The Ash-tree, by M. R. James
Everyone who has travelled over Eastern England knows the smaller
country-houses with which it is studded—the rather dank little
buildings, usually in the Italian style, surrounded with parks of some
eighty to a hundred acres. For me they have always had a very strong
attraction, with the grey paling of split oak, the noble trees, the meres
with their reed-beds, and the line of distant woods. Then, I like the
pillared portico—perhaps stuck on to a red-brick Queen Anne house which
has been faced with stucco to bring it into line with the 'Grecian' taste
of the end of the eighteenth century; the hall inside, going up to the
roof, which hall ought always to be provided with a gallery and a small
organ. I like the library, too, where you may find anything from a
Psalter of the thirteenth century to a Shakespeare quarto. I like the
pictures, of course; and perhaps most of all I like fancying what life in
such a house was when it was first built, and in the piping times of
landlords' prosperity, and not least now, when, if money is not so
plentiful, taste is more varied and life quite as interesting. I wish to
have one of these houses, and enough money to keep it together and
entertain my friends in it modestly.
But this is a digression. I have to tell you of a curious series of
events which happened in such a house as I have tried to describe. It is
Castringham Hall in Suffolk. I think a good deal has been done to the
building since the period of my story, but the essential features I have
sketched are still there—Italian portico, square block of white house,
older inside than out, park with fringe of woods, and mere. The one
feature that marked out the house from a score of others is gone. As you
looked at it from the park, you saw on the right a great old ash-tree
growing within half a dozen yards of the wall, and almost or quite
touching the building with its branches. I suppose it had stood there
ever since Castringham ceased to be a fortified place, and since the moat
was filled in and the Elizabethan dwelling-house built. At any rate, it
had well-nigh attained its full dimensions in the year 1690.
In that year the district in which the Hall is situated was the scene of
a number of witch-trials. It will be long, I think, before we arrive at a
just estimate of the amount of solid reason—if there was any—which lay
at the root of the universal fear of witches in old times. Whether the
persons accused of this offence really did imagine that they were
possessed of unusual power of any kind; or whether they had the will at
least, if not the power, of doing mischief to their neighbours; or
whether all the confessions, of which there are so many, were extorted by
the cruelty of the witch-finders—these are questions which are not, I
fancy, yet solved. And the present narrative gives me pause. I cannot
altogether sweep it away as mere invention. The reader must judge for
Castringham contributed a victim to the auto-da-fé. Mrs Mothersole was
her name, and she differed from the ordinary run of village witches only
in being rather better off and in a more influential position. Efforts
were made to save her by several reputable farmers of the parish. They
did their best to testify to her character, and showed considerable
anxiety as to the verdict of the jury.
But what seems to have been fatal to the woman was the evidence of the
then proprietor of Castringham Hall—Sir Matthew Fell. He deposed to
having watched her on three different occasions from his window, at the
full of the moon, gathering sprigs 'from the ash-tree near my house'. She
had climbed into the branches, clad only in her shift, and was cutting
off small twigs with a peculiarly curved knife, and as she did so she
seemed to be talking to herself. On each occasion Sir Matthew had done
his best to capture the woman, but she had always taken alarm at some
accidental noise he had made, and all he could see when he got down to
the garden was a hare running across the path in the direction of the
On the third night he had been at the pains to follow at his best speed,
and had gone straight to Mrs Mothersole's house; but he had had to wait a
quarter of an hour battering at her door, and then she had come out very
cross, and apparently very sleepy, as if just out of bed; and he had no
good explanation to offer of his visit.
Mainly on this evidence, though there was much more of a less striking
and unusual kind from other parishioners, Mrs Mothersole was found guilty
and condemned to die. She was hanged a week after the trial, with five or
six more unhappy creatures, at Bury St Edmunds.
