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CanonAlbericsScrapbookRichJohnson

Recent illustration for "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" by British artist Rich Johnson.

"Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. It first appeared in print in the London magazine National Review in 1894. It was published again in 1904 as part of the anthology Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.

The story's protagonist is a British antiquary named Dennistoun. While on vacation in France, Dennistoun is shown around a cathedral by its verger. Dennistoun notices that the old verger appears to be a very nervous and unhappy man. After the tour of the cathedral, the verger invites Dennistoun back to his house to see an old book that he owns. It is a scrapbook, compiled by a priest in the 17th century, made up mostly of cuttings from medieval manuscripts. The last image in the scrapbook is a frighteningly detailed picture of a demon. Realizing the enormous historical value of the scrapbook, Dennistoun offers to buy it from the verger. The verger agrees to sell it to him for a surprisingly low price. Later that evening, Dennistoun finds out why the verger is happy to part with the book.

Readers should be aware that "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" is peppered with French and Latin words and phrases, some of which are left untranslated.

Plot

A lecturer from Cambridge University named Dennistoun travels to the small French city of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges to visit its cathedral. He plans to spend all day in the cathedral, photographing it, taking notes and drawing sketches. It is necessary for the cathedral's verger to accompany him. Dennistoun soon notices that the old verger appears to be a very anxious man who looks uncomfortable. After some time, Dennistoun thinks that he may be keeping the man from his lunch. He tells the verger that he can leave. The old man, however, insists on staying.

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Dennistoun sketches the cathedral without paying attention to the verger. 1904 illustration for "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" by James McBryde.

Dennistoun begins to hear strange noises in the cathedral. At one point he hears the laugh of a "thin metallic voice" from high up in the tower. The verger says, "It is he", before correcting himself and saying that it is nobody. Dennistoun notices a painting captioned, "How St. Bertrand delivered a man whom the devil long sought to strangle." Dennistoun is about to make fun of the picture. He then notices that the verger is on his knees, staring at the painting with tears in his eyes. As it begins to get dark, the strange noises, some of which sound like voices, become louder and more frequent. The verger is visibly relieved when Dennistoun puts away his notebook and camera and prepares to leave.

On leaving the cathedral, the verger remarks to Dennistoun that he appeared to be interested in the old choir books. Dennistoun replies that he was and asks if there is a library nearby. The verger says that there is no library but that he has an old book in his house in which Dennistoun may be interested. Dennistoun accompanies the verger back to his home. The verger's house is larger than those of his neighbors. There is a coat of arms carved on the wooden door, which Dennistoun recognizes as that of Alberic de Mauléon, who was Canon of Comminges from 1680 to 1701. The door is opened by the verger's daughter. She has a similar nervous expression to her father, although, unlike her father, she appears to be worried for someone else. Dennistoun overhears the old man saying to his daughter, "He was laughing in the church."

In the living room of the verger's house, under a large crucifix, is an old wooden chest. From the chest, the verger takes a large book. It is wrapped in white cloth with a red cross sewn onto it. When the book is unwrapped, Dennistoun sees that it has about one hundred and fifty pages and was bound in the 17th century. The coat of arms of Canon Alberic de Mauléon is on its spine. The book is a scrapbook which is mostly made up of pages cut out of medieval illuminated manuscripts. Canon Alberic obviously stole the pages from books in the cathedral's library. Dennistoun realizes that ten pages in the scrapbook come from a Bible that could not have been written later than the year 700. He suspects that another twenty pages in the scrapbook come from a manuscript that was believed to have been completely lost in the 12th century. Dennistoun has already decided that he needs to take the scrapbook back to Cambridge with him. The verger, however, insists that Dennistoun keeps looking through the book until he comes to the end of it.

Dennistoun comes across an image which is more recent than all of the others he has seen in the scrapbook. It is a plan of part of the cathedral. In the borders of the picture are a cross, planetary symbols and Hebrew words. The plan appears to have something to do with treasure hunting. Under the plan is a Latin text, dated December 12, 1694, in which someone says he will find something which will make him rich and an object of envy and that he will die in his bed.

The last image in the scrapbook appears to be a 17th-century Bible illustration. The picture shows King Solomon seated on a throne. A soldier is lying dead on the floor, having obviously died in agony. Another four soldiers are gathered around a strange figure. The figure is extremely thin, almost a skeleton, it has dark skin and is covered in coarse, matted black hair. It has burning yellow eyes and is staring with hatred at the king. While Dennistoun is looking at the picture, the verger covers his eyes and his daughter looks at the crucifix on the wall.

Dennistoun asks if the scrapbook is for sale. The verger says that he will sell it for two hundred and fifty francs. Dennistoun says that the book is worth much more than that. The verger, however, refuses to take any more money for it. Dennistoun agrees to buy the scrapbook at that price. After Dennistoun has bought the book from him, a sudden change comes over the verger, who appears to be much happier and more relaxed. As Dennistoun leaves the house, the verger's daughter gives him a small silver crucifix which she puts around his neck. The verger offers to walk Dennistoun back to his hotel. Dennistoun says that is not necessary because his hotel is very close and can be seen from the verger's house. The verger and his daughter keep watching as Dennistoun walks away from the house and waves goodbye to them from the steps of his hotel.

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1904 illustration for "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book' by James McBryde.

At the hotel, Dennistoun tells the landlady that he has bought an old book from the verger. He later hears what sounds like the landlady talking to the verger outside the hotel's dining room. He hears the woman say that Pierre and Bertrand will be sleeping in the hotel that evening.

In his room, Dennistoun looks at the scrapbook again. The silver crucifix around Dennistoun's neck is heavy and somewhat dirty so he takes it off. He then sees an object on the table in front of him. For a moment, he thinks that it might be a rat or a spider. He then realizes that it is a hand. It is a dark, bony hand. It is covered in coarse black hair and has long curved gray nails. It is the hand of the creature from the last image in the scrapbook. Dennistoun sees the creature rise up from behind him. He grabs the silver crucifix and screams. Pierre and Bertrand, two strong men who are members of the hotel staff, rush into Dennistoun's room. They find him almost unconscious. They sit up with him for the rest of the night.

The verger comes to the hotel early the following morning. He is not surprised by what has happened. He says that he has seen the creature from the illustration twice and has felt its presence a thousand times.

The last image in the scrapbook is found to have some Latin text written by Canon Alberic on the back of it. The text identifies the picture as being "The dispute of Solomon with a demon of the night", drawn by Canon Alberic himself. In the text, Canon Alberic goes on to say that he has sinned and suffered for it. He says that he has seen the demon in the picture several times, having first seen it on December 12, 1694. Although he says that he will continue to suffer, Canon Alberic says that he will soon see the night demon for the last time. The text is dated December 29, 1701. It is reported that Canon Alberic died in his bed of a sudden seizure on December 31, 1701.

The scrapbook is now in a library of the University of Cambridge. A photograph of Canon Alberic's drawing of King Solomon and the demon still exists but the original has been destroyed.

Adaptations

Along with "The Mezzotint", "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" was adapted for the BBC TV program Two Ghost stories by M.R. James. It was first shown on the BBC in 1954. The program is now believed to be lost.

The British composer Kaikhorsu Shapruji Sorabji wrote a musical piece based on "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book", called St. Bertrand de Comminges: "He was laughing in the tower". The piece was first performed by South African pianist Yonty Solomon in 1985.

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