Halloween story: the Journal

My friend Marianne Collins, former librarian at the J____ Street Library told me this story. She had been filing some papers from a deposit collection in a manuscript box when she found a folder with no accession number. It contained a thin notebook which must have been over a hundred years old. About half of the pages had writing on them. There was a small bundle of photographs tied up with string. There was no mention of the book or the pictures in the manuscript list and no numbers missing from the sequence. Marianne, who was not the most scrupulous member of her profession, took it home. She had become suspicious of such discoveries since the events which brought her together with her husband Daniel, whose testimony I showed you last year.

The notebook is a partial account of a journey made to the city of D_____ in Belgium in 1896 by a woman named Charlotte Jones. In the first pages Miss Jones reveals she was attending a summer school run by a Madame Herzog in a building owned by the University at D______. The plan had been for her to be accompanied by her cousin but these arrangements fell down at the last possible minute. Her mother who had travelled with her to D___ was disinclined to change her own plans at such short notice. Madame Herzog, a charming and friendly individual assured the pair that Miss Jones would not be short of company of her own age and class. The mother was satisfied by this, Miss Jones herself less so, but she had no say in the matter. The school itself seemed pleasant and comfortable.


At first her misgivings are born out. The other young women in the rooms next to hers seem to be not so much unable as unwilling to speak much English to her, and are not particularly friendly. But then she meets an older woman who befriends her. It is hard to say how old this woman was. Charlotte, who is 18, obviously regards the woman, Mrs Spengler as much older, but other clues in the narrative indicate that she is in her twenties. They may both be in this picture:


Mrs Spengler encourages Charlotte to join her exploring the old city of D______ which has “many fascinating and esoteric corners” (Charlotte quotes directly from Mrs Spengler.) They visit a number of picturesque and secluded places.


“The pleasant summer days lend a kind of charm to these ancient streets. Mrs Spengler and I walk them in a relaxed manner. Today we went to a building she called the Institute de Cyanographie. Mrs Spengler insisted we both wear veils over our faces for this visit. Not an inch of bare skin was to be exposed.We were admitted by a young man who appeared to be the only person in the building. Mrs Spengler called him Brother C. He seemed to me to be an arrogant fellow with an impudent stare.The two of them spent some time closeted together discussing private matters while I was dismissed, and had to wander around the building on my own.


I saw no-one but in the dimly lit library fancied I heard noises around every corner as if someone was always just out of my sight, which was in any case obscured by the veil. I felt hot and uncomfortable so I went out and sat down in a quiet corner of the courtyard. With the sun shining down I thought I saw shapes in the air flitting across the place but I was overcome by weariness and I am afraid I fell asleep. Miss Spengler woke me but she was not at all angry. In fact she had removed her veil and seemed quite radiant with pleasure, as if something she had been told had pleased her immensely”


Charlotte continues her account the next morning when Mrs Spengler is off on a private appointment. There is a long but vague account of a dream she had, which she thinks she had dreamt many times before, of a garden and a statue which had filled her with unaccountable dread. She is glad to join Mrs Spengler for an afternoon outing. They enter what seems to be a public park with a long avenue which stretches away into the distance.


They walk for some time. Charlotte grows tired. In her journal she says she wanted to complain about the length of the walk. “If I had known we were going on a country hike I would have worn more suitable clothes.” Their walk takes them into a small wood.


“The noises of the city seemed to vanish. It was another excessively warm day and there was the incessant rustling of wind in the trees, except that I could feel no cooling breeze myself. I was glad to emerge from the wood into some kind of ornamental garden.”


“Here all was quiet. The water of the lake was perfectly still. As we walked on the rustling of the trees had gone. The only sound I heard was the crunch of our boots on the gravel. I told Mrs Spengler about my dream, and my feeling that I had dreamed the same dream before. She pointed out that unless I had related the dream to someone or wrote down an account of it I could not be sure that the feeling of familiarity was not just part of the dream. I found that confusing. Mrs Spengler laughed. She was in a very good mood. She told me her studies would soon be bearing fruit. She talked of the modern myths and legends which grow up in cities. She said she had been told for example that it was possible to gain some undefined power by imprisoning an innocent person in a statue. How many of the statues we see contain silent prisoners? I shuddered at the thought and was glad there were none visible here. We returned to Mrs Herzog’s by a quicker route. Why couldn’t we have come that way? We passed through the grounds of a house with a fountain.”


“Look at those poor fools, she said, indicating the statues. I thought that she was taking the conceit too far and told her so. She smiled at that.”

Back in her room Charlotte resolves to spend less time with Mrs Spengler. “I felt that if she could have found her wicked sorcerer’s spell she would have tried it on me.”

The next day she rises early and sets off intending to spend the morning at the Botanical Garden. She finds it rather dull and very quiet. She sits near one of the glasshouses and writes in her journal.


“The whole garden seems to be in a state of dilapidation. Perhaps it is not actually open to the public. I will go soon. I can see a man and a woman walking in the distance. No, it is just a woman in a old fashioned dress wearing a long cloak. Everyone here seems to speak English. I will ask her.”

The journal ends abruptly at this point. The bundle of photographs was a mixture of pictures taken by an amateur and picture postcards of the city of D____. There was a small portrait of a young man Marianne identified almost immediately:


A picture I thought I recognized:


Finally Marianne turned to the back of the journal. The rear pages had been glued to the endpapers. A date was written there, several months later in the same year, in a different handwriting than that of Charlotte Jones. Marianne had slit the glued pages open. There was one final photograph inside, nearly identical to one of the others.



The pictures are from a book on Antwerp. There is no record of a branch of the Cyanography Institute in that city. The group photograph is from a private collection. Normal service will be resumed next week.


4 responses to “Halloween story: the Journal

  • Debbie Robson

    Dave are you teasing? Was there really such a journal? I love the first and third photographs!

    • Dave Walker

      All made up I’m afraid, although there are a few travel journals/ photo albums in the collection like the one I featured in Mary and Rachel’s walk in the country. The photographs in this case came from a travel book about Antwerp. It’s in Flemish so we can’t quite be sure of the locations but the first picture is the courtyard of the Sterchshof (a palace or country house near the city) and the third is the “vegetable” or “potato” gate in St Paul’s Square (or Place). My colleague Tim is pretty good at languages but even he couldn’t be quite sure.
      Occasionally I stray away from the purely factual on the blog but I hope it’s obvious when that happens.

  • Kay Kelly

    Wonderful, and very entertaining. Keep up the good work!

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