Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Boy - M. R. James
'Are you going away for the holidays, Professor?' The speaker was sitting next to the Professor at dinner in St James's College.
'Yes, I'm leaving tomorrow,' said Professor Parkins. 'I'm learning to play golf, and I'm going to Burnstow on the east coast for a week or two to improve my game.
Professor Parkins was a young man who took himself, and everything that he did, very seriously.
'Oh, Parkins,' said another man. 'There are the remains of an old Templar church at Burnstow. Would you have a look at the place? I'd like to know if it's worth going to see.'
'Certainly,' said the Professor. 'I'll make some notes for you if you like.'
'There won't be much left above ground. I think the place is quite near the beach, about half a mile north from the Globe Inn.'
'I'm staying at the Globe, in fact,' said Parkins. He sounded a little annoyed. 'I could only get a room with two beds in it. I plan to do some work there, and I need a large room with a table, but I really don't like the idea of having two beds in the room.'
'Two beds? How terrible for you, Parkins!' said a man called Rogers. 'I'll come down and use one of them for a few days. I'll be a companion for you.'
Parkins gave a polite little laugh. 'I'm afraid you'd find it rather dull, Rogers. You don't play golf, do you?'
'No. Very boring game,' said Rogers, not at all politely. 'But if you don't want me to come, just say so. The truth, as you always tell us, never hurts.'
Professor Parkins was well known for always being polite and always telling the truth, and Rogers often amused himself by asking questions, which Parkins found difficult to answer. Parkins tried to find an answer now that was both polite and truthful.
'Well, Rogers, perhaps it will be a little difficult for me to work if you are there.'
Rogers laughed loudly. 'Well done, Parkins!' he said. 'Don't worry. I'll let you get on with your work in peace, and I can be useful and keep the ghosts away.' Here he smiled at the others round the table, while Parkins' face turned a deep pink. 'Oh, I'm sorry, Parkins,' Rogers added. 'I forgot that you don't like careless talk about ghosts.
'That is quite true,' said Parkins. His voice got a little louder. 'I cannot accept the idea of ghosts. It is the complete opposite of everything I believe. I hold, as you know, very strong opinions on this matter.'
'Oh yes, we know that,' said Rogers. 'Well, we'll talk about it again at Burnstow perhaps.'
From this conversation it will be clear that Parkins was indeed a very serious young man — quite unable, sadly, to see the funny side of anything, but at the same time very brave and sincere in his opinions.
Late the following day Parkins arrived at the Globe Inn in Burnstow, and was taken to his room with the two beds, of which we have heard. He unpacked his things and arranged his books and papers very tidily on the large table by the window. In fact, the table was surrounded on three sides by windows: the large central window looked straight out to sea, the right one looked south over the village of Burnstow, and the left one looked north along the beach and the low cliff behind it. Between the inn and the sea, there was only a piece of rough grass and then the beach. Over the years, the sea had slowly come closer; now it was no more than fifty metres away.
Most of the people staying at the Globe were there for the golf. One of them was a Colonel Wilson, an old soldier with a very loud voice, and very strong opinions.
Professor Parkins, who was as brave as he was honest, spent the first day of his holiday playing golf with Colonel Wilson, and trying to 'improve his game'. Perhaps he was not wholly successful in this, because by the end of the afternoon the Colonel's face was a most alarming colour. Even his moustache looked angry, and Parkins decided that it would be safer not to walk back to the inn with him. He thought he would walk along the beach instead, and try to find the remains of the Templar church.
He found them very easily — by falling over some of the old stones, in fact. When he picked himself up, he saw that the ground all around him was broken up with shallow holes and bits of old stone wall covered in grass. The Templars used to build round churches, Parkins remembered, and even after hundreds of years, there were enough grass-covered stones left to show the circle of the outer wall. For a time, Parkins walked around, looking and measuring, and making notes in his notebook.
There was a large stone in the centre of the circle, and Parkins noticed that the grass had been pulled away from one corner of it. He knelt down and, using his pocketknife, dug away some more of the grass to see the stone underneath. As he did so, a piece of earth fell inwards, showing that there was a hole under the stone. He tried to light a match to see inside, but the wind was too strong, so he put his hand into the hole and felt around with his knife. The sides, top, and bottom of the hole were smooth and regular, he discovered; it must be a man — made hole in a wall. As he pulled the knife out, he heard the sound of metal on metal-there was something in the hole. He put his hand back in and his fingers found a thin piece of metal. Naturally enough, he pulled it out, and saw that it was a piece of metal pipe about ten centimeters long, also manmade and clearly very old. By this time, it was getting too dark to do anything more, so he put the metal pipe in his pocket and started to walk home along the beach.
