Count Magnus

M. R. James

10 Jul, 2014 08:54 PM

By what means the papers out of which I have made a connected story came
into my hands is the last point which the reader will learn from these
pages.But it is necessary to prefix my extracts from them a statement of the
form in which I possess them.
They consist, then, partly of a series of collections for a book of
travels, such a volume as was a common product of the forties and fifties.
Horace Marryat's Journal of a Residence in Jutland and the Danish Isles is a
fair specimen of the class to which I allude. These books usually treated of
some unfamiliar district on the Continent. They were illustrated with
woodcuts or steel plates. They gave details of hotel accommodation , and of
means of communication, such as we now expect to find in any well-regulated
guide-book, and they dealt largely in reported conversations with
intelligent foreigners, racy innkeepers and garrulous peasants. In a word,
they were chatty.

Begun with the idea of furnishing material for such a book, my papers as
they progressed assumed the character of a record of one single personal
experience, and this record was continued was continued up to the very eve,
almost, of its termination.

The writer was a Mr. Wraxall. For my knowledge of him I have to depend
entirely on the evidence his writings afford, and from these I deduce that
he was a man past middle age, possessed of some private means, and very much
alone in the world. He had, it seems, no settled abode in England, but was a
denizen of hotels and boarding -houses. it is probable that he entertained
the idea of settling down at some future time which never came; and I think
it also likely that the Pantechnicon fire in the early seventies must have
destroyed a great deal that would have thrown light on his antecedents, for
he refers once or twice to property of his that was warehoused at that

It is further apparent that Mr . Wraxall had published a book, and that
it treated of a holiday he had once taken in Brittany. more than this I
cannot say about his work, because a diligent search in bibliographical
works has convinced me that it must have appeared either anonymously or
under a pseudonym.

As to his character, it is not difficult to form some superficial
opinion. He must have been an intelligent and cultivated man. It seems he
was near being a Fellow of his college at Oxford - Brasenose, as I judge
from the Calendar. His besetting fault was pretty clearly that of over
-inquisitiveness, possibly a good fault in a traveller, certainly a fault
for which this traveller paid dearly enough in the end. On what proved top
be his last expedition, he was plotting another book. Scandinavia, a region
not widely known to Englishmen forty years ago, had struck him as an
interesting field. He must have lighted on some old books of Swedish
history, or memoirs, and the idea had struck him that there was room for a
book descriptive of travel in Sweden, interspersed with episodes from the
history of some of the great Swedish families. he procured letters of
introduction, therefore, to some persons of quality in Sweden, and set out
thither in the early summer of 1863.

Of his travels in the North there is no need to speak, nor of his
residence of some weeks in Stockholm. I need only mention that some savant
resident there put him on the track of an important collection of family
papers belonging to the proprietors of an ancient manor-house in
Vestergothland, and obtained for him permission to examine them.

The manor house, or herrgard, in question is to be called
RŒbŠck(pronounced something like Roebeck) though that is not its name. It is
one of the best building s of its kind in all the country, and the picture
of it in Dahlenberg's Suecia antiqua et moderna, engraved in 1694, shows it
very much as the tourist may see it today. It was built soon after 1600, and
is, roughly speaking, very much like an English house of that period in
respect of material - red-brick with stone facings - and style. The man who
built it was a scion of the great house of De la Gardie, and his descendants
possess it still. De la Gardie is the name by which I will designate them
when mention of them becomes necessary.

