Story Drafts
by M.R. James

The first version of these two incomplete story drafts appeared in The Fenstanton Witch and Others (Haunted Library, 1999) and A Pleasing Terror (Ash-Tree Press, 2001). The following, completely new, transcriptions were published in The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter 12 (2007). The new transcriptions include several corrections, as well as annotations. Where MRJ crossed out a word or phrase and replaced it with another, I have always opted for the replacement. However, in the case of "Merfield House", almost all the text of the main section apart from the house description, and up until the fresh start on the final page, has been crossed through, mostly by one vertical line down each page - I have ignored this and transcribed regardless of it (there would be very little to transcribe had I not!).

King's MS MRJ/A/12 ("The Game of Bear") is untitled and written in pencil with a few crossings out on twelve sheets (the text finishes half way down the final sheet). King's MS MRJ/A/13 ("Merfield House") is written in purple and black ink on three quarto sheets with the re-start on the back of the final sheet. It is untitled at the top, but "Merfield House" heads the re-start. Both story fragments are published here by kind permission of N.J.R. James and King's College.

Text copyright (c) 2007 N.J.R. James; transcription and annotations copyright (c) 2007 Rosemary Pardoe. Not to be reproduced without permission.

The Game of Bear; Merfield House.

The Game of Bear

Two elderly persons sat reading and smoking in the library of a country house after tea on an afternoon in the Christmas holidays, and outside a number of the children of the house were playing about. They had turned out all the lights and were engaged in the dreadful game of "Bear" which entails stealthy creepings up and down staircases and along passages, and being leapt upon from doorways with loud and hideous cries.[1] Such a cry, and an answering scream of great poignancy, were heard just outside the library door. One of the two readers - an uncle of the young things who were disporting themselves there - leapt from his chair and dashed the door open. "I will not have you doing that!" he shouted (and his voice was vibrant with real anger); "do you hear? Stop it at once. I can't stand it. You - you - Why can't you find something else? What? ...Well, I don't care, I can't put up with it... Yes, very well, go and do it somewhere where I can't hear it." He subsided into a growl and came back to his chair; but his friend saw that his nerves were really on edge, and ventured something sympathetic. "It's all very well," said the uncle, "but I can not bear that jumping out and screaming. Stupid of me to fly out like that, but I couldn't help it. It reminded me of all that business - you know."

"Well," said the friend after a short pause, "I'm really not sure that I do. Oh!" he added, in a more concerned tone, "unless you mean Purdue." "That's it," said the uncle. There was another silence, and then the friend said, "Really, I'm not sorry that happened just now, for I never did hear the rights of the Purdue business. Will you tell me exactly what happened?"

"I don't know," said the uncle: "I really don't know, if I ought. But I think I will. Not just now, though. I'll tell you what: if it's fine tomorrow we'll take a walk in the morning; and tonight I'll think over the whole affair and get it straight in my mind. I have often felt some-body besides me ought to know about it, and all his people are out of the way now."

The next day was fine, and the two men walked out to a hill at no real distance, which was known as Windmill Hill. The mill that had topped it was gone but a bit of the brick foundation remained and afforded a seat from which a good stretch of pleasant wild country could be seen. Here then Mr A and Mr B sat down on the short, dry grass with their backs against the warm brick wall, and Mr A produced a little bundle of folded paper and a pocket-book which he held up before Mr B as an indication that he was prepared not only to tell the story to which he stood pledged, but to back it with documentary evidence.

"I brought you here," he said, "partly because you can see Purdue's place. There!" He pointed with his stick to a wooded slope which might be three or four miles off. In the wood was a large clearing and in the clearing stood a mansion of yellow stone with a portico, upon which, as it chanced, the sun was shining very brilliantly, so that the house stood out brightly against the background of dark trees.

"Where shall I begin?" said Mr A.

"Why," said Mr B, "I'll tell you exactly how little I know, and then you can judge. You and Purdue, you remember, were senior to me at school and at Cambridge. He went down after his three years; you stayed up for part of a fourth, and then I began to see more of you: before that, I was more with people of my own year, and, beyond a fair number of meetings with Purdue at breakfast and lunch and so on, I never saw much of him - not nearly as much as I should have liked, in fact. Then I remember your going to stay with him - there, I suppose" (pointing with his stick) - "in the Easter Vac, and - well, that was the last of it."[2]

"Just so," said Mr A; "I didn't come up again, and you and I practically didn't meet till a year or two back, did we? Though you were a better correspondent than any of my other Cambridge friends. Very well, then, there it is: I was never inclined to write the story down in a letter, and the long and short of it is that you have never heard it: but you do know what sort of man Purdue was, and how fond I was of him.

