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 archaeologists 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
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
Qualiter S. Bertrandus liberavit hominem quem diabolus diu volebat
strangulare. (How St Bertrand delivered a man whom the Devil long sought to
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
Undoubtedly. I was going to ask you if there were a library in the
"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 company - sometimes."
The last word appeared to be added as an afterthought, and to bring
with it a relapse into gloom for the poor little man.
They were soon at the house, which was one rather larger than its
neighbours, stone-built, with a 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
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?
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 working.
"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 feverishly.
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
"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
"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 often.
"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 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 had 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.
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 Mauleone delineavit.
V. Deus in adiutorium. Ps. Qui habitat.
Sancte Bertrande, demoniorum effugator,
intercede pro me miserrimo.
Primum uidi nocte 12mi Dec. 1694: uidebo mox ultimum.
Peccaui et passus sum, plura adhuc passurus. Dec. 29,1701."
( 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
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.
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.
Reproduced by permission of Nick James and the James Estate