The Binding

Just to kick start my brain after too much Christmas cake and gin, I have had a crack at writing a supernatural tale in the style of M. R. James - a favourite writer of mine.

Monty set many of his stories in Suffolk (having spent many holidays in this county), and I have followed suit here not only with the setting but also drawing on an element of local history (the real version of the museum exhibit mentioned can be seen in the Norwich Castle museum). Those of you who also like his works will probably pick up on various elements of his tales woven into the story.

For those who prefer to read, the text is below. For those who like to listen, an audio recording is added.







The Binding

Dr Paxton had planned his trip to Suffolk at the very beginning of term, assiduously organising a room at the Dunning Arms commanding a view of the local church and then arranging in turn access to the parish records, the remains of Dunning Manor itself, and the archives of the local museum. Dr Paxton had no faith in the vagaries of chance, nor any great liking for indolence. Each day of his sojourn on the eastern coast was planned to be of maximum benefit to the completion of his manuscript upon the involvement of the Dunning family in the Civil War. Good health was not one of the gifts granted to Dr Paxton, such that he was obliged by both good sense and his own doctor, to invite a junior colleague to accompany him and assist where needed. Young Mr McBride, possessed of the kinds of good looks and charm better suited to a matinee idol than to a theologian, was prevailed upon. Motivated less by any particular friendship for the aloof Paxton and more by the potential to advance his own research into the peculiar dissident sects that flourished in East Anglia during the 17th century, he agreed to the week’s holiday.

The Dunning Manor had not survived the War, subject to a particularly brutal siege that had all but wiped out the Dunning line aside from a cadet branch that had holed up in the Cambridge fens (and, in the passage of time, flourished and left a legacy to St Wulfram’s College in the same year that Queen Victoria had ascended to the throne, thus leading the Doctor to wish to glorify the ancestors of his long-dead benefactor). In the years following the end of the War the village of Dunning had been the birthplace of the Family of Faith, inspired by the visions of Mother Anne Struther, and it was the opportunity to read the papers left by her more literate followers that had peaked the interest of young McBride.

The term was a particularly arduous one for Paxton made all the more tedious by a number of especially sluggish students. The arrival of the final day was one of particular relief for the Doctor, and he quickly fled the table in order to pack his trunk preparatory to departing the very next day. His amanuensis left his own packing to the very morning in question, characteristic of a more carefree approach to life.

The station at Dunning was neat and pleasingly kept by the station master who clearly had an eye for colour and green fingers. The rest of the village, on the short journey to the Arms, did not measure up to the promise of the railway station. It was not the worst place that Paxton had ever visited, but it exhibited an air of despondency and sullenness. The public house where they had taken rooms sat firmly within the atmosphere of the village and not the outlying connection between Dunning and the rest of the country. At length the trunk was deposited upon a sideboard that had not seen the benefit of polish in many weeks. Despite the fastidiousness of the historian’s research, his own rooms in Cambridge were a battleground between the best efforts of the cleaner and his own disengagement with his material surroundings. The tarnished nature of the rented rooms did not impinge upon his consciousness, nor did the unenthusiastic reception from the landlord. Paxton was not one to pay overmuch attention to people outside of his own academic citadel.

Lunch and ablutions completed, Paxton and McBride at once set out to explore both the church and its graveyard. Quite a portion of the burials dated to the War that was of singular interest to the historian and a happy hour was passed making notations of both the ill-fated branch of the Dunnings and their attendants.  The younger man soon found the tomb of Mother Struther and abandoned his duties to copy the various curious signs carved into the stone. Somewhat relieved, for he was not a companionable man, Paxton sought shelter from the sun beneath a ponderous yew tree. It was there that his eye fell upon a worn stone that was almost completely unreadable but for the legend, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay”. A jovial voice intruded itself upon the man’s musings.

“I see you have found poor Lady Alice,” the speaker wore a dog collar and a nose befitting a Roman emperor. He confirmed his identity as the Reverend Fell, with whom Paxton had exchanged letters regarding the parish records. The portly figure beamed upon his visitor and waved at the kneeling McBride.

“The only time I have seen that verse quoted is in cases of murder,” muttered the old academic.

