The majority of the story takes the form of transcripts of a trial which takes place in the year 1644. The trial is that of George Martin, a young man from a wealthy and respectable family, who is charged with the murder of Ann Clark, an unattractive young woman of below average intelligence. Martin is found guilty of Ann Clark's murder and sentenced to death by hanging. At his trial, two witnesses say that they saw Ann Clark's ghost after her murder.
The story has been adapted for television.
The story's unnamed narrator visits a village in Devon. A local man named John Hill shows him a field which is known as Martin's Close. John Hill explains that a murderer named George Martin, who cut a woman's throat, is buried in the field. John Hill says that Martin was hanged on the road nearby hundreds of years earlier on Holy Innocents Day and that he was sentenced to death by a "bloody judge, terrible red and bloody". The narrator asks if the judge was named Jeffreys and John Hill answers that he was. John Hill goes on to say that George Martin was troubled by the ghost of his victim before his crime was discovered. Hill heard the story from another local man named Saunders but has forgotten most of it. He remembers that it had something to do with a closet in an inn. The local priest shows the narrator the records of a gibbet being built for George Martin's execution in 1684 and a grave being dug for him the following year. The priest, however, does not know any more about the story and does not know anybody who does, Mr. Saunders having died.
The narrator goes to libraries to research the trial of George Martin. He can only find very brief references to it in newspapers of the time. He finds out that George Martin was a "young gentleman of a good estate", that he was tried in London and that Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys presided over the trial. The newspapers also refer to some unusual witness statements being given during the trial. From a second-hand bookshop, the narrator eventually obtains a full transcript of the trial, written in shorthand by someone who was present at it. The narrator finds someone who knows 17th century shorthand who types out the transcripts of the trial for him. Thus, the narrator learns the full story of George Martin.
At Christmastime 1683, George Martin returns to his native Devon from Cambridge University. Since he is a member of a highly respected family, he is invited to a lot of parties and spends much of the period traveling to and from different houses. The journeys between houses are sometimes long and the weather is sometimes bad. Therefore, Martin sometimes has to spend the night at an inn. Two days after Christmas, Martin stops at a village inn where a dance is being held. Ann Clark, a highly unattractive young woman with learning difficulties, has been taken to the inn by her sister to see the dancing. In order to make fun of her, Martin asks Ann Clark to dance with him. They dance to the tune "Madam will you walk, will you talk with me?" Afterwards, George Martin passes through the street where Ann Clark lives once a week. She is always excited to see him. He calls out to her by whistling "Madam will you walk, will you talk with me?"
George Martin becomes engaged to a young woman of his own social class. She calls off the relationship, however, when she hears rumors of a relationship between Martin and Ann Clark. George Martin blames Ann Clark for the end of his engagement and comes to hate her. When he sees her, he shouts abuse at her, threatens her and even strikes her with a whip on one occasion. As a result of her below average intelligence, however, Ann Clark continues to be pleased to see George Martin. On May 15, 1684, George Martin says something to Ann Clark which makes her very happy. She is never seen alive again. Ann Clark is popular in the village and her disappearance is a cause of some concern.
On the evening after Ann Clark's disappearance, George Martin returns to the inn where he first met her. Sarah Ascroft, the landlady, asks him, "Squire, have you been looking after your sweetheart?" The question makes George Martin extremely angry, which is surprising because the local people often jokingly suggested to him that he was in love with Ann Clark. Sarah Ascroft leaves George Martin alone and begins to sing "Madam will you walk, will you talk with me?" to herself. She needs to go into the kitchen and continues singing as she does so.
While Sarah Ascroft is in the kitchen, Thomas Snell, the only other customer in the inn, asks George Martin to lend him a knife so that he can cut some tobacco. Martin feels all of his pockets, groans, says, "I must have left it there", and puts his head in his hands.
