The Best Ghost Stories
Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book
By Montague Rhodes James
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 note-
book 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 note-
book 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?"