“A Neighbour’s Landmark” is a ghost story by the English medievalist and author M. R. James (1862–1936), first published in A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost StoriesCollection of six short stories by the English medievalist and author M. R. James, first published in 1925. (1925).
The story concerns the disappearance of a woman who removes a cursed landmark demarcating her property from that of her neighbour in order to steal the land, and is told as a first-person narrative.
The story is set in 1889 and begins in the library of Betton Court, where the narrator is visiting his friend, Reginald Philipson. The narrator is browsing among the contents of the library, and comes across a letter from a clergyman to his bishop, containing the lines:
That which walks in Betton Wood
Knows why it walks or why it cries.
The narrator asks Philipson if there is anywhere in the parish called Betton Wood, and is told that it once stood on the crest of the nearby Betton Hill, but it is just now rough ploughland. Intrigued by the quotation, Philipson visits a retired family retainer to find out more, old Mitchell, who tells him that his mother refused to go through the wood after dark. She told of hearing a “rustling-like” sound in the bushes and then hearing a scream that “appears to pierce right through from the one ear to the other”. Philipson’s father learned of this, and visited Old Mitchell’s mother to hear her story, after which he stubbed up the wood.
Old Mitchell tells Philipson that his father had left an account of his reasons for grubbing up the wood, which Philipson finds on his return to Betton Court. It begins with an account of his father’s conversation with Old Mitchell’s mother and two others, one of whom explains that her own mother had told her about a previous owner of Betton Court, Theodosia Bryan, who had stolen some of the best pasture in the parish from its rightful owners, two children, by removing a landmark demarcating her land from theirs,
But no one can’t avoid the curse that’s laid on them that removes the landmark, and so we take it she can’t leave Betton before someone take and put it right again.
Philipson’s father had been unable to trace the previous owners of the land adjoining the wood to recompense them, and had instead been donating the income from that part of his estate to the local parish for charitable use, and hoped that his successors would carry on doing so.
The story ends with a brief account of a series of trials involving Lady Ivy, formerly Theodosia Bryan, who was in dispute with the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s over the ownership of a valuable tract of land in Shadwell. In the last of the trials, in 1684, it was proven that the documents on which Lady Ivy’s claim was based were forgeries commissioned by her. She was subsequently charged with perjury and forgery, crimes which might well have resulted in her execution if found guilty, but she disappeared before she could be brought to trial.
- Full text of A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories at Project Gutenberg