“Quite so, and murdered she was – though before the Civil War that so interests you. The date is no longer legible, but she and my predecessor there,” he indicated another grave some few yards away on the other side of the tree trunk, “entered the hallowed soil in 1641. August 12th, to be exact.”

Without need of prompting Fell displayed the skills that made his presence at Sunday School gatherings so popular. Lady Alice Abbot had been mistress of the manor before the Dunning family purchased it. Her husband of three years duration had begun to suspect that his wife’s deepening interest in religion was fuelled more by an unwholesome interest in his own younger brother, the Reverend Peter Abbot, than in any theological understanding. Squires of fiction are frequently a bellicose and roistering bunch, given to womanising and hunting and drinking. Sir Thomas Abbot, by contrast, was an introverted and saturnine figure, abstemious in temperament to the point of puritanism, dour and rigid in his running of village affairs. Already disgruntled with his brother’s high church inclinations, these religious tensions had become overlain by jealousy of the vicar’s charm and popularity in the village. Whilst Lady Alice and the reverend discussed the Bible in the library, Sir Thomas took to concealing himself in a cabinet the better to eavesdrop and discover the truth of their treachery. How long this went on for is uncertain, but the servants testified at the trial as to their master’s behaviour having become increasingly peculiar over the duration of some two months. After many attempts at eavesdropping he finally heard proof of all he most dreaded and leapt from the cabinet bellowing denouncements of wife and brother alike. A fight ensued which drew the attention of the servants, but they arrived too late – finding the clergyman already bludgeoned to death and Lady Alice so terribly injured that she passed away within the hour. Sir Thomas, spattered in the blood of his family, could scarcely deny what he had done. He was brought to trial and duly condemned to the gallows. The outrage of the villagers was such that they desecrated the corpse as it dangled in the gibbet.

“During his final days in the gaol Sir Thomas kept a diary, veering between guilt-raddled repentance and incoherent ranting. Someone and it has never been quite clear who, removed a large portion of skin from the gibbeted corpse and bound the diary with it. Ghoulish, I know, but it is one of the more popular exhibits in our little local museum.”

The prospect of reading such a document threw Paxton’s plans out of their orderly flow. The vicar’s mention of the distant cousins who inherited the manor and at once sold it to the Dunning family echoing in his ears, the Doctor rushed off to the museum. It really was quite as small as expected, with a few uninspired exhibits of prehistoric flints, rusted Roman blades, Elizabethan embroideries, and the repellently bound book. With the curator twittering at his elbow, Paxton observed the embossed covering. The golden lettering failed to detract the eye from the all-too evident ear that declared the origins of the leather to any doubters. It was only after considerable persuasion and reassurances that the curator relented and removed the diary from the glass display.

Ensconced in the small office used by the curator, who had absented herself to brew tea, Paxton turned the pages. Exactly as Fell had described, some pages were filled with a spidery hand begging brother, wife, and God for forgiveness. Other pages railed against tormenting voices preventing the squire from sleeping, against forms creeping low in the shadows, against a smirking malkin peering through the window. At points the writing was so frenzied that the quill had torn through the paper. Blotted ink ran into brownish stains that spoke their own story. Most of the pages of the diary were blank, the last entry being on the morning of the day Sir Thomas went to the gallows.

The image of the maddened squire scribbling away in his cell, quite unaware that he would soon end up covering that very journal, dissolved with a sudden knock at the door. The disgruntled face of his erstwhile assistant glared down at him, evidently displeased at being ditched without a word. Oblivious to the annoyance caused, Paxton directed McBride’s attention to the curious book whilst he took a turn upon the High Street to stretch his aching back. There was little enough to hold the attention of the village idiot, much less a man of education, but the day was mellowing to pleasantness and the site of names upon the shops familiar to him from the tombstones provided a chance to reflect upon the continuity of English village life.

Returning to the museum he found McBride drinking tea with the curator and admiring the woodcut that was the only known representation of the prophetess Anne Struther. Circumventing them, Paxton found the diary of Squire Abbot still upon the desk. His eye took in the open page, at first casually, then again with bemusement. There, written in ink still damp were the words – “Would you like some tea?” Below this appeared the response – “That would be lovely thank you. No sugar, just a dash of milk.”

