Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book II

‘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 well-nigh 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.)
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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 go 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 note-book 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…

by Montague Rhodes James

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