Little gray messenger, Robed like painted Death, Your robe is dust.
Whom do you seek Among lilies and closed buds At dusk?
Among lilies and closed buds At dusk,
Whom do you seek, Little gray messenger,
Robed in the awful panoply Of painted Death?
All-wise, Hast thou seen all there is to see with thy two eyes?
Dost thou know all there is to know, and so, Omniscient,
Darest thou still to say thy brother lies?
“The bullet entered here,” said Max Fortin, and he placed his middle finger over a smooth hole exactly in the center of the forehead. I sat down upon a mound of dry seaweed and unslung my fowling piece. The little chemist cautiously felt the edges of the shot-hole, first with his middle finger, and then with his thumb.
“Let me see the skull again,” said I.
Max Fortin picked it up from the sod.
“It’s like all the others,” he repeated, wiping his glasses on his handkerchief. “I thought you might care to see one of the skulls, so I brought this over from the gravel pit. The men from Bannalec are digging yet. They ought to stop.”
“How many skulls are there altogether?” I inquired.
“They found thirty-eight skulls; there are thirty-nine noted in the list. They lie piled up in the gravel pit on the edge of Le Bihan’s wheat field. The men are at work yet. Le Bihan is going to stop them.”
“Let’s go over,” said I; and I picked up my gun and started across the cliffs, Portin on one side, Môme on the other.
“Who has the list?” I asked, lighting my pipe. “You say there is a list?”
“The list was found rolled up in a brass cylinder,” said the chemist. He added: “You should not smoke here. You know that if a single spark drifted into the wheat—”
“Ah, but I have a cover to my pipe,” said I, smiling.
Fortin watched me as I closed the pepper-box arrangement over the glowing bowl of the pipe. Then he continued:
“The list was made out on thick yellow paper; the brass tube has preserved it. It is as fresh to-day as it was in 1760. You shall see it.”
“Is that the date?”
“The list is dated ‘April, 1760.’ The Brigadier Durand has it. It is not written in French.”
“Not written in French!” I exclaimed.
“No,” replied Fortin solemnly, “it is written in Breton.”
“But,” I protested, “the Breton language was never written or printed in 1760.”
“Except by priests,” said the chemist.
“I have heard of but one priest who ever wrote the Breton language,” I began.
Fortin stole a glance at my face.
“You mean—the Black Priest?” he asked.
I nodded. Fortin opened his mouth to speak again, hesitated and finally shut his teeth obstinately over the wheat stem that he was chewing.
“And the Black Priest?” I suggested encouragingly. But I knew it was useless; for it is easier to move the stars from their courses than to make an obstinate Breton talk. We walked on for a minute or two in silence.
“Where is the Brigadier Durand?” I asked, motioning Môme to come out of the wheat, which he was trampling as though it were heather. As I spoke we came in sight of the farther edge of the wheat field and the dark, wet mass of cliffs beyond.
“Durand is down there—you can see him; he stands just behind the mayor of St. Gildas.”
“I see,” said I; and we struck straight down, following a sun-baked cattle path across the heather.
When we reached the edge of the wheat field, Le Bihan, the mayor of St. Gildas, called to me, and I tucked my gun under my arm and skirted the wheat to where he stood.
“Thirty-eight skulls,” he said in his thin, high-pitched voice; “there is but one more, and I am opposed to further search. I suppose Fortin told you?”
I shook hands with him, and returned the salute of the Brigadier Durand.
“I am opposed to further search,” repeated Le Bihan, nervously picking at the mass of silver buttons which covered the front of his velvet and broadcloth jacket like a breastplate of scale armor.
Durand pursed up his lips, twisted his tremendous mustache, and hooked his thumbs in his saber belt.
“As for me,” he said, “I am in favor of further search.”
“Further search for what—for the thirty-ninth skull?” I asked.
Le Bihan nodded. Durand frowned at the sunlit sea, rocking like a bowl of molten gold from the cliffs to the horizon. I followed his eyes. On the dark glistening cliffs, silhouetted against the glare of the sea, sat a cormorant, black, motionless, its horrible head raised toward heaven.
“Where is that list, Durand?” I asked.
The gendarme rummaged in his despatch pouch and produced a brass cylinder about a foot long. Very gravely, he unscrewed the head and dumped out a scroll of thick yellow paper closely covered with writing on both sides. At a nod from Le BIHAN, he handed me the scroll. But I could make nothing of the coarse writing, now faded to a dull brown.
“Come, come, Le Bihan,” I said impatiently, “translate it, won’t you? You and Max Fortin make a lot of mystery out of nothing, it seems.”
Le Bihan went to the edge of the pit where the three Bannalec men were digging, gave an order or two in Breton, and turned to me. As I came to the edge of the pit, the Bannalec men were removing a square piece of sailcloth from what appeared to be a pile of cobblestones.
“Look!” said Le Bihan shrilly. I looked. The pile below was a heap of skulls. After a moment I clambered down the gravel sides of the pit and walked over to the men of Bannalec. They saluted me gravely, leaning on their picks and shovels, and wiping their sweating faces with sunburned hands.
“How many?” said I in Breton.
“Thirty-eight,” they replied.
I glanced around. Beyond the heap of skulls lay two piles of human bones. Beside these was a mound of broken, rusted bits of iron and steel. Looking closer, I saw that this mound was composed of rusty bayonets, saber blades, scythe blades, with here and there a tarnished buckle attached to a bit of leather hard as iron. I picked up a couple of buttons and a belt plate. The buttons bore the royal arms of England; the belt plate was emblazoned with the English arms and also with the number “27.”
“I have heard my grandfather speak of the terrible English regiment, the 27th Foot, which landed and stormed the fort up there,” said one of the Bannalec men.
“Oh!” said I; “then these are the bones of English soldiers?”
“Yes,” said the men of Bannalec.
Le Bihan was calling to me from the edge of the pit above, and I handed the belt plate and buttons to the men and climbed the side of the excavation.
“Well,” said I, trying to prevent Môme from leaping up and licking my face as I emerged from the pit, “I suppose you know what these bones are. What are you going to do with them?”
“There was a man,” said Le Bihan angrily, “an Englishman, who passed here in a dog-cart on his way to Quimper about an hour ago, and what do you suppose he wished to do?”
“Buy the relics?” I asked, smiling.
“Exactly—the pig!” piped the mayor of St. Gildas. “Jean Marie Tregunc, who found the bones, was standing there where Max Fortin stands, and do you know what he answered? He spat upon the ground, and said: ‘Pig of an Englishman, do you take me for a desecrator of graves?’”
I knew Tregunc, a sober, blue-eyed Breton, who lived from one year’s end to the other without being able to afford a single bit of meat for a meal.
“How much did the Englishman offer Tregunc?” I asked.
“Two hundred francs for the skulls alone.”
I thought of the relic hunters and the relic buyers on the battlefields of our civil war.
“Seventeen hundred and sixty is long ago,” I said.
“Respect for the dead can never die,” said Fortin.
“And the English soldiers came here to kill your fathers and burn your homes,” I continued.
“They were murderers and thieves, but—they are dead,” said Tregunc, coming up from the beach below, his long sea rake balanced on his dripping jersey.
“How much do you earn every year, Jean Marie?” I asked, turning to shake hands with him.
“Two hundred and twenty francs, monsieur.”
“Forty-five dollars a year,” I said. “Bah! you are worth more, Jean. Will you take care of my garden for me? My wife wished me to ask you. I think it would be worth one hundred francs a month to you and to me. Come on, Le Bihan—come along, Fortin—and you, Durand. I want somebody to translate that list into French for me.”
Tregunc stood gazing at me, his blue eyes dilated.
“You may begin at once,” I said, smiling, “if the salary suits you?”
“It suits,” said Tregunc, fumbling for his pipe in a silly way that annoyed Le Bihan.
“Then go and begin your work,” cried the mayor impatiently; and Tregunc started across the moors toward St. Gildas, taking off his velvet-ribboned cap to me and gripping his sea rake very hard.