"When I stayed with him over there, the place was his only home, and yet it wasn't his. He was an orphan and practically adopted by his uncle and aunt who were quite old childless people. There had been another uncle who had married a village woman, and had one daughter. That couple were very odd squalid creatures, and died off, I think from drink, but the daughter survived and went on living in a cottage in the next parish. She wasn't left destitute by any means in the way of money; but she lived all by herself, and I think always with a sense of injury upon her that she wasn't noticed by the county families and such. The remaining uncle and aunt had been kind enough to her and at one time used to invite her over to their place, but she had a very difficult temper and was always on the look out for slights and injuries, and at last they gave up the effort to be cordial, and saw no more of her. It wasn't to be expected after that that they would pass on the property to her (it was entirely at their disposition, to do what they liked with it) and no more they did. When they died it went to Purdue, about a year before his own death, that was.

"So there he was, settled, you would say, into a happy life: he'd been brought up in the country and knew all the neighbourhood, places and people, very well; and was interested in farming and forestry and prepared to make himself useful. That last visit I paid him was particularly delightful: he was on such excellent terms with everybody in the village. 'Master Henry' to all of them, and just as well liked by the neighbours in the larger houses. I think the only fly in the ointment was that woman Caroline Purdue.[3] She took to attending our parish church and we used to find her in our pew every Sunday morning. She didn't say much to Henry, but all the service time she sat and looked at him through her veil. A short stout redfaced woman she was, with black hair and snappy black eyes. She used to wait in the churchyard till we had gone out and then set off on her three mile walk home. She gave me the creeps, I couldn't say why; I suppose there was a flavour of concentrated hostility about her.

"Henry was anxious of something of the same kind. His lawyer told me after his death that he had tried through them to get her to accept a handsome addition to her income and the gift of a suitable house wherever she liked in some other part of the county. They said she was as impracticable a woman as they had ever come across: she just sat and smiled broadly at them and said she was quite comfortable where she was, and didn't want to move out of reach of her cousin Henry. 'But wouldn't it be more lively and amusing for you to be in some place where there's more to be seen - theatres, and that sort of thing?' No, oh no, she had plenty of things to occupy herself with: and - again - she didn't want to move out of reach of her cousin Henry.

"'But, but: your cousin Henry, you know; he's likely to be a busy man - travelling about a good deal, and occupied with his men friends: it isn't probable that he'll be able to see much of you.' Oh, she was quite content to take her chance of that: they would often be meeting when he was riding about, and no doubt there would be times when he was alone at the Court, and she could look in on him. 'Ah well, that's just the point. Are you sure that Mr Purdue will welcome that?' 'Yes, to be sure, why not?' 'Well, we have reason to think that he doesn't wish it.' Oh indeed! and pray had he commissioned these gentlemen to tell his own cousin that he had cast her off? A nice thing for a relative to hear, that her own flesh and blood preferred not to have anything to do with her. What had she done, she should like to know, to be treated in that way?

"There was more to the same effect, and the storm rose quickly, culminating in a short burst of tears, and a rapid stumping out of the room. The gentlemen who had been conducting the interview were left looking at each other and feeling they had not done much to advance their client's wishes. But at least Miss Purdue left off her attendance at our church, and, we gathered, did not favour any other place of worship in its stead.

"She was not more popular with the rest of the community than with Henry.

"How is the rest of this to be told? I have here some papers which bear on it, but they are fragmentary, of course. When Henry Purdue was alone in that big house he did what at other times was rather foreign to his habits - confided his feelings to paper. Here are some entries."

"Letter from CP" (Caroline Purdue, of course). "Infernal woman. May she come and see me and talk over this painful matter. No, she mayn't."


