adapted for stage (c) 2008 Jeannette Jaquish
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M.R. James 1862-1936, in his study.
NARRATOR – Stephen grown up
STEPHEN – age 11
MR. ABNEY – older
PHOEBE – girl ghost
JEVANNY – boy ghost
SCENE 1: STEPHEN ARRIVES
(Scene begins in front of closed curtain. Stage is set for a kitchen, including a table and chairs, fireplace.)
(On STAGE APRON is a portion of Mr. Abney’s study.
Writing desk, chair, and MR. ABNEY’S “book” that he writes in.)
NARRATOR It was, as far as I can ascertain, in September of the year 1811 that a carriage drew up before the door of Aswarby Hall, in the heart of Lincolnshire. The only passenger was a little boy who jumped out as soon as it stopped and looked about him with the keenest curiosity.
(STEPHEN comes running onto apron excitedly looking around. MR. PARKES carries his suitcases, pausing to give instructions to the departing carriage.)
MR. PARKES Here it is, Stephen. Your new home: Aswarby Hall.
NARRATOR He saw a tall, square, red-brick house, built in the reign of Anne; a stone-pillared porch had been added in the purer classical style of 1790; the windows of the house were many, tall and narrow, and the evening light made them glow like so many fires. The clock in the church-tower, buried in trees on the edge of the park was striking six, and the sound came gently beating down the wind. It was altogether a pleasant impression, though tinged with the sort of melancholy appropriate to an evening in early autumn, that was conveyed to the mind of the boy who was waiting for the door to open to him.
MRS BUNCH (ENTERING) Oh is this Stephen? Finally arrived at last? Oh, what a fine boy. But he looks half starved. Did they never feed you at that orphanage?
STEPHEN Yes, ma’am, they did. Are you Mrs. Bunch?
MRS BUNCH Yes, I am. Are these all of his suitcases? You didn’t leave any on the carriage?
(MR PARKES pantomimes confirming the number of suitcases. MRS BUNCH tidies up STEPHEN’s collar, his hair, socks and cuffs.)
NARRATOR The carriage had brought Stephen from Warwickshire, where six months before, he had been left an orphan. Now, owing to the generous offer of his elderly cousin, Mr Abney, he had come to live at Aswarby Hall. The offer was of great surprise to the neighbors, because all who knew anything of Mr Abney looked upon him as a somewhat austere recluse, consumed with his studies of the religious beliefs of the later ancients, and the superstitions of the Romans of the Lower Empire.
(CURTAIN OPENS and they walk in to the Kitchen area.)
NARRATOR Whatever the expectations, Mr Abney seemed inclined to give his young cousin a kindly reception.
MR ABNEY (ENTERING joyfully) Stephen Elliot! My little cousin! Welcome to Aswarby Hall! How are you, my boy! How old are you? That is – you are not too much tired, I hope, by your journey to eat your supper?
STEPHEN No, I am pretty well, thank you Mr. Abney. I enjoyed the ride.
MR ABNEY That’s a good lad! And how old are you?
STEPHEN I’m 12 years old sir on my next –
MR ABNEY (disappointed)Twelve! Oh, but I thought you were but eleven. The letter said –
STEPHEN On my next birthday, sir! I started to say so, sir.
MR ABNEY (happy) Oh, next birthday. Yes! Pardon me. I’m just so happy to finally have you here. Yes! Yes! Eleven yet. Of course, it doesn’t matter what age you are. And when IS your birthday? Hmm?
STEPHEN September 12, sir.
MR ABNEY Oh, that’s well – that’s very well! (writing on a pocket notepad) 12th of September, eh? Nearly a year hence, isn’t it? I like – ha ha – I like to get these things down in my book. Ahah! Born in 1800!
STEPHEN Yes, sir.
MR ABNEY Even better! Hmmm.. Born on the cusp of the new century, 10 days prior to the autumnal equinox. Very portentious date, I imagine.
STEPHEN Is it, sir?