Sir Matthew Fell, then Deputy-Sheriff, was present at the execution. It
was a damp, drizzly March morning when the cart made its way up the rough
grass hill outside Northgate, where the gallows stood. The other victims
were apathetic or broken down with misery; but Mrs Mothersole was, as in
life so in death, of a very different temper. Her 'poysonous Rage', as a
reporter of the time puts it, 'did so work upon the Bystanders—yea, even
upon the Hangman—that it was constantly affirmed of all that saw her
that she presented the living Aspect of a mad Divell. Yet she offer'd no
Resistance to the Officers of the Law; onely she looked upon those that
laid Hands upon her with so direfull and venomous an Aspect that—as one
of them afterwards assured me—the meer Thought of it preyed inwardly
upon his Mind for six Months after.'
However, all that she is reported to have said were the seemingly
meaningless words: 'There will be guests at the Hall.' Which she repeated
more than once in an undertone.
Sir Matthew Fell was not unimpressed by the bearing of the woman. He had
some talk upon the matter with the Vicar of his parish, with whom he
travelled home after the assize business was over. His evidence at the
trial had not been very willingly given; he was not specially infected
with the witch-finding mania, but he declared, then and afterwards, that
he could not give any other account of the matter than that he had given,
and that he could not possibly have been mistaken as to what he saw. The
whole transaction had been repugnant to him, for he was a man who liked
to be on pleasant terms with those about him; but he saw a duty to be
done in this business, and he had done it. That seems to have been the
gist of his sentiments, and the Vicar applauded it, as any reasonable man
must have done.
A few weeks after, when the moon of May was at the full, Vicar and Squire
met again in the park, and walked to the Hall together. Lady Fell was
with her mother, who was dangerously ill, and Sir Matthew was alone at
home; so the Vicar, Mr Crome, was easily persuaded to take a late supper
at the Hall.
Sir Matthew was not very good company this evening. The talk ran chiefly
on family and parish matters, and, as luck would have it, Sir Matthew
made a memorandum in writing of certain wishes or intentions of his
regarding his estates, which afterwards proved exceedingly useful.
When Mr Crome thought of starting for home, about half past nine o'clock,
Sir Matthew and he took a preliminary turn on the gravelled walk at the
back of the house. The only incident that struck Mr Crome was this: they
were in sight of the ash-tree which I described as growing near the
windows of the building, when Sir Matthew stopped and said:
'What is that that runs up and down the stem of the ash? It is never a
squirrel? They will all be in their nests by now.'
The Vicar looked and saw the moving creature, but he could make nothing
of its colour in the moonlight. The sharp outline, however, seen for an
instant, was imprinted on his brain, and he could have sworn, he said,
though it sounded foolish, that, squirrel or not, it had more than four
Still, not much was to be made of the momentary vision, and the two men
parted. They may have met since then, but it was not for a score of
Next day Sir Matthew Fell was not downstairs at six in the morning, as
was his custom, nor at seven, nor yet at eight. Hereupon the servants
went and knocked at his chamber door. I need not prolong the description
of their anxious listenings and renewed batterings on the panels. The
door was opened at last from the outside, and they found their master
dead and black. So much you have guessed. That there were any marks of
violence did not at the moment appear; but the window was open.
One of the men went to fetch the parson, and then by his directions rode
on to give notice to the coroner. Mr Crome himself went as quick as he
might to the Hall, and was shown to the room where the dead man lay. He
has left some notes among his papers which show how genuine a respect and
sorrow was felt for Sir Matthew, and there is also this passage, which I
transcribe for the sake of the light it throws upon the course of events,
and also upon the common beliefs of the time:
'There was not any the least Trace of an Entrance having been forc'd to
the Chamber: but the Casement stood open, as my poor Friend would always
have it in this Season. He had his Evening Drink of small Ale in a silver
vessel of about a pint measure, and tonight had not drunk it out. This
Drink was examined by the Physician from Bury, a Mr Hodgkins, who could
not, however, as he afterwards declar'd upon his Oath, before the
Coroner's quest, discover that any matter of a venomous kind was present
in it. For, as was natural, in the great Swelling and Blackness of the
Corpse, there was talk made among the Neighbours of Poyson. The Body was
very much Disorder'd as it laid in the Bed, being twisted after so
extream a sort as gave too probable Conjecture that my worthy Friend and
Patron had expir'd in great Pain and Agony. And what is as yet
unexplain'd, and to myself the Argument of some Horrid and Artfull
Designe in the Perpetrators of this Barbarous Murther, was this, that the
Women which were entrusted with the laying-out of the Corpse and washing
it, being both sad Pearsons and very well Respected in their Mournfull
Profession, came to me in a great Pain and Distress both of Mind and
Body, saying, what was indeed confirmed upon the first View, that they
had no sooner touch'd the Breast of the Corpse with their naked Hands
than they were sensible of a more than ordinary violent Smart and Acheing
in their Palms, which, with their whole Forearms, in no long time swell'd
so immoderately, the Pain still continuing, that, as afterwards proved,
during many weeks they were forc'd to lay by the exercise of their
Calling; and yet no mark seen on the Skin.
