“Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance” 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). In his preface, James remarks that he wrote the story to “fill out the volume”.
The story is written as a third-person narrative and concerns a young man, Mr Humphreys, who has recently inherited an estate in Wilsthorpe, Lincolnshire from his deceased uncle, James Wilson, whom he had never met.
The story begins as Mr Humphreys is alighting from the train at Wilsthorpe station, where he is met by his bailiff, Mr Collins. Over lunch with Collins and his family, the bailiff apprises Humphreys with his estate and its staff. The bailiff’s daughter, Miss Collins, mentions the existence of an old temple and a maze in a part of the gardens that no one has been allowed to visit. Humphreys promises to show her over the maze once he has learnt the way.
After lunch the bailiff shows Humphreys around his new estate, until finally they come across the entrance to the maze. Humphreys expresses an interest in exploring the maze, but the bailiff does not have a key to the padlocked iron gate, and so returns to the house to look for one, leaving Humphreys alone. A Latin inscription over the entrance reads Secretum meum mihi et filiis domus meae, which translates as “My secret [is] for me and the sons of my house”. Humphreys give the gate an irritated kick, upon which the locks falls at his feet. He ventures into the overgrown maze and without any difficulty reaches its centre, where he finds a stone column about four feet (1.2 m) high, topped with a metal globe.
The following day Humphreys orders his gardeners to clear a path through the maze, and invites Miss Collins and her mother to join him in exploring the maze that afternoon. But he finds himself completely unable to retrace his steps of the previous day, and the party is forced to abandon its effort to reach the centre. “Vexed and ashamed” at what he considers to be a fiasco, Humphreys resolves to make a plan of the maze, but that evening, in his irritation, he revisits the maze and once again reaches its centre without putting a foot wrong.
The next morning Humphreys completes his plan of the maze. He also receives a letter from a neighbour, Lady Wardrop, who is preparing a book of mazes, and wishes to include the Wilsthorpe Maze; it is agreed that she visit the following day. With Humphreys, Lady Waldrop is confidently able to navigate the maze, which she dates to about 1780, but is struck by the singularity of the globe at its centre, unique in her experience. But she expresses some unease at a feeling of being watched, with something waiting to pounce, commenting “I don’t care how soon we are outside the gate”.
That evening Humphreys begins work on tracing a copy of the plan for Lady Waldrop. On comparing the original with his copy, he notices a black dot, about the size of a shilling, which seems to his tired eyes to resemble a hole that not only goes through the paper but the table on which it lies, down to even “infinite depths”, from which slowly emerges a burnt human face. In his horror Humphreys throws himself backwards and strikes his head against a lamp, concussing himself.
When Humphreys is sufficiently recovered, he orders the globe at the centre of the maze to be opened. It is found to be half full of ashes, probably those of a cremation, and perhaps those of James Wilson, from whom he had inherited Wilsthorpe.
“Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance” was adapted for television as part of the ITV Schools educational strand, and first broadcast on 21 June 1976.
- M. R. James bibliographyList of the works written by M. R. James.