“A School Story” ranks among James’ vaguely-defined puzzlers, and – like so many of his puzzlers, including “Two Doctors” and “An Evening’s Entertainment” – it has had mixed reception. Every now and then, especially as he grew older, James seemed to delight in writing an inscrutable tale that may have laid out all of its cards, or may be holding some back: perhaps we knew all we needed to know, or perhaps the story was hiding a few clues as to its true meaning. These stories almost always involved an indirect haunting that is experienced vicariously, and involve a great deal of tantalizing suggestion without a clear-cut explanation.
It is noteworthy that many of James most beloved stories also involve a good deal of unanswered questions (“Oh, Whistle,” “Canon Alberic,” and “The Ash-Tree” among them), but his real puzzlers pull away from the action just far enough that it becomes virtually dream-like and truly weird. “A School Story” is probably the best of this class, and although it has detractors, its reliance on suggestion and the reader’s own creativity cause it to be something like a silhouette: we see the outline of the basic story, but are forced to fill in the gaps (which can be exciting or tedious depending on your preference).
This particular tale may have a reason for its lack of details: it was originally written to entertain the young choristers of King’s College, and being made for a younger audience may have led to more emphasis on general spookiness (and the drudgery of school which his audience must have identified with) as opposed to the dark details motivating its vengeful ghost. It also appears to have fairly autobiographical inspiration: a variety of commentators have connected the eponymous school with James’ own preparatory school – Temple Grove near Richmond Park in London’s southwestern suburbs – which he began attending in 1873 from the ages of 10 to 13. While he eventually looked back on his friendships and education fondly, he considered the rainy day that he first arrived there to be one of the saddest in his life.
The story is introduced in a framing narrative where two men – graduates of boys’ private schools in England – wax nostalgic about their time at school. Eventually, their conversation turns to the peculiar folklore that all private schools seem to generate and propagate. They concur that most of these stories are adapted versions of popular, magazine fiction. They specifically remember several versions of an urban legend where a brave man accepts a dare to spend the night in a supposedly haunted room, only to be found crouching in the corner, expiring from fear, with the last words: “I’ve seen it,” before writing it off as plagiarized from a fictional treatment of the famous haunted house at 50 Berkeley Square (viz., Rhoda Broughton’s “Nothing But the Truth”).
They go on to recall tales of ghostly footprints, a man found dead in his bed with a hoofprint on his forehead and under his bed, a boy who woke to find a “someone crawling towards him on all fours with its eye hanging out on its cheek,” and a woman who was terrified when – after locking her bedroom door – she heard a thin voice whisper to her: “Now we’re shut in for the night…” The narrator, however – one of the two men – admits that he knows of one such story that was not plagiarized from a magazine thriller: a story from his own boyhood.
Thirty years earlier, while he was attending a boarding school outside of London, he recalls the strange story of his Latin teacher, G. W. Sampson. Sampson was a boisterous, likable fellow, who loved to share stories of his enigmatic and adventurous travels. The narrator specifically remembers how he used to wear a Byzantine coin on his watch chain – one with a portrait of the emperor on one side and the words “G.W.S. 24 July 1865” carved onto the reverse. It was exotic and fascinating, but he never shared the story behind it with his students, leading to much speculation.
One day Sampson has his students work on a lesson where they are to write an original Latin sentence using the verb “memini,” meaning “to remember.” The narrator’s close friend, McLeod, spends a great deal of time pondering his response, only scribbling something at the very last moment. While grading the papers, McLeod’s appears to concern Sampson, who asks to speak with him after class.
When the narrator asks what the problem was, McLeod tells them that he wasn’t able to think of something until the words “Memento putei inter puatuor taxos” (“Remember the well among the four yew trees”) spontaneously formed in his mind, along with a mental image of this place. He didn’t even remember what “taxos” meant in English, only that it was a tree, but by describing them to his friends, they confirm that he must be describing the yew tree – a popular choice for cemeteries. Sampson was troubled by the sentence and had asked McLeod where he got the idea, but dismissed him after asking where his family came from and learning (with some relief) that he was Scottish.
