Magister Alberic's Book of Dirty Pictures

Once upon a time, I mentioned the possibility of this to the Gnome. Some 45 months later, and despite my well known aversion to AU, here it is.

St Bratand de Plainte is a decadent town (France, so what were you expecting?), not very far from Coins and nearer still to Gronderie, and once upon a time it boasted a university, the library of which is still visited by a certain number of tourists. It was in the spring that an Englishman arrived at this old world place – we can scarcely call it a city, for there are not a thousand inhabitants. He was an Oxford man, who had come specially from Gronderie to see the library, and he had left his friends, who were less keen on such subjects than himself and some of whom could not be trusted to behave quietly and decently in a library, in their hotel, under promise to join him on the following morning. Half an hour in the library would suffice for them (and probably for the librarian), and then all four could pursue their mutual journey in the direction of Ouïlle.

But our Englishman had come early on the day in question, and proposed to himself to fill a notebook with the details of the wonderful library; in order to carry out this design, it was necessary to monopolise the librarian for the day. The librarian was accordingly sent for by the somewhat brusque Lady who keeps the inn of the Fesses Rouges, and when he came, the Englishman found him an unexpectedly interesting object of study. It was not in the personal appearance of the little exhausted man that the interest lay, for he was precisely like dozens of other such souls, but in a curious furtive, or even hunted and oppressed air which he had. He was perpetually half glancing behind him; his eyes seemed to roll in a look of permanent exasperation, as if he were expecting every moment to be obliged to put a stop to some act of monumental stupidity. The Englishman hardly knew whether to put him down as a man haunted by excessive responsibility, or as one oppressed by an overactive conscience, or as an unbearably imposed-upon supervisor. The probabilities, when reckoned up, certainly pointed to that last idea; but still, the impression conveyed was that of a more formidable persecutor even than a recalcitrant workforce.

However, the Englishman (let us call him Creed) was soon too engrossed with his notebook to give more than an occasional glance to the librarian. Whenever he did look at him, he found him at no great distance, either hovering in one of the empty carrels or re-shelving books which Creed did not recall seeing anyone return. Creed became rather fidgety after a time. Mingled suspicions that he was keeping the old man from his déjeuner, or that he was regarded as likely to make away with some tome from the shelves marked only as Phi, 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?”

“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 library? No, no; two hours, three 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 Creed to himself: “you have been warned, and you must take the consequences.”

Before the expiration of the two hours, Satyricon, Aline et Valcour, Gamiani, The Secret Carnival, Les Chansons de Bilitis and the volumes in the great wooden cases had been well and truly examined; the librarian still keeping at Creed’s heels, 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,” Creed said to me, “I could have sworn I heard a thin complaining voice whining from a far corner. I darted an inquiring glance at my librarian. He was white to the lips. ‘It is he – that is – it is no one; the door is locked,’ was all he said, and we looked at each other for a full minute.”

Another little incident puzzled Creed a good deal. He was examining a large dark picture in one of the older volumes. The composition of the picture is well-nigh indecipherable, but there is a Latin legend below, which runs thus:

‘Qualiter Nemesis liberavit hominem quem diabolus diu volebat dominare.’ (How Nemesis delivered a man whom the Devil long sought to top.)

Creed was turning to the librarian with a smile and a jocular remark of some sort on his lips, but he was confounded to see the man snarling at the picture with a fulminating eye, and cursing in an undertone the very name of the Goddess. Creed naturally pretended to have noticed nothing, but the question pulled at 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 look that had been puzzling him all the day: the man must be a monomaniac; but what was his monomania?

It was nearly five o'clock; the short day was drawing in, and the library began to fill with shadows, while the curious noises – the muffled sound as of a boot striking a wall and distant complaining voices that had been perceptible all day – seemed, no doubt because of the fading light and the consequently quickened sense of hearing, to become more frequent and insistent.