[1] No English game of "Bear" fitting this vague description has been traced. Hiding and chasing games along similar lines are numerous, but none have been found, in any of the standard reference works, with "Bear" in their title; conversely, several children's games have "Bear" in their name, but none of them come close in type to the game in the story. There is a hiding and seeking Russian game called "Bear" which seems generally similar.

[2] "that was the last of it" replaces the following, crossed out: "then [hearing of ] you wired me he was dead. Yes, of his death, I recollect".

[3] "[I] think the only fly in the ointment was that" replaces the following, crossed out: "[I] wonder if we could ought to have seen that there was likely to be trouble with that...".

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Merfield House

To William Chatteris Esq., Potton,[1] Bedfordshire.


It was in the month of March last that you put into my hands a mass of papers and MSS belonging to the late John Stedman of Merfield Hall, Beds,[2] and requested me to go through them and extract what I could relative to his experiences in that house, of which he left you the heir, and to the death of his friend Mr Haydon there. I have happily come upon a full narrative of those occurrences in Mr Stedman's own handwriting, signed by himself and attested by his butler and housekeeper for the time being, and not impossibly intended for the human eye. I think the narrative will satisfy your curiosity as far as is possible in a case where the attendant circumstances are so mysterious. I enclose the MS without further comment.

Yrs etc.
Henry Wiggins


John Stedman MS

First Sheet?

In 1849 my half brother Charles Horsley, then a man of 37, came into possession of Merfield Hall in the county of Bedfordshire. The Home and Park and a sufficient income of some 3000£ a year were left to him by his uncle, with whom he had always been a favourite. The two were much alike in temperament: saturnine, cynical and secretive, and not a little inclined to seclude themselves. I very well remember, when invited to spend Christmas at Merfield as a boy (William[3] having as usual preceded me by some days), how for hours at a time I was left entirely alone to wander about the house and grounds while uncle and nephew, closeted in the library, were elaborating their schemes - so at least I thought - to avenge themselves on a society which despised them.

Before I relate the first incident which led me to view them and their proceedings with something like terror, I must devote a few lines to describing the house as it was in my day. It dated from about 1690, and was a fine solid building of red brick, 2 or 3 storied (whichever you call it) with a pediment and round windows pierced in it, 2 wings projecting slightly. The windows large with many panes and conspicuous white wooden framings; a niche with scallopshell head in each wing; a tiled roof and good chimneys. Within, a large hall, paved in squares of black and white marble. Fine staircases and many rooms, most of them, when I knew them first, unoccupied. My uncle's room was in the left wing, towards the west, and Charles was always put next door to him. I was as invariably banished to the East wing and put in a room between two empty ones - one a disused bathroom with the bath in it cobwebbed over - the other a bedroom with a few books. The garden was pleasant with hedges of yew and hornbeam, and fair trees - elm and lime. The Park had an elm avenue and an ornamental sheet of water with a Fishing Temple - such as the last generation delighted in. The county handbook said of this one that it had been built by the ingenious Mr Essex[4] in the Gothick Taste and was much admired by all curiosi. As far as I can recollect, some of its details were borrowed from Peterboro' Cathedral and some from King's College Chapel in Cambridge, which the architect was then engaged upon.

But to my stay. I was passing the library windows one morning on my way to the water to fish when I heard the two voices within laughing - a pleasurable laugh of anticipation. This was so unusual a thing that I could not for the life of me help stopping to try and catch a glimpse of the cause. I had only time to see my uncle and brother pushing away the heavy library table from its usual place in the middle of the room, when the latter caught sight of me standing outside. He came hastily to the window, and with an angry look at me drew down the blinds. I had expected as much for both were exceedingly jealous of an overlooking eye, and walked slowly on, puzzling over the laughter I had heard, when I heard behind me a peculiar shrill cry with a sort of dying sound to it as of a shout carried on a high blustering wind. I had never heard anything in the least like it, so fearfully lonely and desperate a tone was there in it, and I stopped in extreme fear. At the same time - I am sure of what I am saying - a sudden shade seemed to run over the whole landscape - it seemed to me like a shudder of all the Nature round me - and it went across to the South-West.[5]

I was cold with terror and hardly knew what I did, but an instinct seemed to tell me to run to the library. I rushed to the window - which a few minutes before had been darkened to me. The blind was gone - torn down or pulled up, I knew not which - and I saw the two inside lying on the floor. As quickly as I could I got to the door, some of the servants following, but, though I am sure it was not locked, I felt for a moment some resistance from within to my efforts. At last, between us we got it open. It flew back - I had not thought I was pushing so hard - and after a moment's hesitation, whether it was timorousness or horror or something further that threw us back, we all rushed into the room.