MRS BUNCH So nice to have a young lad in the house again. See there is the pump. (points offstage) Go wash your hands, dry ‘em with the towel hanging there, and come right back. (starts doling out food, setting table)
(to Parkes who is getting out a bowl to serve himself)
Wasn’t Mr. Abney a giddy sort to meet his young cousin? Never seen him so.
MR. PARKES I’ve been wondering how a man so wrapped up in his books would take to a lively youngster. Seems quite a disruption to his steady way of life. Likely be a big change for us all.
MRS BUNCH Mr. Parkes! Please take away Master Stephen’s luggage as Mr Abney told you to do, before I trip on it and break my neck.
STEPHEN (Entering) I washed my hands, arms and face!
MRS BUNCH And took a stab at laundering your shirt as well, I see. Well, have a seat and see if you have a bit of appetite for a hot bowl of stew.
STEPHEN Thank you! May I say grace first?
MRS BUNCH Why of course, Master Stephen. What a dear child.
STEPHEN (prays silently for 10 seconds, then a loud:) Amen! (eats hungrily)
(Mrs. Bunch looks at him fondly, pours herself a cup of tea and sits near him)
MRS BUNCH That was a long prayer for a hungry boy.
STEPHEN I said thanks for you, and Mr. Abney, and Mr. Parkes and the horse that pulled the carriage, and that I’m not at the orphanage anymore, and for the bowl of stew..... But not in that order.
MRS BUNCH What a devout young lad you are. Your parents lookin’ down from Heaven must be very proud of you.
STEPHEN I hope they are, Mrs. Bunch. I miss ‘em terrible. Looking at you makes me think of my mother. She had a pretty smile and her stew was real good like yours. But she was younger.
MR. PARKES (entering) I do? What terrible crimes is Mrs Bunch accusing me of now?
STEPHEN That you like to play checkers!
MR. PARKES Guilty! When I have time that is, what with all the work required of me taking care of the grounds.
(MRS BUNCH smothers a laugh)
STEPHEN Mrs Bunch! I don’t have anything to sleep in. At the orphanage we slept in.... (whisper) our knickers.
MRS BUNCH (laughing) Never fear, young Stephen. In your bedroom are new clothes including a soft cotton nightshirt. I’ll show you where it all is.
STEPHEN New! Oh, Mrs Bunch. I’m going to say thanks for each and every one of them in my prayer tonight. (THEY EXIT)
SCENE 2: OLD YOUNG GHOSTS
(Kitchen again – a few weeks later. A few drawings and childish touches have been added.
MR PARKES is drying a clean metal paint bucket as MRS BUNCH ENTERS and goes to stir a pot that is cooking.)
MRS BUNCH What are you doing?
MR. PARKES Oh.... Stephen asked me if I had an old bucket he could use to build an “invention”.
MRS BUNCH So you washed out an old paint bucket.
MR. PARKES Yeah. Took some scraping.
MRS BUNCH That might be a theory, Master Stephen. Do you know what a “theory” is?
STEPHEN Yes, ma’am. But Mr. Abney said the man, the naturalist was wrong, well, a little bit wrong. Mr. Abney said it IS possible for a person to change his brain and change his body, more than just what he inherits from his parents.
MRS BUNCH That’s a curious way to put it. A person can certainly have a change of heart or improve his mind...
STEPHEN He didn’t mean that, Mrs Bunch. He meant... it’s hard to say.. he meant REALLY change ... his powers. Mr. Abney said it’s in some old religions.
MRS BUNCH Oh, he was just telling you about dusty old pagan religions. Goodness! I should think he’d be teaching you about modern science. About machinery and chemistry and electricity: things a boy is interested in and can put to good use. Wish I could do it for him.
STEPHEN Mrs. Bunch?
MRS BUNCH Yes, Stephen?
STEPHEN Is Mr. Abney a good man, and will he go to heaven?
MRS BUNCH Good?? Bless the child! Master’s as kind a soul as ever I see! Didn't I never tell you of the little boy as he took in out of the street, as you may say, this seven years back? and the little girl, two years after I first come here? Let’s see, I’ve been here 20 years so that would be....
