M.R. James, first published in 1925; translated to modern English, otherwise exactly the same.
The story you are about to hear take’s place in the east coast town of Seaburgh. It has not changed much since my childhood. There were marshlands to the south, and the flat fields in the north merged with acres of heath trees and fir woods further inland. Between the long sea-front and street was a spacious, flint church with a large western tower and six bells. I remember how they sounded on a hot Sunday in August as our group walked up the steep, dusty hill towards the church. They rang with a flat, clacking sound when it was hot, but when the air was cooler they were softer.
The railway ran to a small terminal farther along the same road. Identical bright, white windmills could be found all over town; one was right before the station, another was near the beach, and the rest were on higher ground to the north. There were red, brick cottages with slate roofs— but why do I bother you with these boring details? Honestly, I can’t seem to help myself when it comes to writing about Seaburgh; I like to ensure the right words make it onto the paper, and I have not quite finished painting the scene yet.
If you walked past the station – away from the town and the sea – and take a right turn, you would reach a sandy road parallel to the railway. It stretches uphill with heath trees to the west, and a thicket of wind-beaten fir trees at the top – facing the sea. There is also a line of these fir trees running towards the sea atop my little hill; they crown the well-shaped mound surrounded by flat, grassy fields. It’s a fine place to sit on a hot, spring day and look at the blue sea, the white windmills, the red cottages, the green grass, and the distant martello tower to the south.
I said I knew Seaburgh from my childhood, but it has been many years since then. I am still quite fond of the town, and I enjoy any news of it I might hear. One story came to me by accident in a place very far from Seaburgh; I helped the man who shared it with me, and I have recorded it below.
I used to golf in Seaburgh pretty regularly in the spring. I usually stayed at the Bear Hotel with my friend, Henry Long… You might have known him… We used to enjoy talking together in the lounge, but – since he died – I haven’t wanted to go back, and I don’t think I will after what happened last time.
We were there on April 19th, and there were not many guests in the hotel. The public areas were practically empty, and, after dinner, we were surprised when a young man – Paxton was his name – stuck his head into our room. He was pale and rabbit-faced with light hair and eyes, but he wasn’t ugly. “Is this a private room?” He asked.
“No; please, join us.” We invited him in, and he seemed relieved. It was obvious he wanted company, and since he wasn’t the sort to dump his whole family history on you – we urged him to make himself at home. “You would find the other rooms rather dull, anyway.” I added.
“Thank you; yes, I already did.” He confirmed, and – once the pleasantries were finished – he began reading a book while Long played cards, and I worked on my writing. Within a few minutes, it became obvious that our visitor was quite nervous, so I put away my work and began a conversation.
After the initial remarks, he became oddly secretive and said we would think him crazy if he shared his concerns. I recommended a drink for courage, and we all had one; though, when the waiter entered, Paxton seemed very jumpy.
He didn’t know anyone in the hotel, but we shared a common acquaintance in town, and he was hoping for some advice. Of course, we agreed, and Long put his cards away as we settled down to hear the young man’s story.
“It started over a week ago when I biked the 5-6 miles to Froston…” He began. “Just to see the church; I’m fascinated by architecture, and it’s got one of those pretty porches with beams and gables. I took a picture of it, and an old man who was cleaning the churchyard asked if I wanted to look inside… So, I said yes, and he pulled out a key to let me in. There wasn’t much in there, but the caretaker liked to keep it clean, and I pointed to the porch, saying it was my favorite part.”
“Ah, it is a nice porch, but do you know what that coat-of-arms means?” The caretaker asked, indicating the one with three crowns.
While Paxton was no expert, he thought it belonged to East Anglia. “That’s right, sir, and do you know the meaning of those three crowns?” The caretaker pressed, but the young man did not know.
“Well, then, I can tell the scholar something he doesn’t know! They’re the three holy crowns that were buried near the coast to keep the Germans from landing… I can see you don’t believe that, but if it hadn’t been those crowns – the German ships would of landed here over and over, and they would have killed men, women, and children! That’s the truth, and if you don’t believe me, you can ask the cleric— Here he comes, you go ahead and ask.”
A nice-looking, older man was coming up the path, and before Paxton could assure the excited caretaker that he did believe him – the cleric spoke first. “What’s going on, John? And good day, sir. Have you been looking at our little church?”‘
John calmed down during the conversation that followed, and the cleric tried asking him once more what was wrong. “Oh, nothing… I was only telling this gentleman he should ask you about the holy crowns.”
‘”Ah, yes, of course,” the cleric said. “That’s an intriguing matter, isn’t it? But I don’t know if the gentleman is interested in our old stories, eh?”