In the evening half — light the place seemed wild and lonely, and a cold north wind blew at his back. Far ahead of him, he could see the lights of the village, but here there was only the long empty beach with its black wooden breakwaters, and the shadowy, whispering sea.
He crossed the stones higher up on the beach and went down to the sand, which was easier to walk on, although he had to climb over the breakwaters every few meters.
When he looked behind him to see how far he had come, he saw that he might have a companion on his walk home. A dark figure, some way back, seemed to be running to catch up with him, but he never seemed to get any closer. It couldn't be anybody he knew, Parkins thought, so he did not wait for him. However, a companion, he began think, would really be very welcome on that cold, dark beach. He suddenly remembered the stories he had read in his less sensible childhood — stories of strange companions met in lonely places.
'What would I do now,' he wondered, 'if I looked back and saw a black figure with wings and a tail? Would I run, or would I stand and fight? Fortunately, the person behind me doesn't look like that — and he seems to be as far away as when I first saw him. I shall get my dinner before he does, and, oh dear! It's nearly time for dinner now. I must run!'
At dinner, the Professor found the Colonel much calmer than he had been in the afternoon. Later, the two men played cards together and, as Parkins played cards much better than he played golf, the Colonel became quite friendly and they arranged to play golf together again the next day.
When Parkins returned to his room, he found the little metal pipe where he had put it on the table. He looked at it carefully and realized that it was a whistle. He tried to blow it but it was full of earth, so he took out his knife and cleared the earth out onto a piece of paper, which he then shook out of the window. As he stood at the open window, he was surprised to see someone standing on the grass in front of the hotel, although it was almost midnight.
He shut the window and took the whistle over to the light to look at it again. He cleaned the dirt off and found that there were letters deeply cut along the side of the whistle.
QUIS EST ISTE QUI VENIT
'Now, that's Latin,' he said to himself. 'I think it means, «Who is this who is coming?» Well, the best way to find out is clearly to whistle for him.'
He put the whistle to his lips and blew, then stopped suddenly, surprised and pleased at the sound he had made. It was a soft sound, but also seemed to travel a long way. And it brought a picture 'into his mind — a picture of a wide, dark place at night, with a fresh wind blowing, and in the middle a lonely figure… But at that moment, a real wind made his window shake, and the picture disappeared. The wind was so sudden that it made him look up, just in time to see the white shape of a seabird's wing outside the window.
He was so interested in the sound the whistle had made that he blew it again, this time more loudly. No picture came into his mind, but a sudden and very violent wind blew his window open with a crash. Both candles went out, and the wind seemed to be trying to pull the room to pieces. For twenty seconds Parkins battled to close the window again, but it was like trying to push back a burglar who was fighting to get in. Then the wind suddenly dropped for a moment, and the window banged shut and fastened itself. Parkins lit the candles and looked to see what damage had been done. There was none — not even a broken window. But the noise had woken the Colonel in the room above; Parkins could hear him walking around and talking to himself.
The wind continued to blow for a long time, beating against the house and crying like a creature in pain. Lying in bed, listening, Parkins thought that a less sensible person might imagine all kinds of unpleasant things. In fact, after a quarter of an hour, he thought that even sensible people would prefer not to hear this sound.
He noticed that one of his neighbours was finding it difficult to sleep, too. He could quite clearly hear someone not far away, turning over in bed again and again.
Sometimes when we close our eyes and try to sleep, we see pictures that are so unpleasant that we have to open our eyes again to make them disappear. This is what now happened to the Professor. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the same picture. There was a long beach with breakwaters running down to the sea, under a dark sky. He recognized it as the beach he had walked along earlier. Then, in the distance, he saw a man running along the beach, climbing desperately over the breakwaters and looking back over his shoulder all the time. Parkins could not see his face, but he knew that the man was terribly afraid. He was also nearly exhausted. Each breakwater was harder to climb than the last. 'Will he get over this next one?' thought Parkins. 'It seems higher than the others.' Yes, half climbing, half throwing himself, the man got over, and then fell to the ground, unable to get up again.
The picture had not yet shown any cause for the man's fear, but now a distant figure appeared, moving very quickly. It wore a long, flowing garment, and there was something so strange about the way it moved that Parkins was very unwilling to see it any closer. It stopped, lifted its arms, bent down towards the sand, then ran, still bent over, down to the edge of the sea and back again. Now it straightened itself, and moved forward along the beach at a frightening speed. At last, it came to the breakwater where the man lay hidden. Again it ran down to the sea and back again, then lifted its arms and ran towards the breakwater.