STEPHEN 18 years ago!
MRS BUNCH Goodness! Glad I’m not the one tutoring you in arithmetic. I could never keep up.
STEPHEN Do tell me all about them, Mrs Bunch--now, this minute!
MRS BUNCH Well, the little girl I don't seem to recollect so much about. I know Master brought her back with him from his walk one day,
Master was terrible worried, and had all the ponds dragged; but it's my belief she was had away by them gypsies, for there was strange singing a distance from the house for as much as an hour the night she went, and Parkes, he declare as he heard them a-calling in the woods all that afternoon. Dear, dear! a hodd child she was, so silent in her ways and all, but I was wonderful taken up with her. The whole staff loved her. We were hurt to think she would up and leave us, and it were so strange, for she left all the clothes and the doll that the other servants and I sewed for her.
STEPHEN And what about the little boy?
MRS BUNCH Ah, that poor boy! He were a foreigner--Jevanny he called hisself--and he come playing his fiddle
(The original story reads: “a-tweaking his 'urdy-gurdy”)
round and about the drive one winter day, and Master 'ad him in that minute, and asked all about where he came from, and how old he was, and how he made his way, and where was his relatives, and all as kind as heart could wish. But it went the same way with him. They're a hunruly lot, them foreign nations, I do suppose, and he was off one fine morning just the same as the girl. Why he went and what he done was our question for as much as a year after; for he never took his fiddle ( 'urdy-gurdy), and there it lays on the shelf.
STEPHEN Oh, may I try to play it, Mrs Bunch? Would you get it down for me please?
MRS BUNCH Oh, no harm in it I suppose. Maybe you can learn it and play us a tune. Here, I’m sure it needs tuning – I’ll do me best.
STEPHEN Oh! It’s beautiful. Is this the bow? (waves it dangerously) Why would he forget it?
MRS BUNCH We never could figure it out. He had to walk right past it to go out the door. He did take his clothes, unlike the little girl. But he did forget his new shoes – left ‘em under the bed, and instead wore his old ones though he had told me they pinched. (presenting the violin)
(STEPHEN's first try at the violin is excruciating.)
MRS BUNCH Oh, well that will get better, I’m sure.
MR. PARKES (entering to pour himself a cup of something) Can’t get no worse.
STEPHEN I’m going to practice so I can play it for you, just like Jevanny!
MRS BUNCH You do that, my dear. Practice bowing straight on just one string. And now I must clear away these dishes.
(STEPHEN begins his torturous practice. MR PARKES rises to escape.)
MR. PARKES And I’ll just go finish my work, maybe pry some long nails or pull out me own tooth.
MRS BUNCH No you won’t! You sit here and finish your stew and enjoy Master Stephen’s playing.
MRS BUNCH Eeeek! My goodness, Stephen. What are you building?
STEPHEN A catapult (or fort or whatever) ! Do I have to go to bed?
MRS BUNCH Yes you do, young man. Did you wash up?
STEPHEN Yes ma’am. Please don’t make me take it apart? It still needs more testing to make it work right.
MRS BUNCH You can leave it up until Saturday night.
MRS BUNCH Now into bed with you. (She straightens the blankets as STEPHEN kneels, prays silently and climbs into bed . ) Are you happy here, Stephen?
STEPHEN Yes, Mrs. Bunch. I’m never going to leave. Well, maybe when I’m grown up!
MRS BUNCH (kissing his head) That’s wonderful. Aswarby Hall is a sunnier place with you here. Sweet dreams. (Exits taking lamp.)
(LIGHTS DIM )
(After 10 seconds, the doorknob rattles. STEPHEN sits up, a little scared.)
STEPHEN Who is it?
(MRS BUNCH opens the door.)
MRS BUNCH Stephen. I’m sorry to disturb you. This old doorknob is hard to work. But I’ve been lookin’ all over and I can’t find ‘em. Did you put my good scissors someplace?
STEPHEN Mrs Bunch?
(Another sound. STEPHEN is scared.)
