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Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (M R James) online
CANON ALBERIC'S SCRAP-BOOK
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 the 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 pleases.'
'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 the sacristan.
'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 a manger_; some words to the effect that 'Pierre and Bertrand would be sleeping in the house' had closed the conversation.