A Cambridge academic, Dennistoun, comes to a little French town to study and photograph the old cathedral — its stalls, organ, choir screen, and other treasures. The sacristan, who opens the church and stays with him during the hours that it takes to record and observe everything, is a nervous — very nervous — man:
[He had] a curiously furtive, or rather hunted and oppressed air. 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.
A not-unfounded expectation, unfortunately.
Dennistoun, although he hears sounds — “curious noises, muffled footfalls and distant talking voices,” puts these down as merely the “strange noises that trouble a large empty building” and inwardly speculates that the cause of the sacristan’s nervousness may be that he is a henpecked husband.
Finally, Dennistoun’s work is done and the two leave the church. Outside, the sacristan hesitantly broaches the subject of whether Dennistoun would be interested in seeing an old book. As a matter of fact, Dennistoun dreams of finding a rare book, and is curious enough to accompany the old man to his house. To his delight, Dennistoun is shown a wonderful treasure, a collection of very old illuminated manuscript pages taken from different medieval volumes, assembled by a former canon of the cathedral more than 200 years earlier. He buys it at a price that is much less than its value and takes it back to his hotel room, leaving the sacristan a noticeably happier man. Dennistoun, however, as he sits leafing through his newly acquired treasure, begins to feel uncomfortable, as though someone were behind him.
M. R. James is a master of the creepy tale, and, as with all his stories, this one is more rewarding the more you pay attention to the details. Old Canon Alberic, compiler of the scrapbook and ancestor of the current sacristan, has left a note at the end of the book that gives the reader a clue to his downfall:
12 Dec. 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.
Another pleasure of a James story is the author’s subtle, dark humor. It must be admitted that most writers of ghost stories find themselves unable to be both frightening and witty: James can do both. As Dennistoun browses the scrapbook, alone in his hotel room, he overflows a bit with gratitude to the man who was the creator of the treasure he has purchased:
“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.”
The one who was struck with mirth at Dennistoun’s words knows exactly where Canon Alberic is.