In the kitchen, Sarah Ascroft begins to sing more loudly. She hears a voice outside join in with the song. The voice is unmistakably that of Ann Clark. Sarah Ascroft is relieved that Ann Clark has returned. She says to George Martin, "Squire, here is your sweetheart back, shall I call her in?" George Martin appears frightened and angry when he hears this. He grabs Sarah Ascroft and prevents her from opening the door. She calls out to Thomas Snell to open the door instead. When the door is opened, a gust of wind comes in which blows out the candles and leaves the inn in darkness. Sarah Ascroft hears someone come in, open and then close a closet door. After the candles have been lit again, Sarah Ascroft sees George Martin looking very pale. She also sees part of a brown dress sticking out of the closet door. She does not touch the dress because it looks very wet. Sarah Ascroft opens the closet door. A dark shape comes out of the closet and goes out of the inn's open door, leaving wet footprints on the floor behind it.
Soon afterwards, George Martin approaches William Redaway, a thirteen-year old cowherd who watches over some cattle near a pond, and asks him if he has found a knife. The boy says that he has not but will ask about it. Martin tells the boy that he will give him sixpence if he says nothing about the knife to anyone else. On May 23, 1684, William Redaway sees George Martin first use a wooden pole to try to fish something out of the pond and then crouch down on the ground near the pond and look for something there. At twilight, shortly after George Martin has left, William Redaway sees a dark shape rise out of the pond. The shape excitedly waves its arms up and down, as William Redaway often saw Ann Clark do in George Martin's presence, and leaves in the same direction as Martin.
In June 1684, Ann Clark's body is found in the pond. A knife belonging to George Martin is found next to the corpse. Martin is charged with her murder. George Martin protests that he will not get a fair trial in Devon because an impartial jury cannot be found there.
In the week before Christmas 1684, George Martin is put on trial in London. The trial is presided over by Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys. During the trial, it is unusually quiet in the courtroom. It is also unusually dark, even for England in December. Candles have to be lit in the courtroom at two o'clock in the afternoon. During the trial, George Martin appears to be unusually agitated, even for a man facing the death penalty. He keeps turning around sharply as if he thinks that someone is behind him. Sarah Ascroft, Thomas Snell and William Redaway testify at the trial. Judge Jeffreys is not happy when he realizes that people are going to swear that they saw the ghost of Ann Clark. The law, however, does not allow him to tell the jury to disregard that part of the witnesses' statements.
Speaking in his defense, George Martin complains that he has not been kept safe from "interruption and disturbance" while he has been in prison in London. A prison officer says that there have been reports of someone going upstairs and standing outside George Martin's cell, although George Martin could not have been aware of that.
The jury soon find George Martin guilty. He is told that he will be executed on December 28, Holy Innocents Day. Martin asks if his relatives can come to see him. Judge Jeffreys replies that they can and that Ann Clark can come to see him too. The judge adds that he hops that Ann Clark does come to see George Martin and does not leave him alone until the time of his execution.
The narrator concludes his story by saying that "Madam will you walk, will you talk with me?" is still considered to be an unlucky tune in the village where George Martin is buried, although nobody there remembers why.
A thirty-minute TV movie based on "Martin's Close", the fourteenth entry in the BBC A Ghost Story for Christmas series, first aired on BBC Four in the United Kingdom on December 24 2019. It was written and directed by Mark Gatiss. It stars Wilf Scolding as Martin, Elliot Levey as Judge Jeffreys, Sara Crowe as Sarah Arscott the innkeeper, Jessica Temple as Ann Clark and Peter Capaldi as Dolben, the counsel for the prosecution at Martin's trial.
- George Jeffreys (1645-1689) became Lord Chief Justice of England in 1683. He had a reputation for bias and severity and acquired the nickname "the Hanging Judge". He is also referred to in M.R. James' 1924 story "A Neighbor's Landmark".
- The BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas is made up of fourteen TV movies that first aired on British television between 1971 and 2019. Of the other thirteen films in the series, three are original stories. The rest are adaptations of the short stories "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", "A Warning to the Curious", "Lost Hearts', "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas", "The Ash-tree", "A View from a Hill", "Number 13", "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" and "The Tractate Middoth" by M.R. James and the short story "The Signalman" by Charles Dickens.