by M.R. James

The first version of this story draft appeared in Ghosts & Scholars 22 (1996), and was reprinted in The Fenstanton Witch and Others (Haunted Library, 1999) and A Pleasing Terror (Ash-Tree Press, 2001). The following, completely new, transcription was published in The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter 10 (2006). It includes many corrections of previous misreadings; an extra paragraph from the verso of one sheet, which was omitted from the former transcription; and new annotations. The manuscript is full of deletions and alterations, mostly of no significance, but I have added a few of the more interesting and readable ones into the text, in square brackets. King's MS MRJ/A/10 (4 foolscap sheets, untitled, written in ink on the rectos, with the one verso addition) is reproduced by kind permission of N.J.R. James and King's College. The story is one of those described by MRJ in "Stories I Have Tried to Write" (1929). His memory of the tale was not always entirely accurate: notable differences between the plots given in that essay and in the original manuscript are pointed out in the annotations.

Text copyright (c) 2006 N.J.R. James; annotations copyright (c) 2006 Rosemary Pardoe (with thanks to Darroll Pardoe and François-Pierre Goy).

The other story might perhaps be considered a variation on the same theme: no doubt it was suggested by an incident as the first. It was told as a personal experience of the narrator's. He said:

I was travelling [a good many years ago] in France and found myself at a place called Moulins.[1] I went into a curiosity shop [in a street] not far off the Hotel de Ville to inquire the price of a drawing I had noticed in the window. The man asked more than I wanted to give so I began looking at other things. There were a few old books, all totally uninteresting to me; but, as it turned out, there was nothing else in the shop that I cared in the least to acquire and so by way of doing something to justify the trouble I had given, I bought five or six of the smallest of these books.

Next day I went by train to Troyes [Nevers][2] and when I was tired of looking out of the window I opened my handbag and took out at random one of my purchases. It was a [n odd] volume of an old novel called Caroline de Lichtenfeld:[3] the sort of book that is rarely disturbed from any resting place it may have found, by me at any rate: for all I know it may be a standard work.

I began at the beginning and turned over forty [odd] pages or so: the story made very little progress. Then my eye was attracted by some building we were passing, and I studied the landscape for two or three miles. After that, I returned to my book and noted that I had reached page 43 and was in the middle of a dialogue which ran thus:

"Où descendez-vous?"
"À l'Hotel des Ambassadeurs."
"Bon," dit-il, "vous avez sans doute commandé une chambre?"
"Ah, non," dis-je, "je n'y avais pas même songé. Mais cela s'arrangera sans doute. La ville ne serait pas en fête ces jours-ci?"
Il haussa les épaules. "Qui sait?" fit-il. "Parlons d'autre chose: Vous la connaissez, je pense, la ville de [Nevers]?"
"Je n'ai fait que passer par là il y a dix ans.

At this point I turned over the page and at the same time glanced up. My eye fell on my opposite neighbour who was an elderly lady, stout, and wearing a slight black moustache and a highly determined expression. She was not otherwise interesting. I resumed my reading: the words were curiously appropriate.

"Vous regardiez votre vis-à-vis," continua-t-il.
"Eh oui! Qu'y a-t-il de singulier en cela."
"En effet, très peu de chose, seulement, [vous la verrez égorgés ce soir] savez-vous où elle demeure?"
"[Monsieur! ne parlez pas de la sorte] Comment donc? - moi qui la vois pour la première fois."
"Eh bien. Je vous le dirai. C'est à Marcilly-le-Hayer[5] sur la place. La maison à trois pignons."
"[Vraiment?] C'est [bien] possible: mais pour vrai vous dire elle me paraît pas bien intéressante."[6]

"A very long-winded dialogue this," I thought, "not much concentration about it"; and I turned over a leaf or two to see where we were getting to. I found that the personage who had volunteered the information about the woman in the book was now disgorging more - in fact was giving her whole biography. She had been a labourer's daughter in the village of Marcilly-le-Hayer. Her good looks had attracted the notice of a middle-aged man who owned a good deal of property in the place, a M. Giraud - Émile Giraud (a name which to me seemed unaccountably familiar). He was, said the book, a thoroughly reputable, honest, and amiable person: and his love for the girl - Eugeiné Dupont - was sincere. The match was of course an extremely advantageous one for her. She had no lover of her own rank whom she was in the least inclined to favour, and the marriage took place. [Eighteen months afterward] After nearly three years of what seemed to all their acquaintances a very happy married life, M. Giraud disappeared from Marcilly leaving absolutely no trace. [Like many country people of his class] He used to leave a not inconsiderable sum of ready money in the house towards the end of each week to pay his men. It was on a Friday that he was found to be missing, and the money was gone too. The widow was obliged to procure a further supply from the branch of the Société Genérale[7] in the village. She felt the loss of her husband acutely and never married again.

"Société Genérale," I said to myself: "I didn't think that existed in the eighteenth century."

But, said the book, in continuation, if any one were to go to Marcilly-le-Hayer and call at the house with the three gables, and ask (to see) the mistress, and ask her what she keeps under the pavement in the further corner of the stable, he would then find out whether she was interesting or not.