It was always at this moment that Parkins was not brave enough to keep his eyes closed any longer. At last, he decided to light his candle, get out a book, and read for a while. The noise of the match and the sudden light seemed to alarm something near his bed — a rat, probably-which ran away across the floor. The match immediately went out, but a second one burnt better and Parkins lit the candle and opened his book. When he finally felt sleepy, he forgot, for the first time in his tidy, sensible life, to blow out the candle, and the next morning it was completely burnt down.
He was in his room after breakfast when the servant who cleaned the rooms came in, carrying some blankets.
'Would you like any extra blankets on your bed, sir?' she asked.
'Ah, yes, thank you,' said Parkins. 'I would like one. I think it's getting colder.'
'Which bed shall I put it on, sir?' the girl asked.
'What? Why, the one I slept in last night,' replied Parkins.
'Yes, sir. But we thought you'd slept in both of them, sir. We had to make both of them this morning.'
'Really? How strange!' said Parkins. 'I didn't touch the other bed except to put my suitcase on it when I unpacked. But you thought that someone had actually slept in it?'
'Oh yes, sir. The sheets and blankets were thrown all over the place. I thought you'd had bad dreams, sir.'
'Oh dear,' said Parkins. 'Well, I'm sorry if I made extra work for you. Oh, I'm expecting a friend of mine from Cambridge to come for a few days and sleep in the other bed. That will be all right, I suppose?'
'Oh yes, sir,' said the girl. 'It's no trouble, I'm sure. Thank you, sir.' And she left the room.
That day Parkins tried very hard to improve his game, with some success, and the Colonel became even more friendly, and quite talkative.
'That was an extraordinary wind we had last night,' he said as they were playing. 'In my part of the country they would say that someone had been whistling for it.'
'Do they really believe in that kind of thing where you come from?' asked Parkins.
'They believe in it all over the place,' the Colonel replied. 'And, in my experience, there's usually some truth in what the country people say.'
There was a pause in the conversation while they continued with the game. Then Parkins said, 'I feel I should tell you, Colonel, that I hold very strong opinions on these matters. In fact, I don't believe at all in anything supernatural.'
'What?' cried the Colonel, 'Do you mean to say that you don't believe in ghosts, or anything of that kind?'
'In nothing whatever of that kind,' replied Parkins. 'There is an explanation for everything, you see. In fact,' he went on, 'I blew a whistle myself last night, and the wind seemed to come in answer to my call. But of course-'
The Colonel stopped and looked at him. 'Whistling, were you?' he said. 'What kind of whistle did you use? Your turn to play, sir.'
Parkins hit his ball, and then told the Colonel about finding the old whistle in the Templar church.
'Well, sir, I'd be very careful about using a thing like that,' said the Colonel. 'Who knows what the Templars used it for? Dangerous lot of people, they were.'
He went on to give his opinions on the church, old and modern, and the two men had a very enjoyable argument. The morning passed so pleasantly that they continued to play golf together in the afternoon, then walked back in the evening light to the Globe.
As they turned the corner of the inn, the Colonel was nearly knocked down by a small boy who ran into him at high speed, and then remained holding on to him and crying. At first, the Colonel was rather annoyed, but he soon saw that the boy was so frightened that he could not speak.
'What's the matter? What have you seen? Who has frightened you?' the two men asked together.
'Oh sir! I saw it wave at me out of the window,' cried the boy, 'and I don't like it.'
'What window?' said the Colonel crossly. 'Explain yourself, boy.'
'The front window in the inn, sir, upstairs.'
After several questions, they learnt that the boy had been playing with his friends on the grass in front of the inn. When the others had gone home for their tea, he had looked up at the big front window and had seen something waving at him. It was a figure of some kind, in white. The boy couldn't see its face, but it had waved at him. There was something horrible about it, and it wasn't like a human being at all.
'It was someone trying to frighten you,' said the Colonel. 'Next time, like a brave little English boy, you throw a stone at it… Well, perhaps not that; but tell the people in the inn about it. Now, here's sixpence for you, and you'd better run along home for your tea.
The two men went round to the front of the inn and looked up. There was only one window that fitted the description they had heard.
'That's very strange,' said Parkins. 'I remember that I locked my door when I went out this morning and the key is still in my pocket.'
They went upstairs, found that the door of the room was still locked, unlocked it, and went in.
'Well, everything seems perfectly all right,' said Parkins, looking around.
'Except your bed,' said the Colonel.