The librarian began for the first time to show signs of hurry and impatience, heaving a sigh of relief when camera and notebook were finally packed up and stowed away. On the doorstep, they fell into conversation. “Monsieur seemed to interest himself in the – odder – books in the cases.” Here came a strange pause of irresolution, 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 interest him. It is not a hundred yards.”

At once all Creed’s cherished dreams of finding priceless manuscripts in untrodden corners of France flashed up, to die down again the next moment. Where was the likelihood that a place so near Coins would not have been ransacked long ago by collectors? However, it would be foolish not to 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 the librarian recurred to Creed, and he wondered in a shamefaced way whether he was being decoyed into some purlieu to be made away with as a supposed rich Englishman. He contrived, therefore, to begin talking with his guide, and to drag in, in a rather clumsy fashion, the fact that he expected friends to join him early the next morning. To his surprise, the announcement seemed to relieve the librarian at once of some of the anxiety 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 bring with it a relapse into gloom for the poor little man.

They were soon at the house, which was one rather larger than its neighbours, stone-built, with a shield carved over the door, upon which might be barely discerned crossed willow wands, the arms of Alberic de Malfesse, a collateral descendant, Creed tells me, of Dominus John de Malfesse. This Alberic was a Magister of Plainte from 1680 to 1701. The upper windows of the mansion were dirty and the whole place bore, as does the rest of Plainte, the aspect of decaying age and neglect. Arrived on his doorstep, the librarian paused a moment.

“Perhaps,” he said, “perhaps after all, monsieur has not the time?”

“Not at all – lots of time – nothing to do until tomorrow. Let us see what it is you have got.”

The door was opened at this point, and a face looked out, a face far younger than the librarian’s, but bearing something of the same distressing look: only here it seemed to be the mark, not so much of fear for personal safety as of acute anxiety on behalf of another. The young man brightened up considerably seeing the two men together. A few remarks passed between elder and younger, of which Creed only caught these words, said by the librarian, “He was snivelling in the library,” words which were answered only by a look of terror from the boy.

But in another minute they were in the sitting room of the house, a 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 of an educational establishment was imparted to it by a wooden block, about two feet high, blackened by the passage of time, and polished by the movement of many wriggling hands and knees. Beside it stood a chest of some age and solidity, with curious metal rings set into the wood, and when a lamp had been brought and chairs set, the librarian went to the chest, and produced therefrom, with growing excitement and nervousness, as Creed thought, a large book, wrapped in a white cloth, on which was embroidered a crude representation of a long brown rod, displaying the regular ribs of rattan. Even before the wrapping had been removed, Creed began to be interested by the size and shape of the volume. “Too large for  ‘Otherwhen’”, he thought, “and not the shape of ‘The Pop-Up Book of Sex’; perhaps it may be something good, after all.” The next moment, the book was open, and Creed felt that he had at last lit upon something better than good. Before him lay a large folio, with the arms of Alberic de Malfesse stamped in red upon the sides. There may have been a hundred and fifty leaves of paper in the book, and on almost every one of them was fastened a leaf from an illuminated manuscript. Such a collection Creed had hardly dreamed of in his wildest moments. Here were ten leaves from a copy of The Salesman, illustrated with pictures. Further on was a complete set of Mack and Nathan, of New World execution, of the finest kind that its time could produce; and perhaps best of all, there were twenty leaves of Hyperlink Arial, which, as a few words seen here and there told him at once, must belong to some very rare moral or philosophical treatise. Could it possibly be a fragment of the copy of The Titans which is known to have existed as late as ten to midnight in Britain? (We now know that these leaves did contain a considerable fragment of that work, if not of that actual copy of it.) In any case, his mind was made up; that book must return to Oxford with him, even if he had to draw the whole of his balance from the bank and stay at St Bratand till the money came. He glanced up at the librarian to see if his face yielded any hint that the book was for sale. The librarian was pale, 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 a much more recent date than anything he had yet seen, which puzzled him considerably. They must be contemporary, he decided, with the unprincipled Magister Alberic, who had doubtless plundered the original library to form this priceless scrap-book. On the first of the paper sheets was a plan, carefully drawn and instantly recognizable by a person who knew the ground, of the carrels and passageways of the library. There were curious signs, symbols of Mars and Venus, both singly and multiply, in all possible orders and combinations and sizes, in the corners; and a few barely legible words. A fine specimen, thought Creed, and he turned the leaf.

