A NIGHT IN KING’S COLLEGE CHAPEL By M. R. James
In Vidimus issues of ten and more years ago, we brought out readers a Christmas treat in the form of a ghost story by the master of the spooky tale, M. R. James (issue 13), and another in tribute to his skills and style (issue 24). This year, we revive this tradition with a return to James, set in the Chapel of King’s College, where, during his time as Provost he enjoyed an annual Christmas tradition of reading aloud his latest ghostly tale to a group of friends. It seems that the idea for this particular tale dates back to James’ days as an undergraduate in the early 1880s, but was perhaps written down in this form ten years later, after James published a brief, anonymous article on the King’s Chapel glass in the Cambridge Review.
“It is curious how few people ever notice the painted glass in our Chapel – comparatively few, that is. One has heard enthusiastic worshippers sometimes remark on the extreme excellence of the West window. But these are generally the ones who would like to see some handsome gas standards in place of all those guttering candles, and would like the service brightened up a little by some hearty congregational singing – ‘Hark, hark my soul’ or ‘Dare to be a Daniel’. No, our windows are a sealed book to most visitors; and did anyone say all residents? People complain that they are so hard to make anything of, and there is a certain amount of truth in this statement. Indeed the object of this paper is to throw some little light on the erudition of these masterpieces of medieval art. I must remind you that in the year 1754…”
I had written so much of an article on the windows intended for the Cambridge Review, sitting in one of the stalls of the chapel after an afternoon service, and at that point I stopped for a little and, gradually succumbing to the associations of my place, fell into a doze. You will guess the next sentence and I will not therefore pain you with the repetition of it. I was awaked by the south door banging to, and discovered that I was locked in. Under the circumstances there is no chance of making yourself heard except by ringing the bell, and for the moment I was too surprised and lazy to do anything at all. There I sat. The moon was shining and I could see some of the figures in the windows, which pleased me, and I fixed my attention on that which represents Reuben looking at the empty well where he expected to find Joseph. To my horror I saw him, distinctly, lower his arms (which had been raised over his head in surprise), retire to the edge of the well, and sit down on it. Then he yawned – I heard him – and began feeling about in his drapery. Then he began to say something in a somewhat metallic tone which became more natural as he went on. “Well, I suppose that feller Joseph as took and gorn off on one of his larks. I thought he worn’t in that pit. And now for a pipe.” Yes – he said “a pipe”. You may imagine my feelings when, apparently from the bosom of his red shirt, he produced an extraordinarily murky clay, filled it, struck a match on the stonework of the well and lit up, so that soon an odour as of the worst variety of shag stole over the sacred edifice. But Reuben was not destined to enjoy his evening smoke altogether undisturbed. Just opposite to him is a representation of the Manna falling – in the shape of large halfcrowns – and I was suddenly brought to a recollection of this by hearing a sharp rattling sound, and seeing Reuben start, draw up his leg and begin rubbing his shin, muttering execrations. Suddenly he put down his pipe on the edge of the well and advanced to the foreground in a sad state of anger. “Moses,” he said, “I’ve spoke about this time and again. If you can’t keep them Children of Israel in better order I shall speak to the Guvnor to ave you took out of that and put in one of the broke windows. You knows right well it’ll be done too. I will not ave them throwin of their Manner at me and, to my thinking, you want all the Manners you can git yourself. You aven’t got none to spare. I may be only a Type, but I ain’t goin to be put upon.”
There was a dead silence at this, followed by a whispering in the Manna window. (Fig. 1) Then Moses (as well as I could make out for he was on the same side as I) stepped forward and apologised, saying that his attention had been diverted for the moment, and promising that the offense should not be repeated. This explanation, which seemed to satisfy Reuben, was followed by a smart application of Moses’ rod to the backs and shoulders of some of Reuben’s descendants – he even sent across one of the ‘Messengers’ who occupy the middle lights to borrow the rod belonging to his double in the scene with the Golden Calf. But you must not suppose that these were the only windows which assumed so new an aspect. There was a perfect buzz of conversation on all sides; voices male, female and animal. I noticed that all the New Testament lights remained dark and inanimate while the Types and Messengers and Pontius Pilate seemed to be lighted up from some internal source. “Do get up,” said Naomi from her position at the East end, to her deceased husband. “Who do you suppose is a going to set and cry over you all night as well as all day?” And Elimelech got up in a submissive manner and muttered something about going across to see Job.