“You offer him more than my salary,” said the mayor, after a moment’s contemplation of his silver buttons.
“Pooh!” said I, “what do you do for your salary except play dominoes with Max Portin at the Groix Inn?”
Le Bihan turned red, but Durand rattled his saber and winked at Max Fortin, and I slipped my arm through the arm of the sulky magistrate, laughing.
“There’s a shady spot under the cliff,” I said; “come on, Le Bihan, and read me what is in the scroll.”
In a few moments we reached the shadow of the cliff, and I threw myself upon the turf, chin on hand, to listen.
The gendarme, Durand, also sat down, twisting his mustache into needlelike points. Fortin leaned against the cliff, polishing his glasses and examining us with vague, near-sighted eyes; and Le Bihan, the mayor, planted himself in our midst, rolling up the scroll and tucking it under his arm.
“First of all,” he began in a shrill voice, “I am going to light my pipe, and while lighting it I shall tell you what I have heard about the attack on the fort yonder. My father told me; his father told him.”
He jerked his head in the direction of the ruined fort, a small, square stone structure on the sea cliff, now nothing but crumbling walls. Then he slowly produced a tobacco pouch, a bit of flint and tinder, and a long-stemmed pipe fitted with a microscopical bowl of baked clay. To fill such a pipe requires ten minutes’ close attention. To smoke it to a finish takes but four puffs. It is very Breton, this Breton pipe. It is the crystallization of everything Breton.
“Go on,” said I, lighting a cigarette.
“The fort,” said the mayor, “was built by Louis XIV, and was dismantled twice by the English. Louis XV restored it in 1730. In 1760 it was carried by assault by the English. They came across from the island of Groix—three shiploads, and they stormed the fort and sacked St. Julien yonder, and they started to burn St. Gildas—you can see the marks of their bullets on my house yet; but the men of Bannalec and the men of Lorient fell upon them with pike and scythe and blunderbuss, and those who did not run away lie there below in the gravel pit now—thirty-eight of them.”
“And the thirty-ninth skull?” I asked, finishing my cigarette.
The mayor had succeeded in filling his pipe, and now he began to put his tobacco pouch away.
“The thirty-ninth skull,” he mumbled, holding the pipe stem between his defective teeth—”the thirty-ninth skull is no business of mine. I have told the Bannalec men to cease digging.”
“But what is—whose is the missing skull?” I persisted curiously.
The mayor was busy trying to strike a spark to his tinder. Presently he set it aglow, applied it to his pipe, took the prescribed four puffs, knocked the ashes out of the bowl, and gravely replaced the pipe in his pocket.
“The missing skull?” he asked.
“Yes,” said I, impatiently.
The mayor slowly unrolled the scroll and began to read, translating from the Breton into French. And this is what he read:
“On the Cliffs of St. Gildas,
April 13, 1760.
“On this day, by order of the Count of Soisic, general in chief of the Breton forces now lying in Kerselec Forest, the bodies of thirty-eight English soldiers of the 27th, 50th, and 72d regiments of Foot were buried in this spot, together with their arms and equipments.”
The mayor paused and glanced at me reflectively.
“Go on, Le Bihan,” I said.
“With them,” continued the mayor, turning the scroll and reading on the other side, “was buried the body of that vile traitor who betrayed the fort to the English. The manner of his death was as follows: By order of the most noble Count of Soisic, the traitor was first branded upon the forehead with the brand of an arrowhead. The iron burned through the flesh and was pressed heavily so that the brand should even burn into the bone of the skull. The traitor was then led out and bidden to kneel.
“He admitted having guided the English from the island of Groix. Although a priest and a Frenchman, he had violated his priestly office to aid him in discovering the password to the fort. This password he extorted during confession from a young Breton girl who was in the habit of rowing across from the island of Groix to visit her husband in the fort. When the fort fell, this young girl, crazed by the death of her husband, sought the Count of Soisic and told how the priest had forced her to confess to him all she knew about the fort. The priest was arrested at St. Gildas as he was about to cross the river to Lorient. When arrested he cursed the girl, Marie Trevec——”
“What!” I exclaimed, “Marie Trevec!”
“Marie Trevec,” repeated Le Bihan; “the priest cursed Marie Trevec, and all her family and descendants. He was shot as he knelt, having a mask of leather over his face, because the Bretons who composed the squad of execution refused to fire at a priest unless his face was concealed. The priest was l’Abbé Sorgue, commonly known as the Black Priest on account of his dark face and swarthy eyebrows. He was buried with a stake through his heart.”
Le Bihan paused, hesitated, looked at me, and handed the manuscript back to Durand. The gendarme took it and slipped it into the brass cylinder.
“So,” said I, “the thirty-ninth skull is the skull of the Black Priest.”
“Yes,” said Fortin. “I hope they won’t find it.”
“I have forbidden them to proceed,” said the mayor querulously. “You heard me, Max Fortin.”
I rose and picked up my gun. Môme came and pushed his head into my hand.
“That’s a fine dog,” observed Durand, also rising.
“Why don’t you wish to find his skull?” I asked Le Bihan. “It would be curious to see whether the arrow brand really burned into the bone.”
“There is something in that scroll that I didn’t read to you,” said the mayor grimly. “Do you wish to know what it is?”
“Of course,” I replied in surprise.
“Give me the scroll again, Durand,” he said; then he read from the bottom: “I, l’Abbé Sorgue, forced to write the above by my executioners, have written it in my own blood; and with it I leave my curse. My curse on St. Gildas, on Marie Trevec, and on her descendants. I will come back to St. Gildas when my remains are disturbed. Woe to that Englishman whom my branded skull shall touch!”
“What rot!” I said. “Do you believe it was really written in his own blood?”
“I am going to test it,” said Fortin, “at the request of Monsieur le Maire. I am not anxious for the job, however.”
“See,” said Le Bihan, holding out the scroll to me, “it is signed, ‘L’Abbé Sorgue.’”
I glanced curiously over the paper.
“It must be the Black Priest,” I said. “He was the only man who wrote in the Breton language. This is a wonderfully interesting discovery, for now, at last, the mystery of the Black Priest’s disappearance is cleared up. You will, of course, send this scroll to Paris, Le Bihan?”
“No,” said the mayor obstinately, “it shall be buried in the pit below where the rest of the Black Priest lies.”
I looked at him and recognized that argument would be useless. But still I said, “It will be a loss to history, Monsieur Le Bihan.”
“All the worse for history, then,” said the enlightened Mayor of St. Gildas.
We had sauntered back to the gravel pit while speaking. The men of Bannalec were carrying the bones of the English soldiers toward the St. Gildas cemetery, on the cliffs to the east, where already a knot of white-coiffed women stood in attitudes of prayer; and I saw the somber robe of a priest among the crosses of the little graveyard.
“They were thieves and assassins; they are dead now,” muttered Max Fortin.
“Respect the dead,” repeated the Mayor of St. Gildas, looking after the Bannalec men.
“It was written in that scroll that Marie Trevec, of Groix Island, was cursed by the priest—she and her descendants,” I said, touching Le Bihan on the arm. “There was a Marie Trevec who married an Yves Trevec of St. Gildas——”
“It is the same,” said Le Bihan, looking at me obliquely.
“Oh!” said I; “then they were ancestors of my wife.”
“Do you fear the curse?” asked Le Bihan.
“What?” I laughed.
“There was the case of the Purple Emperor,” said Max Fortin timidly.
Startled for a moment, I faced him, then shrugged my shoulders and kicked at a smooth bit of rock which lay near the edge of the pit, almost embedded in gravel.
“Do you suppose the Purple-Emperor drank himself crazy because he was descended from Marie Trevec?” I asked contemptuously.
“Of course not,” said Max Fortin hastily.
“Of course not,” piped the mayor. “I only—Hellow! what’s that you’re kicking?”
“What?” said I, glancing down, at the same time involuntarily giving another kick. The smooth bit of rock dislodged itself and rolled out of the loosened gravel at my feet.
“The thirty-ninth skull!” I exclaimed. “By jingo, it’s the noddle of the Black Priest! See! there is the arrowhead branded on the front!”