What he saw then impressed him, as he has often told me, more than he could have conceived any drawing or picture capable of impressing him. And, though the drawing he saw is no longer in existence, there is a photograph of it (which I possess) which fully bears out that statement. The picture in question was a coloured sketch, representing, one would say at first sight, the interior of a large and crowded hall. On the right was a tall man seated in a solid carved chair, the chair elevated on a dais, with fetters and spider frames visible behind – evidently an Alpha Top. He was bending forward with outstretched rattan, in attitude of command; his face expressed horror and disgust in its sharp planes, yet there was in it also, particularly in the aquiline nose and the pale gaze, the mark of imperious will and confident power. The left half of the picture was the strangest, however. The interest plainly centred there. On the lower floor before the dais were grouped four large figures, clothed in tight swathes of fabric bearing arcane symbols of thistles, roses, shamrocks and feathers, surrounding a fifth such, whose clothing bore the insignia of some leaping antelope. His hands protected the mid-section of his body, and his face was bruised and marked with deep and vicious scratches. Beside him was a further crouched figure which must be described in a minute. The four surrounding individuals were looking at the Top. In their faces the sentiment of horror was intensified; they seemed, in fact, only restrained from flight by their implicit trust in their Master. All this terror was plainly excited by the being that crouched in their midst. I entirely despair of conveying by any words the impression which this figure makes upon anyone who looks at it. I recollect once showing the photograph of the drawing to a lecturer on alternative sexuality - 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 – which was not, actually, so unusual, although his normal companions of choice were pretty, and young, and not very smart – and he told me afterwards that for many nights he had not dared to put out his light before going to sleep. However, the main traits of the figure I can at least indicate. At first you saw only expensively cut and pretentiously styled clothing; presently it was seen that this covered a body of fearful thinness, almost a skeleton, but with the muscles standing out like wires. The eyes, touched in with a burning yellow, had intensely black pupils, and were fixed upon the Alpha Top with a look of beast-like dependency. Imagine one of the awful haemophagic parasitic leeches of the southern hemisphere translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by this 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, Creed stole a look at his hosts. The librarian’s hands were tightly fastened on the broad belt around his waist; his companion was kneeling on the black block with his eyes closed.

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 Creed’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 librarian 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. Creed rose to go.

“I shall have the honour of accompanying monsieur to his hotel?” said the librarian.

“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 Creed, 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 younger man; he, it appeared, was anxious to do a little business on his own account; perhaps, like Gehazi, to “take somewhat” from the foreigner whom his companion had spared.

“A silver topped walking stick; monsieur would perhaps be good enough to accept it?”

Well, really, Creed hadn’t much use for these things. What did the young gentleman 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 Creed was reduced to profuse thanks, and submitted to have the stick put in his hand. It really seemed as if he had rendered both the older and younger man 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 Fesses Rouges.

Dinner was over, and Creed 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 librarian and bought an old book from him. He thought, too, that he had heard a hurried dialogue between her and the said librarian in the passage outside the salle à manger; some words to the effect that “Grainne and Denis would be sleeping in the house” had closed the conversation.

All this time a growing feeling of discomfort had been creeping over him - nervous reaction, perhaps, after the delight of his discovery. Whatever it 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, of course, weighed light in the balance as against the obvious value of the collection he had acquired. And now, as I said, he was alone in his bedroom, taking stock of Magister Alberic's treasures, in which every moment revealed something more charming.

“Bless Magister Alberic!” said Creed, who had an inveterate habit of talking to himself. “I wonder where he is now? Dear me! I wish that Madame Françoise would learn to laugh in a more cheering manner; it makes one feel as if there was somebody dead in the house. A splash of Viognier more, did you say? I think perhaps you are right. I wonder what that stick is that the young man insisted on giving me? It is rather a nuisance of a thing to carry while walking – too insubstantial to give any real support. Most likely the older man had been – using – it for years. I expect that would be why he wanted it out of the house, it’s wickedly flexible. I think I might just try it in the air before I put it away.”