STEPHEN Who is it?
(Stephen’s bedspread suddenly flies off his bed (attached by fishline thru pulleys in the ceiling.) it is pulled up then flutters down over his creation. (Concealed under it, PHOEBE stands from inside the laundry basket and steps out to her position, slightly moving the blanket. If the blanket doesn’t land on her, she stands up anyway and Stephen will not go get it.))
(STEPHEN screams, then after a long pause, terrified he leaves the bed, slowly approaches and pulls the bedspread off, sees the girl, screams again and runs to his bed and pulls the covers over his head, slowly he peeks out. He stares at her for a long time
She is inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, which is slipping off her -- underneath she wore a nightgown, her thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.
He is terrified, but then relaxes and in a moment, as if by a spell, he is overcome with sleepiness and falls over onto the bed asleep. PHOEBE walks to his side and kisses his head or looks at him and EXITS, but not through the door.
Mrs Bunch ENTERS in response to the scream. Finds Stephen sleeping, and with confusion picks up a blanket from the basket, but not the one with the fish line, and puts it on him. EXITS)
(On Apron: MR ABNEY ENTERS glancing attentively about for more supernatural disturbances, sits at his desk begins to write into his “book”:)
MR ABNEY (writing) Some annoyance may be experienced from the psychic portion of the subjects, which popular language dignifies with the name of ghosts. But the man of philosophic temperament--to whom alone the experiment is appropriate--will be little prone to attach importance to the feeble efforts of these beings to wreak their vengeance on him.
I contemplate with the liveliest satisfaction the enlarged and emancipated existence which the experiment, if successful, will confer on me; not only placing me beyond the reach of human justice (so-called), but eliminating to a great extent the prospect of death itself.
VIOLIN PLAYING from a distance, played skillfully now, playing a song that Jevanny would have played.
MR ABNEY jumps up in a controlled panic and EXITS. The music continues until it suddenly screeches to a stop. MR ABNEYS ENTERS stuffing the violin into the case. JEVANNY follows stopping half the stage length away and reaches out to psychically pull the bow. They struggle, the bow and ghost’s hands matching movement.)
MR ABNEY (a threat) I’ll burn it.
MR ABNEY I didn’t sleep well. I came down to the kitchen last night for a glass of milk and found on the table, the violin of that little beggar boy that we took in years ago...
MRS BUNCH (amazed) It was YOU playin’ it last night???? I heard it and thought, “Who could be up and playin that very song” and I come to the kitchen and saw it was gone, and couldn’t make sense of it - everyone in bed – I had just checked on Stephen.
MR ABNEY (wistfully) Yes. I saw it there and was moved to pick it up and I found myself playing that very tune he used to play for the kitchen staff. The notes just flowed from the violin – I hardly had a hand in it. And my heart just broke wishing I knew where he went and what happened to him. I took the violin and put it away. If you don’t mind, Mrs. Bunch, I just can’t bear to hear it played in the house.
MRS BUNCH Oh, Mr Abney! I had no idea you still nursed a tender feeling for the boy. Of course we can put the thing away. Stephen won’t mind. He has so much to occupy himself.
STEPHEN (skipping in) Good morning, Mrs. Bunch! (stops suddenly – happy) Oh, Mr Abney! Are you here for breakfast?
MR ABNEY I am, Stephen. I heard a rumor that Mrs Bunch has been serving you cinnamon rolls while she serves me cold porridge and fish bones.
MRS BUNCH Oh! I never!
STEPHEN (laughing) Fish bones! Mrs. Bunch! Shame on you.
STEPHEN I had a dream my blanket flew off and landed on my catapult. And when I pulled it off there was a girl under it.
MR ABNEY (startles, then calmly, curiously) What girl?
STEPHEN She had big eyes. She was pale and dusty and stared at me and stood there and that’s all I remember.
MR ABNEY Nightmares are typical manifestations of the fears of childhood. Nothing to worry about. Dreams like that are to be expected. The spring equinox is approaching.
STEPHEN And this one is about mechanics. See these drawings of gears -- a little one can turn a big one – isn’t that funny?
