James-A-Day: A Neighbour's Landmark

Paul Lowe's illustration for "A Neighbour's Landmark"
"Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour's landmark."  That's Deuteronomy 27:17, and it's a curse that comes true in today's story.

Our narrator is a lucky fellow who has taken on the pleasant job of sorting through and cataloging a friend's library: "...generations back, two country-house libraries had been fused together, and no descendant of either stock had ever faced the task of picking them over..."  So he's staying in a pleasant country manor and  he's all set.  (Perhaps not everyone thinks this is such a great job, but I am a librarian, after all.)

He comes upon an interesting bit of local folklore that is almost entirely forgotten: an old country song that says
That which walks in Betton Wood 
Knows [not] why it walks or why it cries.
Some detective work will uncover the story--but before we find out about that, the narrator actually experiences the cry of the thing that walks in Betton Wood:
There thrilled into my right ear and pierced my head a note of incredible sharpness, like the shriek of a bat, only ten times intensified — the kind of thing that makes one wonder if something has not given way in one’s brain....I thought no longer of kind mellow evening hours of rest, and scents of flowers and woods on evening air...but instead images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower, and forgotten graves and their ugly contents below, and of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life. 
 Betton Wood is gone, but the mindless creature remains.  It can't rest until the injustice of removing a neighbor's landmark is rectified, but that is an impossible task.  The victims are nameless and forgotten, and if there are any descendants they are unknowable.  The wood itself is gone, and the legal dispute is nearly forgotten except in old records no one reads.  "...and so we take it she can't leave Betton before someone take and put it right again."

This tale is based on a real court case, that of Theodosia Bryan, Lady Ivie, in the late 1600s.  MRJ enjoyed reading old court cases very much, especially those of the second half of the 17th century--and as we know from "Martin's Close," most especially the cases in which Judge Jeffreys took part.  "Things are never dull when he is at the bar or on the bench," commented James.

I really like the opening sentences, which describes all of us who are readers:
Those who spend the greater part of their time in reading or writing books are, of course, apt to take rather particular notice of accumulations of books when they come across them. They will not pass a stall, a shop, or even a bedroom-shelf without reading some title, and if they find themselves in an unfamiliar library, no host need trouble himself further about their entertainment. The putting of dispersed sets of volumes together, or the turning right way up of those which the dusting housemaid has left in an apoplectic condition, appeals to them as one of the lesser Works of Mercy.


  1. I liked this one. (I like almost all of them.) That piercing shriek is really weird and very effective. It would get my attention for sure. I like the way he works in titles of old books of the kind he was always turning up in the libraries he cataloged. But it makes me think that it would be a great disappointment to a romantic reader going into a large private library (picture Belle in Beauty and the Beast) to find that the shelves were full of collections of sermons, parliamentary reports, and political pamphlets.

  2. This is very true. Books that old are incredibly boring books about 85% of the time. Imagine the shelves weighed down with sermons and tracts!


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