They received Mr. Wraxall with great kindness and courtesy, and pressed
him to stay in the house as long as his researches lasted.But, preferring to
be independent, and mistrusting his powers of conversing in Swedish, he
settled himself at the village inn, which turned out quite sufficiently
comfortable, at any rate during the summer months. This arrangement would
entail a short walk daily to and from the manor-house of something under a
mile. The house itself stood in a park and, and was protected - we should
say grown up - with large old timber. Near it you found the walled garden,
and then entered a close wood fringing one of the small lakes with which the
whole country is pitted. Then came the wall of the demense, and you climbed
a steep knoll - a knob of rock lightly covered with soil - and on the top of
this stood the church, fenced in with tall dark trees. It was a curious
building to English eyes. The nave and aisles were low, and filled with pews
and galleries. In the western gallery stood the handsome old organ, gaily
painted, and with silver pipes.The ceiling was flat, and had been adorned by
a seventeenth-century artist with a strange and hideous last judgment, full
of lurid flames, falling cities, burning ships, crying souls, and brown and
smiling demons. Handsome brass coronae hung from the roof; the pulpit was
like a dolls-house covered with little painted cherubs and saints; a stand
with three hour-glasses was hinged to the preachers desk. Such sights as
these may be seen in many a church in Sweden now, but what distinguished
this one was an addition to the original building. At the eastern end of the
north aisle the builder of the manor -house had erected a mausoleum for
himself and his family. it was a largish eight-sided building, lighted by a
series of oval windows, and it had a domed roof, topped by a kind of
pumpkin-shaped object rising into a spire, a form in which Swedish
architects greatly delighted.The roof was of copper externally, and was
painted black, while the walls, in common with those of the church, were
staringly white. To this mausoleum there was no access from the church. It
had a portal and steps of its own on the northern side.

Past the churchyard the path to the village goes, and not more than three
or four minutes bring you to the inn door.

On the first day of his stay at RŒbŠck Mr. Wraxall found the church door
open, and made these notes of the interior which I have epitomized. Into the
mausoleum, however, he could not make his way. He could, by looking through
the keyhole, just descry that there were fine marble effigies and sarcophagi
of copper, and a wealth of armorial ornament, which made him very anxious to
spend some time in investigation.

The papers he had come to examine at the manor-house proved to be just
the kind of thing he wanted for his book.There were family correspondence,
journals, and account-books of the earliest owners of the estate, very
carefully kept and clearly written, full of amusing and picturesque detail.
The first De La Gardie appeared in them as a strong and capable man. Shortly
after the building of the mansion there had been a period of distress in the
district, and the peasants had risen and attacked several chateaux and done
some damage. The owner of RŒbŠck took a leading part in suppressing the
trouble, and there was reference to executions of ringleaders and severe
punishments inflicted with no sparing hand.

The portrait of this Magnus de la Gardie was one of the best in the
house, and Mr Wraxall studied it with no little interest after his day's
work. He gives no detailed description of it, but I gather that the face
impressed him rather by its power than by its beauty or goodness; in fact,
he writes that Count Magnus was an almost phenomenally ugly man.

On this day Mr Wraxall took his supper with the family, and walked back
in the late but still bright evening.

"I must remember," he writes, "to ask the sexton if he can let me into
the mausoleum at the church. He evidently has access to it himself, for I
saw him tonight standing in the steps, and, as I thought, either locking or
unlocking the door."

I find that early on the following day Mr Wraxall had some conversation
with his landlord.His setting it down at such length as he does surprised me
at first; but I soon realized that the papers I was reading here were, at
least in their beginning, the materials for the book he was meditating, and
that it was to have been one of those quasi-journalistic productions which
admit of the introduction of an admixture of conversational matter.

His object, he says, was to find out whether any traditions of Count
Magnus de la Gardie lingered on in the scenes of that gentleman's activity,
and whether the popular estimate of him were favourable or not. He found
that the Count was decidedly not a favourite. If his tenants came late to
their work on the days which they owed to him as Lord of the Manor, they
were set on the wooden horse, or flogged and branded in the manor-house
yard. One or two cases there were of men who had occupied lands which
encroached on the lord's domain, and whose houses had been mysteriously
burnt on a winter's night, with the whole family inside. But what seemed
dwell on the innkeeper's mind most- for he returned to the subject more than
once- was that the Count had been on the Black Pilgrimage, and had brought
something or someone back with him.

You will naturally inquire, as Mr Wraxall did, what the Black Pilgrimage
may have been. But your curiosity on the point must remain unsatisfied for
the time being, just as his did. The landlord was evidently unwilling to
give a full answer, or indeed any answer, on the point, and being called out
for the moment, trotted out with obvious alacrity, only putting his head in
at the door to say that he was called away to Skara, and should not be back
until evening.

