St Bertrand de Comminges is a decayed town on the spurs of the Pyrenees,
very far from Toulouse, and still nearer to Bagnres-de-Luchon.
It was the
site of a bishopric until the Revolution, and has a cathedral which
visited by a certain number of tourists. In the spring of 1883 an
arrived at this old-world place - I can hardly dignify it with the
city, for there are not a thousand inhabitants. He was a Cambridge
had come specially from Toulouse to see St Bertrand's Church, and
two friends, who were less keen archaeologists than himself, in
at Toulouse, under promise to join him on the following morning.
hour at the church would satisfy them, and all three could then
journey in the direction of Auch. But our Englishman had come early
day in question, and proposed to himself to fill a notebook and
several dozens of plates in the process of describing and photographing
every corner of the wonderful church that dominates the little hill
Comminges. In order to carry out this design satisfactorily, it
necessary to monopolize the verger of the church for the day. The
sacristan (I prefer the latter appellation, inaccurate as it may
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
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
or rather hunted and oppressed, air which he had. He was perpetually
glancing behind him; the muscles of his back and shoulders seemed
hunched in a continual nervous contraction, as if he were expecting
moment to find himself in the clutch of an enemy. The Englishman
whether to put him down as a man haunted by a fixed delusion, or
oppressed by a guilty conscience, or as an unbearably henpecked
probabilities, when reckoned up, certainly pointed to the last idea;
still, the impression conveyed was that of a more formidable persecutor
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
glance to the sacristan. Whenever he did look at him, he found
him at no
great distance, either huddling himself back against the wall
in one of the gorgeous stalls. Dennistoun became rather fidgety
time. Mingled suspicions that he was keeping the old man from
that he was regarded as likely to make away with St Bertrand's
crozier, or with the dusty stuffed crocodile that hangs over the
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
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,
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 Maulon,
of glass and tapestry, and the objects in the treasure-chamber,
well and truly examined; the sacristan still keeping at Dennistoun's
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
sacristan. He was white to the lips. ÔIt is he - that is
- it is no one; the
door is locked,Õ was all he said, and we looked at each
other for a full
Another little incident puzzled Dennistoun a good deal. He was
a large dark picture that hangs behind the altar, one of a series
illustrating the miracles of St Bertrand. The composition of the
well-nigh indecipherable, but there is a Latin legend below, which
Ó Qualiter S. Bertrandus liberavit hominem quem diabolus
volebat strangulare.Ó (How St Bertrand delivered a man
Devil long sought to strangle.)
Dennistoun was turning to the sacristan with a smile and a jocular
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,
tightly clasped, and a rain of tears on his cheeks. Dennistoun
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
that had been puzzling him all the day: the man must be a monomaniac;
what was his monomania?
It was nearly five o'clock; the short day was drawing in, and
began to fill with shadows, while the curious noises - the muffled
and distant talking voices that had been perceptible all day -
doubt because of the fading light and the consequently quickened
hearing, to become more frequent and insistent.
The sacristan began for the first time to show signs of hurry
impatience. He heaved a sigh of relief when camera and notebook
packed up and stowed away, and hurriedly beckoned Dennistoun to
door of the church, under the tower. It was time to ring the Angelus.
pulls at the reluctant rope, and the great bell Bertrande, high
tower, began to speak, and swung her voice up among the pines
and down to
the valleys, loud with mountain-streams, calling the dwellers
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
sacristan went out of the church. On the doorstep they fell into
conversation. "Monsieur seemed to interest himself in the
old choir-books in
ÓUndoubtedly. 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
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
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,
1580. Where was the likelihood that a place so near Toulouse would
been ransacked long ago by collectors? However, it would be foolish
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
sacristan recurred to Dennistoun, and he wondered in a shamefaced
whether he was being decoyed into some purlieu to be made away
with as a
supposed rich Englishman. He contrived, therefore, to begin talking
guide, and to drag in, in a rather clumsy fashion, the fact that
two friends to join him early the next morning. To his surprise,
announcement seemed to relieve the sacristan at once of some of
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
it a relapse into gloom for the poor little man.
They were soon at the house, which was one rather larger than
neighbours, stone-built, with a shield carved over the door, the
Alberic de Maulon, a collateral descendant, Dennistoun tells
me, of Bishop
John de Maulon. This Alberic was a Canon of Comminges from
1680 to 1701.
The upper windows of the mansion were boarded up, and the whole
as does the rest of Comminges, the aspect of decaying age. Arrived
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
younger than the sacristan's, but bearing something of the same
look: only here it seemed to be the mark, not so much of fear
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
described, she was a handsome girl enough. She brightened up considerably
seeing her father accompanied by an able-bodied stranger. A few
passed between father and daughter, of which Dennistoun only caught
words, said by the sacristan, "He was laughing in the church,"
were answered only by a look of terror from the girl.
But in another minute they were in the sitting-room of the house,
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
oratory was imparted to it by a tall crucifix, which reached almost
ceiling on one side; the figure was painted of the natural colours,
cross was black. Under this stood a chest of some age and solidity,
a lamp had been brought, and chairs set, the sacristan went to
and produced therefrom, with growing excitement and nervousness,
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
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
something better than good. Before him lay a large folio, bound,
late in the seventeenth century, with the arms of Canon Alberic
stamped in gold on the sides. There may have been a hundred and
of paper in the book, and on almost every one of them was fastened
from an illuminated manuscript. Such a collection Dennistoun had
dreamed of in his wildest moments. Here were ten leaves from a
Genesis, illustrated with pictures, which could not be later than
Further on was a complete set of pictures from a Psalter, of English
execution, of the very finest kind that the thirteenth century
produce; and, perhaps best of all, there were twenty leaves of
writing in Latin, which, as a few words seen here and there told
once, must belong to some very early unknown patristic treatise.