“Oh, he’ll be interested fast enough, and he’ll believe what you tell him, sir! You knew William Ager personally – the father and son!” John said.
“I would like to hear about it.” Paxton said, and the cleric led him down the village street to the rectory – occasionally stopping to speak with a parishioner.
Then, they went into his study where he was happy to share the legend. “The locals have always believed in the three holy crowns. The old people say they were buried in different places near the coast to keep the foreigners away; one was removed a long time ago, another has disappeared beneath the rising sea, and the last is still keeping invaders at bay. If you have read our history, you may remember that in 1687, the crown of Redwald – King of the East Angles – was dug up in Rendlesham and tragically melted down before it could be properly described or drawn; it had been buried farther inland. The second crown was buried to the south where a Saxon royal palace used to be, but it’s at the bottom of the sea now. Finally, the third crown lies beyond those two.”
“Do they know where it is?” Paxton asked, unable to believe such a story had not been made into a book.
“Yes, but they won’t tell.” The cleric answered, and his manner discouraged the young man from asking why.
Instead, he waited a moment before asking, “what did the old man mean when he said you knew William Ager like it had something to do with the crowns?”
“That’s another strange story.” The cleric began. “Ager is a very old name in these parts, but I can’t find proof they were ever high-class people, or that their ancestors were the last crown’s guardians. Nathaniel Ager was the first one I knew; I was born and raised nearby, and he was camping there for the duration of the Franco-Prussian War. His son, William, did the same during the South African War, and his recently deceased grandson, young William, lived in the cottage closest to the place it’s buried. He was deathly ill, and the last of his line; I have no doubt that knowledge quickened his death. He was devastated to know there would be no one else to keep watch, but he couldn’t do anything about it; his relatives were all far away, in the colonies. I wrote letters to them on his behalf – begging them to come for a visit and discuss important family matters – but there hasn’t been a reply. If the last of the holy crowns is really there – it has no guardian now.”
“I found the cleric’s story fascinating. When I left, the only thing I could think about was finding that crown, but I wish I’d left it alone.” Paxton began. “The whole thing seemed like fate; as I biked back past the churchyard wall, my eye caught a fairly new gravestone bearing the name William Ager. I had to stop for a closer look, and it said he died in Seaburgh at age 28. With that information, I thought I could at least ask about cottages in the area, but I wasn’t sure where to start. Then, fate struck again; it took me to a curio-shop, and I found some old books – one of which was a fancy prayer-book from 1740– Wait one moment while I get it from my room.”
He left us somewhat speechless, but we hardly had time to exchange any remarks before he was back. Panting, he handed us the book opened to someone’s scraggly hand-writing; it said:
“Nathaniel Ager is my name, and England is my nation; Seaburgh is my home, and Christ is my salvation. When I am in my grave, and all my bones are rotten – I hope the Lord will think of me when I am quite forgotten.”
The poem was dated 1754, and there were many more entries of Agers, Nathaniel, Frederick, and so on, until eventually ending with William.
“You see,” he said, “anybody would think it was luck. I did at first, but not anymore. I asked the shop clerk about William Ager, and he remembered the man died in a cottage on the North Field. This told me exactly which one it must be: there’s only one big enough to live in. The next thing was to make friends with the locals, and a dog helped me get started; he came at me so fiercely, people had to come out and run him off. When they apologized, I only had to mention Ager’s name and pretend I knew something about him. Then, a woman saddened by his untimely demise said it happened because he slept outside during the winter. I asked if he went out to sea at night, but she said he stayed on the hill with all the trees – so that’s where I went.
“I know how to dig into those mounds; I’ve opened plenty of them in the country, but that was with owner’s permission and during the day with men helping. I had to think very carefully before I began; I couldn’t dig across the mound, and I knew those old firs trees would have awkward roots in the way. The soil was light and sandy, and I turned a rabbit hole into the start of a tunnel. Coming and going to the hotel at odd hours was going to be the hard part. When I decided how to dig, I told everyone I was called away for the night and spent it out there. I made my tunnel, but I won’t bore you with how I supported it and filled it in afterwards; the important thing is that I got the crown.” Paxton finished.
Naturally, we were both shocked and full of interest. I had already known someone found the crown at Rendlesham and often grieved over its fate. No one had ever seen the Anglo-Saxon crown – at least, not until he dug it up…
The young man’s gaze was filled with sorrow. “The worst part is – I don’t know how to put it back.”
“Put it back?” We cried out. “But you’ve made one of the most exciting finds ever heard of in this country. It should go to the Jewel House at the Tower. What’s troubling you? If you’re worried about the land owner, we can certainly help you. Nobody’s going to make a fuss about technicalities in a case like this.”
