In my Introduction to When the Door is Shut, I discussed the possible identity of 'B'. Certainly it is generally thought at Magdalene that he was A.C. Benson, whose association with that College began in 1904 when he was elected a Fellow. He became Master in 1915. There are some textual similarities between the tales of 'B' and those of A.C. Benson ("The Slype House", "Basil Netherby", "The Uttermost Farthing", etc.), but just as many differences, and the case remains unproven. However, that 'B' was (like Benson) a member of MRJ's close circle of friends seems certain, not only because the galley-proof of "The Stone Coffin" was amongst MRJ's papers, but also because a character called "Swain" appears in "Quia Nominor". He was surely named for E.G. Swain, MRJ's good friend and the author of The Stoneground Ghost Tales (1912). "Quia Nominor" is a highly memorable tale, and it has special significance if 'B' was, indeed, A.C. Benson. Benson was subject to debilitating depressions, and was ever conscious of "the wild beast...beside me". According to David Newsome's On the Edge of Paradise (1980), he had an occasional dream which uncannily echoes the events of "Quia Nominor": he would hear "soft footfalls coming to a door, the handle moving, and then...nothing but the prints of some unidentifiable beast" (p.237). One final note: while W.F. Harvey's "The Ankardyne Pew" was inspired by a genuine obituary in the Gentleman's Magazine, 'B' appears to have invented his quote from that journal (as MRJ himself was also known to do).
Mr John Byron, who held a John Smith Fellowship at Magdalene until his death in 1788 at the age of sixty-three, seems to have been a man of noted inefficiency. He had gone to the Bar as a young man, where it was certain he had obtained a single brief, given him apparently by the kindness of the College, in an action against a tenant for cutting and selling timber privately. This much, I say, was certain, for Mr Byron mentioned it very frequently in his talk; but it was held to be no less certain that he had never obtained another brief, for he would assuredly have made mention of it. He subsisted miserably enough in London on his Fellowship, which was poorly endowed; and he then returned to Cambridge, where he was not much welcome. However, the College made him a lecturer, and here he failed again grievously, being quite unable to command the attention, or even assure the silence, of his class. After which experiment, when he was not again appointed, he lived in his rooms the greater part of the year. But, strange to say, this proved incompetence in all practical affairs was accompanied by a most inordinate vanity.
Mr Byron was vain of his name, of his appearance, which was meagre and slovenly, of his experience, which was small, and most of all of his conversation, which reached a degree of tediousness impossible to describe. He was both voluble and embarrassed in discourse, fond of telling a few very dreary anecdotes, so that his company was much dreaded by all merry men. He was something of a free-thinker, and spoke very scornfully of the intelligence of others; and he was, moreover, a greedy man, eating profusely and in a very slatternly manner, his waistcoat being generally garnished with the drippings of gravy and ale; so that, indeed, he was no ornament to the table. But being a man of no natural affection, he cared very little how distasteful he was to his fellows, and lived a slothful life, walking much about the town in the mornings, and staring at all whom he met; while in the evenings he sat alone in his rooms and was very peevish; and so the years moved on, with but little change.
Mr Byron sate one day in Hall next a visitor, a courteous and ingenious philosopher, learned in all sorts of curious knowledge; when Mr Byron, as was his wont, spoke of his excellent handling of the case against the tenant of the College, and went on to talk very lengthily of the ancient family to which he belonged and all the glories of his name; he said to the visitor that no one had ever been able to tell the origin of the name, at which the philosopher laughed and said that it was plain enough. It was a Scandinavian name, he said, of common use in Norway, where it was called Björn, and had the signification of a Bear. The family, he said bore a bear's head as a crest; at which Mr Byron said that his own arms were three bendlets enhanced gules, and that he had a mermaid proper for his crest. To this the visitor courteously said that Mr Byron must then be akin to the Lord of that name, to which Mr Byron said that he took little interest in such vanities, but that he believed that the Lord Byron was an offshoot of an inferior branch of his family. The visitor went on to talk of the strange way in which certain animals and fowls were attached to certain clans and families, and spoke of some curious customs that seemed formerly to have existed in Northern tribes, by which it was forbidden to any tribesman to slay the animal which was the sign of the tribe, "and I daresay, Mr Byron," he said, "that some of your ancestors had trouble enough with bears which they met in hunting and were not permitted to slay".
