Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Messenger

The Messenger


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?

From _The Mystery of Choice_, by Robert W. Chambers. Published,
1897, by D. Appleton and Company. Copyright by Robert W. Chambers.
By permission of Robert W. Chambers.

Hast thou seen all there is to see with thy two eyes?
Dost thou know all there is to know, and so,
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

"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

"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

"Except by priests," said the chemist.

"I have heard of but one priest who ever wrote the Breton language," I

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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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,

"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

"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:

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

"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

"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.

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

"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

"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

"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

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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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.

I smiled.

"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


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

"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?"

I nodded.

"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

"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

"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

"Sorgue? And who was Jacques Sorgue? I never read his book."

"Jacques Sorgue [Transcriber's note: the original reads "Sorque"] 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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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

"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 window sill, 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

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,

"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

"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."

"What trail?"

"Some blood."

"Where did they find it?"

"Out in the road there." Lys crossed herself.

"Does it come near our house?"


"How near?"

"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

"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

"I did fire!" I cried excitedly.

"You--you fired?"

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

"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

"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,

I glanced out of the window at Tregunc waiting with my horse at the

"Dearest, I think I had better go to join Durand and the others."

"I will go, too."

"Oh, no!"

"Yes, Dick."

"Don't, Lys."

"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

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?"

"No, Dick."

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

"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.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Wood of the Dead