We probably said more, but he only dropped his face into his hands, muttering, “I don’t know how to put it back.”
Finally, Long said, “I hope you’ll forgive me if I sound rude, but… Are you sure you’ve found it?”
I had wanted to ask the same question; the story did sound like a madman’s fantasy, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to hurt the poor man’s feelings. However, he took it rather calmly.
“Oh, yes, there’s no doubt; it’s in my room – locked in my bag. You can come look if you like, but I won’t offer to bring it here.” He said, sitting up.
We couldn’t miss such a chance; obviously, we went with him. His room was only a few doors over, and he was shaking more than ever as we hurried inside. He turned on the light, carefully shut the door, unlocked his bag, and produced something wrapped in a handkerchief. He opened it on the bed, and I can now say I have seen an actual Anglo-Saxon crown. It was silver – like the one from Rendlesham – and it was decorated with antique gems, but it was also plain and roughly made. It was like the crowns you see on coins and in manuscripts; I saw no reason to think it was later than the ninth century.
I was extremely interested, and I wanted to hold it in my hands, but Paxton wouldn’t let me. “Don’t touch it; I’ll do that.” He said with a dreadful sigh as he lifted and turned it to show us every side. “Seen enough?” He finally asked. We nodded as he returned it to his bag and stared dumbly at us.
“Come back to our room, and tell us what the problem is.” Long said.
“Thank you… But, could you check to see if— if the coast is clear?” His response was confusing since our actions hadn’t been particularly suspicious, and the hotel was practically empty… but we were beginning to feel… Well, we’re not sure what we felt, but nerves are infectious so we did check first.
We peeked out as we opened the door, and we both thought a silent shadow – or maybe more than a shadow – passed by as we entered the hall. “It’s clear,” we whispered and returned to our room. I was ecstatic to discuss what we had seen, but when I looked at Paxton – I saw my excitement would be terribly out of place, and I let him speak first.
“What can we do?” He said.
Long thought it best to be vague. “Why not find out who the owner of the land is, and tell him—”
“Oh, no! Absolutely not!” Paxton interrupted impatiently, “I’m sorry: you’ve been very kind, but you don’t understand; it must go back. I dare not go at night, and it’s impossible to go during the day… I haven’t been alone since touching it.”
I started to make some random comment but stopped when Long caught my eye and said, “I think I do see, but wouldn’t you feel better if you explained a little more?”
Then, he told us everything… Paxton looked over his shoulder and motioned for us to come closer. He spoke in a low voice, and we listened intently – knowing we would compare notes afterwards. I wrote down our recollections, so I am confident I have his story almost word for word.
“It began when I was first prospecting, and it happened again and again. A man was always standing by one of the fir trees, and this was in broad daylight. He was never in front of me; I only saw him from the corners of my eye, and he was always gone when I turned to get a better look. I would lie down for long periods of time and watch carefully to make sure no one was there… But when I returned to prospecting – there he was. Then, he started giving me hints; no matter where I left that prayer-book – when I came back – it would be on my table, opened to the list of names with one of my razors on top to hold it in place. In the end, I had to start locking it up. He must not be able to open my bag, or something more would have happened. He’s small and weak, but I dare not face him. It was even worse when I was making the tunnel, and if I hadn’t been so determined, I would have dropped everything and ran. It felt like someone was scratching at my back the whole time; at first, I thought it was only dirt falling on me, but as I got closer to the crown… It was unmistakable.
“When I actually pulled it out, there was some kind of horrible, desolate cry behind me; I can’t express how threatening it felt. It instantly ruined all of the excitement over my discovery, and if I weren’t such a wretched fool – I would have put it back right then… But I didn’t, and the rest of the adventure was just as awful; I had to wait hours before returning to the hotel. First, I filled the tunnel and covered my tracks, but the man was trying to thwart me the whole time. Sometimes, you see him – sometimes you don’t, and I think that’s what he intends. He’s always there, but he has power over what you see. It was almost sunrise when I left, and I still had to catch the train back to Seaburgh. There were hedges and fences along the road, and I was not easily seen. Then, when I began meeting people headed to work, they would stare behind me with strange expressions; it’s possible they were surprised to see someone so early, but I don’t think that’s the reason. They didn’t look at me directly, and neither did the train’s porter or guard. The guard even held open the door after I entered the carriage – like there was somebody else coming… You can be certain it’s not my imagination.” He gave a dull laugh before finishing. “Even if I do put it back, he won’t forgive me; I can tell… I was so happy two weeks ago.” He dropped into a chair and began to cry.