'Upon hearing this, I sent for the Physician, who was still in the House,
and we made as carefull a Proof as we were able by the Help of a small
Magnifying Lens of Crystal of the condition of the Skinn on this Part of
the Body: but could not detect with the Instrument we had any Matter of
Importance beyond a couple of small Punctures or Pricks, which we then
concluded were the Spotts by which the Poyson might be introduced,
remembering that Ring of Pope Borgia, with other known Specimens of the
Horrid Art of the Italian Poysoners of the last age.
'So much is to be said of the Symptoms seen on the Corpse. As to what I
am to add, it is meerly my own Experiment, and to be left to Posterity to
judge whether there be anything of Value therein. There was on the Table
by the Beddside a Bible of the small size, in which my Friend—punctuall
as in Matters of less Moment, so in this more weighty one—used nightly,
and upon his First Rising, to read a sett Portion. And I taking it
up—not without a Tear duly paid to him wich from the Study of this
poorer Adumbration was now pass'd to the contemplation of its great
Originall—it came into my Thoughts, as at such moments of Helplessness
we are prone to catch at any the least Glimmer that makes promise of
Light, to make trial of that old and by many accounted Superstitious
Practice of drawing the Sortes; of which a Principall Instance, in the
case of his late Sacred Majesty the Blessed Martyr King Charles and my
Lord Falkland, was now much talked of. I must needs admit that by my
Trial not much Assistance was afforded me: yet, as the Cause and Origin
of these Dreadfull Events may hereafter be search'd out, I set down the
Results, in the case it may be found that they pointed the true Quarter
of the Mischief to a quicker Intelligence than my own.
'I made, then, three trials, opening the Book and placing my Finger upon
certain Words: which gave in the first these words, from Luke xiii. 7,
Cut it down; in the second, Isaiah xiii. 20, It shall never be
inhabited; and upon the third Experiment, Job xxxix. 30, Her young ones
also suck up blood.'
This is all that need be quoted from Mr Crome's papers. Sir Matthew Fell
was duly coffined and laid into the earth, and his funeral sermon,
preached by Mr Crome on the following Sunday, has been printed under the
title of 'The Unsearchable Way; or, England's Danger and the Malicious
Dealings of Antichrist', it being the Vicar's view, as well as that most
commonly held in the neighbourhood, that the Squire was the victim of a
recrudescence of the Popish Plot.
His son, Sir Matthew the second, succeeded to the title and estates. And
so ends the first act of the Castringham tragedy. It is to be mentioned,
though the fact is not surprising, that the new Baronet did not occupy
the room in which his father had died. Nor, indeed, was it slept in by
anyone but an occasional visitor during the whole of his occupation. He
died in 1735, and I do not find that anything particular marked his
reign, save a curiously constant mortality among his cattle and
live-stock in general, which showed a tendency to increase slightly as
time went on.
Those who are interested in the details will find a statistical account
in a letter to the Gentleman's Magazine of 1772, which draws the facts
from the Baronet's own papers. He put an end to it at last by a very
simple expedient, that of shutting up all his beasts in sheds at night,
and keeping no sheep in his park. For he had noticed that nothing was
ever attacked that spent the night indoors. After that the disorder
confined itself to wild birds, and beasts of chase. But as we have no
good account of the symptoms, and as all-night watching was quite
unproductive of any clue, I do not dwell on what the Suffolk farmers
called the 'Castringham sickness'.
