Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book VI

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.

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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 conversation.

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]

[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 situation:

_Contradictio Salomonis cum demonio nocturno. Albericus de Mauléone delineavit. V. Deus in adiutorium. Ps. Qui habitat. Sancte Bertrande, demoniorum effugator, intercede pro me miserrimo. Primum uidi nocte 12(mi) Dec. 1694: uidebo mox ultimum. Peccaui et passus sum, plura adhuc passurus. Dec. 29, 1701_.[3]

[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 Sammarthani.

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 present.’

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 visit.

by Montague Rhodes James

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