"It would be a very impertinent question to ask anyone," I thought, and with that I put the book away, and took another.[8]

The train to Troyes was very full, and I realized to my disgust, before my journey was over, that a large cattle-show was going on there. I had very great difficulty in finding any room at all: at last I was accommodated with a bed in a rather second rate establishment called the Hotel Terminus. The only part of this place which had any pretension to novelty was the name which was palimpsested over the door. I amused myself by deciphering the old sign, still partly visible underneath: it read "Hotel des Ambassadeurs".[9]

After exploring Troyes, I found I had a day or two to spare, and I studied the map of the department. There I found, as you might find, the name of Marcilly-le-Hayer occupying a very prominent place in the midst of the uplands which no railway touches. I believe - I say I believe - that I had forgotten all about the story in my book in the days which had passed since I read it. But I now recollected it, and this, combined with the fact that there seemed to be some interesting buildings in and near Marcilly, determined me to go there. I bicycled thither - a laborious ride - and arrived late in the afternoon.[10] There was an inn on the Place which was quite satisfactory and I had, of course, come prepared to spend a night there. Immediately opposite to the window of my room was a house with three gables.

In the evening, I had some talk with the people of the house, and asked if there were any interesting features in the town. I was told of a very fine carved chimney-piece "chez Mme. Giraud". And where did she live? I naturally asked (we were at the door of the inn). "Straight opposite," said my informants, pointing to the house with the three gables.[11]

I pondered and pondered: but no light came. The persistence of names of [unreadable word] in a place like Marcilly must be a marked feature. One other question was inevitable. What, I asked, was Mme. Giraud's maiden name? "Dupont, Monsieur. Eugeiné Dupont."

When I got back to my luggage at Troyes, I looked again at the volume of Caroline de Lichtenfeld. It was a defective copy, pp 33-80 were absent - had evidently never been bound up in it. On the flyleaf in a feminine hand was the name: Émile Giraud.[12]

Copyright (c) N.J.R. James 2006


[1] Moulins is a town in the département of Allier, about 30 miles south of Nevers and about 50 miles north of Clermont-Ferrand.

[2] There has never been a direct train from Moulins to Troyes, though Moulins to Nevers is an easy journey. Nevers is in Nièvre, and Troyes is about 100 miles further north, in Aube, about 80 miles south-east of Paris. Clearly when MRJ decided, halfway through this draft, to set his tale at Marcilly and, in consequence, altered Nevers to Troyes, he forgot to alter Moulins as well. During his numerous holidays in France MRJ visited both Troyes and Nevers. See, for instance, Letters to a Friend (ed. G. McBryde, Edward Arnold, 1956), p.43; and Eton and King's (Williams & Norgate, 1926), pp.61, 151 (in the 2005 Ash-Tree Press reprint, pp.43, 99).

[3] MRJ probably meant Caroline de Lichtfield: ou Mémoires d'une famille prussienne by Isabelle Pauline Polier de Bottens, baronne Isabelle de Montolieu (1751-1832). This romantic novel was first published in 1783 and went through many editions in several languages. (See Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter 1, March 2002, pp.14-15.) In "Stories I Have Tried to Write", MRJ misremembered the title as Madame de Lichtenstein.

[4] Where are you getting off?"
"At the Hotel des Ambassadeurs."
"Good," he said. "Of course, you've reserved a room?"
"Ah, no," I said. "I haven't even thought of it. But no doubt it can be arranged. The town won't be celebrating a festival at the moment, will it?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Who knows?" he said. "Let's talk of something else: You know the town of [Nevers], I think?"
"I haven't been that way for ten years."

[5] Marcilly-le-Hayer is a small town thirty miles west of Troyes.

[6] "You were looking at the person opposite you," he continued.
"Yes, what's odd about that?"
"Indeed, very little, only, [you will see her killed this evening] do you know where she lives?"
"[Monsieur, don't talk like that] How could I? - me, who had seen her for the first time."
"Well, I will tell you. It's at Marcilly-le-Hayer, on the town square. The house with three gables."
"[Truly?] That's [well] possible: but, even though what you say is true, she doesn't seem very interesting to me."

[7] The French bank, the Société Genérale, dates from 1864, when it was authorised by a decree of Napoleon III; so the narrator is correct in thinking (in the next paragraph) that it post-dates the book.

[8] In "Stories I Have Tried to Write", MRJ makes clear that the narrator was reading the book in a dream, from which he woke up, "the book open in his hand", as "the train stopped at a country station": "the woman opposite him got out, and on the label of her bag he read the name that had seemed to be in his novel".

[9] This paragraph is written on the verso of sheet 2.

[10] He arrived "at lunch-time" in "Stories I Have Tried to Write".

[11] The cause and content of this conversation is different in "Stories I Have Tried to Write": "The hotel in the Grande Place faced a three-gabled house of some pretensions. Out of it came a well-dressed woman whom he had seen before. Conversation with the waiter. Yes, the lady was a widow, or so it was believed. At any rate nobody knew what had become of her husband. Here I think we broke down."

[12] On the verso of the final sheet is a word square, written in pencil, which seems to be in MRJ's hand:


Notes copyright (c) 2006 Rosemary Pardoe

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