We didn’t know what to say, but we wanted to do something… So, we said if he was determined to put the crown back, we would help him, and he welcomed our offer. After hearing his story, it seemed like the right thing to do. If these horrible events happened to this poor man, couldn’t there be some truth to the legends? Could the crown have some curious power to guard the coast? At least, that was how I felt at the time, and I think Long felt that way, too.
It was almost 10:30; we looked out of the window to see a brilliant, full moon. We were regulars at the hotel, and the servants considered us to be good tippers; they arranged for a cab to take us to the beach and wait to watch over us, but we left before realizing how far away we would be going.
Paxton had the crown hidden in a large coat placed over his arm. “The shortest route is up the hill and through the churchyard,” he said as we stood in front of the hotel, looking each way; there was nobody around. Seaburgh is a quiet place in the off season. “We can’t follow the ditch by the cottage because of the dog.” He added when I pointed to the shorter way across two fields. It was a good enough reason.
We went up the road, and turned at the churchyard gate. I worried someone who knew of our intentions might be waiting there, but if they were – we saw no sign of them. Even so, we felt like we were being watched – especially when we entered a narrow path with high hedges. We hurried through and out into the open fields. Then, we traveled along the hedges, over a gate or two, turned left, climbed the ridge, and we were on the mound.
As we got closer, Long and I felt like there was some kind of dim presence waiting for us, and a much more real one already with us. I cannot adequately describe Paxton’s disposition; he was breathing like a hunted animal, and we could not bear to look at his face. We hadn’t bothered to think of how he would manage once we arrived; he seemed so sure it would be easy… which it was. I never saw anything like it; he flung himself at the side of the mound, and began digging furiously. In only a few minutes, most of his body was already out of sight. I admit, we were terrified as we stood by holding the bundle and looking all around us.
There was nothing to be seen. A line of dark fir trees stood behind us and trailed for half a mile to our right – ending by the church tower. To the left were cottages and a distant windmill, and in front was a calm sea beneath the full moon. Only a dog by a gleaming creek stood between us and it. Yet, in the silence, there was an intensely sharp awareness of something hostile very close by – like a hound on a leash that might be let go at any moment.
Paxton pulled himself out of the hole and reached a hand back. “Unwrap it, and give it to me,” he whispered. The moonlight illuminated the crown for a brief second before he snatched it away.
We didn’t touch it ourselves, and I think we are fortunate for that. Paxton was soon out of the hole again, and he immediately began shoveling the dirt back in with hands that were already bleeding. He wouldn’t let us help, and making the ground appear undisturbed was the longest part of the job. I don’t know how, but he managed it wonderfully. When he was finally satisfied, we turned back.
We were roughly two-hundred yards from the hill when Long suddenly looked back and said, “you’ve left your coat there. That won’t do.” He was right, but Paxton never slowed; he only shook his head and held up the coat on his arm.
When we re-joined him, he explained, “that wasn’t my coat.” We looked back again, and the dark thing was gone.
We made it onto the road, and hurried back. It was well before midnight when we got in, and we tried to play it off in front of the door-man by saying it was a lovely night for a walk. He gave another look around before locking the front door, and said, “you didn’t meet many people out there, did you, sir?”
“No, not a soul.” I said, and Paxton looked at me rather strangely.
“I thought I saw someone turn onto the station road after you gentlemen, but since you three were together, I don’t suppose he meant any mischief.” The door-man said. I didn’t know what to say; Long merely said goodnight, and we went upstairs – promising to turn out the lights before going to bed.
Back in our room, we tried to cheer up Paxton. “The crown is back safe, and though it’s likely you’d have done better by not touching it – no real harm was done, and we’ll never tell anyone else of its location.” We said.
“I don’t mind admitting that I also felt like we were being followed on the way there, but coming back wasn’t like that at all, was it?” I said, but it was no use.
“You have nothing to worry about, but I haven’t been forgiven. I still have to pay for that miserable sacrilege. I know what you are going to say, and yes, the Church might help, but it’s the body that must suffer. It’s true… he’s waiting outside for me just now, but—” Paxton stopped suddenly and began thanking us.
We delayed him as long as we could; we encouraged him to spend the night in our room and said we would be happy to take him golfing with us the next day, but he didn’t think it would matter. Then, we recommended he stay anyway and remain inside while we played. He was very submissive – he would have done just about anything we suggested – but he knew he couldn’t avoid what was coming. You probably wonder why we didn’t escort him home – or to the safety of some brother’s care… The fact was, he didn’t have any.