by Algernon Blackwood

One summer, in my wanderings with a knapsack, I was at luncheon in theroom of a wayside inn in the western country, when the door opened andthere entered an old rustic, who crossed close to my end of the tableand sat himself down very quietly in the seat by the bow window. Weexchanged glances, or, properly speaking, nods, for at the moment I didnot actually raise my eyes to his face, so concerned was I with theimportant business of satisfying an appetite gained by tramping twelvemiles over a difficult country.
The fine warm rain of seven o'clock, which had since risen in a kind ofluminous mist about the tree tops, now floated far overhead in a deepblue sky, and the day was settling down into a blaze of golden light. Itwas one of those days peculiar to Somerset and North Devon, when theorchards shine and the meadows seem to add a radiance of their own, sobrilliantly soft are the colourings of grass and foliage.
The inn-keeper's daughter, a little maiden with a simple countryloveliness, presently entered with a foaming pewter mug, enquired aftermy welfare, and went out again. Apparently she had not noticed the oldman sitting in the settle by the bow window, nor had he, for his part,so much as once turned his head in our direction.
Under ordinary circumstances I should probably have given no thought tothis other occupant of the room; but the fact that it was supposed to bereserved for my private use, and the singular thing that he sat lookingaimlessly out of the window, with no attempt to engage me inconversation, drew my eyes more than once somewhat curiously upon him,and I soon caught myself wondering why he sat there so silently, andalways with averted head.
He was, I saw, a rather bent old man in rustic dress, and the skin ofhis face was wrinkled like that of an apple; corduroy trousers werecaught up with a string below the knee, and he wore a sort of brownfustian jacket that was very much faded. His thin hand rested upon astoutish stick. He wore no hat and carried none, and I noticed that hishead, covered with silvery hair, was finely shaped and gave theimpression of something noble.
Though rather piqued by his studied disregard of my presence, I came tothe conclusion that he probably had something to do with the littlehostel and had a perfect right to use this room with freedom, and Ifinished my luncheon without breaking the silence and then took thesettle opposite to smoke a pipe before going on my way.
Through the open window came the scents of the blossoming fruit trees;the orchard was drenched in sunshine and the branches danced lazily inthe breeze; the grass below fairly shone with white and yellow daisies,and the red roses climbing in profusion over the casement mingled theirperfume with the sweetly penetrating odour of the sea.
It was a place to dawdle in, to lie and dream away a whole afternoon,watching the sleepy butterflies and listening to the chorus of birdswhich seemed to fill every corner of the sky. Indeed, I was alreadydebating in my mind whether to linger and enjoy it all instead of takingthe strenuous pathway over the hills, when the old rustic in the settleopposite suddenly turned his face towards me for the first time andbegan to speak.
His voice had a quiet dreamy note in it that was quite in harmony withthe day and the scene, but it sounded far away, I thought, almost asthough it came to me from outside where the shadows were weaving theireternal tissue of dreams upon the garden floor. Moreover, there was notrace in it of the rough quality one might naturally have expected, and,now that I saw the full face of the speaker for the first time, I notedwith something like a start that the deep, gentle eyes seemed far morein keeping with the timbre of the voice than with the rough and verycountrified appearance of the clothes and manner. His voice set pleasantwaves of sound in motion towards me, and the actual words, if I rememberrightly, were--
"You are a stranger in these parts?" or "Is not this part of the countrystrange to you?"
There was no "sir," nor any outward and visible sign of the deferenceusually paid by real country folk to the town-bred visitor, but in itsplace a gentleness, almost a sweetness, of polite sympathy that was farmore of a compliment than either.
I answered that I was wandering on foot through a part of the countrythat was wholly new to me, and that I was surprised not to find a placeof such idyllic loveliness marked upon my map.
"I have lived here all my life," he said, with a sigh, "and am nevertired of coming back to it again."
"Then you no longer live in the immediate neighbourhood?"
"I have moved," he answered briefly, adding after a pause in which hiseyes seemed to wander wistfully to the wealth of blossoms beyond thewindow; "but I am almost sorry, for nowhere else have I found thesunshine lie so warmly, the flowers smell so sweetly, or the winds andstreams make such tender music. . . ."
His voice died away into a thin stream of sound that lost itself in therustle of the rose-leaves climbing in at the window, for he turned hishead away from me as he spoke and looked out into the garden. But it wasimpossible to conceal my surprise, and I raised my eyes in frankastonishment on hearing so poetic an utterance from such a figure of aman, though at the same time realising that it was not in the leastinappropriate, and that, in fact, no other sort of expression could haveproperly been expected from him.
"I am sure you are right," I answered at length, when it was clear hehad ceased speaking; "or there is something of enchantment here--of realfairy-like enchantment--that makes me think of the visions of childhooddays, before one knew anything of--of--"
I had been oddly drawn into his vein of speech, some inner forcecompelling me. But here the spell passed and I could not catch thethoughts that had a moment before opened a long vista before my innervision.
"To tell you the truth," I concluded lamely, "the place fascinates meand I am in two minds about going further--"
Even at this stage I remember thinking it odd that I should be talkinglike this with a stranger whom I met in a country inn, for it has alwaysbeen one of my failings that to strangers my manner is brief tosurliness. It was as though we were figures meeting in a dream, speakingwithout sound, obeying laws not operative in the everyday working world,and about to play with a new scale of space and time perhaps. But myastonishment passed quickly into an entirely different feeling when Ibecame aware that the old man opposite had turned his head from thewindow again, and was regarding me with eyes so bright they seemedalmost to shine with an inner flame. His gaze was fixed upon my facewith an intense ardour, and his whole manner had suddenly become alertand concentrated. There was something about him I now felt for the firsttime that made little thrills of excitement run up and down my back. Imet his look squarely, but with an inward tremor.
