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Title: Canon Alberic's Scrap-book (1894)
Author: M. R. James (1862-1936)
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Language: English
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Title: Canon Alberic's Scrap-book (1894)
Author: M. R. James (1862-1936)

* * * * *

St. Bertrand de Comminges is a decayed town on the spurs of
the Pyrenees, not very far from Toulouse, and still nearer
to Bagnères-de-Luchon. It was the site of a bishopric until
the Revolution, and has a cathedral which is visited by a
certain number of tourists. In the spring of 1883 an
Englishman arrived at this old-world place--I can hardly
dignify it with the name of city, for there are not a
thousand inhabitants. He was a Cambridge man, who had come
specially from Toulouse to see St. Bertrand's Church, and
had left two friends, who were less keen archæologists than
himself, in their hotel at Toulouse, under promise to join
him on the following morning. Half an hour at the church
would satisfy _them_, and all three could then pursue their
journey in the direction of Auch. But our Englishman had
come early on the day in question, and proposed to himself
to fill a notebook and to use several dozens of plates in
the process of describing and photographing every corner of
the wonderful church that dominates the little hill of
Comminges. In order to carry out this design satisfactorily,
it was necessary to monopolize the verger of the church for
the day. The verger or sacristan (I prefer the latter
appellation, inaccurate as it may be) was accordingly sent
for by the somewhat brusque lady who keeps the inn of the
Chapeau Rouge; and when he came, the Englishman found him an
unexpectedly interesting object of study. It was not in the
personal appearance of the little, dry, wizened old man that
the interest lay, for he was precisely like dozens of other
church-guardians in France, but in a curious furtive, or
rather hunted and oppressed, air which he had. He was
perpetually half glancing behind him; the muscles of his
back and shoulders seemed to be hunched in a continual
nervous contraction, as if he were expecting every moment to
find himself in the clutch of an enemy. The Englishman
hardly knew whether to put him down as a man haunted by a
fixed delusion, or as one oppressed by a guilty conscience,
or as an unbearably henpecked husband. The probabilities,
when reckoned up, certainly pointed to the last idea; but,
still, the impression conveyed was that of a more formidable
persecutor even than a termagant wife.

However, the Englishman (let us call him Dennistoun) was
soon too deep in his notebook and too busy with his camera
to give more than an occasional glance to the sacristan.
Whenever he did look at him, he found him at no great
distance, either huddling himself back against the wall or
crouching in one of the gorgeous stalls. Dennistoun became
rather fidgety after a time. Mingled suspicions that he was
keeping the old man from his _déjeuner_, that he was
regarded as likely to make away with St. Bertrand's ivory
crozier, or with the dusty stuffed crocodile that hangs over
the font, began to torment him.

"Won't you go home?" he said at last; "I'm quite well able
to finish my notes alone; you can lock me in if you like. I
shall want at least two hours more here, and it must be cold
for you, isn't it?"

"Good heavens!" said the little man, whom the suggestion
seemed to throw into a state of unaccountable terror, "such
a thing cannot be thought of for a moment. Leave monsieur
alone in the church? No, no; two hours, three hours, all
will be the same to me. I have breakfasted, I am not at all
cold, with many thanks to monsieur."

"Very well, my little man," quoth Dennistoun to himself:
"you have been warned, and you must take the consequences."

Before the expiration of the two hours, the stalls, the
enormous dilapidated organ, the choir-screen of Bishop John
de Mauléon, the remnants of glass and tapestry, and the
objects in the treasure-chamber, had been well and truly
examined; the sacristan still keeping at Dennistoun's heels,
and every now and then whipping round as if he had been
stung, when one or other of the strange noises that trouble
a large empty building fell on his ear. Curious noises they
were sometimes.

"Once," Dennistoun said to me, "I could have sworn I heard a
thin metallic voice laughing high up in the tower. I darted
an inquiring glance at my sacristan. He was white to the
lips. ' It is he--that is--it is no one; the door is
locked,' was all he said, and we looked at each other for a
full minute."

Another little incident puzzled Dennistoun a good deal. He
was examining a large dark picture that hangs behind the
altar, one of a series illustrating the miracles of St.
Bertrand. The composition of the picture is wellnigh
indecipherable, but there is a Latin legend below, which
runs thus:

"Qualiter S. Bertrandus liberavit hominem quem diabolus diu
volebat strangulare." (How St. Bertrand delivered a man whom
the Devil long sought to strangle.)

