Rats - M. R. James
'And if you walked through the bedrooms now, you'd see the dirty grey bed sheets rising and falling like the waves of the sea.'
'Rising and falling with what?'
'Why, with the rats crawling underneath them.'
'But was it rats?' I ask, because in another story it was not. I cannot put a date to the story, but I was young when I heard it, and the teller was old.
It happened in Suffolk, at a place where the coast road climbs a little hill as it travels northwards. At the top of the hill, on the left, stands a tall narrow house built about 1770. Behind it are the gardens and other buildings, and in front lies open heath with a view of the distant sea. The house was once a well-known inn, though I believe few people stay there now.
To this inn came Mr Thomson, a young man from the University of Cambridge, in search of peace and pleasant surroundings in which to study. He found both; the innkeeper and his wife kept a comfortable house, and Mr Thomson was the only guest.
It was fine spring weather and Mr Thomson's days passed very happily. His plan was to stay a month: studying all morning, walking on the heath in the afternoon, and talking with the local people in the bar in the evening.
On one of his walks over the heath, he came upon a large white stone with a square hole in the top. No doubt, it had once held a post of some kind. He looked around him at the wide, open heath and beyond that, the sea shining in the bright sunlight and decided that the stone had probably once held a sign to guide the local sailors back to their homes.
In the bar that evening he spoke of the stone and his idea that it had, perhaps, once held a sign to guide sailors.
'Yes,' said Mr Betts, the innkeeper, 'I've heard they could see it from out at sea, but whatever was there fell down long before our time.'
'A good thing it did, too,' said one of the villagers. 'It wasn't a lucky sign — that's what the old men used to say. Not lucky for the fishing, I mean.'
'Why ever not?' said Thomson.
'Well, I never saw it myself,' answered the other. 'But those old fishermen had some strange ideas, and I wouldn't be surprised if they pulled it down themselves.'
It was impossible to get anything clearer than this, and people soon began to talk about something else.
One day Mr Thomson decided not to have a walk in the afternoon, but to continue studying. He returned to his room after an early lunch and read on until about three o'clock. Then he put down his book, rose and went out into the passage, thinking that he would have a rest for five minutes. The house was completely silent. He remembered that it was market day and everyone had gone into the local town.
As he stood there, the idea came to him to look at the four other rooms along the passage. He was sure that the Bettses would not mind. The room opposite his was big but had no view of the sea. The next two were both smaller than his with only one window each — his had two. He walked down the passage to the door at the end and found that it was locked. Thomson decided that he must see inside that room; perhaps the key of his room would unlock the door. It did not, so he fetched the keys from the other three rooms and tried them. One of them fitted the lock and he opened the door.
The room had two windows looking south and west, and hot bright sunshine filled the room. Here there was no carpet, only wooden floorboards; no pictures, no furniture, except a bed in the farther corner — a metal bed covered with a bluish — grey blanket. You could not imagine a more ordinary room, but there was something that made Thomson close the door very quickly and very quietly behind him, and then lean against the wall in the passage, trembling all over.
Under the blanket someone lay, and not only lay, but moved. It was certainly someone and not something, because the shape of the head and body was clear under the blanket. However, it was all covered, and no one lies with covered head except a dead person; and this was not dead, not truly dead, because it was moving and shaking.
Thomson tried to tell himself that he was imagining things, but on this bright sunny day that was impossible. What should he do? First, lock the door again. With a trembling hand, he turned the key in the lock, but as he did so, it made a little noise, and at once soft footsteps were heard coming towards the door. Thomson ran to his room and locked himself in, although he knew it was useless. How could doors and locks stop what he suspected? He stood listening for several minutes, but no sound came from the passage.
Now he could not think what to do. He wanted to pack his bags and leave the inn at once, but only that morning he had told Mr and Mrs Betts that he would stay for another week. If he left suddenly, they would surely guess the reason. Then he thought, either the Bettses knew about the creature in that room but still stayed in the house, or they knew nothing about it. Perhaps they knew just enough to make them keep the room locked, but not enough to make them leave the house. In any case, they did not seem to be afraid of whatever was in that room, so why should he be afraid of it? He decided to stay another week as he had arranged.
As the days passed, Thomson listened hard for sounds from the room at the end of the passage, but he heard nothing. Of course, he could not ask Mr or Mrs Betts about it, and he did not think he could ask anyone else. However, he wanted very much to find some kind of explanation, so he decided that he would try to see inside the locked room once again before he left the inn.
He made a simple plan. He would arrange to leave by an afternoon train and would have his luggage put on the cart for the station. Then, just before leaving, he would go back upstairs to make sure that he had not left anything behind. But, instead of going to his own room, he would go to the other. He put oil on the key to make it easier to open the door quietly.
His last day arrived. After lunch, his luggage was taken downstairs and put on the cart for the station. Mr and Mrs Betts came to the front door to say goodbye. Thomson thanked them for making him so comfortable and they thanked him for staying with them. Then, as he had planned, Thomson said: 'I'll just check that I haven't left a book or anything in my room. No, please don't worry, I can do it myself.'
He hurried up the stairs to the locked room, turned the key quietly and opened the door. He almost laughed aloud. Leaning, or perhaps sitting, on the edge of the bed was — nothing more than an ordinary scarecrow! A scarecrow out of the garden, of course, just put away in the empty room...
Yes; but suddenly amusement stopped. Do scarecrows have bony feet? Do their heads roll from side to side on their shoulders? Have they got heavy metal chains around their necks? Can they get up and move across the floor, with rolling head and arms close at their sides… and shake with the cold?
Thomson shut the door with a bang, jumped down the stairs and fell in a faint at the door of the inn. When he became conscious again, Mr Betts was standing over him with a glass of whisky and a serious face.
'You shouldn't do it, sir,' said Betts. 'You shouldn't go looking into people's secrets, especially when they've done their best to make you comfortable.'
Thomson said that he was very sorry but the innkeeper and his wife found it hard to accept his apologies.
'Who knows what damage it will do to the good name of the inn?' said Mr Betts, and his wife agreed.
At last, Thomson managed to make Mr and Mrs Betts believe that he would not say anything about what he had seen. By that time, he had missed his train but he decided to go into town and spend the night at the Station Hotel.
Before he went, Mr Betts told him what little he knew.
'They say he used to be the innkeeper here many years ago, and he worked with the thieves who robbed and murdered travellers on the heath. That's why he was hanged — in chains, they say, up at the gallows on that white stone you saw. Yes, the fishermen pulled the gallows down, I believe, because they saw it out at sea, and they said it kept the fish away. We heard all this from the people who sold us the inn. «You keep that room shut up,» they said, «but don't move the bed out, and you'll find there won't be any trouble. „And we haven't had any trouble. He hasn't once come out into the house, though who knows what he might do now? I've never seen him myself, and I don't want to. But I do hope you'll keep it a secret, sir. If word gets out, people won't want to come and stay here, will they?'
The promise of silence was kept for many years. I heard the story when Mr Thomson, now an old man, came to stay with my father. I was told to take him up to his room, but when we got there, Mr Thomson stepped forward and threw the door open himself. He stood there in the doorway for some moments, looking carefully into every corner of the room.
Then he turned to me. 'I beg your pardon,' he said. 'A strange way to behave, I know. But there is a very good reason for it.'
A few days later, I heard what the reason was, and you have heard it now.
— THE END -