He had laid the stick on the table, when his 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 martinet? No, no such thing in the house. A rat? No, too pale. A large spider? I trust to goodness not - no. Good God! a hand like the hand in that picture!”

In another infinitesimal flash he had taken it in. Pale, fine skin, covering nothing but bones and tendons in a shape of appalling graspingness; glittering effeminate ring and watch; nails rising from the ends of the fingers and curving sharply down and forward, pale and polished.

He flew out of his chair with deadly, inconceivable terror clutching at his heart. The shape, whose left hand rested on the table, was rising to a standing posture behind his seat, its right hand reaching to pull at his clothing in a ghastly parody of a child demanding the notice of a preoccupied parent. There was expensive couture about it; the sleek hair expensively cut was as in the drawing. The lower jaw protruded in a sulky pout; the lips quivered in imagined injury; the nose was turned up in exaggerated disgust; the eyes, excessively large and swimming with moisture, against which the pupils showed black and intense, and the exulting neediness, and self-righteous thirst to destroy all vestiges of independent life which shone there, were the most horrifying features in the whole vision. There was intelligence of a kind in them – intelligence beyond that of a beast, below that of a man.

The feelings which this horror stirred in Creed were the intensest 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, but he knows that he spoke, that he grasped blindly at the silver topped rattan, that he was conscious of a movement towards him on the part of the Brat, and that he screamed with the voice of an animal in hideous pain.

Grainne and Denis, the two sturdy little leather-clad inhabitants of the house, who rushed in, saw nothing, but felt themselves thrust aside by something that passed out between them, and found Creed in a swoon. They sat up with him that night, and his three friends were at St Bratand by nine o'clock next morning. He himself, though still shaken and nervous, was almost himself by that time, and his story found credence with them, though not until they had seen the drawing and talked with the librarian.

Almost at dawn the little man had come to the inn on some pretence, and had listened with the deepest interest to the story retailed by the 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 l'ai vu; mille fois je l'ai senti.” He would tell them nothing of the provenance of the book, nor any details of his experiences. “I shall soon escape, and my rest will be sweet. Why should you trouble me?” he said. (He ran away that summer and was last heard of with his younger companion living in a BDSM commune.)

We shall never know what he or Magister Alberic de Malfesse suffered. At the back of that fateful drawing were some lines of writing which may be supposed to throw light on the situation:

“Contradictio Domini Petrus cum demonio brato. Albericus de Malfesse delineavit.”

( i.e. The Dispute of Master Pieter with a demon Brat. Drawn by Alberic de Malfesse.)

I have never quite understood what was Creed’s view of the events I have narrated. He quoted to me once a text from Ecclesiasticus: “Some spirits there be that are created for vengeance, and in their fury lay on sore strokes.” On another occasion he said: “And there aren’t half enough of them to go round, not really good ones, and far too many of them waste their time messing about with whinging snivelling idiots who can’t organise their own lunchboxes.”

Another confidence of his impressed me rather, and I sympathized with it. We had been, last year, to Plainte, to see Magister Alberic's tomb. It is a great marble erection with an effigy of the Magister in pvc bondage trousers and harness, and an elaborate eulogy of his leanings below. I saw Creed talking for some time with the Vicar of St Bratande's, and as we drove away he said to me: ‘I hope it isn't wrong: you know I am a Presbyterian – well, Jim is and it’s as good as anything – but I – I believe there will be ‘saying of Mass and singing of dirges’ for Alberic de Malfesse’s rest.’” Then he added, with a touch of the Northern British in his tone, “I had no notion they came so dear.”

The book is in the Phi Collection at Oxford. The drawing was photographed by Madame Françoise at Creed’s request, before he burned the original on the day when he left Plainte on the occasion of his first visit.


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© , 2007