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 N”mes? In
any case, his mind was made up; that book must return to Cambridge
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
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
yet seen, which puzzled him considerably. They must be contemporary,
decided, with the unprincipled Canon Alberic, who had doubtless
the Chapter library of St Bertrand to form this priceless scrap-book.
first of the paper sheets was a plan, carefully drawn and instantly
recognizable by a person who knew the ground, of the south aisle
cloisters of St Bertrand's. There were curious signs looking like
symbols, and a few Hebrew words, in the corners; and in the north-west
of the cloister was a cross drawn in gold paint. Below the plan
lines of writing in Latin, which ran thus:
"Responsa 12mi Dec. 1694. Interrogatum est: Inveniamne?
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
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
he turned the leaf.
What he then saw impressed him, as he has often told me, more
could have conceived any drawing or picture capable of impressing
though the drawing he saw is no longer in existence, there is
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;
architecture (the picture represented an interior) and the figures
semi-classical flavour about them which the artists of two hundred
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,
on either side - evidently King Solomon. He was bending forward
outstretched sceptre, in attitude of command; his face expressed
disgust, yet there was in it also the mark of imperious will and
power. The left half of the picture was the strangest, however.
plainly centred there. On the pavement before the throne were
soldiers, surrounding a crouching figure which must be described
moment. A fifth soldier lay dead on the pavement, his neck distorted,
his eyeballs starting from his head. The four surrounding guards
looking at the King. In their faces the sentiment of horror was
they seemed, in fact, only restrained from flight by their implicit
their master. All this terror was plainly excited by the being
in their midst. I entirely despair of conveying by any words the
which this figure makes upon anyone who looks at it. I recollect
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
going to sleep. However, the main traits of the figure I can at
indicate. At first you saw only a mass of coarse, matted black
presently it was seen that this covered a body of fearful thinness,
skeleton, but with the muscles standing out like wires. The hands
were of a
dusky pallor, covered, like the body, with long, coarse hairs,
taloned. The eyes, touched in with a burning yellow, had intensely
pupils, and were fixed upon the throned King with a look of beast-like
Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America
into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than
human, and you
will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by this
effigy. One remark is universally made by those to whom I have
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
upon his eyes; his daughter, looking up at the cross on the wall,
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
had noticed before, and then came the welcome answer. "If
"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
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
There was really no possibility of refusing such a chance. The
paid, the receipt signed, a glass of wine drunk over the transaction,
then the sacristan seemed to become a new man. He stood upright,
to throw those suspicious glances behind him, he actually laughed
to laugh. Dennistoun rose to go.
"I shall have the honour of accompanying monsieur to his
hotel?" said the
"Oh no, thanks! it isn't a hundred yards. I know the way
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
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
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
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
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
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
looking when he waved them a last good night from the steps of
Dinner was over, and Dennistoun was in his bedroom, shut up
his acquisition. The landlady had manifested a particular interest
since he had told her that he had paid a visit to the sacristan
an old book from him. He thought, too, that he had heard a hurried
between her and the said sacristan in the passage outside the
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
- nervous reaction, perhaps, after the delight of his discovery.
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,
weighed light in the balance as against the obvious value of the
he had acquired. And now, as I said, he was alone in his bedroom,
stock of Canon Alberic's treasures, in which every moment revealed
"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
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
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.
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
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
in that picture!"
In another infinitesimal flash he had taken it in. Pale, dusky
covering nothing but bones and tendons of appalling strength;
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
He flew out of his chair with deadly, inconceivable terror clutching
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
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,
a beast's; teeth showed behind the black lips; there was no nose;
of a fiery yellow, against which the pupils showed black and intense,
the exulting hate and thirst to destroy life which shone there,
most horrifying features in the whole vision. There was intelligence
kind in them - intelligence beyond that of a beast, below that
of a man.
The feelings which this horror stirred in Dennistoun were the
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,
knows that he spoke, that he grasped blindly at the silver crucifix,
was conscious of a movement towards him on the part of the demon,
he screamed with the voice of an animal in hideous pain.
Pierre and Bertrand, the two sturdy little serving-men, who
saw nothing, but felt themselves thrust aside by something that
between them, and found Dennistoun in a swoon. They sat up with
night, and his two friends were at St Bertrand by nine o'clock
He himself, though still shaken and nervous, was almost himself
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,
had listened with the deepest interest to the story retailed by
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
mille fois je l'ai senti.' He would tell them nothing of the provenance
the book, nor any details of his experiences. 'I shall soon sleep,
rest will be sweet. Why should you trouble me?' he said.
We shall never know what he or Canon Alberic de Maulon
suffered. At the
back of that fateful drawing were some lines of writing which
supposed to throw light on the situation:
"Contradictio Salomonis cum demonio nocturno. Albericus
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 Maulon. Versicle. O Lord, make haste
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 ÒGallia ChristianaÓ gives the date of the
Canon's death as
December 31, 1701, 'Óin bed, of a sudden seizureÓ.
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:
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
Babylon? These things are rather beyond us at present."
Another confidence of his impressed me rather, and I sympathized
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
soutane, and an elaborate eulogy of his learning below. I saw
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'
de Maulon's rest.' Then he added, with a touch of the Northern
his tone, 'I had no notion they came so dear.'
The book is in the Wentworth Collection at Cambridge. The drawing
photographed and then burnt by Dennistoun on the day when he left
on the occasion of his first visit.