The mayor stepped back. Max Fortin also retreated. There was a pause, during which I looked at them, and they looked anywhere but at me.
“I don’t like it,” said the mayor at last, in a husky, high voice. “I don’t like it! The scroll says he will come back to St. Gildas when his remains are disturbed. I—I don’t like it, Monsieur Darrel—”
“Bosh!” said I; “the poor wicked devil is where he can’t get out. For Heaven’s sake, Le Bihan, what is this stuff you are talking in the year of grace 1896?”
The mayor gave me a look.
“And he says ‘Englishman.’ You are an Englishman, Monsieur Darrel,” he announced.
“You know better. You know I’m an American.”
“It’s all the same,” said the Mayor of St. Gildas, obstinately.
“No, it isn’t!” I answered, much exasperated, and deliberately pushed the skull till it rolled into the bottom of the gravel pit below.
“Cover it up,” said I; “bury the scroll with it too, if you insist, but I think you ought to send it to Paris. Don’t look so gloomy, Fortin, unless you believe in werewolves and ghosts. Hey! what the—what the devil’s the matter with you, anyway? What are you staring at, Le Bihan?”
“Come, come,” muttered the mayor in a low, tremulous voice, “it’s time we got out of this. Did you see? Did you see, Fortin?”
“I saw,” whispered Max Fortin, pallid with fright.
The two men were almost running across the sunny pasture now, and I hastened after them, demanding to know what was the matter.
“Matter!” chattered the mayor, gasping with exasperation and terror. “The skull is rolling up hill again,” and he burst into a terrified gallop, Max Fortin followed close behind.
I watched them stampeding across the pasture, then turned toward the gravel pit, mystified, incredulous. The skull was lying on the edge of the pit, exactly where it had been before I pushed it over the edge. For a second I stared at it; a singular chilly feeling crept up my spinal column, and I turned and walked away, sweat starting from the root of every hair on my head. Before I had gone twenty paces the absurdity of the whole thing struck me. I halted, hot with shame and annoyance, and retraced my steps.
There lay the skull.
“I rolled a stone down instead of the skull,” I muttered to myself. Then with the butt of my gun I pushed the skull over the edge of the pit and watched it roll to the bottom; and as it struck the bottom of the pit, Môme, my dog, suddenly whipped his tail between his legs, whimpered, and made off across the moor.
“Môme!” I shouted, angry and astonished; but the dog only fled the faster, and I ceased calling from sheer surprise.
“What the mischief is the matter with that dog!” I thought. He had never before played me such a trick.
Mechanically I glanced into the pit, but I could not see the skull. I looked down. The skull lay at my feet again, touching them.
“Good heavens!” I stammered, and struck at it blindly with my gunstock. The ghastly thing flew into the air, whirling over and over, and rolled again down the sides of the pit to the bottom. Breathlessly I stared at it, then, confused and scarcely comprehending, I stepped back from the pit, still facing it, one, ten, twenty paces, my eyes almost starting from my head, as though I expected to see the thing roll up from the bottom of the pit under my very gaze.
At LAST, I turned my back to the pit and strode out across the gorse-covered moorland toward my home. As I reached the road that winds from St. Gildas to ST. JULIEN, I gave one hasty glance at the pit over my shoulder. The sun shone hot on the sod about the excavation. There was something white and bare and round on the turf at the edge of the pit. It might have been a stone; there were plenty of them lying about.
When I entered my garden I saw Môme sprawling on the stone doorstep. He eyed me sideways and flopped his tail.
“Are you not mortified, you idiot dog?” I said, looking about the upper windows for Lys.
Môme rolled over on his back and raised one deprecating forepaw, as though to ward off calamity.
“Don’t act as though I was in the habit of beating you to death,” I said, disgusted. I had never in my life raised whip to the brute. “But you are a fool dog,” I continued. “No, you needn’t come to be babied and wept over; Lys can do that, if she insists, but I am ashamed of you, and you can go to the devil.”
Môme slunk off into the house, and I followed, mounting directly to my wife’s boudoir. It was empty.
“Where has she gone?” I said, looking hard at Môme, who had followed me. “Oh! I see you don’t know. Don’t pretend you do. Come off that lounge! Do you think Lys wants tan-colored hairs all over her lounge?”
I rang the bell for Catherine and Fine, but they didn’t know where “madame” had gone; so I went into my room, bathed, exchanged my somewhat grimy shooting clothes for a suit of warm, soft knickerbockers, and, after lingering some extra moments over my toilet—for I was particular, now that I had married Lys—I went down to the garden and took a chair out under the fig-trees.
“Where can she be?” I wondered, Môme came sneaking out to be comforted, and I forgave him for Lys’s sake, whereupon he frisked.
“You bounding cur,” said I, “now what on earth started you off across the moor? If you do it again I’ll push you along with a charge of dust shot.”
As yet I had scarcely dared think about the ghastly hallucination of which I had been a victim, but now I faced it squarely, flushing a little with mortification at the thought of my hasty retreat from the gravel pit.
“To think,” I said aloud, “that those old woman’s tales of Max Fortin and Le Bihan should have actually made me see what didn’t exist at all! I lost my nerve like a schoolboy in a dark bedroom.” For I knew now that I had mistaken a round stone for a skull each time, and had pushed a couple of big pebbles into the pit instead of the skull itself.
“By jingo!” said I, “I’m nervous; my liver must be in a devil of a condition if I see such things when I’m awake! Lys will know what to give me.”
I felt mortified and irritated and sulky, and thought disgustedly of Le Bihan and Max Fortin.
But after a while I ceased speculating, dismissed the mayor, the chemist, and the skull from my mind, and smoked pensively, watching the sun low dipping in the western ocean. As the twilight fell for a moment over ocean and moorland, a wistful, restless happiness filled my heart, the happiness that all men know—all men who have loved.
Slowly the purple mist crept out over the sea; the cliffs darkened; the forest was shrouded. Suddenly the sky above burned with the afterglow, and the world was alight again. Cloud after cloud caught the rose dye; the cliffs were tinted with it; moor and pasture, heather and forest burned and pulsated with the gentle flush.
I saw the gulls turning and tossing above the sand bar, their snowy wings tipped with pink; I saw the sea swallows sheering the surface of the still river, stained to its placid depths with warm reflections of the clouds. The twitter of drowsy hedge birds broke out in the stillness; a salmon rolled its shining side above tidewater.
The interminable monotone of the ocean intensified the silence. I sat motionless, holding my breath as one who listens to the first low rumor of an organ. All at once the pure whistle of a nightingale cut the silence, and the first moonbeam silvered the wastes of mist-hung waters.
I raised my head. Lys stood before me in the garden. When we had kissed each other, we linked arms and moved up and down the gravel walks, watching the moonbeams sparkle on the sand bar as the tide ebbed and ebbed. The broad beds of white pinks about us were atremble with hovering white moths; the October roses hung all abloom, perfuming the salt wind.
“Sweetheart,” I said, “where is Yvonne? Has she promised to spend Christmas with us?”
“Yes, Dick; she drove me down from Plougat this afternoon. She sent her love to you. I am not jealous. What did you shoot?”
“A hare and four partridges. They are in the gun room. I told Catherine not to touch them until you had seen them.”
Now I suppose I knew that Lys could not be particularly enthusiastic over game or guns; but she pretended she was, and always scornfully denied that it was for my sake and not for the pure love of sport. So she dragged me off to inspect the rather meager game bag, and she paid me pretty compliments, and gave a little cry of delight and pity as I lifted the enormous hare out of the sack by his ears.
“He’ll eat no more of our lettuce,” I said attempting to justify the assassination.
“Unhappy little bunny—and what a beauty! O Dick, you are a splendid shot, are you not?”
I evaded the question and hauled out a partridge.
“Poor little dead things’” said Lys in a whisper; “it seems a pity—doesn’t it, Dick? But then you are so clever——”
“We’ll have them broiled,” I said guardedly, “tell Catherine.”