So Mr Wraxall had to go unsatisfied to his day's work at the manor house.
The papers on which he was just then engaged soon put his thoughts into
another channel, for he had to occupy himself with glancing over the
correspondence between Sophia Albertina in Stockholm and her married cousin
Ulrica Leonora at RŒbŠck in the years 1705-10. The letter were of
exceptional interest for the light they threw upon the culture of that
period in Sweden, as anyone can testify who has read the full edition of
them in the publications of the Swedish Historical Manuscripts Commission.

In the afternoon he had done with these, and after returning the boxes in
which they were kept to their places on the shelf, he proceeded,very
naturally, to take down some of the volumes nearest to them, in order to
determine which of them had best be his principal subject of investigation
next day. The shelf he had hit upon was occupied mostly by a collection of
account-books in the writing of the first Count Magnus. But one among them
was not an account-book, but a book of alchemical and other tracts in
another sixteenth-century hand. Not being very familiar with alchemical
literature, Mr Wraxall spends much space which he might have spared in
setting out the names and beginnings of the various treatises; The book of
the Phoenix, book of the Thirty Words,book of the Toad, book of Miriam,
Turba Philosophorum, and so forth; and then he announces with a good deal of
circumstance his delight at finding, on a leaf originally left blank near
the middle of the book, some writing of Count Magnus himself headed 'Liber
nigrae peregrinationis'. It is true that only a few lines were written, but
there was quite enough to show that the landlord had that morning been
referring to a belief at least as old as the time of Count Magnus, and
probably shared by him. This is the English of what was written:

'If any man desires to obtain a long life, if he would obtain a faithful
messenger and see the blood of his enemies, it is necessary that he should
first go into the city of Chorazin, and there salute the prince...' Here
there was an erasure of one word, not very thoroughly done, so that Mr
Wraxall felt pretty sure that he was right in reading it as aeris ('of the
air'). But there was no more of the text copied, only a line in Latin:
Quaere reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora. (See the rest of this matter
among the more private things.).

It could not be denied that this threw a rather lurid light on the tastes
and beliefs of the Count; but to Mr Wraxall, separated from him by nearly
three centuries, the thought that the might have added to his general
forcefulness alchemy, and to alchemy something like magic, only made him a
more picturesque figure, and when, after a rather prolonged contemplation of
his picture in the hall, Mr Wraxall set out on his homeward way, his mind
was full of the thought of Count Magnus. He had no eyes for his
surroundings, no perceptions of the evening scents of the woods or the
evening light on the lake; and when all of a sudden he pulled up short, he
was astonished to find himself already at the gate of the churchyard, and
within a few minutes of his dinner. His eyes fell on the mausoleum.

"Ah," he said, "Count Magnus, there you are. I should dearly like to see

"Like many solitary men," he writes, "I have a habit of talking to myself
aloud; and, unlike some of the Greek and Latin particles, I do not expect an
answer. Certainly and perhaps fortunately in this case, there was neither
voice nor any that regarded: only the woman who, I suppose, was cleaning up
the church, dropped some metallic object on the floor, whose clang startled
me. Count Magnus, I think, sleeps sound enough."

That same evening the landlord of the inn, who had heard Mr Wraxall say
that he wished to see the clerk or deacon (as he would be called in Sweden)
of the parish, introduced him to that official in the inn parlour.A visit to
the De la Gardie tomb-house was soon arranged for the next day, and a little
general conversation ensued.

Mr Wraxall, remembering that one function of Scandinavian deacons is to
teach candidates for Confirmation, thought he would refresh his own memory
on a Biblical point.

"Can you tell me," he said,"anything about Chorazin?"

The deacon seemed startled, but readily reminded him how that village had
once been denounced.

"To be sure," said Mr Wraxall,"it is, I suppose, quite a ruin now?"

"So I expect," replied the deacon."I have heard some of our old priests
say that Antichrist is to be born there; and there are tales-"

"Ah!" what tales are those?" Mr Wraxall put in.