He used to have an apartment in town, but he decided to move to Sweden; his possessions had been shipped off weeks before. Anyway, we couldn’t think of anything better to do than sleep on it… Or – in my case – not sleep.
Long and I felt very different the next morning. It was a beautiful April day, and Paxton also looked very different when we saw him at breakfast. “That was the best night’s sleep I ever had.” He said, and he decided to stay in our room as we had suggested. Long and I met some others for golf and had an early lunch so we could return sooner… But death still claimed its prize. I don’t know if it could have been prevented… I think he would have died no matter what we did, but – either way – this is what happened.
We went straight to our room, where Paxton was reading quietly. “Will you be ready to come out with us in half an hour?” Long asked.
He agreed, and I said we would need to clean ourselves up first. I bathed and napped for ten minutes; then, Long and I met in the sitting-room, but only Paxton’s book remained; he wasn’t in his room or downstairs, so we shouted for him. A servant appeared and said, “The other gentleman and I thought you left already. He heard you calling from the path over there, and he hurried out. I looked out of the coffee-room window, but I didn’t see you. Anyway, he went down towards the beach.”
Without a word we ran that way, too – in the opposite direction of last night’s expedition. It was almost 4:00, and the weather was fair. There was really no reason to worry; with so many people around, surely a man couldn’t come to much harm… The looks on our faces must have frightened the servant; she came out onto the steps, pointed, and said, “yes, that’s the way he went!”
We ran to the top of the bank and stopped. We could either go past the houses on the sea-front, along the sand at the bottom of the beach, or we could stay in the middle and have a view of both. We chose the sand because it was the most secluded, and someone could get hurt without being seen.
The idea of Paxton running off was dreadful; we feared the thing he was following might suddenly stop and turn on him… I wondered what face it would show – half-seen in the thickening mist – and I continued to run, wondering how the poor wretch could have mistaken that thing for us. I remembered him saying it had some kind of power over your eyes, and I wondered what the end would be like for him; I had lost all hope of saving him, and— Well, there is no need to voice the horrible thoughts that raced through my mind as we ran into the mist.
The sun was still bright in the sky, yet we could see nothing. We only knew we were past the houses – somewhere in the gap between them and the old martello tower. Past the tower, there is nothing but rocky seashore for a long way – not a house or human – only a bit of land with the river on your right and the sea on your left.
Just before that, right by the martello tower, there were old blocks of concrete by the sea, leftover from some ruin – but, now, only a few are left… The rest were washed away. When we got there, we climbed to the top of this wall as quickly as we could, and we looked out over the shore hoping to somehow see through the mist, but we also needed a moment’s rest after running at least a mile. Nothing was visible, and we began turning back when we heard what I can only call a laugh… It was a breathless, lungless laugh; it came from below and was lost in the mist. We leaned back over the wall, and Paxton was suddenly at the bottom.
You don’t need to be told he was dead. His tracks ran alongside the wall and made a sharp turn around the corner; There is little doubt he must have run straight into the open arms of someone lying in wait. His mouth was full of sand and stones, and his jaw and teeth were broken to bits… I only glanced at his face once.
Then, as we were scrambling down to the body, we heard someone shout and saw a man running towards us from the martello tower. It was the caretaker, and his keen, old eyes managed to see something was wrong even through the mist. He saw Paxton fall and saw us appear a moment after. This was fortunate, because surely, people would have suspected us of being involved – given the circumstances. We asked if he saw anybody attack our friend, but he could not be sure.
He went for help, and we stayed with Paxton until he could be carried away. That is when we back-tracked the way he came along the narrow strip of sand under the wall. It was impossible to determine where the assailant went.
What were we to say at the hearing? We felt it was our duty to keep the crown a secret. I don’t know how much you would have revealed, but we decided to say we only met Paxton the day before, and he was anxious about a man called William Ager. We also mentioned there were other tracks besides Paxton’s when we followed him along the beach. Of course, by that time, everything was washed away.
Long said he saw Paxton far ahead – running and waving his stick, as if signaling to people ahead of him. I couldn’t be sure because of the mist, but someone was there; we also saw tracks from someone running in shoes and someone barefoot. Of course, I only have my word as proof. Long is dead, now, and we had no way to make sketches or take casts before the tide erased them. All we could do was notice them as we hurried on, but they were everywhere, and we knew what we saw was made by a bare foot – one that showed more bones than flesh.
No one had any knowledge of William Ager living in the area. The man at the martello tower freed us from all suspicion, and authorities reached a verdict of wilful murder by some unknown person or persons. Paxton was so totally without connections that all inquiries ended without much fanfare, and I have never been to Seaburgh or even near it, since.