Rats by M. R. James

Rats by M. R. James

Everything happened in the city of Suffolk. The road went from the coast and climbed into the hills. A high mansion stood not far from the hill. It was built at the end of the eighteenth century. Behind the house there were other buildings and green gardens and in front of it there was a field of heather. Everybody could see the sea from it. Previously, this building was a popular hotel. And today it still accepts guests. Mr. Thomson came to this hotel. He was looking for a calm and pleasant environment to do his work. The man was the only guest, and the owner of the hotel and his wife kept the house clean. He was going to stay in the city for about a month: in the morning he would study, and in the evenings he would walk and communicate with the locals. During one of these walks, he saw something unusual.

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Rats by 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.’

Rats by M. R. James

‘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…

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