"Tales, I was going to say, which I have forgotten," said the deacon; and
soon after that he said good night.

The landlord was now alone, and at Mr Wraxall's mercy; and that inquirer
was not inclined to spare him.

"Herr Nielsen," he said, "I have found out something about the Black
Pilgrimage. You may as well tell me what you know. What did the Count bring
back with him?"

Swedes are habitually slow, perhaps, in answering,or perhaps the landlord
was an exception. I am not sure; but Mr Wraxall notes that the landlord
spent at least one minute in looking at him before he said anything at all.
Then he came close up to his guest, and with a good deal of effort he spoke:

"Mr Wraxall, I can tell you this one little tale, and no more - not any
more. You must not ask anything when I have done. In my grandfather's time -
that is, ninety-two years ago - there were two men who said:'The Count is
dead; we do not care for him. We will go tonight and have a free hunt in his
wood' - the long wood on the hill that you have seen behind RŒbŠck.Well,
those that heard them say this, they said:'No, do not go; we are sure you
will meet with persons walking who should not be walking.They should be
resting, not walking.' These men laughed. There were no forest-men to keep
the wood, because no one wished to live there. The family were not here at
the house. These men could do what they wished,

"Very well, they go to the wood that night. My grandfather was sitting
here in this room. It was the summer, and a light night. With the window
open, he could see out to the wood, and hear.

"So he sat there, and two or three men with him, and they listened. At
first they hear nothing at all; then they hear someone- you know how far
away it is- they hear someone scream, just as if the most inside part of his
soul was twisted out of him. All of them in the room caught hold of each
other, and they sat so for three quarters of an hour. Then they hear someone
else, only about three hundred ells off. They hear him laugh out loud: it
was not one of those two men who laughed, and indeed, they have all of them
said that it was not any man at all. After that they hear a great door shut.

"Then, when it was just light with the sun, they all went to the priest.
They said to him:

'Father, put on your gown and your ruff, and come to bury these men,
Anders Bjornsen and Hans Thorbjorn.'

"You understand that they were sure these men were dead. So they went to
the wood- my grandfather never forgot this. He said they were all like so
many dead men themselves. The priest, too, he was in a white fear. He said
when they came to him:

'I heard one cry in the night, and I heard one laugh afterwards. If I
cannot forget that, I shall not be able to sleep again.'

"So they went to the wood, and they found these men on the edge of the
wood. Hans Thorbjorn was standing with his back against a tree, and all the
time he was pushing with his hands- pushing something away from him which
was not there. So he was not dead. And they led him away, and took him to
the house at Nykjoping and he died before the winter; but he went on pushing
with his hands. Also Anders Bjornsen was there; but he was dead. And I tell
you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now
his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the
bones. You understand that? My grandfather did not forget that. And they
laid him on the bier which they had brought, and and they put a cloth over
his head, and the priest walked before; and they begin to sing the psalm for
the dead as well as they could. So, as they were singing the end of the
first verse, one fell down, who was carrying the head of the bier, and the
others looked back, and they saw that the cloth had fallen off, and the eyes
of Anders Bjornsen were looking up, because there was nothing to close over
them.And this they could not bear. Therefore the priest laid the cloth upon
him, and sent for a spade, and they buried him in that place."

