"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

A biter bit: "The Uncommon Prayer-Book" by M. R. James

"The Uncommon Prayer-Book" (1921, Atlantic Monthly; 1925, A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories) is late M. R. James. This usually means hit-or-miss plotting and oddly unbalanced or pear-shaped storytelling. "The Uncommon Prayer-Book'' is no exception. We spend over half the tale on the winter vacation longueurs of Mr. Davidson.  He meets Mr. Avery, a talkative old gent whose daughter is married to Mr. Porter, keeper of mothballed Brockstone Court and its adjacent chapel. 

Mr. Davidson gets a tour of both.

....It was not to be expected that Mr. Davidson should escape being taken through the principal rooms of the Court, in spite of the fact that the house was entirely out of commission. Pictures, carpets, curtains, furniture, were all covered up or put away, as old Mr. Avery had said; and the admiration which our friend was very ready to bestow had to be lavished on the proportions of the rooms, and on the one painted ceiling, upon which an artist who had fled from London in the plague-year had depicted the Triumph of Loyalty and Defeat of Sedition. In this Mr. Davidson could show an unfeigned interest. The portraits of Cromwell, Ireton, Bradshaw, Peters, and the rest, writhing in carefully-devised torments, were evidently the part of the design to which most pains had been devoted.

     ‘That were the old Lady Sadleir had that paintin’ done, same as the one what put up the Chapel. They say she were the first that went up to London to dance on Oliver Cromwell’s grave.’ So said Mr. Avery....

Mrs. Porter, in showing Mr. Davidson the chapel, explains that its copies of the Book of Common Prayer (1653 edition) are always laying open when she comes to do the weekly dusting.

     Mr. Davidson walked along the stalls and looked at the open books. Sure enough, they all stood at the same page: Psalm cix., and at the head of it, just between the number and the Deus laudum, was a rubric, "For the 25th day of April." Without pretending to minute knowledge of the history of the Book of Common Prayer, he knew enough to be sure that this was a very odd and wholly unauthorized addition to its text; and though he remembered that April 25 is St. Mark's Day, he could not imagine what appropriateness this very savage psalm could have to that festival. With slight misgivings he ventured to turn over the leaves to examine the title-page, and knowing the need for particular accuracy in these matters, he devoted some ten minutes to making a line-for-line transcript of it. The date was 1653; the printer called himself Anthony Cadman. He turned to the list of proper psalms for certain days; yes, added to it was that same inexplicable entry: For the 25th day of April: the 109th Psalm. An expert would no doubt have thought of many other points to inquire into, but this antiquary, as I have said, was no expert. He took stock, however, of the binding—a handsome one of tooled blue leather, bearing the arms that figured in several of the nave windows in various combinations.

     "How often," he said at last to Mrs. Porter, "have you found these books lying open like this?"

     "Reely I couldn't say, sir, but it's a great many times now. Do you recollect, father, me telling you about it the first time I noticed it?"

     "That I do, my dear; you was in a rare taking, and I don't so much wonder at it; that was five year ago I was paying you a visit at Michaelmas time, and you come in at tea-time, and says you, 'Father, there's the books laying open under the cloths agin'; and I didn't know what my daughter was speakin' about, you see, sir, and I says, 'Books?' just like that, I says; and then it all came out. But as Harry says,—that's my son-in-law, sir,—'whoever it can be,' he says, 'as does it, because there ain't only the one door, and we keeps the key locked up,' he says, 'and the winders is barred, every one on 'em. Well,' he says, 'I lay once I could catch 'em at it, they wouldn't do it a second time,' he says. And no more they wouldn't, I don't believe, sir. Well, that was five year ago, and it's been happenin' constant ever since by your account, my dear. Young Mr. Clark, he don't seem to think much to it; but then he don't live here, you see, and 'tisn't his business to come and clean up here of a dark afternoon, is it?"

     "I suppose you never notice anything else odd when you are at work here, Mrs. Porter?" said Mr. Davidson.

     "No, sir, I do not," said Mrs. Porter, "and it's a funny thing to me I don't, with the feeling I have as there's someone settin' here—no, it's the other side, just within the screen—and lookin' at me all the time I'm dustin' in the gallery and pews. But I never yet see nothin' worse than myself, as the sayin' goes, and I kindly hope I never may."

Later, when back at his hotel:

....as he was changing his socks before dinner, he suddenly paused and said half-aloud, "By Jove, that is a rum thing!" It had not occurred to him before how strange it was that any edition of the Prayer-Book should have been issued in 1653, seven years before the Restoration, five years before Cromwell's death, and when the use of the book, let alone the printing of it, was penal. He must have been a bold man who put his name and a date on that title-page. Only, Mr. Davidson reflected, it probably was not his name at all, for the ways of printers in difficult times were devious....