MRS BUNCH Gracious me, Master Stephen! How do you manage to tear your nightshirt all to flinders this way? Look here, sir, what trouble you do give to poor servants that have to darn and mend after you!
(STEPHEN & MR PARKES come to look.)
MR PARKES Look at those cuts. It’ll take a skillful needle to make that good. How did you do that, Stephen? Playing with your pocketknife?
STEPHEN No, sir. I don’t know how they came to be. I’m sure they weren’t there last night when I put it on.
MR PARKES (picking it up to look closer) Some of them don’t even go all the way through. Very strange.
(The slits were confined to the left side of the chest-- long, parallel slits about six inches in length, some of them not quite piercing the texture of the linen. )
STEPHEN (looking closer) But Mrs Bunch, they are just the same as the scratches on the outside of my bedroom door: and I'm sure I never had anything to do with making them.
(Mrs Bunch gazed at him open-mouthed, then snatched up a candle, EXITS hastily from the room, and was heard making her way upstairs.)
MR PARKES I’ll go with him and stay until you get there.
(MRS BUNCH looks up surprised and they exchange a serious glance that communicates that Stephen might be in danger.)
MRS BUNCH (with pretended light heartedness) Thank you Mr. Parkes. Now don’t let him jump on the bed. Nor you either.
MR PARKES Yes ma’am.
STEPHEN Jump on the bed???
(STEPHEN & MR PARKES EXIT. MRS BUNCH looks at the scratches.
STEPHEN & MR PARKES ENTER the STAGE APRON walking across.)
MR PARKES You never heard, eh? I was a champion bed jumper in my day. Won three trophies.
STEPHEN I don’t believe you!
MR PARKES I got top score with the triple flip belly flop.
STEPHEN I’m going to try that! (runs ahead EXITS)
MR PARKES No no no no... Stephen! Wait for me.
STEPHEN The day feels strange too. I stood by the gate and watched the wind blowing the trees and it seemed the wind was made of ghosts, lost, trying to find their way home. And the wind sounded like sad, hungry voices, calling.
(Lights dim to spot on Stephen.
VOICES – sad and hungry moaning, for just a moment, then
BACK TO NORMAL.)
MRS BUNCH (looking up concerned) Was Mr. Parkes with you?
STEPHEN Yes, he was tilling the garden. Look, Mrs Bunch. The full moon is coming up over the trees. Don’t the branches look like skeleton hands trying to grab the leaves back?
MRS BUNCH (she comes to look for a quiet moment together, then:) Well, if your clothes blew off, wouldn’t you try to grab them back?
STEPHEN (laughing) Mrs Bunch!
MR ABNEY Yes, but we have to do the switch early tomorrow morning. So, are you good at keeping a secret.
STEPHEN Yes sir!
MR ABNEY I want you to go to bed at the usual hour, but don’t go to sleep. After Mrs Bunch tucks you in, sneak out and get your suitcases from the closet and pack up all your things, so we can move you out quickly in the morning.
STEPHEN What about the bed?
MR ABNEY Mr. Parkes will take care of that in the morning.
STEPHEN I wish I had a present to give her.
MR ABNEY Here is what you do: Take a sheet of paper and write her a thank-you note for all that she does for you. Just write it on the top half of the paper because I want to add my own thank-you note below it. Then sign your name down at the bottom and I’ll sign my name next to yours.
STEPHEN Mr. Abney said that spirits would be wandering today, and that if I met any, they could not harm me or even touch me and I should just walk on by.
(Terrified, STEPHEN bravely walks toward and between them.
The GHOSTS turn to watch him pass.
STEPHEN EXITS. THE GHOSTS follow.)
MR ABNEY (walking him back to fireplace) Oh, we’ll fix it later. Now, have a seat, Stephen. Tell me about these spirits you encountered. Did you see them?
STEPHEN (stands) It was the girl I saw in my dream. She was still standing like this (arms crossed over heart) and a boy, very skinny; his hands were up like this. And ... he had a hole here, over his heart. He scared me.
