The dead do not always lie quietly in their graves. Sometimes they have unfinished business with the living world, and want revenge for a wrong done to them. Perhaps in life they did wrong themselves and even in death can find no peace, so they must come back to bring trouble and fear to the living.
In these five stories the dead can come at any time, in any place, and in the strangest of ways – to an Oxford College, where Mr Williams is looking with interest at an old picture; or in bright sunshine to an inn where young Mr Thomson is spending his holiday. When the lights go out in Mr Edward Dunning’s room and he reaches out to find the matches, what is it that his fingers touch in the dark? The wife and stepson of Squire Bowles have a question to ask, but only the Squire knows the answer, and how can you ask a question of a man who lies dead in his grave?
And when Professor Parkins blows an old whistle he has found, is it only the wind that answers, or something more? Something unseen, unheard, but more horrible than you could ever imagine …
For several years Mr Williams worked for the museum at the University of Oxford, enlarging its already famous collection of drawings and pictures of English country houses and churches. It is hard to imagine anything less alarming than collecting pictures of houses and churches, but Mr Williams found that even this peaceful work had its unexpected dark corners.
He bought many pictures for the museum from the London shop of Mr J. W. Britnell. Twice a year Mr Britnell sent a list of pictures to all his regular customers, who could then choose which pictures they wanted to look at before deciding whether to buy.
In February 1895 Mr Williams received a list from Mr Britnell with the following letter:
I think you might be interested in Picture Number 978 in our list, which I will be happy to send to you if you wish.
J. W. Britnell
Mr Williams turned to Number 978 in the list and found the following note:
Number 978. Artist unknown. Picture of an English country house, early nineteenth century. 25 centimetres by 40 centimetres. £20.
It did not sound very interesting and the price seemed high. However, Mr Williams added it to the pictures that he asked Mr Britnell to send to him.
The pictures arrived at the museum one Saturday afternoon, just after Mr Williams had left. They were brought round to his rooms in college so that he could look at them over the weekend. Mr Williams found them on his table when he and his friend, Mr Binks, came in to have tea.
Picture Number 978 showed the front of quite a large country house. It had three rows of windows with the door in the middle of the bottom row. There were trees on both sides of the house and a large lawn in front of it. The letters A.W.F. were written in the corner of the picture. Mr Williams thought that it was not very well done, probably the work of an amateur artist, and he could not understand why Mr Britnell thought it was worth twenty pounds. He turned it over and saw that there was a piece of paper on the back with part of a name on it. All he could read were the ends of two lines of writing. The first said, ‘ – ngly Hall’; the second, ‘ – ssex’.
Mr Williams thought that it would be interesting to see if he could find the name of the house in one of his guidebooks before sending the picture back on Monday morning. Meanwhile, he put the picture on the table, lit the lamp because it was now getting dark, and made the tea.