The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, written by M.R. James in 1904, is a tale in which his usual type of protagonist, an antiquary scholar, discovers and solves a series of puzzles that lead him to find a horde of gold concealed by a wicked Reformation-era Abbot. But this treasure still has a guardian protecting it.
The plot is similar to A Warning to the Curious, but the mystery to be solved is more complicated and interesting, and the creature who guards the gold more horrible than the angry ghost that protects the buried Anglo-Saxon crown.
In 1974, the BBC presented its Ghost Story for Christmas based on The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. Aside from the central mystery leading to the treasure, there’s very little of James’s original tale. I like it, but it’s barely the same story.
The BBC’s Treasure of Abbot Thomas begins with a seance–and you know how I enjoy those. The year is 1859. A man with abundant side-whiskers and three ladies in black crinolines and lacy headgear are seated around a table in dim light, attempting to contact the spirit world but having some problem getting through. The man at last announces that his wife, the medium, is unable to reach the spirits due to a “presence hostile to manifestations.”
A moment later, we meet this hostile presence–a young man (a boy, really; he doesn’t look to be more than 20) who obviously thinks that the whole thing is rubbish. This is Peter, Lord Dattering (Paul Lavers). He’s just come into the title following his father’s death. His mother, Lady Dattering, is having a hard time accepting the loss of her husband and Peter believes that these spiritualists are charlatans taking advantage of her grief.
None of these people are in James’s story. At most, there are one or two passing references to a Lord D who owns a chapel. The three characters in James’s story are the antiquarian Reverend Justin Somerton, his comic Cockney manservant, and another clergyman, Mr. Gregory, who comes to Somerton’s aid and hears the story he has to tell about finding the treasure; only Somerton appears in the television version.
Lord Dattering consults Somerton (Michael Bryant), who is his tutor at Oxford and currently doing some research at nearby Wells Cathedral.
The cathedral in this story is adjacent to an active monastery, so there are a number of men in black hooded robes wandering around in the background as Peter and Somerton meet to discuss the younger man’s problem. Peter invites Somerton to attend his mother’s next seance to see the spiritualists’ tricks for himself. He hopes that his mother will listen to the opinion of a respectable clergyman with a rationalist mind.
Since Somerton delights in “the higher forms of silliness” and in detecting fraud, he agrees to help, but first he takes Peter to the cathedral library to show him what he’s working on. It’s a long passage in Latin (James’s story begins with this text). Peter, a proficient scholar himself, has no trouble translating it for us.
The gist of it is that in the early 1500s, there was gossip among the church canons about a large quantity of gold concealed somewhere within the monastery by its abbot. When asked where it was, the Abbot Thomas replied that “Bartholomew, Jude, Simon, and Matthias will tell either you or your successors.”
“You’re treasure hunting!” the young man exclaims.
Somerton dismisses this idea; his interest, he says, is purely historical. If there ever was a treasure hidden in the abbey, it must have been discovered long ago. He doubts there was ever any real gold, since Abbot Thomas was a famed alchemist who was reputed to dabble in magic and who only escaped burning at the stake by being carried off by the devil. He disappeared rather suddenly from his monastery. A thorough fake and scoundrel, Somerton is sure, like the spiritualists preying on Lady Dattering. The supposed gold was more likely to be base metal.
By the way, a black-robed monk is seated in the next bay of the library, perhaps listening to their conversation. In every scene set in the cathedral, library, or cloister, at least one hooded figure in black can be seen.
It isn’t until after Somerton accompanies him home to expose the spiritualists as frauds during the second seance and sends them packing that Peter realizes Bartholomew, Jude, etc. refers to four stained glass windows in a small church that’s currently on his property, but used to be part of the abbey’s lands. When the two men go to have a look, they observe that each of the figures holds a scroll bearing more text in Latin, some slightly altered from scripture.
- He looks down from on high to see what is hidden.
- They have on their raiment a writing which no man knoweth.
- Upon one stone are seven eyes.
- There is a place for gold where it is hidden.
Somerton’s and Peter’s investigation begins in earnest. They quickly fall into a Holmes & Watson dynamic, although the young Watson sometimes seems the brighter of the pair.
For example, while Somerton sketches copies of the images in the windows, Peter uses the new, high-tech process of photography to take pictures of them.
His camera is a large wooden box and he has to manually remove the lens cover to expose the photographic plate for 30 seconds. While he’s taking the second photo, something dark–a bird?–passes by outside the window.
When the plates are developed, a flaw shows up on one: A black splodge that resembles a face looking through the glass. Peter declares that it reminds him of one of the gargoyles on the cathedral.
So up they go–the young man scrambling over the roof while the older man has an attack of vertigo. Some dark thing flies at Somerton’s face… but there are crows whirling around.
James set his story in the ruins of a German abbey, and Abbot Thomas’s treasure was hidden in a well with stairs winding down around the inside; Somerton had to walk down a certain number of steps to find the stone with the seven eyes. The abbey really existed, but this well never did and a set was probably beyond the television show’s budget. Nor could they afford to film in Germany. The move to Wells Cathedral makes up for it by using the history and topography of that location instead.
In James’s story, there are only three stained glass windows of Job, John, and Zechariah. I don’t know why the names of the Biblical personages were changed. The text on their scrolls is the same as three on the list above; the first one is added to provide a new clue that makes use of a feature in the grounds at Wells.
If you go up on the cathedral roof, as Lord Dattering does, stand behind one sculpture that looks like a robed monk with a leper’s face, and look down in the same direction the sculpture does into the cloister, you’ll see a culvert that leads to a closed iron gate. Beyond this gate is a long, brick-lined early Tudor drainage tunnel.