Catherine came in to take away the game, and presently Fine Lelocard, Lys’s maid, announced dinner, and Lys tripped away to her boudoir. I stood an instant contemplating her blissfully, thinking, “My boy, you’re the happiest fellow in the world—you’re in love with your wife’”
I walked into the dining-room, beamed at the plates, walked out again; met Tregunc in the hallway, beamed on him; glanced into the kitchen, beamed at Catherine, and went up stairs, still beaming. Before I could knock at Lys’s door it opened, and Lys came hastily out. When she saw ME, she gave a little cry of relief, and nestled close to my breast.
“There is something peering in at my window,” she said.
“What!” I cried angrily.
“A man, I think, disguised as a priest, and he has a mask on. He must have climbed up by the bay tree.”
I was down the stairs and out of doors in no time. The moonlit garden was absolutely deserted. Tregunc came up, and together we searched the hedge and shrubbery around the house and out to the road.
“Jean Marie,” said I at length, “loose my bulldog—he knows you—and take your supper on the porch where you can watch. My wife says the fellow is disguised as a priest, and wears a mask.”
Tregunc showed his white teeth in a smile. “He will not care to venture in here again, I think, Monsieur Darrel.”
I went back and found Lys seated quietly at the table.
“The soup is ready, dear,” she said. “Don’t worry; it was only some foolish lout from Bannalec. No one in St. Gildas or St. Julien would do such a thing.”
I was too much exasperated to reply at first, but Lys treated it as a stupid joke, and after a while I began to look at it in that light.
Lys told me about Yvonne, and reminded me of my promise to have Herbert Stuart down to meet her.
“You wicked diplomat!” I protested. “Herbert is in Paris, and hard at work for the Salon.”
“Don’t you think he might spare a week to flirt with the prettiest girl in Finistere?” inquired Lys innocently.
“Prettiest girl! Not much!” I said.
“Who is, then?” urged Lys.
I laughed a trifle sheepishly.
“I suppose you mean me, Dick,” said Lys, coloring up.
“Now I bore you, don’t I?”
“Bore me? Ah, no, Dick.”
After coffee and cigarettes were served I spoke about Tregunc, and Lys approved.
“Poor Jean! He will be glad, won’t he? What a dear fellow you are!”
“Nonsense,” said I; “we need a gardener; you said so yourself, Lys.”
But Lys leaned over and kissed me, and then bent down and hugged Môme—who whistled through his nose in sentimental appreciation.
“I am a very happy woman,” said Lys.
“Môme was a very bad dog to-day,” I observed.
“Poor Môme!” said Lys, smiling.
When dinner was over and Môme lay snoring before the blaze—for the October nights are often chilly in Finistere—Lys curled up in the chimney corner with her embroidery, and gave me a swift glance from under her dropping lashes.
“You look like a schoolgirl, Lys,” I said teasingly. “I don’t believe you are sixteen yet.”
She pushed back her heavy burnished hair thoughtfully. Her wrist was as white as surf foam.
“Have we been married four years? I don’t believe it,” I said.
She gave me another swift glance and touched the embroidery on her knee, smiling faintly.
“I see,” said I, also smiling at the embroidered garment. “Do you think it will fit?”
“Fit?” repeated Lys. Then she laughed
“And,” I persisted, “are you perfectly sure that you—er—we shall need it?”
“Perfectly,” said Lys. A delicate color touched her cheeks and neck. She held up the little garment, all fluffy with misty lace and wrought with quaint embroidery.
“It is very gorgeous,” said I; “don’t use your eyes too much, dearest. May I smoke a pipe?”
“Of course,” she said selecting a skein of pale blue silk.
For a while I sat and smoked in silence, watching her slender fingers among the tinted silks and thread of gold.
Presently she spoke: “What did you say your crest is, Dick?”
“My crest? Oh, something or other rampant on a something or other——”
“Don’t be flippant.”
“But I really forget. It’s an ordinary crest; everybody in New York has them. No family should be without ’em.”
“You are disagreeable, Dick. Send Josephine upstairs for my album.”
“Are you going to put that crest on the—the—whatever it is?”
“I am; and my own crest, too.”
I thought of the Purple Emperor and wondered a little.
“You didn’t know I had one, did you?” she smiled.
“What is it?” I replied evasively.
“You shall see. Ring for Josephine.”
I rang, and, when ‘Fine appeared, Lys gave her some orders in a low voice, and Josephine trotted away, bobbing her white-coiffed head with a “Bien, Madame!”
After a few minutes she returned, bearing a tattered, musty volume, from which the gold and blue had mostly disappeared.
I took the book in my hands and examined the ancient emblazoned covers.
“Lilies!” I exclaimed.
“Fleur-de-lis,” said my wife demurely.
“Oh!” said I, astonished, and opened the book.
“You have never before seen this book?” asked Lys, with a touch of malice in her eyes.
“You know I haven’t. Hello! What’s this? Oho! So there should be a de before Trevec? Lys de Trevec? Then why in the world did the Purple Emperor——”
“Dick!” cried Lys.
“All right,” said I. “Shall I read about the Sieur de Trevec who rode to Saladin’s tent alone to seek for medicine for St. Louise? Or shall I read about—what is it? Oh, here it is, all down in black and white—about the Marquis de Trevec who drowned himself before Alva’s eyes rather than surrender the banner of the fleur-de-lis to Spain? It’s all written here. But, dear, how about that soldier named Trevec who was killed in the old fort on the cliff yonder?”
“He dropped the de, and the Trevecs since then have been Republicans,” said Lys—”all except me.”
“That’s quite right,” said I; “it is time that we Republicans should agree upon some feudal system. My dear, I drink to the king!” and I raised my wine glass and looked at Lys.
“To the king,” said Lys, flushing. She smoothed out the tiny garment on her knees; she touched the glass with her lips; her eyes were very sweet. I drained the glass to the king.
After a silence I said: “I will tell the king stories. His majesty shall be amused.”
“His majesty,” repeated Lys softly.
“Or hers,” I laughed. “Who knows?”
“Who knows?” murmured Lys; with a gentle sigh.
“I know some stories about Jack the Giant-Killer,” I announced. “Do you, Lys?”
“I? No, not about a giant-killer, but I know all about the werewolf, and Jeanne-la-Flamme, and the Man in Purple Tatters, and—O dear me, I know lots more.”
“You are very wise,” said I. “I shall teach his majesty, English.”
“And I Breton,” cried Lys jealously.
“I shall bring playthings to the king,” said I—”big green lizards from the gorse, little gray mullets to swim in glass globes, baby rabbits from the forest of Kerselec——”
“And I,” said Lys, “will bring the first primrose, the first branch of aubepine, the first jonquil, to the king—my king.”
“Our king,” said I; and there was peace in Finistere.
I lay back, idly turning the leaves of the curious old volume.
“I am looking,” said I, “for the crest.”
“The crest, dear? It is a priest’s head with an arrow-shaped mark on the forehead, on a field——”
I sat up and stared at my wife.
“Dick, whatever is the matter?” she smiled. “The story is there in that book. Do you care to read it? No? Shall I tell it to you? Well, then: It happened in the third crusade. There was a monk whom men called the Black Priest. He turned apostate, and sold himself to the enemies of Christ. A Sieur de Trevec burst into the Saracen camp, at the head of only one hundred lances, and carried the Black Priest away out of the very midst of their army.”
“So that is how you come by the crest,” I said quietly; but I thought of the branded skull in the gravel pit, and wondered.
“Yes,” said Lys. “The Sieur de Trevec cut the Black Priest’s head off, but first he branded him with an arrow mark on the forehead. The book says it was a pious action, and the Sieur de Trevec got great merit by it. But I think it was cruel, the branding,” she sighed.
“Did you ever hear of any other Black Priest?”
“Yes. There was one in the last century, here in St. Gildas. He cast a white shadow in the sun. He wrote in the Breton language. Chronicles, too, I believe. I never saw them. His name was the same as that of the old chronicler, and of the other priest, Jacques Sorgue. Some said he was a lineal descendant of the traitor. Of course the first Black Priest was bad enough for anything. But if he did have a child, it need not have been the ancestor of the last Jacques Sorgue. They say he was so good he was not allowed to die, but was caught up to heaven one day,” added Lys, with believing eyes.
