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Schoolstory

Cover art for an audiobook version of "A School Story".

"A School Story" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. It was first published in 1911 as part of the anthology More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.

The story concerns a man named Sampson who teaches Latin at a boarding school in the south of England. Unusual Latin sentences start to appear among the work which Sampson sets his students. Sampson appears to be deeply troubled by the sentences which obviously remind him of a dark secret from his past.

An abridged version of the story is read by Michael Bryant in the eighth episode of the British children's TV series Spine Chillers, first shown on BBC 1 on November 28, 1980.

Plot

The story opens at the start of the 20th century. The unnamed narrator and his unnamed friend are discussing what they call "The Folklore of Private Schools". They are both aware that boys at private schools like to tell ghost stories. They agree that the stories those boys tell are usually heavily abridged versions of published ones. They both suspect that the ghost stories which schoolboys now tell are usually short versions of stories from popular magazines such as Pearson's[1] and The Strand.[2] The narrator asks his friend if he has ever heard of a real ghost at a private school. His friend replies that he has not. He goes on to say that, from his tone of voice, he suspects that the narrator has. The narrator proceeds to tell of the ghostly experience that he had when he was a student at a private school thirty years earlier.

Leo V solidus (reverse)

9th century Byzantine coin of Emperor Leo V.

In the 1870s, the narrator attends a private boarding school near London. His best friend at the school is a Scottish boy named McLeod. One of the most popular teachers at the school is Mr. Sampson who teaches Latin. Sampson wears a Byzantine gold coin on his watch chain. There is an image of an emperor on one side of the coin. The other side of the coin has almost completely worn away. On that side of the coin, Mr. Sampson has carved his initials, G.W.S., and the date 24 July 1865.

One day, Sampson asks his students to each write on a piece of paper a sentence using the Latin verb memini ("to remember"). McLeod spends a long time apparently thinking about something elaborate to write but writing nothing. He eventually writes something very quickly. The lesson has finished by the time that McLeod shows his paper to Sampson. The narrator has left the room and does not hear what Sampson says to McLeod. McLeod rejoins his friend soon afterwards. He tells him that the sentence he wrote was Memento putei inter quatuor taxos ("Remember the well among the four yew trees.") McLeod says that he wrote the sentence when he suddenly saw a picture for it in his head. Curiously, he could not remember the English name of the trees that he saw. Sampson appeared to be strangely upset by the sentence. He asked McLeod why he wrote it. He also asked the boy where he and his family came from.

Some time later, Sampson asks his students to write a conditional sentence expressing a future consequence. The boys write their sentences and hand their papers to Sampson. When he sees one of the papers, Sampson makes a strange noise and runs out of the room, leaving all of the papers behind. The narrator goes up to Sampson's desk. On the paper on the top of the pile is written Si tu non veneris ad me, ego veniam ad te, ("If you don't come to me, I'll come to you".) Everybody in the class denies having written it, including McLeod. It is written in red ink, which none of the boys use, and the handwriting does not match that of anyone in the class. The narrator then notices that there are sixteen boys in the class but seventeen papers on the desk. The narrator pockets the mysterious seventeenth paper. After thirty minutes, Sampson returns to the classroom. He appears relieved when he does not see the seventeenth paper on the top of the pile, apparently believing that he imagined it.

Three days later, McLeod wakes up the narrator at night and tells him that an intruder is breaking into Sampson's room. McLeod insists on not waking up anyone else but makes the narrator come and watch Sampson's window. The narrator watches for some time but sees nothing. Nevertheless, he has a strange feeling and is glad that he is not alone. The narrator asks McLeod what he saw. McLeod says that he saw a man sitting or kneeling on Sampson's window. The man was extremely thin and appeared to be wet all over. McLeod finishes his description of the man by saying, "I'm not at all sure that he was alive."

The following day, Sampson is not at the school. He is never seen again. McLeod and the narrator never speak about Sampson's disappearance to anybody else.

Another man hears the narrator's story. Some time later, that man visits a large country house in Ireland. Knowing that his guest is interested in antiques, the man's host shows him an old coin on a chain. He explains that, a few years earlier, an old well between some yew trees on his property was cleaned out. Two bodies were found in the well. They had both been there for at least thirty years. One of the bodies had its arms held tightly around the other. The coin was found among the remains of their clothes. Scratched on one side of it is, "G.W.S., 24 July 1865."

Footnotes

  1. Pearson's Magazine was a British monthly magazine that was published between 1896 and 1939. Its focus was on politics, literature and the arts in general. H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds was originally serialized in Pearson's Magazine between April and December 1897.
  2. The Strand was a British monthly magazine that was published between January 1891 and March 1950. Its contents were a mixture of general interest articles and fiction. It is best known today for being the magazine in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fifty-six Sherlock Holmes short stories were first published in the United Kingdom and the magazine n which Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles was originally serialized. Many other famous writers contributed to The Strand over the years, including H.G. Wells, P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Winston Churchill.

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