MR ABNEY Ah, sad lost souls. They’ll wander on and find a resting place somewhere else, I expect.
STEPHEN How do you suppose they died? How did the boy get the hole in his heart?
MR ABNEY No idea.
STEPHEN Aren’t you going to tell me to not tell Mrs. Bunch?
MR ABNEY (soft chuckle) I’ll leave that up to you. Stephen. I want to tell you that I have thoroughly enjoyed your stay here. You have been a bright, cheerful, engaging companion --
STEPHEN Are you sending me away???
STEPHEN To you Mr. Abney! May you live forever!
(MR ABNEY bursts out laughing.
They click glasses and drink.
Mr. Abney now watches Stephen closely with an observant look.)
STEPHEN What’s so funny, Mr. Abney? ( pause) Sir?
(Mr. Abney does not answer but continues to look. Stephen is puzzled by his lack of answer and then the sedative takes effect. His face slackens and his knees buckle. Mr. Abney reaches forward and smoothly plucks the glass from Stephen’s hand before it spills. STEPHEN crumples to the floor. MR ABNEY carries the glasses to the fireplace and pours the contents of Stephen’s glass onto the fire. He now turns to look at Stephen, and drinks the rest of his. He sets the glass down and goes and lifts Stephen to a large stuffed chair that faces the audience downstage on the opposite side of the stage from his desk.)
MR ABNEY There. Much more dignified than lying on the floor.
(Now, to work. MR ABNEY pulls out a table to center, tosses out a cloth, and lots of newspaper on top of it (to soak up blood). From somewhere he brings knives. He speaks as he works.)
MR ABNEY I get no pleasure from this bloody business and I’m glad this is the third and last time I must complete this process. You will feel no pain, Stephen. I am not a cruel man; I’ve treated you well, better than your life at that orphanage would have been, and now you can pay me back, as well as having the prestige of contributing the final “corpora vilia” of my 20 year project.
The child ghosts manage to save Stephen from Mr. Abney's knife.
MR PARKES (offstage voice) Gretchen! Don’t go in there! Mr. Abney’s been murdered! Send Dalton for the doctor and Jenner for the constable. Waken all the servants and bring ‘em here. (He returns immediately)
How is he?
MRS BUNCH He won’t wake up. Oh, Mr. Parkes, search the room – make sure the killer ain’t hiding nearby.
MRS BUNCH What is it? What did you find?
MR PARKES (carries the manuscript to Mr. Bunch) Mr. Abney’s manuscript. He.. he.. wrote: “I have devoted the greater part of the last twenty years to this experiment, selecting such persons as could conveniently be removed... removed without occasioning a noticeable gap in society.
The first step I effected by the removal of one ..
MRS BUNCH & MR PARKES Phoebe Stanley, (they look at each other)
MRS BUNCH ...a girl of gypsy extraction, on March 21, 1792. The second, by the removal of a wandering Italian lad, named Giovanni Paoli, on the night of March 23, 1805. (begins to sob) Jevanny......Phoebe...
MR PARKES The final "victim"--to employ a word repugnant in the highest degree to my feelings--must be my cousin, Stephen Elliott. His day must be this March 24, 1812. Ah, he is at my door.
NARRATOR As his only relative, I, Stephen Elliot, inherited Aswarby Hall, where I live now.
From details in Mr. Abney’s manuscript, the bodies of Jevanny and Phoebe were found and given a proper burial. The last time I saw them was the moment I woke up in Mrs Bunch’s arms.
(JEVANNY & PHOEBE touch STEPHEN’s face. His eyes open and they smile at each other.)
MRS BUNCH Stephen’s awake! Look Mr. Parkes!
(JEVANNY & PHOEBE walk off, pausing at the door to look back, Stephen weakly gestures to them. They EXIT.)
To see a PERUSAL SCRIPT, please contact Jeannette Jaquish
at (260) 484-5946, between 7am and 10pm, Eastern Standard Time, USA,
or at http://www.theaterfunscripts.com/details.html.