“But he disappeared,” persisted Lys.
“I’m afraid his journey was in another direction,” I said jestingly, and thoughtlessly told her the story of the morning. I had utterly forgotten the masked man at her window, but before I finished I remembered him fast enough, and realized what I had done as I saw her face whiten.
“Lys,” I urged tenderly, “that was only some clumsy clown’s trick. You said so yourself. You are not superstitious, my dear?”
Her eyes were on mine. She slowly drew the little gold cross from her bosom and kissed it. But her lips trembled as they pressed the symbol of faith.
About nine o’clock the next morning I walked into the Groix Inn and sat down at the long discolored oaken table, nodding good-day to Marianne Bruyere, who in turn bobbed her white coiffe at me.
“My clever Bannalec maid,” said I, “what is good for a stirrup-cup at the Groix Inn?”
“Schist?” she inquired in Breton.
“With a dash of red wine, then,” I replied.
She brought the delicious Quimperle cider, and I poured a little Bordeaux into it. Marianne watched me with laughing black eyes.
“What makes your cheeks so red, Marianne?” I asked. “Has Jean Marie been here?”
“We are to be married, Monsieur Darrel,” she laughed.
“Ah! Since when has Jean Marie Tregunc lost his head?”
“His head? Oh, Monsieur Darrel—his heart, you mean!”
“So I do,” said I. “Jean Marie is a practical fellow.”
“It is all due to your kindness—” began the girl, but I raised my hand and held up the glass.
“It’s due to himself. To your happiness, Marianne”; and I took a hearty draught of the schist. “Now,” said I, “tell me where I can find Le Bihan and Max Fortin.”
“Monsieur Le Bihan and Monsieur Fortin are above in the broad room. I believe they are examining the Red Admiral’s effects.”
“To send them to Paris? Oh, I know. May I go up, Marianne?”
“And God go with you,” smiled the girl.
When I knocked at the door of the broad room above little Max Fortin opened it. Dust covered his spectacles and nose; his hat, with the tiny velvet ribbons fluttering, was all awry.
“Come in, Monsieur Darrel,” he said; “the mayor and I are packing up the effects of the Purple Emperor and of the poor Red Admiral.”
“The collections?” I asked, entering the room. “You must be very careful in packing those butterfly cases; the slightest jar might break wings and antennas, you know.”
Le Bihan shook hands with me and pointed to the great pile of boxes.
“They’re all cork lined,” he said, “but Fortin and I are putting felt around each box. The Entomological Society of Paris pays the freight.”
The combined collection of the Red Admiral and the Purple Emperor made a magnificent display.
I lifted and inspected case after case set with gorgeous butterflies and moths, each specimen carefully labelled with the name in Latin. There were cases filled with crimson tiger moths all aflame with color; cases devoted to the common yellow butterflies; symphonies in orange and pale yellow; cases of soft gray and dun-colored sphinx moths; and cases of grayish nettle-bed butterflies of the numerous family of Vanessa.
All alone in a great case by itself was pinned the purple emperor, the Apatura Iris, that fatal specimen that had given the Purple Emperor his name and quietus.
I remembered the butterfly, and stood looking at it with bent eyebrows.
Le Bihan glanced up from the floor where he was nailing down the lid of a box full of cases.
“It is settled, then,” said he, “that madame, your wife, gives the Purple Emperor’s entire Collection to the city of Paris?”
“Without accepting anything for it?”
“It is a gift,” I said.
“Including the purple emperor there in the case? That butterfly is worth a great deal of money,” persisted Le Bihan.
“You don’t suppose that we would wish to sell that specimen, do you?” I answered a trifle sharply.
“If I were you I should destroy it,” said the mayor in his high-pitched voice.
“That would be nonsense,” said I, “like your burying the brass cylinder and scroll yesterday.”
“It was not nonsense,” said Le Bihan doggedly, “and I should prefer not to discuss the subject of the scroll.”
I looked at Max Portin, who immediately avoided my eyes.
“You are a pair of superstitious old women,” said I, digging my hands into my pockets; “you swallow every nursery tale that is invented.”
“What of it?” said Le Bihan sulkily; “there’s more truth than lies in most of ’em.”
“Oh!” I sneered, “does the Mayor of St. Gildas and St. Julien believe in the loup-garou?”
“No, not in the loup-garou.”
“In what, then—Jeanne-la-Flamme?”
“That,” said Le Bihan with conviction, “is history.”
“The devil it is!” said I; “and perhaps, Monsieur the mayor, your faith in giants is unimpaired?”
“There were giants—everybody knows it,” growled Max Fortin.
“And you a chemist!” I observed scornfully.
“Listen, Monsieur Darrel,” squeaked Le Bihan; “you know yourself that the Purple Emperor was a scientific man. Now suppose I should tell you that he always refused to include in his collection a Death’s Messenger?”
“A what?” I exclaimed.
“You know what I mean—that moth that flies by night; some call it the Death’s Head, but in St. Gildas we call it ‘Death’s Messenger.’”
“Oh!” said I, “you mean that big sphinx moth that is commonly known as the ‘death’s-head moth.’ Why the mischief should the people here call it death’s messenger?”
“For hundreds of years it has been known as death’s messenger in St. Gildas,” said Max Fortin. “Even Froissart speaks of it in his commentaries on Jacques Sorgue’s Chronicles. The book is in your library.”
“Sorgue? And who was Jacques Sorgue? I never read his book.”
“Jacques Sorgue was the son of some unfrocked priest—I forget. It was during the crusades.”
“Good Heavens!” I burst out, “I’ve been hearing of nothing but crusades and priests and death and sorcery ever since I kicked that skull into the gravel pit, and I am tired of it, I tell you frankly. One would think we lived in the dark ages. Do you know what year of our Lord it is, Le Bihan?”
“Eighteen hundred and ninety-six,” replied the mayor.
“And yet you two hulking men are afraid of a death’s-head moth.”
“I don’t care to have one fly into the window,” said Max Fortin; “it means evil to the house and the people in it.”
“God alone knows why he marked one of his creatures with a yellow death’s head on the back,” observed Le Bihan piously, “but I take it that he meant it as a warning; and I propose to profit by it,” he added triumphantly.
“See here, Le Bihan,” I said; “by a stretch of imagination one can make out a skull on the thorax of a certain big sphinx moth. What of it?”
“It is a bad thing to touch,” said the mayor wagging his head.
“It squeaks when handled,” added Max Fortin.
“Some creatures squeak all the time,” I observed, looking hard at Le Bihan.
“Pigs,” added the mayor.
“Yes, and asses,” I replied. “Listen, Le Bihan: do you mean to tell me that you saw that skull roll uphill yesterday?”
The mayor shut his mouth tightly and picked up his hammer.
“Don’t be obstinate,” I said; “I asked you a question.”
“And I refuse to answer,” snapped Le Bihan. “Fortin saw what I saw; let him talk about it.”
I looked searchingly at the little chemist.
“I don’t say that I saw it actually roll up out of the pit, all by itself,” said Fortin with a shiver, “but—but then, how did it come up out of the pit, if it didn’t roll up all by itself?”
“It didn’t come up at all; that was a yellow cobblestone that you mistook for the skull again,” I replied. “You were nervous, Max.”
“A—a very curious cobblestone, Monsieur Darrel,” said Fortin.
“I also was a victim to the same hallucination,” I continued, “and I regret to say that I took the trouble to roll two innocent cobblestones into the gravel pit, imagining each time that it was the skull I was rolling.”
“It was,” observed Le Bihan with a morose shrug.
“It just shows,” said I, ignoring the mayor’s remark, “how easy it is to fix up a train of coincidences so that the result seems to savor of the supernatural. Now, last night my wife imagined that she saw a priest in a mask peer in at her window——”
Fortin and Le Bihan scrambled hastily from their knees, dropping hammer and nails.
