“A School Story” is a ghost story by the English medievalist and author M. R. James (1862–1936), first published in his More Ghost StoriesCollection of seven short stories by the English medievalist and author M. R. James, first published in 1911. (1911).
The school featured in the story is based on Temple Grove, East Sheen, a preparatory school for boys. The story is told in the first-person by the main protagonist, whose name is not revealed.
Two men in a smoking-room are reminiscing about their time at private school. On remarks that there was ghost’s footmark on a stone staircase at his school, but nobody seemed to make anything of it. The other begins to tell the tale of a real ghost witnessed at his school, more than thirty years earlier, some time in the 1870s.
In the narrators’s third or fourth term, a new master arrives, Sampson, to teach Latin grammar. The narrator is struck by a charm on the teacher’s watch-chain, a gold Byzantine coin engraved with his initials, G.W.S, and the date 24 July 1865. During one lesson the class is instructed to construct a sentence using the Latin verb memini, meaning I remember. After appearing to fall into some kind of dream-like state, the narrator’s friend McLeod returns to his senses and writes “memento putei inter quatuor taxos“, a phrase that just comes into his head. When questioned by Sampson, McLeod says he thinks it might mean “Remember the well among the four”, which seems to unsettle Sampson.
Some time later, during a similar exercise, the boys are asked to construct a conditional sentence expressing a future consequence, and submit their papers for examination. While looking through them, Sampson suddenly makes an odd noise in his throat and rushes out of the classroom. When the sixteen pupils look at the papers on the teacher’s desk they find that there are seventeen papers. On the top paper, written in red ink, is written “Si tu non veneris ad me, ego veniam ad te“, which translates as “If you don’t come to me, I’ll come to you”. After about half an hour Sampson returns, and dismisses the class.
McLeod and the narrator occupy a dormitory at right angles to the main building, where Sampson has his bedroom. McLeod wakes the narrator at about one or two o’ clock in the morning, saying that there is a burglar attempting to get in through Sampson’s window. When the narrator goes to look he sees nothing, but McLeod describes a thin man sitting or kneeling on the window sill, wet all over, apparently beckoning. The next day, Sampson has disappeared, and no trace of him has ever come to light.
In a sequel, another man who had heard the story told by the narrator is staying at at country house in Ireland a year or so later, when his host produces a thin gold chain with a gold coin attached to it, inscribed “G.W.S., 24 July, 1865”. He had been cleaning an old well on the property, and had discovered two bodies, with the coin “amongst the rags of the clothes that were on one of the bodies”.
“A School Story” has been adapted for radio by the BBC in an episode of their Ghost Stories series, first broadcast on Radio 4 in 1997.
- M. R. James bibliographyList of the works written by M. R. James.
- Full text of “A School Story” at Project Gutenberg