The handwriting matched that of the previous entries. He stood for some moments, bewildered to think that an aspiring young historian would vandalise a 300-year old document in such a pointless manner. Snatching up the journal he strode out to the museum, spluttering with indignation. Two faces smiled innocuously at his inarticulate gestures.

“It’s an interesting piece, Dr Paxton, though I must admit I do not understand how it will benefit your particular field of research.”

“What is the meaning of this?” He jabbed a finger at the page, his look of fury perplexing assistant and curator alike. The two stared at the book before staring back at him. Paxton realised the page he was jabbing was blank, blushed and flipped the sheets to find the offending graffiti. Flip as he might, the banal messages could not be found. The Doctor stood perplexed, embarrassed all the more because the others were exchanging looks.

“There was… a… word. I thought one of you might know what it meant,” he floundered lamely for an escape from the dawning realisation that he had imagined something not merely convincingly real, but dispiritingly dull, “Malkin – there it is. Malkin, what does that mean?”

“That’s just a local word,” the curator smiled indulgently, “for a scarecrow. Or it can be a witch’s familiar. I’m not sure if there is a connection, although maybe people once imagined that scarecrows were created by wizards or witches or something?”



Neither man had spoken on the walk back to the Dunning Arms and then each had retreated to their respective bedrooms. Paxton steadied his nerves with a generous whisky and wondered if the diagnosis given him by his medic was an underestimate of the problems about to beset him. By the time the dinner gong sounded, he had determined to return to the museum the next day and examine the skin-bound book more fully. The diary was of no particular use to his magnum opus, and Paxton had sufficient self-awareness to admit that he wanted to test himself as much as glean any knowledge from Abbot’s final words.

There were more people in the dining room for the evening meal than for lunch, including an abrasively loud youth with the build of a prop forward.  Sampson by name (and nature, given the mane of fiery locks) he was an Oxford man and immediately monopolised the attentions of young McBride who seemed to have forgotten that he was working, albeit for a very small consideration from the college, and not on holiday as such. Attempts to steer the conversation towards history failed, with the flow rapidly reverting to sports, politics, current theatrical productions, and such related topics as Paxton could make no useful contribution.

The food had been just about digestible whilst the wine was closer to vinegar than vintage. It may have been the acidity, or the spectre of hallucination, but the historian could not sleep and eventually dressed and slipped out of the Arms. Whilst having no conscious intention of a particular destination, within a matter of minutes he stood before the doors of the museum. It was locked. The side door, however, proved to be merely latched and Paxton rapidly found himself standing before the display case staring at the shrivelled ear of Sir Thomas Abbot. The academic had never stolen anything in his life and was not, he assured himself, actually stealing now – given that he intended to return the book to its resting place before the curator would even know it had gone. Slipping it inside his coat, Paxton returned to his chamber and set to read.

There was not one word different from his original viewing and the blank pages, which made up to thirds of the diary, remained reassuringly blank. The sense of relief was marked. The clock struck 5am and Paxton slipped his coat back on.

“Johnathan!” the woman’s voice hissed, clearly intended to be hushed but oddly audible in the stillness, “Let me sleep, can’t you wait till the morning?”

Paxton smiled to himself before freezing. Even as he watched an unseen pen inked the very words he had just heard from the adjoining room scrawled themselves across the blank page. How long he had stood staring was difficult to say, but the Doctor realised that the ink was beginning to fade away. Within five minutes the page was as white as it had been when removed from the museum.

The dawn found Paxton slumped in the armchair staring across at the desk where the dairy lay unmoving. When the breakfast gong rang, he roused himself and blundered down to the table unaware of how careworn he looked. As the conversation flowed around him, dominated by the ebullient Sampson, a solution came to mind. Or, rather, a test of sanity for, if the test succeeded it would resolve nothing in terms of shattering the ontology by which Paxton had run his entire life. As breakfast drew to its close, he arranged to meet McBride in the smoking room later that morning. As hoped, Sampson suggested that the young men adjourn to that very room to discuss the latest political scandal.