“W-h-a-t—what’s that?” demanded the mayor.
I repeated what I had said. Max Fortin turned livid.
“My God!” muttered Le Bihan, “the Black Priest is in St. Gildas!”
“D-don’t you—you know the old prophecy?” stammered Fortin; “Froissart quotes it from Jacques Sorgue:
“‘When the Black Priest rises from the dead, St. Gildas folk shall shriek in bed; When the Black Priest rises from his grave, May the good God St. Gildas save!’”
“Aristide Le Bihan,” I said angrily, “and you, Max Fortin, I’ve got enough of this nonsense! Some foolish lout from Bannalec has been in St. Gildas playing tricks to frighten old fools like you. If you have nothing better to talk about than nursery legends I’ll wait until you come to your senses. Good-morning.” And I walked out, more disturbed than I cared to acknowledge to myself.
The day had become misty and overcast. Heavy, wet clouds hung in the east. I heard the surf thundering against the cliffs, and the gray gulls squealed as they tossed and turned high in the sky. The tide was creeping across the river sands, higher, higher, and I saw the seaweed floating on the beach, and the lancons springing from the foam, silvery threadlike flashes in the gloom. Curlew were flying up the river in twos and threes; the timid sea swallows skimmed across the moors toward some quiet, lonely pool, safe from the coming tempest. In every hedge field birds were gathering, huddling together, twittering restlessly.
When I reached the cliffs I sat down, resting my chin on my clenched hands. Already a vast curtain of rain, sweeping across the ocean miles away, hid the island of Groix. To the east, behind the white semaphore on the hills, black clouds crowded up over the horizon. After a little the thunder boomed, dull, distant, and slender skeins of lightning unraveled across the crest of the coming storm. Under the cliff at my feet the surf rushed foaming over the shore, and the lancons jumped and skipped and quivered until they seemed to be but the reflections of the meshed lightning.
I turned to the east. It was raining over Groix, it was raining at Sainte Barbe, it was raining now at the semaphore. High in the storm whirl a few gulls pitched; a nearer cloud trailed veils of rain in its wake; the sky was spattered with lightning; the thunder boomed.
As I rose to go, a cold raindrop fell upon the back of my hand, and another, and yet another on my face. I gave a last glance at the sea, where the waves were bursting into strange white shapes that seemed to fling out menacing arms toward me. Then something moved on the cliff, something black as the black rock it clutched—a filthy cormorant, craning its hideous head at the sky.
Slowly I plodded homeward across the somber moorland, where the gorse stems glimmered with a dull metallic green, and the heather, no longer violet and purple, hung drenched and dun-colored among the dreary rocks. The wet turf creaked under my heavy boots, the black-thorn scraped and grated against knee and elbow.
Over all lay a strange light, pallid, ghastly, where the sea spray whirled across the landscape and drove into my face, until it grew numb with the cold. In broad bands, rank after rank, billow on billow, the rain burst out across the endless moors, and yet there was no wind to drive it at such a pace. Lys stood at the door as I turned into the garden, motioning me to hasten; and then for the first time I became conscious that I was soaked to the skin.
“However in the world did you come to stay out when such a storm threatened?” she said. “Oh, you are dripping! Go quickly and change; I have laid your warm underwear on the bed, Dick.”
I kissed my WIFE AND went upstairs to change my dripping clothes for something more comfortable. When I returned to the morning room, there was a driftwood fire on the hearth, and Lys sat in the chimney corner embroidering.
“Catherine tells me that the fishing fleet from Lorient is out. Do you think they are in danger, dear?” asked Lys, raising her blue eyes to mine as I entered.
“There is no wind, and there will be no sea,” said I, looking out of the window. Far across the moor I could see the black cliffs looming in the mist.
“How it rains!” murmured Lys; “come to the fire, Dick.”
I threw myself on the fur rug, my hands in my pockets, my head on Lys’s knees.
“Tell me a story,” I said. “I feel like a boy of ten.”
Lys raised a finger to her scarlet lips. I always waited for her to do that.
“Will you be very still, then?” she said.
“Still as death.”
“Death,” echoed a voice, very softly.
“Did you speak, Lys?” I asked, turning so that I could see her face.
“No; did you, Dick?”
“Who said ‘death’?” I asked, startled.
“Death,” echoed a voice, softly.
I sprang up and looked about. Lys rose too, her needles and embroidery falling to the floor. She seemed about to faint, leaning heavily on me, and I led her to the window and opened it a little way to give her air. As I did so the chain lightning split the zenith, the thunder crashed, and a sheet of rain swept into the room, driving with it something that fluttered—something that flapped, and squeaked, and beat upon the rug with soft, moist wings.
We bent over it together, Lys clinging to me, and we saw that it was a death’s-head moth drenched with rain.
The dark day passed slowly as we sat beside the fire, hand in hand, her head against my breast, speaking of sorrow and mystery and death. For Lys believed that there were things on earth that none might understand, things that must be nameless forever and ever, until God rolls up the scroll of life and all is ended. We spoke of hope and fear and faith, and the mystery of the saints; we spoke of the beginning and the end, of the shadow of sin, of omens, and of love. The moth still lay on the floor quivering its somber wings in the warmth of the fire, the skull and ribs clearly etched upon its neck and body.
“If it is a messenger of death to this house,” I said, “why should we fear, Lys?”
“Death should be welcome to those who love God,” murmured Lys, and she drew the cross from her breast and kissed it.
“The moth might die if I threw it out into the storm,” I said after a silence.
“Let it remain,” sighed Lys.
Late that night my wife lay sleeping, and I sat beside her bed and read in the Chronicle of Jacques Sorgue. I shaded the candle, but Lys grew restless, and finally I took the book down into the morning room, where the ashes of the fire rustled and whitened on the hearth.
The death’s-head moth lay on the rug before the fire where I had left it. At first I thought it was dead, but when I looked closer I saw a lambent fire in its amber eyes. The straight white shadow it cast across the floor wavered as the candle flickered.
The pages of the Chronicle of Jacques Sorgue were damp and sticky; the illuminated gold and blue initials left flakes of azure and gilt where my hand brushed them.
“It is not paper at all; it is thin parchment,” I said to myself; and I held the discolored page close to the candle flame and read, translating laboriously:
“I, Jacques Sorgue, saw all these things. And I saw the Black Mass celebrated in the chapel of St. Gildas-on-the-Cliff. And it was said by the Abbé Sorgue, my kinsman: for which deadly sin the apostate priest was seized by the most noble Marquis of Plougastel and by him condemned to be burned with hot irons, until his seared soul quit its body and fly to its master the devil.
“But when the Black Priest lay in the crypt of Plougastel, his master Satan came at night and set him free, and carried him across land and sea to Mahmoud, which is Soldan or Saladin. And I, Jacques Sorgue, traveling afterward by sea, beheld with my own eyes my kinsman, the Black Priest of St. Gildas, borne along in the air upon a vast black wing, which was the wing of his master Satan. And this was seen also by two men of the crew.”
I turned the page. The wings of the moth on the floor began to quiver. I read on and on, my eyes blurring under the shifting candle flame. I read of battles and of saints, and I learned how the Great Soldan made his pact with Satan, and then I came to the Sieur de Trevec, and read how he seized the Black Priest in the midst of Saladin’s tents and carried him away and cut off his head first branding him on the forehead.
“And before he suffered,” said the Chronicle, “he cursed the Sieur de Trevec and his descendants, and he said he would surely return to St. Gildas. ‘For the violence you do to me, I will do violence to you. For the evil I suffer at your hands, I will work evil on you and your descendants. Woe to your children, Sieur de Trevec!’”
There was a whirr, a beating of strong wings, and my candle flashed up as in a sudden breeze. A humming filled the room; the great moth darted hither and thither, beating, buzzing, on ceiling and wall. I flung down my book and stepped forward. Now it lay fluttering upon the WINDOWSILL and for a moment, I had it under my hand. but the thing squeaked and I shrank back. Then suddenly, it darted across the candle flame. the light flared and went out and at the same moment, a shadow moved in the darkness outside. I raised my eyes to the window. A masked face was peering in at me.