Dennistoun was turning to the sacristan with a smile and a
jocular remark of some sort on his lips, but he was
confounded to see the old man on his knees, gazing at the
picture with the eye of a suppliant in agony, his hands
tightly clasped, and a rain of tears on his cheeks.
Dennistoun naturally pretended to have noticed nothing, but
the question would not away from him, "Why should a daub of
this kind affect anyone so strongly?" He seemed to himself
to be getting some sort of clue to the reason of the strange
look that had been puzzling him all the day: the man must be
a monomaniac; but what was his monomania?

It was nearly five o'clock; the short day was drawing in,
and the church began to fill with shadows, while the curious
noises--the muffled footfalls and distant talking voices
that had been perceptible all day--seemed, no doubt because
of the fading light and the consequently quickened sense of
hearing, to become more frequent and insistent.

The sacristan began for the first time to show signs of
hurry and impatience. He heaved a sigh of relief when camera
and notebook were finally packed up and stowed away, and
hurriedly beckoned Dennistoun to the western door of the
church, under the tower. It was time to ring the Angelus. A
few pulls at the reluctant rope, and the great bell
Bertrande, high in the tower, began to speak, and swung her
voice up among the pines and down to the valleys, loud with
mountain-streams, calling the dwellers on those lonely hills
to remember and repeat the salutation of the angel to her
whom he called Blessed among women. With that a profound
quiet seemed to fall for the first time that day upon the
little town, and Dennistoun and the sacristan went out of
the church.

On the doorstep they fell into conversation.

"Monsieur seemed to interest himself in the old choir-books
in the sacristy."

"Undoubtedly. I was going to ask you if there were a library
in the town."

"No, monsieur; perhaps there used to be one belonging to the
Chapter, but it is now such a small place----" Here came a
strange pause of irresolution, as it seemed; then, with a
sort of plunge, he went on: "But if monsieur is _amateur des
vieux livres_, I have at home something that might interest
him. It is not a hundred yards."

At once all Dennistoun's cherished dreams of finding
priceless manuscripts in untrodden corners of France flashed
up, to die down again the next moment. It was probably a
stupid missal of Plantin's printing, about 1580. Where was
the likelihood that a place so near Toulouse would not have
been ransacked long ago by collectors? However, it would be
foolish not to go; he would reproach himself for ever after
if he refused. So they set off. On the way the curious
irresolution and sudden determination of the sacristan
recurred to Dennistoun, and he wondered in a shamefaced way
whether he was being decoyed into some purlieu to be made
away with as a supposed rich Englishman. He contrived,
therefore, to begin talking with his guide, and to drag in,
in a rather clumsy fashion, the fact that he expected two
friends to join him early the next morning. To his surprise,
the announcement seemed to relieve the sacristan at once of
some of the anxiety that oppressed him.

"That is well," he said quite brightly--"that is very well.
Monsieur will travel in company with his friends; they will
be always near him. It is a good thing to travel thus in

The last word appeared to be added as an afterthought, and
to bring with it a relapse into gloom for the poor little

They were soon at the house, which was one rather larger than
its neighbours, stone-built, with shield carved over the
door, the shield of Alberic de Mauléon, a collateral
descendant, Dennistoun tells me, of Bishop John de Mauléon.
This Alberic was a Canon of Comminges from 1680 to 1701. The
upper windows of the mansion were boarded up, and the whole
place bore, as does the rest of Comminges, the aspect of
decaying age.

Arrived on his doorstep, the sacristan paused a moment.

"Perhaps," he said, "perhaps, after all, monsieur has not
the time?"

"Not at all--lots of time--nothing to do till tomorrow. Let
us see what it is you have got."

The door was opened at this point, and a face looked out, a
face far younger than the sacristan's, but bearing something
of the same distressing look: only here it seemed to be the
mark, not so much of fear for personal safety as of acute
anxiety on behalf of another. Plainly, the owner of the face
was the sacristan's daughter; and, but for the expression I
have described, she was a handsome girl enough. She
brightened up considerably on seeing her father accompanied
by an able-bodied stranger. A few remarks passed between
father and daughter, of which Dennistoun only caught these
words, said by the sacristan, "He was laughing in the
church," words which were answered only by a look of terror
from the girl.