On to the next clue: “They have on their raiment a writing which no man knoweth.” While examining the photographs, Somerton notices that the figures in the stained glass all have remarkably broad and opaque black bands on their robes. They go back to the little church, where Peter scrapes a little bit of this black paint off one window to reveal golden lettering hidden beneath. When it’s all scraped off, they find strings of apparently random letters. A code!
A montage shows the two men’s attempts to decipher the message. They finally work it out when Somerton observes that Bartholomew is holding up one finger, Jude two fingers, and Simon three. This gives them the key they need to skip 1, 2, 3 letters in the string and reveal more sentences in Latin. The message when completed tells them that two thousand pieces of gold have been placed 76 steps down the tunnel, behind the stone with seven eyes by Abbot Thomas, who has set a guardian over them.
The last piece of the coded message isn’t in Latin, but in French: Gare à qui la touche. This was the Abbot’s personal motto, but it means “Beware whoever touches it.”
Never mind the alterations in the plot and setting, the additional new characters, the ominous atmosphere created by the flocks of crows and ever-present monks. What I like about the story in either form is that, at its heart, it remains a mystery to be solved. Clues implanted in stained glass windows–How cool is that? The puzzle itself is an abstruse one. Most of it’s in Latin, which James and his scholarly characters were readily familiar with, but there’s always a translation at hand and they don’t hamper the fun.
Up to this point, it has been mostly fun. Peter enjoys the treasure hunt as an adventure. Somerton continues to insist that his own interest is purely scholarly, but our doubts about this (and Peter’s too) increase once we learn exactly how much money is involved. Can we still believe his claims that the gold isn’t real?
That night, after Peter goes home, Somerton heads for the culvert with a canvas satchel and a chisel. He smashes the lock to open the gate and goes into the dark tunnel, wading through ankle-deep water as he carefully counts out the requisite number of steps to find the stone with seven eyes carved into it.
I keep a paperback anthology of M.R. James’s ghost stories, including this one, under my pillow, but there are some pieces I wouldn’t dream of reading at a late hour of the night.
This is Somerton’s account of what he finds behind the stone:
“I felt to the right, and my fingers touched something curved, that felt—yes—more or less like leather; dampish it was, and evidently part of a heavy, full thing. There was nothing, I must say, to alarm one. I grew bolder, and putting both hands in as well as I could, I pulled it to me, and it came. It was heavy, but moved more easily than I had expected. As I … went on pulling out the great bag, in complete darkness. It hung for an instant on the edge of the hole, then slipped forward on to my chest, and put its arms round my neck.
“…I believe I am now acquainted with the extremity of terror and repulsion which a man can endure without losing his mind. I can only just manage to tell you now the bare outline of the experience. I was conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and moving slowly over it, and of several—I don’t know how many—legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body.”
Yeah, that’ll put anybody right to sleep.
So when I first saw this television version of the story and Somerton found the stone in the tunnel wall, I watched with intense interest and a little frisson of anticipation, wondering if the show would be able to create this creature effectively. Would I be in for a good scare, or a big disappointment?
As Somerton chips away at the mortar holding the stone, we go outside the culvert into the empty, darkened cloister where only the stone gargoyles are looking down. But someone is whispering, and a camera point-of-view creeps toward the ajar iron gate.
We see a man’s face with wild eyes–definitely not Somerton’s–reflected upside-down in the dark water.
Somerton pulls the stone away and reaches into the gap behind it. He starts to draw out a bag, and a deluge of oily black sludge comes with it. It’s more goopy than scary. At best, there is a brief impression of long, black fingers like twigs dipped in oil crossing his cheek as he screams, and the other man at the tunnel’s entrance laughs maniacally before running away.
Somerton flees too, out of the tunnel and back to his room. But that oily black goop comes bubbling up under his door.
Later, Peter is talking to Somerton’s landlady, who says that he hasn’t been out of his room in two days; she thinks he’s barricaded himself in. She’s also has to clean up “slime, like a snail’s” on the doorstep, stairs, and floors twice, which she’s certain has been produced by some chemical Somerton’s been experimenting with.
Peter taps on the door and Somerton moves the furniture he’s pushed up against it to let the boy in so he can tell him what happened. The slime comes up to his door, he says, but doesn’t come in. He’s been sitting up all night, unable to rest since he returned from the tunnel.
“And the treasure?” asks Peter, eying the satchel on the table.
Somerton says that it contains coins of base metal–iron, lead, bronze. No gold. He was right in the first place. His nerves have been shattered by the experience and he begs Peter to return the bag to the gap and put the stone back in place now that it’s daylight. He doesn’t dare to go back into the tunnel himself.
When I first saw this, I thought that the coins in the bag looked like gold to Peter and he was too tempted by their glitter to put it back. But he does go into the tunnel and those stone gargoyles look down on him while he’s inside. There’s no sign that Abbot Thomas or the sludge monster pursue him afterwards. So I guess he’s honest after all.
The story ends at Dattering Hall, where Somerton is recovering from his ordeal in a Bath chair (that’s an old-fashioned sort of wheelchair used by Victorian invalids).
When they see a black-caped figure heading up the avenue, Lady Dattering takes it for the doctor and she and her son leave their guest alone on the terrace. But is it the doctor or Abbot Thomas coming to get Somerton?
Like Lost Hearts, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas includes an interview with the director about the making of this episode. He agrees with me that the slime monster is something of a disappointment, but it was the best he could do under the circumstances.