The next day Mr Wraxall records that the deacon called for him soon after
his breakfast, and took him to the church and mausoleum. He noticed that the
key of the latter was hung on a nail just by the pulpit, and it occurred to
him that, as the church door seemed to be left unlocked as a rule, it would
not be difficult for him to pay a second and more private visit to the
monuments if there proved to be more of interest among them than could be
digested at first. The building, when he entered it, he found not
unimposing. The monuments, mostly large erections of the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, were dignified if luxuriant,and the epitaphs and
heraldry were copious. The central space of the domed room was occupied by
three copper sarcophagi, covered with finely engraved ornament. Two of them
had, as is commonly the case in Denmark and Sweden, a large metal crucifix
on the lid. The third,that of Count Magnus, as it appeared, had, instead of
that, a full-length effigy engraved upon it, and round the edge were several
bands of similar ornament representing various scenes. one was a battle,
with cannon belching out smoke, and walled towns, and troops of pikemen.
Another showed an execution. In a third, among trees, was a man running at
full speed, with flying hair and outstretched hands. After him followed a
strange form; it would be hard to say whether the artist had intended it for
a man, and was unable to give it the requisite similitude, or whether it was
intentionally made as monstrous as it looked. In view of the skill with
which the rest of the drawing was done, Mr Wraxall felt inclined to adopt
the latter idea. the figure was unduly short, and was for the most part
muffled in a hooded garment which swept the ground. The only part of the
form which projected from that shelter was not shaped like any hand or arm.
Mr Wraxall compares it to the tentacle of a devil-fish, and continues:"On
seeing this, I said to myself,"This, then which is evidently an allegorical
representation of some kind- a fiend pursuing a hunted soul - may be the
origin of the story of Count Magnus and his mysterious companion. Let us see
how the huntsman is pictured: doubtless it will be a demon blowing his
horn." But, as it turned out, there was no such sensational figure, only the
semblance of a cloaked man on a hillock, who stood leaning on a stick, and
watching the hunt with an interest which the engraver had tried to express
in his attitude.

Mr Wraxall noted the finely-worked and massive steel padlocks - three in
number - which secured the sarcophagus. One of them, he saw, was detached,
and lay upon the pavement. And then, unwilling to delay the deacon longer or
waste his own working time, he made his onward to the manor-house,

"It is curious, " he notes, "how, on retracing a familiar path, oneÍs
thoughts engross one to the absolute exclusion of surrounding objects.
Tonight, for the second time, I had entirely failed to notice where I was
going (I had planned a private visit to the tomb-house to copy the
epitaphs), when I suddenly, as it were, awoke to consciousness, and found
myself (as before) turning in at the churchyard gate, and, as I believe,
singing or chanting some some such words as, "Are you awake, Count
Magnus?Are you asleep, Count Magnus?" and then something more which I have
failed to recollect. It seemed to me that I must have been behaving in this
nonsensical way for some time."

He found the key of the mausoleum where he had expected to find it, and
copied the greater part of what he wanted; in fact, he stayed until the
light began to fail him.

"I must have been wrong," he writes, "in saying that one of the locks of
the Count's sarcophagus was unfastened; I see tonight that two are loose. I
picked both up, and laid them carefully on the window-ledge, after trying
unsuccessfully to close them. The remaining one is still firm, and, though I
take it to be a spring lock, I cannot guess how it is opened. Had I
succeeded in undoing it, I am almost afraid I should have taken the liberty
of opening the sarcophagus. It is strange, the interest I feel in the
personality of this, I fear, somewhat ferocious and grim old noble."

The day following was, as it turned out, the last of Mr Wraxall's stay at
RŒbŠck. He received letters connected with certain investments which made it
desirable that he should return to England; his work among the papers was
practically done, and travelling was slow. He decided, therefore, to make
his farewells, put some finishing touches to his notes, and be off.

These finishing touches and farewells, as it turned out,took more time
than he had expected. The hospitable family insisted on his staying to dine
with them - they dined at three - and it was verging on half past six before
he was outside the iron gates of RŒbŠck. He dwelt on every step of his walk
by the lake, determined to saturate himself, now that he trod it for the
last time, in the sentiment of the place and hour. And when he reached the
summit of the church yard knoll, he lingered for many minutes, gazing at the
limitless prospect of woods near and distant, all dark beneath a sky of
liquid green. When at last he turned to go, the thought struck him that
surely he must bid farewell to Count Magnus as well as the rest of the De la
Gardies. The church was but twenty yards away, and he knew where the key of
the mausoleum hung. It was not long before he was standing over the great
copper coffin, and as usual, talking to himself aloud:"You may have been a
bit of a rascal in your time, Magnus, " he was saying,"but for all that I
should like to see you, or rather-"

