David Eccles, From the first, faint voice among the bed -curtains . . .’ - Tim Mackintosh-Smith on M. R. James, Casting the Runes - Slightly Foxed Issue 4

Now We’re Shut in for the Night

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On a warm, still evening in June, a motor car drew up before S___by House in the north of Lincolnshire. Out of it stepped a man in early middle age whose considerable luggage, neglected beard and weathered countenance betokened – but what it betokened you will have to deduce for yourself, for it is of no importance to our preamble. Let us instead follow the visitor’s gaze to an entrance front of red brick, that of a substantial farmhouse of a kind that may be seen in any of the eastern shires, here aspiring to the classical by way of the addition to its doorway of a pediment and pilasters. A date somewhere in the prosperous middle of the reign of the third George suggests itself for these genteel improvements.

The modest scale of S___by does not earn it an entry in any of those topographical works – Ponsonby’s Perambulations is but one that comes to mind – in which the earlier nineteenth century was so prolific. More recently, however, Harris has thought fit to afford it a bemused mention in his architectural gazetteer of Lincolnshire, on account of a curious feature; for, at a distance of some two hundred yards from the house, and out of the mid-summer fecundity of its shrubberies, there rises a building of singular design – a prospect tower, also of red brick, set upon a cubic base (a rough essay in the Tuscan order) and culminating in a glazed octagonal lantern. It was to the top of this erection that, having deposited his bags upon the steps of the house, the visitor made his way.

The prospect in view may be summed up thus: a slightly undulating vista of pasture-land, shuddering perceptibly in the expiring heat, intersected by dykes, punctuated here and there by a steeple or windmill and curtailed, not far to the east, by a ragged line of high dunes; beyond which, were we to trouble to climb to the roof, we might descry a melancholy expanse of salt-marsh and a distant suggestion of sea. A dark clump of Scotch firs should be added to the picture, on the landward side of the dunes. Within it stands the New Inn, well known to the excisemen in the days when its name was more appropriate, and to this a tunnel is said to lead from beneath the base of our lofty vantage-point . . .

You may well construe those dots, now so fashionable a substitute for words, as signifying incredulity on the part of the writer. In this you would be correct. Other fancies, attaching to the house itself, were however of greater substance, not l

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About the contributor

Between visits to Lincolnshire, Tim Mackintosh-Smith lives in Yemen in a tall, red-brick house, narrow for its height and 3,000 miles from the nearest shrubbery.

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