But in another minute they were in the sitting-room of the
house, a small, high chamber with a stone floor, full of
moving shadows cast by a wood-fire that flickered on a great
hearth. Something of the character of an oratory was
imparted to it by a tall crucifix, which reached almost to
the ceiling on one side; the figure was painted of the
natural colours, the cross was black. Under this stood a
chest of some age and solidity, and when a lamp had been
brought, and chairs set, the sacristan went to this chest,
and produced therefrom, with growing excitement and
nervousness, as Dennistoun thought, a large book, wrapped in
a white cloth, on which cloth a cross was rudely embroidered
in red thread. Even before the wrapping had been removed,
Dennistoun began to be interested by the size and shape of
the volume. "Too large for a missal," he thought, "and not
the shape of an antiphoner; perhaps it may be something good,
after all." The next moment the book was open, and
Dennistoun felt that he had at last lit upon something
better than good. Before him lay a large folio, bound,
perhaps, late in the seventeenth century, with the arms of
Canon Alberic de Mauléon stamped in gold on the sides. There
may have been a hundred and fifty leaves of paper in the
book, and on almost every one of them was fastened a leaf
from an illuminated manuscript. Such a collection Dennistoun
had hardly dreamed of in his wildest moments. Here were ten
leaves from a copy of Genesis, illustrated with pictures,
which could not be later than A.D. 700. Further on was a
complete set of pictures from a Psalter, of English
execution, of the very finest kind that the thirteenth
century could produce; and, perhaps best of all, there were
twenty leaves of uncial writing in Latin, which, as a few
words seen here and there told him at once, must belong to
some very early unknown patristic treatise. Could it
possibly be a fragment of the copy of Papias "On the Words
of Our Lord," which was known to have existed as late as the
twelfth century at Nîmes?[1] In any case, his mind was made
up; that book must return to Cambridge with him, even if he
had to draw the whole of his balance from the bank and stay
at St. Bertrand till the money came. He glanced up at the
sacristan to see if his face yielded any hint that the book
was for sale. The sacristan was pale, and his lips were

[Footnote 1: We now know that these leaves did contain a
considerable fragment of that work, if not of that actual
copy of it.]

"If monsieur will turn on to the end," he said.

So monsieur turned on, meeting new treasures at every rise
of a leaf; and at the end of the book he came upon two
sheets of paper, of much more recent date than anything he
had yet seen, which puzzled him considerably. They must be
contemporary, he decided, with the unprincipled Canon
Alberic, who had doubtless plundered the Chapter library of
St. Bertrand to form this priceless scrap-book. On the first
of the paper sheets was a plan, carefully drawn and
instantly recognizable by a person who knew the ground, of
the south aisle and cloisters of St. Bertrand's. There were
curious signs looking like planetary symbols, and a few
Hebrew words, in the corners; and in the north-west angle of
the cloister was a cross drawn in gold paint. Below the plan
were some lines of writing in Latin, which ran thus:

"Responsa 12mi Dec. 1694. Interrogatum est: Inveniamne?
Responsum est: Invenies. Fiamne dives? Fies. Vivamne
invidendus? Vives. Moriarne in lecto meo? Ita." (Answers of
the 12th of December, 1694. It was asked: Shall I find it?
Answer: Thou shalt. Shall I become rich? Thou wilt. Shall I
live an object of envy? Thou wilt. Shall I die in my bed?
Thou wilt.)

"A good specimen of the treasure-hunter's record--quite
reminds one of Mr. Minor-Canon Quatremain in 'Old St.
Paul's,'" was Dennistoun's comment, and he turned the leaf.

What he then saw impressed him, as he has often told me,
more than he could have conceived any drawing or picture
capable of impressing him. And, though the drawing he saw is
no longer in existence, there is a photograph of it (which I
possess) which fully bears out that statement. The picture
in question was a sepia drawing at the end of the
seventeenth century, representing, one would say at first
sight, a Biblical scene; for the architecture (the picture
represented an interior) and the figures had that
semi-classical flavour about them which the artists of two
hundred years ago thought appropriate to illustrations of
the Bible. On the right was a King on his throne, the throne
elevated on twelve steps, a canopy overhead, lions on either
side--evidently King Solomon. He was bending forward with
outstretched sceptre, in attitude of command; his face
expressed horror and disgust, yet there was in it also the
mark of imperious will and confident power. The left half of
the picture was the strangest, however. The interest plainly
centred there. On the pavement before the throne were
grouped four soldiers, surrounding a crouching figure which
must be described in a moment. A fifth soldier lay dead on
the pavement, his neck distorted, and his eyeballs starting
from his head. The four surrounding guards were looking at
the King. In their faces the sentiment of horror was
intensified; they seemed, in fact, only restrained from
flight by their implicit trust in their master. All this
terror was plainly excited by the being that crouched in
their midst. I entirely despair of conveying by any words
the impression which this figure makes upon anyone who looks
at it. I recollect once showing the photograph of the
drawing to a lecturer on morphology--a person of, I was
going to say, abnormally sane and unimaginative habits of
mind. He absolutely refused to be alone for the rest of that
evening, and he told me afterwards that for many nights he
had not dared to put out his light before going to sleep.
However, the main traits of the figure I can at least
indicate. At first you saw only a mass of coarse, matted
black hair; presently it was seen that this covered a body
of fearful thinness, almost a skeleton, but with the muscles
standing out like wires. The hands were of a dusky pallor,
covered, like the body, with long, coarse hairs, and
hideously taloned. The eyes, touched in with a burning
yellow, had intensely black pupils, and were fixed upon the
throned King with a look of beast-like hate. Imagine one of
the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated
into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less
than human, and you will have some faint conception of the
terror inspired by this appalling effigy. One remark is
universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture:
"It was drawn from the life."

