Christmas Ghost Story … ‘An Incident in Alsace’
Last Christmas we featured a ghost story written by the distinguished medievalist, M. R. James (1862–1936). Such stories were read by candlelight to a group of his friends at Christmas. This year we are reviving that story-telling tradition (swapping candlelight for flickering computer screens). It involves a letter sent to Vidimus by the descendent of the recipient.
Chepstow Villas, Cheltenham,
Sorting through my papers prior to moving house, I found some photographs which might interest your rational mind. As you know by the 1840s I had become fascinated with the art of painted glass. I was an avaricious reader of Charles Winston’s excellent book and traveled around much of England sketching and painting examples of this ancient craft. I do not consider it boastful to remind you that several of my portfolios were privately printed and distributed among friends and colleagues. I was particularly attracted to the strong colours employed by our medieval ancestors and could not help contrasting these with the drabness of much modern church life. But I felt that watercolours – or even oils – often failed to capture the precise detail of painted glass. Which is why I became extremely excited when I was introduced to Paul Draban, who owned an establishment in Regent Street and who had been commissioned to photograph examples of painted glass in France for a noble collector with close affinities to the South Kensington museum.
After visiting Paris we left for eastern France near the borders with Prussia. Our patron was particularly interested in the glass at Metz and Strasbourg, and on our travels we came upon the remains of a small abbey where the incident I am about to describe occurred. The edifice had apparently belonged to the Benedictine Order before its monks had been evicted and many of its buildings despoiled. Only the church survived and even that was in an unhappy state.
At first we decided not to delay ourselves by venturing within, but as the light was fading we thought better of our decision and reasoned that it made more sense to explore the possibility of something interesting here rather than press on in the hope of finding something more worthwhile only to end the day by seeing nothing.
Entering the church was quite extraordinary. As I have said, from the outside it looked timeworn and uncared for. The interior was extremely dusty and appeared to be used as a sort of communal store room for local villagers. I would hazard that services had discontinued many years previously. But none of this mattered compared to the light. It was overpowering.
Instead of the richly painted windows I sought out in England, it was bathed in a grey glow from windows painted in what is called ‘grisaille’. The word derives from the French gres and means painting in shades of grey. As far as I could ascertain all the windows were glazed in this style and the effect was astonishingly peaceful and contemplative. As our eyes became adjusted to the subdued light, we saw that many of the windows were decorated in what I suppose can be called a ‘naturalistic style’, intended to represent the foliage of nature. Leaves, curling stems, blossoming trees abounded and reproduced – or matched – similar style carvings in the capitals of columns and other stonework in the church. We decided to photograph as many of the windows as we could. For the next three hours we toiled away. It was most satisfactory.
My next visit to the area was at the beginning of 1870. I had taken my wife to Paris to celebrate a wedding anniversary and decided to show her those parts of France I had visited as a younger man. We found the Abbey church with difficulty. When we arrived it was closed, even though it was only early afternoon. Eventually I found a local man who told me in a dialect best described as German-French that he was the caretaker and that his father and grandfather had held the same position in their lives. He said people rarely visited the church. He could not remember when a service had been held there. Local people did not like spending time in the church after the monks had left. A young couple had spent the night in the church and had been found dead the next morning. Despite his somewhat gloomy attitude, Joanna was as impressed as I had been all those years before when we entered this untouched relic of our ancient yesterdays.
One of the reasons I had wanted to retrace my steps with Paul was that I too now owned a camera and was keen to utilize my new skills, even compare his work to my own. I remembered that one of the charming discoveries we had made was of an incongruous ‘green man’ peering through an undergrowth of foliage in one of the north transept windows. It had been a complete surprise to both of us when Paul had spotted this curious face peering out from the glass through his lens. It was a different colour to the grisaille which surrounded it; leafy green with large black blobs for eyes. It was disconcertingly ugly in such an otherwise harmonious composition. Its unusualness had remained with me and I was anxious to show my beloved this curiosity of the medieval mind. But when we reached the same place where Paul and I had stood and looked up into the window, the face had gone.
It is not an exaggeration to say that I was disappointed. From where I stood it did not seem as if the windows had been damaged yet there was no trace of the face that I had remembered so vividly. Fortunately Joanne did not seem as upset as I was by my inability to show her something which I had expected to provoke a mix of wonderment and amusement. While I unpacked my camera bag and set up my tripod Joanne wandered through the abbey, her head tilted upwards swimming in the light and swooning in its abundance. I was just about to move the camera to a new angle when I heard her calling my name. She seemed excited, almost triumphant.