The second Sir Matthew died in 1735, as I said, and was duly succeeded by
his son, Sir Richard. It was in his time that the great family pew was
built out on the north side of the parish church. So large were the
Squire's ideas that several of the graves on that unhallowed side of the
building had to be disturbed to satisfy his requirements. Among them was
that of Mrs Mothersole, the position of which was accurately known,
thanks to a note on a plan of the church and yard, both made by Mr Crome.
A certain amount of interest was excited in the village when it was known
that the famous witch, who was still remembered by a few, was to be
exhumed. And the feeling of surprise, and indeed disquiet, was very
strong when it was found that, though her coffin was fairly sound and
unbroken, there was no trace whatever inside it of body, bones, or dust.
Indeed, it is a curious phenomenon, for at the time of her burying no
such things were dreamt of as resurrection-men, and it is difficult to
conceive any rational motive for stealing a body otherwise than for the
uses of the dissecting-room.
The incident revived for a time all the stories of witch-trials and of
the exploits of the witches, dormant for forty years, and Sir Richard's
orders that the coffin should be burnt were thought by a good many to be
rather foolhardy, though they were duly carried out.
Sir Richard was a pestilent innovator, it is certain. Before his time the
Hall had been a fine block of the mellowest red brick; but Sir Richard
had travelled in Italy and become infected with the Italian taste, and,
having more money than his predecessors, he determined to leave an
Italian palace where he had found an English house. So stucco and ashlar
masked the brick; some indifferent Roman marbles were planted about in
the entrance-hall and gardens; a reproduction of the Sibyl's temple at
Tivoli was erected on the opposite bank of the mere; and Castringham took
on an entirely new, and, I must say, a less engaging, aspect. But it was
much admired, and served as a model to a good many of the neighbouring
gentry in after-years.
* * * * *
One morning (it was in 1754) Sir Richard woke after a night of
discomfort. It had been windy, and his chimney had smoked persistently,
and yet it was so cold that he must keep up a fire. Also something had so
rattled about the window that no man could get a moment's peace. Further,
there was the prospect of several guests of position arriving in the
course of the day, who would expect sport of some kind, and the inroads
of the distemper (which continued among his game) had been lately so
serious that he was afraid for his reputation as a game-preserver. But
what really touched him most nearly was the other matter of his sleepless
night. He could certainly not sleep in that room again.
That was the chief subject of his meditations at breakfast, and after it
he began a systematic examination of the rooms to see which would suit
his notions best. It was long before he found one. This had a window with
an eastern aspect and that with a northern; this door the servants would
be always passing, and he did not like the bedstead in that. No, he must
have a room with a western look-out, so that the sun could not wake him
early, and it must be out of the way of the business of the house. The
housekeeper was at the end of her resources.
'Well, Sir Richard,' she said, 'you know that there is but the one room
like that in the house.'
'Which may that be?' said Sir Richard.
'And that is Sir Matthew's—the West Chamber.'
'Well, put me in there, for there I'll lie tonight,' said her master.
'Which way is it? Here, to be sure'; and he hurried off.
'Oh, Sir Richard, but no one has slept there these forty years. The air
has hardly been changed since Sir Matthew died there.'
Thus she spoke, and rustled after him.
'Come, open the door, Mrs Chiddock. I'll see the chamber, at least.'
So it was opened, and, indeed, the smell was very close and earthy. Sir
Richard crossed to the window, and, impatiently, as was his wont, threw
the shutters back, and flung open the casement. For this end of the house
was one which the alterations had barely touched, grown up as it was with
the great ash-tree, and being otherwise concealed from view.
'Air it, Mrs Chiddock, all today, and move my bed-furniture in in the
afternoon. Put the Bishop of Kilmore in my old room.'
'Pray, Sir Richard,' said a new voice, breaking in on this speech, 'might
I have the favour of a moment's interview?'
Sir Richard turned round and saw a man in black in the doorway, who
'I must ask your indulgence for this intrusion, Sir Richard. You will,
perhaps, hardly remember me. My name is William Crome, and my grandfather
was Vicar in your grandfather's time.'
'Well, sir,' said Sir Richard, 'the name of Crome is always a passport to
Castringham. I am glad to renew a friendship of two generations'
standing. In what can I serve you? for your hour of calling—and, if I do
not mistake you, your bearing—shows you to be in some haste.'