Later, Sampson assigns his students to create a conditional sentence that comes with a future consequence. While grading these, he suddenly makes a gagging sound and rushes out of the room. Curious, the boys examine the papers on his desk: the top one says “Si tu non veneris ad me, ego veniam ad te,” meaning “If you don’t come to me, I’ll come to you.” Naturally, McLeod is suspected, but he affirms that the paper isn’t his, and indeed it is written in a strange red ink which none of them use, and in an odd handwriting. Counting the papers, the boys also note that – although there are sixteen in the class – there are seventeen papers. The narrator keeps the paper, and when Sampson returns, he is relieved to find it missing, presumably hoping that he has imagined it.
Three days go by, and on the third night McLeod wakes the narrator up in a terror: he is sure that someone is trying to break into the school – specifically into Sampson’s quarters, which the boys can see from their window. The two boys are overwhelmed with a strange feeling of foreboding, and go to the casement to investigate, grateful for each other’s company. Looking out of their window they see nothing. The narrator is tempted to berate McLeod, but – noting his own rattled nerves – asks him what made him think Sampson’s room was being invaded:
“We were still at the window looking out, and as soon as I could, I asked him what he had heard or seen. ‘I didn’t hear anything at all,’ he said, ‘but about five minutes before I woke you, I found myself looking out of this window here, and there was a man sitting or kneeling on Sampson’s window-sill, and looking in, and I thought he was beckoning.’ ‘What sort of man?’ McLeod wriggled. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘but I can tell you one thing—he was beastly thin: and he looked as if he was wet all over: and,’ he said, looking round and whispering as if he hardly liked to hear himself, ‘I’m not at all sure that he was alive.’”
The narrator’s story practically ends there, though, because the next morning Sampson was missing and never seen again, without any further sequel or resolution. Indeed, the narrator notes that this is the first time that he has ever shared this story, and that he and McLeod never discussed it again.
But a sort of sequel does come to the reader (one which, James warns, “may perhaps be reckoned highly conventional”): a third man has been eavesdropping on them from across the room, and finds it difficult to forget. Later that year, he is invited to a old manor house in Ireland (not Scotland), where his host remembers his antiquarian tastes. Hoping to show him something curious, he digs through a drawer and hands him a gold coin on a chain, which has a strange story behind it. Apparently, a few years ago, he was having a disused well cleaned out on his property – one nestled in a thicket of yew trees.
Here the visitor nervously asks “is it possible that you found a body?” to which his host replies “We did that: but what’s more, in every sense of the word, we found two.” Two skeletons were discovered in the bottom of the shaft, which seemed to suggest “a bad business,” which troubled the host so deeply that he had the well filled in after all. He recalls how one of the skeletons had its “arms tight round the other,” and how amongst the rags of clothing they found the coin that has just been handed to the visitor. It has a faded inscription which he asks his guest to try to read. Without much effort he makes out the words “G. W. S., 24 July, 1865.”
James reckons his conclusion to be “highly conventional” because, in a sense, it very much is. Several elements from the story have been grafted from two particular stories – classics of the horror genre which are covered, in their own right, in Oldstyle Tales’ anthologies of their respective authors: W. W. Jacobs’ “The Well” and F. Marion Crawford’s “Man Overboard!” James was familiar with both of these stories and specifically praised both men’s work in his 1929 essay “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories.” Both were published within four months of each other (December 1902 – April 1903), and both have distinctly “Jamesian” qualities. Knowing a little about their plots may help to suggest some possibilities for this otherwise inscrutable ending.