As soon as the first shock of his irresistible fright had
subsided, Dennistoun stole a look at his hosts. The
sacristan's hands were pressed upon his eyes; his daughter,
looking up at the cross on the wall, was telling her beads

At last the question was asked, "Is this book for sale?"

There was the same hesitation, the same plunge of
determination that he had noticed before, and then came the
welcome answer, "If monsieur pleases."

"How much do you ask for it?"

"I will take two hundred and fifty francs."

This was confounding. Even a collector's conscience is
sometimes stirred, and Dennistoun's conscience was tenderer
than a collector's.

"My good man! "he said again and again, "your book is worth
far more than two hundred and fifty francs, I assure
you--far more."

But the answer did not vary: "I will take two hundred and
fifty francs, not more."

There was really no possibility of refusing such a chance.
The money was paid, the receipt signed, a glass of wine
drunk over the transaction, and then the sacristan seemed to
become a new man. He stood upright, he ceased to throw those
suspicious glances behind him, he actually laughed or tried
to laugh. Dennistoun rose to go.

"I shall have the honour of accompanying monsieur to his
hotel?" said the sacristan.

"Oh no, thanks! it isn't a hundred yards. I know the way
perfectly, and there is a moon."

The offer was pressed three or four times, and refused as

"Then, monsieur will summon me if--if he finds occasion; he
will keep the middle of the road, the sides are so rough."

"Certainly, certainly," said Dennistoun, who was impatient
to examine his prize by himself; and he stepped out into the
passage with his book under his arm.

Here he was met by the daughter; she, it appeared, was
anxious to do a little business on her own account; perhaps,
like Gehazi, to "take somewhat" from the foreigner whom her
father had spared.

"A silver crucifix and chain for the neck; monsieur would
perhaps be good enough to accept it?"

Well, really, Dennistoun hadn't much use for these things.
What did mademoiselle want for it?

"Nothing--nothing in the world. Monsieur is more than
welcome to it."

The tone in which this and much more was said was
unmistakably genuine, so that Dennistoun was reduced to
profuse thanks, and submitted to have the chain put round
his neck. It really seemed as if he had rendered the father
and daughter some service which they hardly knew how to
repay. As he set off with his book they stood at the door
looking after him, and they were still looking when he waved
them a last good night from the steps of the Chapeau Rouge.

Dinner was over, and Dennistoun was in his bedroom, shut up
alone with his acquisition. The landlady had manifested a
particular interest in him since he had told her that he had
paid a visit to the sacristan and bought an old book from
him. He thought, too, that he had heard a hurried dialogue
between her and the said sacristan in the passage outside
the _salle à manger_; some words to the effect that "Pierre
and Bertrand would be sleeping in the house" had closed the

All this time a growing feeling of discomfort had been
creeping over him--nervous reaction, perhaps, after the
delight of his discovery. Whatever it was, it resulted in a
conviction that there was someone behind him, and that he
was far more comfortable with his back to the wall. All
this, of course, weighed light in the balance as against the
obvious value of the collection he had acquired. And now, as
I said, he was alone in his bedroom, taking stock of Canon
Alberic's treasures, in which every moment revealed
something more charming.

"Bless Canon Alberic!" said Dennistoun, who had an
inveterate habit of talking to himself. "I wonder where he
is now? Dear me! I wish that landlady would learn to laugh
in a more cheering manner; it makes one feel as if there was
someone dead in the house. Half a pipe more, did you say? I
think perhaps you are right. I wonder what that crucifix is
that the young woman insisted on giving me? Last century, I
suppose. Yes, probably. It is rather a nuisance of a thing
to have round one's neck--just too heavy. Most likely her
father has been wearing it for years. I think I might give
it a clean up before I put it away."

He had taken the crucifix off, and laid it on the table,
when his attention was caught by an object lying on the red
cloth just by his left elbow. Two or three ideas of what it
might be flitted through his brain with their own
incalculable quickness.

"A penwiper? No, no such thing in the house. A rat? No, too
black. A large spider? I trust to goodness not--no. Good
God! a hand like the hand in that picture!"