My brother was already on his knees, white and shaking, and was trying to bring round my uncle who lay as he had fallen with his head against the wall, completely stunned. Suddenly, he too sat up and looked round at us, then, realising the situation and seeing the servants in the room, he staggered to his feet and would have us all be gone. I shall not set down here the terms of his command, but they were most urgent, and, seeing he was himself again, we had all nearly left the room when he called me back, and, clutching my arm: "An experiment," he said, speaking very fast and low; "a scientific experiment, you know, went wrong, Johnny, and your brother Charles and I might have been killed. Think of that! But all's right now and it's not worth making a fuss about. Don't get tattling with the servants about it and making mischief. Now go about your business; you needn't be afraid we shall try any more dangerous experiments." And he smiled in a ghastly fashion, with a glance at Charles who was still shaking like an aspen and clutching the table.


[Second beginning, headed "Merfield House"]

It was when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge that the only psychic experience of my life (for so out of deference to the taste of the day I must call it) befell me. I have been asked to detail it for the benefit of the Society, and I will proceed without further delay to do so.

I shall have to go some way back in order to give you the complete chain of events which led up to the main incident of my story. You probably know - in fact I am sure you know - something of the general outline. This much you have probably heard: that a house and park in Northamptonshire were left to me some time ago by a person quite unconnected with me or family, whom I had succeeded in obliging in some way; and that though a year and a half has elapsed since the bequest came to me, the place still remains unoccupied and, indeed, unless matters alter considerably, I see every likelihood of its remaining in that condition.

The old gentleman who left me the property in question was a Mr William Stedman, well known in his day as a book collector and student. His hobby was the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama - in this department of literature he stood high: but beyond editing a book for the Roxburghe Club,[6] of which he was a member, and writing frequently to Notes and Queries,[7] he never produced anything, and his magnum opus, Studies in English Drama, lies still in MS among his papers at Merfield House. Of his early life I can tell little or nothing. He was a younger son, and had succeeded to the property on the death of his brother's wife, who followed her husband within a very short time. This couple, short as had been their tenure of Merfield, 7 years only, obviously had made a much greater impression on their neighbours in the village than the student recluse who succeeded them. He was "close", said the bailiff who remembered them, and she was forward, and between them -


[1] Potton is a real village in Bedfordshire, about four miles north of Biggleswade and ten miles east of Bedford.

[2] There is no Merfield Hall or House in either Bedfordshire or Northamptonshire.

[3] "William" is deleted and replaced by "Charles" throughout, except here.

[4] James Essex, bap.1722-1784, Cambridge architect in the Gothic style, and member of the Society of Antiquaries. He restored King's College Chapel in 1750-1756, redesigning the east end; and worked on many other Cambridge buildings. He was also involved in restoring a number of cathedrals, notably Ely (Cambs) and Lincoln, and probably Peterborough. Among his creations for private houses were a cross at Ampthill Park (Beds) and a folly castle at Wimpole (Cambs).

[5] MRJ originally wrote "North-West" here and then put "South" above "North". Did he have somewhere particular in mind for the destination of the "shade"? Oxford is the most notable place to the South-West of this area of Bedfordshire.

[6] The Roxburghe Club was formed in 1812 as a club for bibliophiles, who sponsored lavish, limited editions of never more than a hundred copies, for fellow members. The editions were often facsimiles, edited and introduced by the members. MRJ produced over a dozen books for the Roxburghe Club between 1909 and 1935, including The Trinity College Apocalypse (1909), A Peterborough Psalter and Bestiary (1921) and Marvels of the East (1929).

[7] Founded by William John Thoms in 1849 and still running today, Notes & Queries began as a weekly periodical intended (according to its original subtitle) as "A Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, etc." Throughout the Victorian era it published scholarly notes and snippets on matters antiquarian, literary, historical, folkloric and curious, along with queries and follow-up replies; and thus became a major means of information exchange on those subjects. It was Thoms who first coined the term "folk lore".

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