that he wants to laugh.

The dying Frank is asked if he wants to see Saul. He says that he does not. He asks the Ashtons to tell Saul that he will be very cold. He adds, "I am free of them now, but he should take care." Before he dies, Frank says that he is sorry about what happened to the black rooster, adding, "he said we must use it so, if we were to see all that could be seen." Frank's message is passed on to Saul. It appears to trouble him greatly. Before he goes to bed that night, Saul asks Dr. Ashton to pray for him.

At Frank's funeral, Saul is seen nervously looking over his shoulder several times. Saul disappears before the end of the funeral. He is searched for but cannot be found. The following morning, he is found dead in front of the door of the church. He is holding the doorknocker in his hand. His shoes are gone, his stockings are torn to pieces and his legs are bloody. Saul and Frank are buried in the same grave.

Dr. Ashton lives on for another thirty years. After he dies, his house is left unoccupied for sixty years. In 1824, another clergyman, Dr. Henry Oldys, and his niece Mary take up residence in the house. Mary tells her uncle that the housekeeper, Mrs. Maple, has complained that one of the unused bedrooms is infested with sawflies. Dr. Oldys asks what sawflies are. Mary explains that they are similar to crane flies but ae smaller and red in color.[3] Dr. Oldys is not greatly troubled because he does not believe that the small insects can do much damage.

Dr. Oldys finds a piece of clear glass in the garden. It is an inch thick, round and perfectly smooth. He gives it to Mary. Later that day, Mary looks into the piece of glass. She sees a boy wearing clothes of about a hundred years earlier. He is near some old stone ruins and an ugly old woman is with him. The old woman gives the boy something glittering in return for some money. Mary then sees the same boy that she saw before and another younger boy. She recognizes the garden that they are in as that of her own house. Something is smoldering on the ground. After the boy touches it, he can be seen to have blood on his hands. There are some black feathers on the ground nearby. Some figures begin to rise up behind the wall and the two boys run off. Mary then sees someone with a pale face running away in darkness from creatures that somewhat resemble dogs. The person being chased eventually collapses in front of a door while holding its knocker.

That night, Mary is woken by the sound of her uncle's voice. She finds him on the floor of an unused bedroom, obviously in great distress. When Mary helps him up, he only says that he will talk about what happened the next day.

The following day, Dr. Oldys goes to see Mr. Spearman (Mary's future husband) whom he considers to be one of the most sensible men in town. Dr. Oldys explains that, the previous night, he intended to read in bed. When he shut the door of his bedroom, the candle went out. Dr. Oldys had to go to another room to get a tinderbox. When he left the room, he felt that the book was taken out of his hand by an unseen force. While passing through an adjoining unused bedroom, Dr. Oldys had the sensation that insects were all over his face, neck and body. He cried out and fell to the floor. He was able to open a curtain. By the light that came through the window, he saw what looked exactly like an insect's leg, except that it was almost as large as a that of a man.

Spearman agrees to go over to Dr. Oldys' house and examine the room immediately. There are hundreds of dead sawflies on the windowsill and the floor. There is no furniture in the room apart from a four-poster bedstead, a closet and a dresser. The closet and the dresser are both locked. Dr. Oldys and Mary have never opened them and do not know what is inside them. It is determined that Mrs. Maple must have the keys to them. Mrs. Maple eventually brings the keys in a sealed box. When the box is opened, it is found to contain a note written by Dr. Ashton in 1753. In his note, Dr. Ashton explains that the contents of the cabinet and the dresser are the property of the Kildonan family. He adds that it is unlikely that anyone of that family will ever claim them because Lord Kildonan, who had no other relatives, was lost at sea after Saul died. Dr. Ashton concludes the note by advising whoever has the keys not to open the closet or the dresser. Four other clergymen sign the note in agreement.

Dr. Oldys knows that Lord Kildonan's son Saul is buried in the churchyard. He asks Mrs. Maple if she knows any more about Saul. He also points out that the sawflies that troubled Mrs. Maple are all dead.

Mrs. Maple begins to talk about what a problem the sawflies had been a few days earlier. She says that another servant named Susan came running out of the room with a swarm of sawflies covering her head and clustering around her eyes. The insects had to be beaten off her with a broom.

Mrs. Maple has heard about Saul from Simpkins the sexton, whose father and grandfather were sexton before him. Mrs. Maple says that Saul was as wicked as the Biblical king after whom he was named.[4] She says that he once occupied the very room in which they are currently standing and shared it with "them that was with him". She explains that she does not mean people but some other kinds of beings that Saul brought over with him from Ireland. Dr. and Mrs. Ashton were unaware of those beings, although all of the other people in town saw the cruel Saul in their company. At that time, the sexton commented about Saul, "a withered heart makes an ugly thin ghost". From the window of his house one evening, the sexton saw Saul apparently trying to dig up a grave. Feeling that somebody may have been watching him, Saul went and pressed his face against the window. The sexton hid and remained unseen. The strange beings that Saul brought with him from Ireland eventually turned on him. The mark left on the church door when they ran him down can still be seen. Saul continues to suffer for his wicked deeds after death. On cold nights, three generations of the Simpkins family have seen his thin ghost press his face against the window. Although they cannot help feeling sorry for him, they know that they should not let him in.

Dr. Oldys decides that he will not open the closet and dresser and that he will have them moved to an attic. Mary decides that the piece of glass which her uncle gave her should go up to the attic too. Mr. Spearman wonders if the horrors contained in the closet and the dresser will be unleashed on a future generation.

Footnotes

  1. Aesculapius is the Latin name for Asclepius, the god of medicine in ancient Greek religion and mythology. The last words of the classical Greek philosopher Socrates are reported to have been, "We owe a rooster to Asclepius. Do not forget to pay the debt."
  2. Rhadamistus was a King of Armenia in the 1st century CE. He was considered a usurper and a tyrant and was eventually overthrown by a rebellion. His story was quite familiar to people during the time in which the first part of "The Residence at Whitminster" is set because of Handel's 1730 opera Radamisto.
  3. In a footnote to "The Residence at Whitminster", M.R. James states that the characters in the story are probably referring to ichneumon flies rather than genuine sawflies.
  4. The story of King Saul is told in the First and Second Books of Samuel. Notably, King Saul gets the Witch of Endor to conjure up the ghost of the dead prophet Samuel.

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