"Very like, very like, sir," said Mr Byron, who was displeased that the talk should pass out of his hands; and Mr Byron went on to tell stories of his family and of their greatness, and especially of his great-uncle, who in Mr Byron's description of him became a very notable man, though he had been, in fact, but a tallow-chandler in Ipswich; but this made no appearance in Mr Byron's talk. The company would have wished to hear more of the philosopher's conversation, but Mr Byron allowed him no second chance, and talked very wearifully all the afternoon.
A day or two after, Mr Byron was walking about the town in the morning, and, as was his wont, staring at all those he met, when he saw a little ring of people in the corner of the market-place. He hurried thither to see what the affair was, and, pushing into the gathering, he saw that a circle had been formed round two men, of foreign appearance, who led with them a great brown bear. The bear wore a little coat on his shaggy shoulders, and a cocked-hat on his head, and shouldered a pole, which he held in his long claws. He seemed to be very friendly and obedient to the men, and, at a word of command, danced a little in the ring, lifting up and setting down his flat feet very clumsily. His little eyes and his red tongue, which lolled out of his mouth across his white teeth, seemed very curious to Mr Byron, and he pressed further into the ring till he was on the inside. The bear came round still dancing, but when he got close to Mr Byron, so close that Mr Byron could perceive his strong and acrid odour, he came to a stop, regarded Mr Byron very curiously, and dropping his pole, came towards him in a decided way, as if recognising an old acquaintance. Mr Byron was taken with a sudden terror, and cried out faintly. One of the men called the bear off, who picked up the pole humbly enough and continued his dance. But Mr Byron conceived a great disgust of the whole matter, and slipped out of the throng, feeling sick and shaky and entirely unmanned. He had a sense that he had been in some danger, he knew not what, and that the bear would have hugged him in his arms, if the men had not interfered. He could not get the business out of his head, and for some days after that he was ill at ease, sleeping brokenly, and often dreaming of the little sullen eyes of the bear and the red tongue which lolled out of his mouth. He gave up his usual walk in the town and strolled instead in the College garden.
It was a week later that in some dumb hour of the night, Mr Byron woke suddenly up in his bed and wished for day. His rooms were on the ground floor, on the South side of the Court, near the Porter's Lodge. He woke with a sense of great discomfort, feeling as though something had leaned over him and touched his arm; he had felt, he thought, a hot and fetid breath on his face; and what added much to his alarm was that he could discern the heavy scent of a bear, just as he had smelt the one in the market-place. He dared not move at first, but presently he took courage, made a light and looked fearfully round. All was as it should have been; he got up at last with the taper in his hand, and went out into his ugly and comfortless sitting-room, and even so far as his outer door, which was securely closed. He felt clearer now, and opened a little cupboard, where he kept some brandy; he took a dram, and was soon very valiant again. The clock presently struck three, with a very solitary sound; Mr Byron betook himself to his bed again, but he could not sleep, and he was glad when the light began to filter in among his curtains, and the sparrows fell to twittering in the ivy.
Soon after this the vacation came on; the scholars all departed, and most of the Fellows travelled away. Mr Byron was left alone in the College, except for the Dean, an old somnolent man, who had no use for talk; and very dull were the dinners for the two. But Mr Byron could not hold his peace, and bit by bit told the old Dean the story of his meeting with the bear, and his fancy of the night. The old man heard him very inattentively, and said that such fancies were uncomfortable things, and that Mr Byron had better go off for a visit, and shake all such thoughts out of his head. "It's an ill thing," said the Dean, in his slow and husky voice, "when a man gets to brood upon bears, and such outlandish cattle. It's a disorder of the mind, Mr Byron; there is an old story of a family, the name of which I cannot call to mind, the head of which is visited on occasions by the sight of a great white bird, poising in his chamber - and it means no good. I would not have any Fellow of this College to tamper with the thought of birds of the air or beasts of the wood visiting them in their chambers at dead of night. That's an ill thing, Mr Byron, and it's a boding thing. A man should read the Scriptures at such times, and pray a little; for both of which exercises I fear you have but little stomach."
Mr Byron said that he thought that strong ale and brandy were a more manful cure, but the Dean shook his head and would say no more on that head, or indeed upon any other head at all.