'That's not my bed,' said Parkins. 'But it certainly looks very untidy.' The sheets and blankets were thrown about all over the bed. Parkins thought for a while. 'Ah,' he said, 'I disarranged it when I was unpacking. Perhaps the girl came in to make the bed, the boy saw her at the window, and then she was called away before she could finish it.'
'Well, ring the bell and ask her,' said the Colonel.
When the girl came, she explained that she had made the bed in the morning and that no one had been in the room since the Professor had left. Mr Simpson, the manager, had the only other key. Mr Simpson then came up and said that he had not been in the room himself, and had not given the key to anyone else. Parkins checked the room carefully; nothing was missing and his books and papers were as he had left them. The girl made the bed again and the two men went down to have their tea.
That evening, Colonel Wilson was unusually quiet and thoughtful during dinner and cards and, as they were going up to their rooms, he said to Parkins:
'You know where I am if you need me during the night.'
'Thank you, Colonel, but I don't expect to call on you,' replied Parkins. 'Oh, I have that whistle I told you about. Would you like to see it?'
The Colonel turned the whistle over in his hands, looking at it carefully.
'What are you going to do with it?' he asked.
'I'll show it to the people at Cambridge when I get back and probably give it to the museum, if it's any good.'
'If it were mine,' said the Colonel, 'I'd throw it into the sea right now. But, of course, you and I don't think the same way about these things. Good night.'
And he went off to his room.
There were no curtains at the windows in the Professor's room. The previous night it had not mattered, but tonight there was a bright moon in a cloudless sky. Parkins was afraid that the moonlight might wake him up in the middle of the night, so he arranged a blanket, held up with a stick and his umbrella, which would stop the moonlight shining on to his bed. Soon he was comfortably in bed where he read a book for a while. Then he blew out his candle and went to sleep.
An hour or so later he was suddenly woken by a loud crash. In a moment, he realized that the blanket had fallen down and a bright moon was shining on his bed. Should he get up and put the blanket up again, or could he manage to sleep if he did not? He lay in bed for several minutes trying to decide what to do.
All at once, he turned over in bed, eyes wide open, listening hard. There had been a movement in the other bed! Was it a rat? The sound came again, something moving in the blankets and making the bed shake. No rat could make a noise like that, surely!
Suddenly his heart nearly stopped beating as a figure sat up in the empty bed. Parkins jumped out of his own bed and ran towards the window to get his stick. As he did so, the thing in the other bed slid to the floor and stood, with arms stretched out, between Parkins and the door.
Parkins stared at the creature in horror. He could not reach the door without touching it as he passed, and the thought of that touch made him feel sick.
Now it began to move, bending low and feeling its way with arms that were hidden in its flowing garment. Parkins realized with horror that it could not see. It turned away from him and, in doing so, touched the bed he had just left. It bent its head low and felt all over the bed in a way that made Parkins tremble with fear.
Realizing that the bed was empty, the creature moved forward into the moonlight, which shone in through the window. For the first time Parkins saw it clearly, but the only thing he could remember later was a horrible, a sickeningly horrible, face of crumpled cloth. The expression on that face he could not or would not describe, but it certainly drove him nearly mad with fear.
But he had no time to watch it for long. With frightening speed, the creature moved around the room, searching and feeling, and a corner of its flowing garment brushed across Parkins' face. He screamed in horror, and at once, it jumped at him, driving him towards the window. The next moment Parkins was halfway through the window backwards, screaming again and again at the top of his voice, and the cloth face was pushed close into his own.
In that final second, the Colonel kicked the door open and was just in time to see the frightening sight at the window. When he reached the figures, only one was left. Parkins fell forward into the room in a faint, and before him on the floor lay a crumpled bed sheet.
The Colonel asked no questions, but kept everyone out of the room, helped Parkins back to bed and, with a blanket round his shoulders, spent the rest of the night in the other bed.
The next morning Mr Rogers arrived and, to his surprise, was very warmly welcomed by the Professor. The three men discussed what to do for a long time. The Colonel, who remembered a similar experience in India, supposed that the creature, having no body of its own, had to make one out of the sheet from the bed. At the end of their talk, the Colonel left the hotel carrying between his finger and thumb a small piece of metal, which he threw into the sea as far as a strong arm could send it. Later, he burnt the sheet in the field behind the Globe.
As you can imagine, Professor Parkins' opinions on some matters are now less certain than they used to be. He is also a more nervous person than he was. Even a coat hanging up on a door will alarm him, and the sight of a scarecrow in a field late on a winter afternoon has given him more than one sleepless night.
— THE END -