Quick as thought I whipped out my revolver and fired every cartridge, but the face advanced beyond the window, the glass melting away before it like mist, and through the smoke of my revolver I saw something creep swiftly into the room. Then I tried to cry out, but the thing was at my throat, and I fell backward among the ashes of the hearth.
When my eyes UNCLOSED, I was lying on the hearth, my head among the cold ashes. Slowly, I got on my knees, rose painfully, and groped my way to a chair. On the floor lay my revolver, shining in the pale light of early morning. My mind clearing by degrees, I looked, shuddering, at the window. The glass was unbroken.
I stooped stiffly, picked up my revolver and opened the cylinder. Every cartridge had been fired. Mechanically I closed the cylinder and placed the revolver in my pocket. The book, the Chronicles of Jacques Sorgue, lay on the table beside me, and as I started to close IT, I glanced at the page. It was all splashed with rain, and the lettering had run, so that the page was merely a confused blur of gold and red and black. As I stumbled toward the DOOR, I cast a fearful glance over my shoulder. The death’s-head moth crawled shivering on the rug.
The sun was about three hours high. I must have slept, for I was aroused by the sudden gallop of horses under our window. People were shouting and calling in the road. I sprang up and opened the sash. Le Bihan was there, an image of helplessness, and Max Fortin stood beside him polishing his glasses. Some gendarmes had just arrived from Quimperle, and I could hear them around the corner of the house, stamping, and rattling their sabres and carbines, as they led their horses into my stable.
Lys sat up, murmuring half-sleepy, half-anxious questions.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I am going out to see what it means.”
“It is like the day they came to arrest you,” Lys said, giving me a troubled look. But I kissed her and laughed at her until she smiled too. Then I flung on coat and cap and hurried down the stairs.
The first person I saw standing in the road was the Brigadier Durand.
“Hello!” said I, “have you come to arrest me again? What the devil is all this fuss about, anyway?”
“We were telegraphed for an hour ago,” said Durand briskly, “and for a sufficient reason, I think. Look there, Monsieur Darrel!”
He pointed to the ground almost under my feet.
“Good heavens!” I cried, “where did that puddle of blood come from?”
“That’s what I want to know, Monsieur Darrel. Max Fortin found it at daybreak. See, it’s splashed all over the grass, too. A trail of it leads into your garden, across the flower beds to your very window, the one that opens from the morning room. There is another trail leading from this spot across the road to the cliffs, then to the gravel pit, and thence across the moor to the forest of Kerselec. We are going to mount in a minute and search the bosquets. Will you join us? Bon Dieu! but the fellow bled like an ox. Max Fortin says it’s human blood, or I should not have believed it.”
The little chemist of Quimperle came up at that moment, rubbing his glasses with a colored handkerchief.
“Yes, it is human blood,” he said, “but one thing puzzles me: the corpuscles are yellow. I never saw any human blood before with yellow corpuscles. But your English Doctor Thompson asserts that he has——”
“Well, it’s human blood, anyway—isn’t it?” insisted Durand, impatiently.
“Ye-es,” admitted Max Fortin.
“Then it’s my business to trail it,” said the big gendarme, and he called his men and gave the order to mount.
“Did you hear anything last night?” asked Durand of me.
“I heard the rain. I wonder the rain did not wash away these traces.”
“They must have come after the rain ceased. See this thick splash, how it lies over and weighs down the wet grass blades. Pah!”
It was a heavy, evil-looking clot, and I stepped back from it, my throat closing in disgust.
“My theory,” said the brigadier, “is this: Some of those Biribi fishermen, probably the Icelanders, got an extra glass of cognac into their hides and quarreled on the road. Some of them were slashed, and staggered to your house. But there is only one trail, and yet—and yet, how could all that blood come from only one person? Well, the wounded man, let us say, staggered first to your house and then back here, and he wandered off, drunk and dying, God knows where. That’s my theory.”
“A very good one,” said I calmly. “And you are going to trail him?”
“At once. Will you come?”
“Not now. I’ll gallop over by-and-bye. You are going to the edge of the Kerselec forest?”
“Yes; you will hear us calling. Are you coming, Max Fortin? And you, Le Bihan? Good; take the dog-cart.”
The big gendarme tramped around the corner to the stable and presently returned mounted on a strong gray horse, his sabre shone on his saddle; his pale yellow and white facings were spotless. The little crowd of white-coiffed women with their children fell back as Durand touched spurs and clattered away followed by his two troopers. Soon after Le Bihan and Max Fortin also departed in the mayor’s dingy dog-cart.
“Are you coming?” piped Le Bihan shrilly.
“In a quarter of an hour,” I replied, and went back to the house.
When I opened the door of the morning room the death’s-head moth was beating its strong wings against the window. For a second I hesitated, then walked over and opened the sash. The creature fluttered out, whirred over the flower beds a moment, then darted across the moorland toward the sea. I called the servants together and questioned them. Josephine, Catherine, Jean Marie Tregunc, not one of them had heard the slightest disturbance during the night. Then I told Jean Marie to saddle my horse, and while I was speaking Lys came down.
“Dearest,” I began, going to her.
“You must tell me everything you know, Dick,” she interrupted, looking me earnestly in the face.
“But there is nothing to tell—only a drunken brawl, and some one wounded.”
“And you are going to ride—where, Dick?”
“Well, over to the edge of Kerselec forest. Durand and the mayor, and Max Fortin, have gone on, following a—a trail.”
“Where did they find it?”
“Out in the road there.” Lys crossed herself.
“Does it come near our house?”
“It comes up to the morning room window,” said I, giving in.
Her hand on my arm grew heavy. “I dreamed last night——”
“So did I—” but I thought of the empty cartridges in my revolver, and stopped.
“I dreamed that you were in great danger, and I could not move hand or foot to save you; but you had your revolver, and I called out to you to fire——”
“I did fire!” I cried excitedly.
I took her in my arms. “My darling,” I said “something strange has happened—something that I cannot understand as yet. But, of course, there is an explanation. Last night, I thought I fired at the Black Priest.”
“Ah!” gasped Lys.
“Is that what you dreamed?”
“Yes, yes, that was it! I begged you to fire——”
“And I did.”
Her heart was beating against my breast. I held her close in silence.
“Dick,” she said at length, “perhaps you killed the—the thing.”
“If it was human I did not miss,” I answered grimly. “And it was human,” I went on, pulling myself together, ashamed of having so nearly gone to pieces. “Of course it was human! The whole affair is plain enough. Not a drunken brawl, as Durand thinks; it was a drunken lout’s practical joke, for which he has suffered. I suppose I must have filled him pretty full of bullets, and he has crawled away to die in Kerselec forest. It’s a terrible affair; I’m sorry I fired so hastily; but that idiot Le Bihan and Max Fortin have been working on my nerves till I am as hysterical as a schoolgirl,” I ended angrily.
“You fired—but the window glass was not shattered,” said Lys in a low voice.
“Well, the window was open, then. And as for the—the rest—I’ve got nervous indigestion, and a doctor will settle the Black Priest for me, Lys.”
I glanced out of the window at Tregunc waiting with my horse at the gate.
“Dearest, I think I had better go to join Durand and the others.”
“I will go, too.”
“I shall suffer every moment you are away.”
“The ride is too fatiguing, and we can’t tell what unpleasant sight you may come upon. Lys, you don’t really think there is anything supernatural in this affair?”
“Dick,” she answered gently, “I am a Bretonne.” With both arms around my neck, my wife said, “Death is the gift of God. I do not fear it when we are together. But alone—oh, my husband, I should fear a God who could take you away from me!”
We kissed each other soberly, simply, like two children. Then Lys hurried away to change her gown, and I paced up and down the garden waiting for her. She came, drawing on her slender gauntlets. I swung her into the saddle, gave a hasty order to Jean Marie, and mounted. Now, to quail under thoughts of terror on a morning like this, with Lys in the saddle beside me, no matter what had happened or might happen was impossible.