Paxton hurried upstairs, gingerly picked up the dairy and crept as quietly as possible into the smoking room. The young men were so deep in conversation, sat in the bay window that they did not even notice as the older man slipped the book behind a vase on the sideboard. An hour later he returned and, just as discreetly, removed the book and rushed upstairs to investigate. Thirty previously blank pages were filled with the conversation of McBride and Sampson, ending abruptly mid-sentence where the ear on the cover had been taken out of eavesdropping range. Several tedious pages about politicians of whom Paxton had only vaguely heard suddenly gave way to a sentence so forcefully written as to tear the page.

“How do you put up with him?” One of the men asked. It was not a theatrical script; no names were attributed to the speakers. Yet he could hear the baritone joviality of Sampson even as he reread the sentence. “Well, you get used to him after a while – except for that wretched smell of carbolic soap” came the response. Paxton flushed, eyes darting to the block of soap which he had brought with him, never liking to use the brands provided by hotels and inns.

“The way he looks at you!” Paxton started up at this passage – what could the thundering giant mean? “Most of the time contemptuous, but sometimes – well, you know.” The ink on the left-hand page began to fade, eradicating the pretentious political opinions, but the snide personal comments, the jibes, the insinuations remained longer. Indeed, the ink seemed to become darker for those passages, rather than fading. Paxton raced to read as much as possible before this too disappeared. Even after the last words had vanished from the page Paxton sat with them dancing before his eyes. There are rumours… do you believe them… Professor Powell cannot abide him… there was a student once… the Provost paid, but nobody will ever forget. On and on it went, vile and horrible things exchanged between a supposedly trustworthy colleague and a total stranger.

A knock at the door startled Paxton out of his unhappy state, the voice of McBride reminding him of the time and their intention to visit the manor. The walk up was only a matter of twenty minutes but difficult. The younger man was clearly concerned about Paxton’s abstracted state and unhealthy pallor, but the older man could scarcely bring himself to mumble more than a few words. McBride had only joined the college in September, yet he was aware of those misunderstandings of twenty years earlier. How could he have found out? Had he been warned by one of the poisonous old fools who had been lecturing there for far too long? Why would McBride share such vile gossip with an absolute stranger? How many other strangers had been told about things that should be buried long since? The thoughts tormented him, along with the seeming impossibility of how to resolve them. Except the book – yes, the book! It could be secreted in lecture halls, dining rooms, the Provost’s office… anywhere he wanted to find out what people really thought, what they were truly saying.

“I didn’t realise it was this badly damaged” McBride commented as they stood before the dilapidated walls, still scorched from where the Roundheads had finally lost patience and incinerated the Dunnings and all their servants.

The Doctor pointed to the one remaining stone staircase, leading up to what would have been the servants’ rooms, except now they led nowhere.  Seeing the young man produce a camera and take an image of a tree growing through a once-ornate window, he suggested an amusing photograph that might provide some levity to his magnum opus on the Civil War.

“Not dangerous at all my boy,” Paxton dismissed his assistant’s concerns as he clambered the first few of the stone steps. “When I get to the top take a snap of me looking down.”

He was halfway when he saw the vaguely familiar figure approaching down the lane. Paxton continued further up until he had to pause and draw breath. The day was becoming increasingly warm, or perhaps it was his own declining health that caused him to sweat so profusely. The figure waved at him, and he waved vaguely back as he recognised the angular figure of Miss Martin, the museum curator. She scurried through the iron gates of Dunning Manor in an agitated manner. Perhaps she had noticed the disappearance of the diary, and even if she had not it was only a matter of very little time before she did. Onwards he strode, wheezing as he finally reached the landing which would have led to a long absent door. The jagged wall reached waist height, a mixture of old bricks and a heavy window lintel now fallen and coated in lichen. Looking down Paxton saw the earnest face of McBride smiling up as he adjusted his camera and the florid Miss Martin just arriving and laying a hand upon the young man’s arm. The words of the diary echoing in his mind, he stooped and picked up the lintel.

Comments

  1. Not a bad pastiche, that: not bad at all. I would have loved it, had the writing been in Thomas Shelton's 'Tachygraphie' and deciphered by the learned doctor... And had there been some hint of who skinned Mr Dunning's gibbeted head to bind the diary, and why. I think a book of such stories, all set in Suffolk, all explicitly in the style of M R James, would sell well.

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    1. I'll give a book some thought - I had an idea for a horror connection, though not a specifically Jamesian one (I could do both, if my publisher is interested).

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