'That is no more than the truth, sir. I am riding from Norwich to Bury St
Edmunds with what haste I can make, and I have called in on my way to
leave with you some papers which we have but just come upon in looking
over what my grandfather left at his death. It is thought you may find
some matters of family interest in them.'
'You are mighty obliging, Mr Crome, and, if you will be so good as to
follow me to the parlour, and drink a glass of wine, we will take a first
look at these same papers together. And you, Mrs Chiddock, as I said, be
about airing this chamber…. Yes, it is here my grandfather died….
Yes, the tree, perhaps, does make the place a little dampish…. No; I do
not wish to listen to any more. Make no difficulties, I beg. You have
your orders—go. Will you follow me, sir?'
They went to the study. The packet which young Mr Crome had brought—he
was then just become a Fellow of Clare Hall in Cambridge, I may say, and
subsequently brought out a respectable edition of Polyaenus—contained
among other things the notes which the old Vicar had made upon the
occasion of Sir Matthew Fell's death. And for the first time Sir Richard
was confronted with the enigmatical Sortes Biblicae which you have
heard. They amused him a good deal.
'Well,' he said, 'my grandfather's Bible gave one prudent piece of
advice—Cut it down. If that stands for the ash-tree, he may rest
assured I shall not neglect it. Such a nest of catarrhs and agues was
The parlour contained the family books, which, pending the arrival of a
collection which Sir Richard had made in Italy, and the building of a
proper room to receive them, were not many in number.
Sir Richard looked up from the paper to the bookcase.
'I wonder,' says he, 'whether the old prophet is there yet? I fancy I see
Crossing the room, he took out a dumpy Bible, which, sure enough, bore on
the flyleaf the inscription: 'To Matthew Fell, from his Loving Godmother,
Anne Aldous, 2 September 1659.'
'It would be no bad plan to test him again, Mr Crome. I will wager we get
a couple of names in the Chronicles. H'm! what have we here? "Thou shalt
seek me in the morning, and I shall not be." Well, well! Your grandfather
would have made a fine omen of that, hey? No more prophets for me! They
are all in a tale. And now, Mr Crome, I am infinitely obliged to you for
your packet. You will, I fear, be impatient to get on. Pray allow
So with offers of hospitality, which were genuinely meant (for Sir
Richard thought well of the young man's address and manner), they parted.
In the afternoon came the guests—the Bishop of Kilmore, Lady Mary
Hervey, Sir William Kentfield, etc. Dinner at five, wine, cards, supper,
and dispersal to bed.
Next morning Sir Richard is disinclined to take his gun with the rest. He
talks with the Bishop of Kilmore. This prelate, unlike a good many of the
Irish Bishops of his day, had visited his see, and, indeed, resided
there, for some considerable time. This morning, as the two were walking
along the terrace and talking over the alterations and improvements in
the house, the Bishop said, pointing to the window of the West Room:
'You could never get one of my Irish flock to occupy that room, Sir
'Why is that, my lord? It is, in fact, my own.'
'Well, our Irish peasantry will always have it that it brings the worst
of luck to sleep near an ash-tree, and you have a fine growth of ash not
two yards from your chamber window. Perhaps,' the Bishop went on, with a
smile, 'it has given you a touch of its quality already, for you do not
seem, if I may say it, so much the fresher for your night's rest as your
friends would like to see you.'
'That, or something else, it is true, cost me my sleep from twelve to
four, my lord. But the tree is to come down tomorrow, so I shall not hear
much more from it.'
'I applaud your determination. It can hardly be wholesome to have the air
you breathe strained, as it were, through all that leafage.'
'Your lordship is right there, I think. But I had not my window open last
night. It was rather the noise that went on—no doubt from the twigs
sweeping the glass—that kept me open-eyed.'
'I think that can hardly be, Sir Richard. Here—you see it from this
point. None of these nearest branches even can touch your casement unless
there were a gale, and there was none of that last night. They miss the
panes by a foot.'
'No, sir, true. What, then, will it be, I wonder, that scratched and
rustled so—ay, and covered the dust on my sill with lines and marks?'