Mr Byron was now left quite alone in the College, for the Dean departed soon, and Mr Byron was in great dudgeon. He parted with his appetite, and could only palter with toast and tea, which he laced with brandy. He gave up going into Hall, and sate much in his rooms, beating a tattoo with his fingers on the table. It was then that he took to writing a good deal in a little notebook, from which the event that followed is closely taken. It appears from this book that he was not at peace with himself, and that he had a sore heart about his wasted and selfish life; he made some entries, too, about the strange doom which befalls certain families; and he wrote down, too, some silly tales of his boyhood and youth, which had no beginning or end, as thus: "When I was in the garden, I remember that Marjorie came to me, and showed me some pears which Mrs Vickers had given her, and offered me to share them; but I said no, and that I would play her for them at a game we much used, called Pattle-pottle; then I cheated her, and won all the pears, and ate them all and laughed at her, so that she did not contain her tears. I wish I had not cheated Marjorie. She died April 8, 1748, of a quinsy, but that was long after. I did not like her husband well; he spoke injuriously to me"... So the notes rambled on, without any order. Then comes the following entry, written in a very wild hand, the lines sloping every way: "The worst thing I ever saw in my life, but I am constrained to set it down, for fear of I know not what. May God spare me and have mercy on me, and forgive my disbelief. It was thus: I woke very unquiet, I suppose about three in the morning (this was Wednesday, I think - I am not sure of this or of anything), and getting up I heard something go softly to and fro in my outer chamber; something brushed by the door, and it was thrice pushed and rattled, but it held. Then I heard something sniff and blow under the bottom of the door, and the smell, I cannot write of that, for it sickens me... Oh dear, how I am undone - Oh dear! Then I heard it pad about again; and again it sniffed and blew beneath the door. All this time I stood amazed and dared not even move, so that I grew stiff and cold. Then the day came in very slowly, and silence fell; and at last I took courage, and opened the door. The room was grey and dim, but - Oh dear! how can I write it - God be merciful; for the bear sate as I feared, all hunched up opposite the door, and looked at me out of its little eyes, and I saw its teeth and the redness of its tongue. It was there at last - Oh dear, what can I do? I shut to the door and I fainted after that, and crept to my bed; but now I cannot put the smell away from my nostrils: was ever man in such a horror - Oh dear!"
This passage is followed by some unintelligible scrawls, which appear to be fragments of Psalm xcv., "Whoso dwelleth," etc., very imperfectly remembered.
There is but one more entry, two days later. "I have seen nothing further, and the horror is a little abated; but I cannot get the stench of the beast out of my rooms; my clothes seem infected with it, and it hangs about my food. I have sat indoors too much of late. I must go abroad more, and walk more; this and a regular course of life and diet, with prayer, may help me. I dare not go to any physician, and if I went to a clergyman, I know not where I should make a beginning. I cannot rid myself of a burden of thought, and some disaster is awaiting me, I cannot conjecture what. It is too late, I fear, to live differently. Now if it had been twenty years ago! The curse of my house is fallen upon me, through my own great fault. If I had but one friend in the world, I could go forward in hope. If little Marjorie had lived, she would understand."
The end came very swiftly; but the only record I can find of the event is a brief obituary notice of Mr Byron, which appears in the Gentleman's Magazine of July 20, 1788, about a week later. It was as follows:
"On the 18th of July, at the Fish and Duck Inn, Cottenham, died Mr John Byron, Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge, a facetious and well-respected man. His death was occasioned by a singular accident. The deceased gentleman, who was in excellent health, was accustomed to take long walks in the neighbourhood of Cambridge, where he resided. On the morning of July 18, two Norweyan sailors, known as Swain and Burn, were showing a trained bear in the street at Cottenham, when Mr Byron turned suddenly out of a side street. The bear, for some cause not explained, broke loose, and made as if it would embrace Mr Byron, who stood by as if irresolute. He turned to run, with the bear close upon him, but collapsed to the ground, and the bear took hold of him. He was at once extricated, but he seemed to be in a fit, occasioned by terror, from which he did not rally, and died the same afternoon. At an enquiry which was held, Swain, the bear-guard, gave the bear a good character, and said that it could be trusted safely with the smallest child. He said, indeed, that the behaviour of the animal seemed to shew that he recognised in Mr Byron an old friend, and wished to testify affection rather than any enmity. It had been intended that the bear should be destroyed, but the man Swain pleaded very earnestly for it, as an old favourite and as his means of livelihood; and as the doctor said that Mr Byron had received no hurt from the bear, Mr Cutlack, the magistrate, decided in Swain's favour, and let the Norweyans go. Mr Byron will be buried in St Peter's Churchyard at Cambridge, and is sincerely regretted by all who knew him."
back to top
back to Ghosts & Scholars Archive
back to Ghosts & Scholars Home Page
Bar by Syruss