“Is that you want you meant?” she said pointing to an upper window in the choir as I responded to her calls. At first I did not know what had caught her eye so strongly, and then I saw. In the very highest part of the south choir, the same face that I had remembered as being in the north transept was looking down at us. I did not know what to say. I had distinctly mixed feelings. I was pleased that Joanne had seen the face and found it as amusing as I had expected .On the other hand, I was confused by the fact that it was not where it had been and was now somewhere else entirely. I was convinced that when Paul and I had visited the church, the face had been in the north transept, now it was in the south choir. Only three explanations were possible: I had been mistaken, nay confused, as to what I had seen where. But instinctively I knew that Paul’s album would show me to have been right. I had checked it before our departure and distinctly remembered his neatly written captions. Which only left two other possibilities: that the glass painting had either been moved there from its previous location or there had been another face in the glazing scheme which we had missed. Of the latter I could say nothing until we had returned to England and I had been to compare my new photographs against Paul’s original prints.
As we talked we smiled. At least Joanna had seen what I had brought her to the old church to see. I fetched my camera and duly recorded this second example. It was slower work than I had anticipated and by the time I had finished, dusk had encroached upon us like an incoming tide. A night at the local hostelry was the most sensible option.
We awoke to glorious sunshine and planned our new day over breakfast. Leaving the village meant passing the abbey and as we drew closer I saw the caretaker unlocking the doors. Forgetting our newly-made plans, a sudden thought came to me. Whenever I had been in the church before, the light had been pale, almost dimmed. Today, by contrast, the sun was bright and sparkling. When I asked Joanne if she would mind if we stopped briefly in the church to see how it looked in these different conditions, she agreed without hesitation. Once again she showed why I loved her so. She did not merely tolerate my impulses, she shared them.
Internally, the effect was not quite as I had imagined. Although the painted windows still subdued the light, there was a discernible glow that I had not seen before – almost as if the spirit of life itself had animated the church. Dust danced in the sun beams.I took some general photographs and then decided to say goodbye to my little leaf dweller. I doubted that I would ever return and wanted a final memory of this curiosity. I left Joanna standing in the centre in the nave pondering various tomb inscriptions while I went by myself to the south choir and looked up.
To my bewilderment the face was not there. I scanned the windows from left to right and then in reverse. I knew it should be there, but I could not see it. I turned to ask Joanna if she could come and help me find the panel. And then I saw the face. It was no longer in the upper story of the choir but about halfway down a window in the south side of the nave. It was watching my wife, whose attentions seemed focused on the northern side of the church. I was overcome with a sudden sense, nay fear, that it was stalking her. I did not know if I was losing my senses or if something ungodly was alive in the glass and moving through the foliage like a creature in a forest.
I focused my camera and took two photographs, carefully and at different exposures. Then I packed my equipment as quickly as I could and walked briskly to where Joanna was examining the fragments of a shattered tomb. Without looking at the face – or drawing my wife’s attention to the inexplicable – I took her hand and pulled her after me, saying that we would never get to our next destination if she continued to pander to my distractions. Fortunately she did not resist.
Without doubt this incident was the most unsettling that I have encountered in what is now approaching a long life. I am not by nature a superstitious man and I have no time for mediums and spirit jugglers, or authors such as Mr Wilkie Collins who seem determined to make us sleep uneasily with dreams of fear and dread. I have never spoken to Joanne about these events, partly because I did not want to alarm her and also, perhaps, because I did want her to think me reckless for taking her to such a place. For what I saw defies explanation, and the most troubling was yet to come.
We returned to Cheltenham a month later. Retiring to my studio dark room I steadily printed my photographs. When complete I compared to them to Paul’s album. It was as I had known. When we had visited the abbey together, the face had been in the north transept. When I compared his images of the south choir with mine there was no trace of the face in the earlier print. But it was the final photographs which I have never been able to explain – nor in truth have I attempted to.
The prints I made were excellent. The detailing was crisp and sharp. All was perfect except for one blemish. The face was blurred.. Such a blemish was not a fault of mine or my camera. Only one explanation was possible and that I cannot really accept. The face was out of focus because it had moved as the photograph was being taken.
Three months after our visit the Franco-German war began. The church was one of many casualties of his conflict. I do not know who was responsible for its destruction but nothing of it – or what I saw in its windows – now remains. Usually we mourn the loss of such monuments, but in this instance I am not so sure. Perhaps its destruction was truly an act of God and if so, I would not be willing to say that he had been wrong.
To read last year’s ghost story, go to Vidimus 13.
© Roger Rosewell