Job’s wife (who, you will remember, is scolding him, usually assisted by a hideous demon) was rather inclined to continue the process now, as I judged from her opening words: “…setting there as naked as Adam on that nasty filthy dunghill – in a perfect coat of dirt. You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” etc, etc. But here even the demon interposed and said he wasn’t going to stand by and see the gentleman put upon. If Mr Job didn’t choose to stand up for himself, and a more affable gent he never see, then it was time his friends stood up for him. And as to sitting on dunghills and having no clothes to wear, well, all he should like to know was, who brought him to it? A new element was here introduced into the discussion by the arrival of Eve (Fig. 2), who had unfortunately overheard the remarks made by Mrs Job on Adam’s scanty attire, and now came rapidly up accompanied by the serpent, to inquire precisely what was meant to be conveyed by those words. Here were the materials for a very pretty quarrel, which in fact lasted a considerable time. But I was glad to notice that Job and Elimelech were able to slip off and join Adam in the Garden of Eden where, I concluded, they were having a quiet cigar.
The gentlemen who occupy the centre lights and hold long scrolls seemed to be forming themselves into a kind of servants’ club in the West window, which, as being modern glass, had entirely disappeared. Some of them left their scrolls behind, but most took them with them, and left them about on the ground of the window. They were dreadfully mixed next day in some cases. One or two, I noticed, tied them round their necks in a bow, and these, from having been treated in this way persistently for three centuries, are almost entirely illegible now. The only ones who would not join the party were the four exactly similar figures of St Luke, which hurried off at once to the broken windows at the West end and dragged out Enoch, who, between the fact that he is being translated and that he is also very much mutilated, is in no condition to be roughly handled. However, the St Lukes were not inclined to think much of that.
“Come out,” they said. “We’ll have you right tonight, old man. You shall be thoroughly set to rights. Just drink off this electuary and we’ll have you to pieces.” “No, not the electuary yet,” said the second. “The purge – you forget the purge. Galen saith, ‘let a purge precede every incision’.” “Purge quotha?” said the third. “Galen? Drink your own filthy purge. His salt humours must be dispersed or we shall have trouble anon. Exhibit a solution of the dust from the altar, and frankincense and a fat chapel spider.” Enoch groaned. “I hate spiders,” he said, “and the dust you gave me last night nearly made me burst, because it’s a week-day and I can only cough when the organ’s playing loud.”
Nobody paid any attention. The fourth St Luke, who had said nothing, but had been slowly dancing round and round to himself, as it were, and trying the edge of his penknife on his thumb, now advanced, and said slowly, “There’s only a little ink on it. Come here. You’ve got a rush of blood to the head,” (though as a fact, few people could have been paler than Enoch at this moment), “and what you want is a good blood-letting: and by Theophilus you shall have it.” They closed in upon him and I heard a faint scream. I have since thought that every day I look at Enoch in his place, he seems more hopelessly confused, and should he be treated in this way for a much longer time, I fear he will be too far gone for the College ever to mend him. Others of these distinguished personages had their troubles. Tobias’ mother, a respectable old lady enough, was anxious to get over to the Shunammite to have a chat, but had several difficulties to contend with. First there was her own son’s dog, a vicious little creature which kept barking and howling at her, to her extreme terror. Then she wasn’t sure if “that young man with the lions,” (meaning presumably Daniel), “was to be trusted”: had he got the animals quite under his control, because she had heard of so many unfortunate accidents occurring in menageries and that, “not but what he didn’t keep no menagerie, far from it.”
These imputations Daniel (Fig. 3) indignantly repudiated, but there seemed some ground for them in as much as one of the curious breed of lions, which the two Daniels keep, had just made an ugly rush at King Darius, and this had so frightened the angel in the next window, who is carrying Habakkuk by the hair, that he let that unhappy seer fall right into the den, where the promptest action on the part of Daniel was required to avert destruction.
Besides the lion and the dog, Mrs Tobit had another awkward neighbour in the shape of Jonah’s whale (Fig. 4), which (I heard her saying) was always flapping about the place, and splashing one’s silk dress when one went out to tea with any lady, and “what a blessing it would be if some people as give themselves airs about being prophets could keep themselves to themselves a trifle more.” An innuendo which so moved Jonah that he said, with some asperity, that he had yet to learn that a prophet, even though he might have only five chapters, wasn’t a cut above an old woman out of the Apocrypha with half a dozen verses to bless herself with. Besides, wasn’t it a trifle mean to complain of a harmless animal like that whale, which after all was very likely only an allegory? To which Mrs Tobit, together with much other matter, retorted that if it was a whale it couldn’t be an allegory. She hoped she’d learnt her geography better than that when she was a girl, and allegories didn’t live at Ninevah but Egypt.
I saw and heard much more that night, but these were some of the more noteworthy incidents and, in selecting even these, I fear I have detained you too long.
For more details of M R James and his ghostly output, see the Ghosts & Scholars website.
For the most authoritative study to date of the King’s College Chapel stained glass, see H. Wayment, The Windows of King’s College Chapel Cambridge, CVMA GB Supplementary Volume I (London, 1972).