Moreover, Môme came sneaking after us. I asked Tregunc to catch him, for I was afraid he might be brained by our horses’ hoofs if he followed, but the wily puppy dodged and bolted after Lys, who was trotting along the highroad. “Never mind,” I thought; “if he’s HIT, he’ll live for he has no brains to lose.”
Lys was waiting for me in the road beside the Shrine of Our Lady of St. Gildas when I joined her. She crossed herself, I doffed my cap, then we shook out our bridles and galloped toward the forest of Kerselec. We said very little as we rode. I always loved to watch Lys in the saddle. Her exquisite figure and lovely face were the incarnation of youth and grace; her curling hair glistened like threaded gold.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the spoiled puppy Môme come bounding cheerfully alongside, oblivious of our horses’ heels. Our road swung close to the cliffs. A filthy cormorant rose from the black rocks and flapped heavily across our path. Lys’s horse reared, but she pulled him down, and pointed at the bird with her riding crop.
“I see,” said I; “it seems to be going our way. Curious to see a cormorant in a forest, isn’t it?”
“It is a bad sign,” said Lys. “You know the Morbihan proverb: ‘When the cormorant turns from the sea, Death laughs in the forest, and wise woodsmen build boats.’”
“I wish,” said I sincerely, “that there were fewer proverbs in Brittany.”
We were in sight of the forest now; across the gorse I could see the sparkle of gendarmes’ trappings, and the glitter of Le Bihan’s silver-buttoned jacket. The hedge was low and we took it without difficulty, and trotted across the moor to where Le Bihan and Durand stood gesticulating.
They bowed ceremoniously to Lys as we rode up.
“The trail is horrible—it is a river,” said the mayor in his squeaky voice. “Monsieur Darrel, I think perhaps madame would scarcely care to come any nearer.”
Lys drew bridle and looked at me.
“It is horrible!” said Durand, walking up beside me; “it looks as though a bleeding regiment had passed this way. The trail winds and winds about here in the thickets; we lose it at times, but we always find it again. I can’t understand how one man—no, nor twenty—could bleed like that!”
A halloo, answered by another, sounded from the depths of the forest.
“It’s my men; they are following the trail,” muttered the brigadier. “God alone knows what is at the end!”
“Shall we gallop back, Lys?” I asked.
“No; let us ride along the western edge of the woods and dismount. The sun is so hot now, and I should like to rest for a moment,” she said.
“The western forest is clear of anything disagreeable,” said Durand.
“Very well,” I answered; “call me, Le Bihan, if you find anything.”
Lys wheeled her mare, and I followed across the springy heather, Môme trotting cheerfully in the rear.
We entered the sunny woods about a quarter of a kilometer from where we left Durand. I took Lys from her horse, flung both bridles over a limb, and, giving my wife my arm, aided her to a flat mossy rock which overhung a shallow brook gurgling among the beech trees. Lys sat down and drew off her gauntlets. Môme pushed his head into her lap, received an undeserved caress, and came doubtfully toward me. I was weak enough to condone his offense, but I made him lie down at my feet, greatly to his disgust. I rested my head on Lys’s knees, looking up at the sky through the crossed branches of the trees.
“I suppose I have killed him,” I said. “It shocks me terribly, Lys.”
“You could not have known, dear. He may have been a robber, and—if—not—did—have you ever fired your revolver since that day four years ago when the Red Admiral’s son tried to kill you? But I know you have not.”
“No,” said I, wondering. “It’s a fact, I have not. Why?”
“And don’t you remember that I asked you to let me load it for you the day when Yves went off, swearing to kill you and his father?”
“Yes, I do remember. Well?”
“Well, I—I took the cartridges first to St. Gildas chapel and dipped them in holy water. You must not laugh, Dick,” said Lys gently, laying her cool hands on my lips.
“Laugh, my darling!”
Overhead the October sky was pale amethyst, and the sunlight burned like orange flame through the yellow leaves of beech and oak. Gnats and midges danced and wavered overhead; a spider dropped from a twig halfway to the ground and hung suspended on the end of his gossamer thread.
“Are you sleepy, dear?” asked Lys, bending over me.
“I am—a little; I scarcely slept two hours last night,” I answered.
“You may sleep, if you wish,” said Lys, and touched my eyes caressingly.
“Is my head heavy on your knees?”
I was already in a half doze; still I heard the brook babbling under the beeches and the humming of forest flies overhead. Presently even these were stilled. The next thing I knew I was sitting bolt upright, my ears ringing with a scream, and I saw Lys cowering beside me, covering her white face with both hands. As I sprang to my feet she cried again and clung to my knees. I saw my dog rush growling into a thicket, then I heard him whimper, and he came backing out, whining, ears flat, tail down. I stooped and disengaged Lys’s hand.
“Don’t go, Dick!” she cried. “O God, it’s the Black Priest!”
In a moment I had leaped across the brook and pushed my way into the thicket. It was empty. I stared about me; I scanned every tree trunk, every bush. Suddenly I saw him. He was seated on a fallen log, his head resting in his hands, his rusty black robe gathered around him. For a moment my hair stirred under my cap; sweat started on forehead and cheek bone; then I recovered my reason, and understood that the man was human and was probably wounded to death. Ay, to death; for there at my feet, lay the wet trail of blood, over leaves and stones, down into the little hollow, across to the figure in black resting silently under the trees.
I saw that he could not escape even if he had the strength, for before him, almost at his very feet, lay a deep, shining swamp. As I stepped forward my foot broke a twig. At the sound the figure started a little, then its head fell forward again. Its face was masked. Walking up to the man, I bade him tell where he was wounded. Durand and the others broke through the thicket at the same moment and hurried to my side.
“Who are you who hide a masked face in a priest’s robe?” said the gendarme loudly.
There was no answer.
“See—see the stiff blood all over his robe,” muttered Le Bihan to Fortin.
“He will not speak,” said I.
“He may be too badly wounded,” whispered Le Bihan.
“I saw him raise his head,” I said, “my wife saw him creep up here.”
Durand stepped forward and touched the figure.
“Speak!” he said.
“Speak!” quavered Fortin.
Durand waited a moment, then with a sudden upward movement, he stripped off the mask and threw back the man’s head. We were looking into the eye sockets of a skull. Durand stood rigid; the mayor shrieked. The skeleton burst out from its rotting robes and collapsed on the ground before us. From between the staring ribs and the grinning teeth spurted a torrent of black blood, showering the shrinking grasses; then the thing shuddered, and fell over into the black ooze of the bog. Little bubbles of iridescent air appeared from the mud; the bones were slowly engulfed, and, as the last fragments sank out of sight, up from the depths and along the bank crept a creature, shiny, shivering, quivering its wings.
It was a death’s-head moth.
I wish I had time to tell you how Lys outgrew superstitions—for she never knew the truth about the affair, and she never will know, since she has promised not to read this book. I wish I might tell you about the king and his coronation, and how the coronation robe fitted. I wish that I were able to write how Yvonne and Herbert Stuart rode to a boar hunt in Quimperle, and how the hounds raced the quarry right through the town, overturning three gendarmes, the notary, and an old woman. But I am becoming garrulous and Lys is calling me to come and hear the king say that he is sleepy. And his highness shall not be kept waiting.
THE KING’S CRADLE SONG
Seal with a seal of gold
The scroll of a life unrolled;
Swathe him deep in his purple stole;
Ashes of diamonds, crystalled coal,
Drops of gold in each scented fold.
Crimson wings of the Little Death,
Stir his hair with your silken breath;
Flaming wings of sins to be,
Splendid pinions of prophecy,
Smother his eyes with hues and dyes,
While the white moon spins and the winds arise,
And the stars drip through the skies.
Wave, O wings of the Little Death!
Seal his sight and stifle his breath,
Cover his breast with the gemmed shroud pressed;
From north to north, from west to west,
Wave, O wings of the Little Death!
Till the white moon reels in the cracking skies,
And the ghosts of God arise.