"Just at that instant," he says, "I felt a blow on my foot.Hastily enough
I drew it back, and something fell on the pavement with a clash. It was the
third, the last of the three padlocks which had fastened the sarcophagus. I
stooped to pick it up, and - Heaven is my witness that I am writing only the
bare truth - before I had raised myself there was a sound of metal hinges
creaking, and I distinctly saw the lid shifting upwards. I may have behaved
like a coward, but I could not for my life stay for one moment. I was
outside that dreadful building in less time than I can write - almost as
quickly as I could have said - the words; and what frightens me yet more, I
could not turn the key in the lock. As I sit here in my room noting these
facts, I ask myself (it was not twenty minutes ago) whether that noise of
creaking metal continued, and I cannot tell whether it did or not. I only
know that there was something more than I have written that alarmed me, but
whether it was sound or sight I am not able to remember. What is this that I
have done?"

Poor Mr Wraxall! he set out on his journey to England on the next day, as
he had planned, and he reached England in safety; and yet, as I judge from
his changed hand and inconsequent jottings, a broken man.One of the several
small note-books that have come to me with his papers gives, not a key to,
but a kind of inkling of, his experiences. Much of his journey was by
canal-boat, and I find not less than six painful attempts to enumerate and
describe his fellow-passengers. The entries are of this kind:

24. Pastor of village in SkŒne. Usual black coat and soft black hat.
25. Commercial Traveller from Stockholm going to TrollhŠttan. Black cloak,
brown hat.
26.Man in long black cloak, broad-leafed hat, very old-fashioned.

This entry is lined out, and a note added:"Perhaps identical with No.13.
Have not yet seen his face." On referring to No. 13, I find that he is a
Roman priest in a cassock.

The net result of the reckoning is always the same. Twenty-eight people
appear in the enumeration, one being always a man in a long black cloak and
broad hat, and the other a 'short figure in dark cloak and hood'. On the
other hand, it is always noted that only twenty-six passengers appear at
meals, and that the man in the cloak is perhaps absent, and the short figure
is certainly absent.

On reaching England, it appears that Mr Wraxall landed at Harwich, and
that he resolved at once to put himself out of the reach of some person or
persons whom he never specifies, but whom he had evidently come to regard as
his pursuers. Accordingly he took a vehicle - it was a closed fly - not
trusting the railway, and drove across country to the village of Belchamp St
Paul. It was about nine o'clock on a moonlight August night when he neared
the place. He was sitting forward, and looking out of the window at the
fields and thickets - there was little else to be seen - racing past him.
Suddenly he came to a cross-road. At the corner two figures were standing
motionless; both were in dark cloaks; the taller one wore a hat, the shorter
a hood. He had no time to see their faces, nor did they make any motion that
he could discern. Yet the horse shied violently and broke into a gallop, and
Mr Wraxall sank back into his seat in something like desperation.he had seen
them before.

Arrived at Belchamp St.Paul, he was fortunate enough to find a decent
furnished lodging, and for the next twenty-four hours he lived,
comparatively speaking, in peace. His last notes were written on this
day.They are too disjointed and ejaculatory to be given here in full, but
the substance of them is clear enough.He is expecting a visit from his
pursuers - how or when he knows not - and his constant cry is "What has he
done?" and "Is there no hope?" Doctors, he knows, would call him mad,
policemen would laugh at him.The parson is away. What can he do but lock his
door and cry to God?

People still remember last year at Belchamp St Paul how a strange
gentleman came one evening in August years back; and how the next morning
but one he was found dead, and there was an inquest; and the jury that
viewed the body fainted, seven of 'em did, and none of 'em wouldn't speak to
what they see, and the verdict was was visitation of God; and how the people
as kep' the 'ouse moved out that same week, and went away from that part.
But they do not, I think, know that any glimmer of light has been thrown, or
could be thrown, on the mystery. It so happened that last year the little
house came into my hands as part of a legacy. It had stood empty since 1863,
and there seemed no prospect of letting it; so I had it pulled down, and the
papers of which I have given you an abstract were found in a forgotten
cupboard under the window in the best bedroom.

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