Jacobs’ story begins with two grown cousins, Benson and Carr, drinking in Benson’s billiard room. Carr is a swinish rogue with a gambling problem and loads of debt, and he has decided to blackmail Benson – by threatening to reveal his sexual indiscretions to his fiancée, Olive – if he doesn’t pay off his debts. Benson fumes with rage and closes the door. Weeks later – and with no sight or sound from Carr, who has disappeared – he and Olive are strolling through the local park when she chooses to head over to a secluded well hidden among dark pines, which she considers romantic. Benson, however, is miserably uncomfortable by the well, which he considers unhealthy and sinister. They talk sweet-nothings at the edge, but a horrible twist of fate causes Olive’s antique bracelet to be knocked off and down the black mouth.
Benson is terrified by her suggestion that they get help in the morning and have it recovered, and he assures her that he will do it himself. Clearly, Benson wants the well left alone, so later that night, he and two of his servants come to the well with rope and a light, and Benson plunges into the hole to recover it. However, something goes horribly wrong: the servants hear a hideous scream and quickly pull on the rope to recover him, noticing that the weight seems to have doubled. Finally, they hoist him over the edge: “A long pull and a strong pull, and the face of a dead man with mud in the eyes and nostrils came peering over the edge. Behind it was the ghastly face of his master; but this he saw too late.” In terror they accidentally drop the rope, and the two corpses – wrapped in one another’s arms – plunge to the bottom.
Crawford’s story is similar: it involves two brothers in love with the same girl who are sailors on the same ship. One of them mysteriously falls overboard, and the other comes home to marry the girl, uninhibited. However, the threesome is not over: walking home from the wedding, they are observed by some onlookers who see two men on either side of one woman, and one dressed in oilskins (a sailor’s rubber raincoat, trousers, and hat). When the trio arrives at the honeymooner’s cottage door, suddenly they seem to notice one another: the wife shrieks in mortal dread (according to the witness, like a man he once heard “when his arm was taken off by a steam-crane”), and the husband crumples into his brother’s clutches, as the pair march off to the crashing sea, nearby, where they disappear under the black waters.
The narrator notes that the wife went temporarily mad and barely recovered her sanity, and as to the brothers: “Oh, you want to know if they found Jack's body? I don't know whether it was his, but I read in a paper at a Southern port where I was with my new ship that two dead bodies had come ashore in a gale down East, in pretty bad shape. They were locked together, and one was a skeleton in oilskins.”
So back to James’ rendition of this trope. The details are unimportant because he is experimenting with a different type of story: unlike Jacobs or Crawford who focus on the ghost’s direct influence on the subject of the haunting, James’ focus is how witnessing the haunting effects the students who witness it. He leaves the background between Sampson and his visitant realistically unexplained – as though it really was a veridical ghost story and not a literary one.
Genuinely reported ghost stories have loose ends, unanswered questions, and vague impressions, while literary ghost stories are supposed to relay a moral or an artistic statement. James manages to make an artistic statement – that the most authentic frights in life are usually the least explainable – while mimicking the style of the sorts of veridical ghost stories that a boy might expect to hear in a private school.
As far as the implications of the story, a cross-referencing of the two previously referenced stories should provide a general if not specific answer: the victim is likely a person who stood in Sampson’s way, whom he murdered and hid in the Irish well. Sampson was a humble-living bachelor, so competitive love and financially-motivated blackmail are unlikely motives – unlike Jacobs’ and Crawford’s villains – but even a humble-living bachelor can have reasons to kill. His travels add to the air of mystery in his life, and his fanciful stories suggest that he could be a bit more than he seems – a simple tutor.
Whatever the corpse in the well threatened him with – whether as a clingy homosexual lover (as many have suggested), a partner in his scholarship of dark, ancient studies, or as an academic rival – it is clear that Sampson’s past eventually caught up with him Whether he was physically dragged to the well in Ireland by a walking corpse (as in Crawford) or taunted and lured there in a hopes of further overing up a crime which seemed increasingly likely to be exposed (as in Jacobs), Sampson is yet another tormented murderer who ends up inseparably linked to the worst thing that he has ever done – enfolded in a ghoulishly loving embrace with the corpse of his victim.