At last they agreed that the rats must have come up through the ivy. That
was the Bishop's idea, and Sir Richard jumped at it.
So the day passed quietly, and night came, and the party dispersed to
their rooms, and wished Sir Richard a better night.
And now we are in his bedroom, with the light out and the Squire in bed.
The room is over the kitchen, and the night outside still and warm, so
the window stands open.
There is very little light about the bedstead, but there is a strange
movement there; it seems as if Sir Richard were moving his head rapidly
to and fro with only the slightest possible sound. And now you would
guess, so deceptive is the half-darkness, that he had several heads,
round and brownish, which move back and forward, even as low as his
chest. It is a horrible illusion. Is it nothing more? There! something
drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten, and is out of the
window in a flash; another—four—and after that there is quiet again.
Thou shall seek me in the morning, and I shall not be.
As with Sir Matthew, so with Sir Richard—dead and black in his bed!
A pale and silent party of guests and servants gathered under the window
when the news was known. Italian poisoners, Popish emissaries, infected
air—all these and more guesses were hazarded, and the Bishop of Kilmore
looked at the tree, in the fork of whose lower boughs a white tom-cat was
crouching, looking down the hollow which years had gnawed in the trunk.
It was watching something inside the tree with great interest.
Suddenly it got up and craned over the hole. Then a bit of the edge on
which it stood gave way, and it went slithering in. Everyone looked up at
the noise of the fall.
It is known to most of us that a cat can cry; but few of us have heard, I
hope, such a yell as came out of the trunk of the great ash. Two or three
screams there were—the witnesses are not sure which—and then a slight
and muffled noise of some commotion or struggling was all that came. But
Lady Mary Hervey fainted outright, and the housekeeper stopped her ears
and fled till she fell on the terrace.
The Bishop of Kilmore and Sir William Kentfield stayed. Yet even they
were daunted, though it was only at the cry of a cat; and Sir William
swallowed once or twice before he could say:
'There is something more than we know of in that tree, my lord. I am for
an instant search.'
And this was agreed upon. A ladder was brought, and one of the gardeners
went up, and, looking down the hollow, could detect nothing but a few dim
indications of something moving. They got a lantern, and let it down by a
'We must get at the bottom of this. My life upon it, my lord, but the
secret of these terrible deaths is there.'
Up went the gardener again with the lantern, and let it down the hole
cautiously. They saw the yellow light upon his face as he bent over, and
saw his face struck with an incredulous terror and loathing before he
cried out in a dreadful voice and fell back from the ladder—where,
happily, he was caught by two of the men—letting the lantern fall inside
He was in a dead faint, and it was some time before any word could be got
By then they had something else to look at. The lantern must have broken
at the bottom, and the light in it caught upon dry leaves and rubbish
that lay there for in a few minutes a dense smoke began to come up, and
then flame; and, to be short, the tree was in a blaze.
The bystanders made a ring at some yards' distance, and Sir William and
the Bishop sent men to get what weapons and tools they could; for,
clearly, whatever might be using the tree as its lair would be forced out
by the fire.
So it was. First, at the fork, they saw a round body covered with
fire—the size of a man's head—appear very suddenly, then seem to
collapse and fall back. This, five or six times; then a similar ball
leapt into the air and fell on the grass, where after a moment it lay
still. The Bishop went as near as he dared to it, and saw—what but the
remains of an enormous spider, veinous and seared! And, as the fire
burned lower down, more terrible bodies like this began to break out from
the trunk, and it was seen that these were covered with greyish hair.
All that day the ash burned, and until it fell to pieces the men stood
about it, and from time to time killed the brutes as they darted out. At
last there was a long interval when none appeared, and they cautiously
closed in and examined the roots of the tree.
'They found,' says the Bishop of Kilmore, 'below it a rounded hollow
place in the earth, wherein were two or three bodies of these creatures
that had plainly been smothered by the smoke; and, what is to me more
curious, at the side of this den, against the wall, was crouching the
anatomy or skeleton of a human being, with the skin dried upon the bones,
having some remains of black hair, which was pronounced by those that
examined it to be undoubtedly the body of a woman, and clearly dead for a
period of fifty years.'