In another infinitesimal flash he had taken it in. Pale,
dusky skin, covering nothing but bones and tendons of
appalling strength; coarse black hairs, longer than ever
grew on a human hand; nails rising from the ends of the
fingers and curving sharply down and forward, grey, horny
and wrinkled.

He flew out of his chair with deadly, inconceivable terror
clutching at his heart. The shape, whose left hand rested on
the table, was rising to a standing posture behind his seat,
its right hand crooked above his scalp. There was black and
tattered drapery about it; the coarse hair covered it as in
the drawing. The lower jaw was thin--what can I call
it?--shallow, like a beast's; teeth showed behind the black
lips; there was no nose; the eyes, of a fiery yellow,
against which the pupils showed black and intense, and the
exulting hate and thirst to destroy life which shone there,
were the most horrifying features in the whole vision. There
was intelligence of a kind in them--intelligence beyond that
of a beast, below that of a man.

The feelings which this horror stirred in Dennistoun were
the intensest physical fear and the most profound mental
loathing. What did he do? What could he do? He has never
been quite certain what words he said, but he knows that he
spoke, that he grasped blindly at the silver crucifix, that
he was conscious of a movement towards him on the part of
the demon, and that he screamed with the voice of an animal
in hideous pain.

Pierre and Bertrand, the two sturdy little serving-men, who
rushed in, saw nothing, but felt themselves thrust aside by
something that passed out between them, and found Dennistoun
in a swoon. They sat up with him that night, and his two
friends were at St. Bertrand by nine o'clock next morning.
He himself, though still shaken and nervous, was almost
himself by that time, and his story found credence with
them, though not until they had seen the drawing and talked
with the sacristan.

Almost at dawn the little man had come to the inn on some
pretence, and had listened with the deepest interest to the
story retailed by the landlady. He showed no surprise.

"It is he--it is he! I have seen him myself," was his only
comment; and to all questionings but one reply was
vouchsafed: "Deux fois je l'ai vu; mille fois je l'ai
senti." He would tell them nothing of the provenance of the
book, nor any details of his experiences. "I shall soon
sleep, and my rest will be sweet. Why should you trouble
me?" he said.[2]

[Footnote 2: He died that summer; his daughter married, and
settled at St. Papoul. She never understood the
circumstances of her father's "obsession."]

We shall never know what he or Canon Alberic de Mauléon
suffered. At the back of that fateful drawing were some
lines of writing which may be supposed to throw light on the

"Contradictio Salomonis cum demonio nocturno.
Albericus de Mauleone delineavit.
V. Deus in adiutorium. Ps. Qui habitat.
Sancte Bertrande, demoniorum effugator, intercede pro me

Primum uidi nocte 12mi Dec. 1694: uidebo mox ultimum.
Peccaui et passus sum, plura adhuc passurus. Dec. 29,

[Footnote 3: _I.e._, The Dispute of Solomon with a demon of
the night. Drawn by Alberic de Mauléon. _Versicle._ O Lord,
make haste to help me. _Psalm._ Whoso dwelleth (xci.).

Saint Bertrand, who puttest devils to flight, pray for me
most unhappy. I saw it first on the night of Dec. 12, 1694:
soon I shall see it for the last time. I have sinned and
suffered, and have more to suffer yet. Dec. 29, 1701.

The "Gallia Christiana" gives the date of the Canon's death
as December 31, 1701, "in bed, of a sudden seizure." Details
of this kind are not common in the great work of the

I have never quite understood what was Dennistoun's view of
the events I have narrated. He quoted to me once a text from
Ecclesiasticus: "Some spirits there be that are created for
vengeance, and in their fury lay on sore strokes." On
another occasion he said: "Isaiah was a very sensible man;
doesn't he say something about night monsters living in the
ruins of Babylon? These things are rather beyond us at

Another confidence of his impressed me rather, and I
sympathized with it. We had been, last year, to Comminges,
to see Canon Alberic's tomb. It is a great marble erection
with an effigy of the Canon in a large wig and soutane, and
an elaborate eulogy of his learning below. I saw Dennistoun
talking for some time with the Vicar of St. Bertrand's, and
as we drove away he said to me: "I hope it isn't wrong: you
know I am a Presbyterian--but I--I believe there will be
'saying of Mass and singing of dirges' for Alberic de
Mauléon's rest." Then he added, with a touch of the Northern
British in his tone, "I had no notion they came so dear."

* * * * *

The book is in the Wentworth Collection at Cambridge. The
drawing was photographed and then burnt by Dennistoun on the
day when he left Comminges on the occasion of his first


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