The Game of Bear
Original manuscript in King’s College, Cambridge.
Two elderly persons sat reading and smoking in the library of a country house after tea on an afternoon in the Christmas holidays, and outside a number of the children of the house were playing about. They had turned out all the lights and were engaged in the dreadful game of “Bear” which entails stealthy creepings up and down staircases and along passages, and being leapt upon from doorways with loud and hideous cries. Such a cry, and an answering scream of great poignancy, were heard just outside the library door. One of the two readers – an uncle of the young things who were disporting themselves there – leapt from his chair and dashed the door open. “I will not have you doing that!” he shouted (and his voice was vibrant with real anger); “do you hear? Stop it at once. I can’t stand it. You – you – Why can’t you find something else? What? …Well, I don’t care, I can’t put up with it… Yes, very well, go and do it somewhere where I can’t hear it.” He subsided into a growl and came back to his chair; but his friend saw that his nerves were really on edge, and ventured something sympathetic. “It’s all very well,” said the uncle, “but I can not bear that jumping out and screaming. Stupid of me to fly out like that, but I couldn’t help it. It reminded me of all that business – you know.”
“Well,” said the friend after a short pause, “I’m really not sure that I do. Oh!” he added, in a more concerned tone, “unless you mean Purdue.” “That’s it,” said the uncle. There was another silence, and then the friend said, “Really, I’m not sorry that happened just now, for I never did hear the rights of the Purdue business. Will you tell me exactly what happened?”
“I don’t know,” said the uncle: “I really don’t know, if I ought. But I think I will. Not just now, though. I’ll tell you what: if it’s fine tomorrow we’ll take a walk in the morning; and tonight I’ll think over the whole affair and get it straight in my mind. I have often felt some-body besides me ought to know about it, and all his people are out of the way now.”
The next day was fine, and the two men walked out to a hill at no real distance, which was known as Windmill Hill. The mill that had topped it was gone but a bit of the brick foundation remained and afforded a seat from which a good stretch of pleasant wild country could be seen. Here then Mr A and Mr B sat down on the short, dry grass with their backs against the warm brick wall, and Mr A produced a little bundle of folded paper and a pocket-book which he held up before Mr B as an indication that he was prepared not only to tell the story to which he stood pledged, but to back it with documentary evidence.
“I brought you here,” he said, “partly because you can see Purdue’s place. There!” He pointed with his stick to a wooded slope which might be three or four miles off. In the wood was a large clearing and in the clearing stood a mansion of yellow stone with a portico, upon which, as it chanced, the sun was shining very brilliantly, so that the house stood out brightly against the background of dark trees.
“Where shall I begin?” said Mr A.
“Why,” said Mr B, “I’ll tell you exactly how little I know, and then you can judge. You and Purdue, you remember, were senior to me at school and at Cambridge. He went down after his three years; you stayed up for part of a fourth, and then I began to see more of you: before that, I was more with people of my own year, and, beyond a fair number of meetings with Purdue at breakfast and lunch and so on, I never saw much of him – not nearly as much as I should have liked, in fact. Then I remember your going to stay with him – there, I suppose” (pointing with his stick) – “in the Easter Vac, and – well, that was the last of it.”
“Just so,” said Mr A; “I didn’t come up again, and you and I practically didn’t meet till a year or two back, did we? Though you were a better correspondent than any of my other Cambridge friends. Very well, then, there it is: I was never inclined to write the story down in a letter, and the long and short of it is that you have never heard it: but you do know what sort of man Purdue was, and how fond I was of him.
“When I stayed with him over there, the place was his only home, and yet it wasn’t his. He was an orphan and practically adopted by his uncle and aunt who were quite old childless people. There had been another uncle who had married a village woman, and had one daughter. That couple were very odd squalid creatures, and died off, I think from drink, but the daughter survived and went on living in a cottage in the next parish. She wasn’t left destitute by any means in the way of money; but she lived all by herself, and I think always with a sense of injury upon her that she wasn’t noticed by the county families and such. The remaining uncle and aunt had been kind enough to her and at one time used to invite her over to their place, but she had a very difficult temper and was always on the look out for slights and injuries, and at last they gave up the effort to be cordial, and saw no more of her. It wasn’t to be expected after that that they would pass on the property to her (it was entirely at their disposition, to do what they liked with it) and no more they did. When they died it went to Purdue, about a year before his own death, that was.
“So there he was, settled, you would say, into a happy life: he’d been brought up in the country and knew all the neighbourhood, places and people, very well; and was interested in farming and forestry and prepared to make himself useful. That last visit I paid him was particularly delightful: he was on such excellent terms with everybody in the village. ‘Master Henry’ to all of them, and just as well liked by the neighbours in the larger houses. I think the only fly in the ointment was that woman Caroline Purdue. She took to attending our parish church and we used to find her in our pew every Sunday morning. She didn’t say much to Henry, but all the service time she sat and looked at him through her veil. A short stout redfaced woman she was, with black hair and snappy black eyes. She used to wait in the churchyard till we had gone out and then set off on her three mile walk home. She gave me the creeps, I couldn’t say why; I suppose there was a flavour of concentrated hostility about her.
“Henry was anxious of something of the same kind. His lawyer told me after his death that he had tried through them to get her to accept a handsome addition to her income and the gift of a suitable house wherever she liked in some other part of the county. They said she was as impracticable a woman as they had ever come across: she just sat and smiled broadly at them and said she was quite comfortable where she was, and didn’t want to move out of reach of her cousin Henry. ‘But wouldn’t it be more lively and amusing for you to be in some place where there’s more to be seen – theatres, and that sort of thing?’ No, oh no, she had plenty of things to occupy herself with: and – again – she didn’t want to move out of reach of her cousin Henry.
“‘But, but: your cousin Henry, you know; he’s likely to be a busy man – travelling about a good deal, and occupied with his men friends: it isn’t probable that he’ll be able to see much of you.’ Oh, she was quite content to take her chance of that: they would often be meeting when he was riding about, and no doubt there would be times when he was alone at the Court, and she could look in on him. ‘Ah well, that’s just the point. Are you sure that Mr Purdue will welcome that?’ ‘Yes, to be sure, why not?’ ‘Well, we have reason to think that he doesn’t wish it.’ Oh indeed! and pray had he commissioned these gentlemen to tell his own cousin that he had cast her off? A nice thing for a relative to hear, that her own flesh and blood preferred not to have anything to do with her. What had she done, she should like to know, to be treated in that way?
“There was more to the same effect, and the storm rose quickly, culminating in a short burst of tears, and a rapid stumping out of the room. The gentlemen who had been conducting the interview were left looking at each other and feeling they had not done much to advance their client’s wishes. But at least Miss Purdue left off her attendance at our church, and, we gathered, did not favour any other place of worship in its stead.
“She was not more popular with the rest of the community than with Henry.
“How is the rest of this to be told? I have here some papers which bear on it, but they are fragmentary, of course. When Henry Purdue was alone in that big house he did what at other times was rather foreign to his habits – confided his feelings to paper. Here are some entries.”
“Letter from CP” (Caroline Purdue, of course). “Infernal woman. May she come and see me and talk over this painful matter. No, she mayn’t.”
[manuscript ends, halfway down the 12th page]
‘with thanks to Rosemary Pardoe, publisher of The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter, for the transcription’
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