    Next day, as he sat in the train, a little ray of light came to illuminate one of yesterday's puzzles. He happened to take out an almanac-diary that he had bought for the new year, and it occurred to him to look at the remarkable events for April 25. There it was: "St. Mark. Oliver Cromwell born, 1599."

     That, coupled with the painted ceiling, seemed to explain a good deal. The figure of old Lady Sadleir became more substantial to his imagination, as of one in whom love for Church and King had gradually given place to intense hate of the power that had silenced the one and slaughtered the other. What curious evil service was that which she and a few like her had been wont to celebrate year by year in that remote valley? and how in the world had she managed to elude authority? And again, did not this persistent opening of the books agree oddly with the other traits of her portrait known to him? It would be interesting for anyone who chanced to be near Brockstone on the twenty-fifth of April to look in at the Chapel and see if anything exceptional happened. When he came to think of it, there seemed to be no reason why he should not be that person himself; he, and if possible, some congenial friend. He resolved that so it should be.

At this point, James has (to use Clutean parlance) done the SIGHTING and THICKENING portions of the horror plot arc. But contrary to accepted order in most stories, THICKENING has preceded SIGHTING.

SIGHTING only comes when Davidson sees the prayer books, realizes their unique features and uncanny habits.

The REVEL phase of "The Uncommon Prayer Book" kicks off when Davidson returns to Brockstone on St. Mark's Day. He brings a friend to whom he has revealed the anti-Cromwellian nature of the books.

     "Books open again, Mrs. Porter?" said Davidson, as they walked up to the chancel.

Davidson soon discovers that the anti-Cromwellian prayer books have been stolen, replaced by everyday editions. And he knows the culprit Henderson under the name Homberger.

....Well, Mrs. Porter, it's quite plain this Mr. Henderson, as he calls himself, has walked off with your eight Prayer-Books and put eight others about the same size in place of them. Now listen to me. I suppose you must tell your husband about this, but neither you nor he must say one word about it to anyone else. If you'll give me the address of the agent,—Mr. Clark, isn't it?—I will write to him and tell him exactly what has happened, and that it really is no fault of yours. But, you understand, we must keep it very quiet; and why? Because this man who has stolen the books will of course try to sell them one at a time—for I may tell you they are worth a good deal of money—and the only way we can bring it home to him is by keeping a sharp look out and saying nothing."

James sends the story at this point into a mighty slingshot climax and resolution. He "jump-cuts."

     We are transported to a London office on this same 25th of April. We find there, within closed doors, late in the day, two police inspectors, a commissionaire, and a youthful clerk....

It's an arresting moment for the story. We have left Davidson, Mrs. Porter, and the chapel of Brockstone Court in the dust. We have arrived in the Clutean AFTERMATH: the REVEL has finished (and finished our book thief Mr. Poschwitz, alias Homberger, alias Henderson) "off-screen."

     "Well," said one of the inspectors, when they were left alone; and "Well?" said the other inspector; and, after a pause, "What's the surgeon's report again? You've got it there. Yes. Effect on the blood like the worst kind of snake-bite; death almost instantaneous. I'm glad of that, for his sake; he was a nasty sight. No case for detaining this man Watkins, anyway; we know all about him. And what about this safe, now? We'd better go over it again; and, by the way, we haven't opened that package he was busy with when he died."

     "Well, handle it careful," said the other; "there might be this snake in it, for what you know. Get a light into the corners of the place, too. Well, there's room for a shortish person to stand up in; but what about ventilation?"

     "Perhaps," said the other slowly, as he explored the safe with an electric torch, "perhaps they didn't require much of that. My word! it strikes warm coming out of that place! like a vault, it is. But here, what's this bank-like of dust all spread out into the room? That must have come there since the door was opened; it would sweep it all away if you moved it—see? Now what do you make of that?"

     "Make of it? About as much as I make of anything else in this case. One of London's mysteries this is going to be, by what I can see. And I don't believe a photographer's box full of large-size old-fashioned Prayer-Books is going to take us much further. For that's just what your package is."

Something that looked like a roll of old flannel has followed Mr. Poschwitz from Brockstone Court to London, and the biter has been well and truly bit.

But what is the thing that looks like a roll of flannel, yet has a poisonous bite? Is it a guardian of the Uncommon Prayer Book? If so, why did it not deal with Poschwitz in the Brockstone Court chapel? Why follow him to London on top of his car, only to secret itself in a safe and emerge like a jack-in-the-box to administer the fatal bite? 

Could this guardian of the Uncommon Prayer-Book have been called-up and set upon its task by Lady Sadleir herself? 

Perhaps an ambitious Jamesian might write a new part IV to the story, giving us a more satisfying resolution to these shortcomings? Keep the action at Brockstone, which I think would do less harm to the storytelling unities than the jump to London for part IV?


10 March


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