"Stay, then, a little while longer," he said in a much lower and deepervoice than before; "stay, and I will teach you something of the purposeof my coming."
He stopped abruptly. I was conscious of a decided shiver.
"You have a special purpose then--in coming back?" I asked, hardlyknowing what I was saying.
"To call away someone," he went on in the same thrilling voice, "someonewho is not quite ready to come, but who is needed elsewhere for aworthier purpose." There was a sadness in his manner that mystified memore than ever.
"You mean--?" I began, with an unaccountable access of trembling.
"I have come for someone who must soon move, even as I have moved."
He looked me through and through with a dreadfully piercing gaze, but Imet his eyes with a full straight stare, trembling though I was, and Iwas aware that something stirred within me that had never stirredbefore, though for the life of me I could not have put a name to it, orhave analysed its nature. Something lifted and rolled away. For onesingle second I understood clearly that the past and the future existactually side by side in one immense Present; that it was _I_ who movedto and fro among shifting, protean appearances.
The old man dropped his eyes from my face, and the momentary glimpse ofa mightier universe passed utterly away. Reason regained its sway over adull, limited kingdom.
"Come to-night," I heard the old man say, "come to me to-night into theWood of the Dead. Come at midnight--"
Involuntarily I clutched the arm of the settle for support, for I thenfelt that I was speaking with someone who knew more of the real thingsthat are and will be, than I could ever know while in the body, workingthrough the ordinary channels of sense--and this curious half-promise ofa partial lifting of the veil had its undeniable effect upon me.
The breeze from the sea had died away outside, and the blossoms werestill. A yellow butterfly floated lazily past the window. The song ofthe birds hushed--I smelt the sea--I smelt the perfume of heated summerair rising from fields and flowers, the ineffable scents of June and ofthe long days of the year--and with it, from countless green meadowsbeyond, came the hum of myriad summer life, children's voices, sweetpipings, and the sound of water falling.
I knew myself to be on the threshold of a new order of experience--of anecstasy. Something drew me forth with a sense of inexpressible yearningtowards the being of this strange old man in the window seat, and for amoment I knew what it was to taste a mighty and wonderful sensation, andto touch the highest pinnacle of joy I have ever known. It lasted forless than a second, and was gone; but in that brief instant of time thesame terrible lucidity came to me that had already shown me how the pastand future exist in the present, and I realised and understood thatpleasure and pain are one and the same force, for the joy I had justexperienced included also all the pain I ever had felt, or ever couldfeel. . . .
The sunshine grew to dazzling radiance, faded, passed away. The shadowspaused in their dance upon the grass, deepened a moment, and then meltedinto air. The flowers of the fruit trees laughed with their littlesilvery laughter as the wind sighed over their radiant eyes the old,old tale of its personal love. Once or twice a voice called my name. Awonderful sensation of lightness and power began to steal over me.
Suddenly the door opened and the inn-keeper's daughter came in. By allordinary standards, her's was a charming country loveliness, born of thestars and wild-flowers, of moonlight shining through autumn mists uponthe river and the fields; yet, by contrast with the higher order ofbeauty I had just momentarily been in touch with, she seemed almostugly. How dull her eyes, how thin her voice, how vapid her smile, andinsipid her whole presentment.
For a moment she stood between me and the occupant of the window seatwhile I counted out the small change for my meal and for her services;but when, an instant later, she moved aside, I saw that the settle wasempty and that there was no longer anyone in the room but our twoselves.
This discovery was no shock to me; indeed, I had almost expected it, andthe man had gone just as a figure goes out of a dream, causing nosurprise and leaving me as part and parcel of the same dream withoutbreaking of continuity. But, as soon as I had paid my bill and thusresumed in very practical fashion the thread of my normal consciousness,I turned to the girl and asked her if she knew the old man who had beensitting in the window seat, and what he had meant by the Wood of theDead.
The maiden started visibly, glancing quickly round the empty room, butanswering simply that she had seen no one. I described him in greatdetail, and then, as the description grew clearer, she turned a littlepale under her pretty sunborn and said very gravely that it must havebeen the ghost.
"Ghost! What ghost?"
"Oh, the village ghost," she said quietly, coming closer to my chairwith a little nervous movement of genuine alarm, and adding in a lowervoice, "He comes before a death, they say!"
It was not difficult to induce the girl to talk, and the story she toldme, shorn of the superstition that had obviously gathered with the yearsround the memory of a strangely picturesque figure, was an interestingand peculiar one.
The inn, she said, was originally a farmhouse, occupied by a yeomanfarmer, evidently of a superior, if rather eccentric, character, who hadbeen very poor until he reached old age, when a son died suddenly inthe Colonies and left him an unexpected amount of money, almost afortune.
The old man thereupon altered no whit his simple manner of living, butdevoted his income entirely to the improvement of the village and to theassistance of its inhabitants; he did this quite regardless of hispersonal likes and dislikes, as if one and all were absolutely alike tohim, objects of a genuine and impersonal benevolence. People had alwaysbeen a little afraid of the man, not understanding his eccentricities,but the simple force of this love for humanity changed all that in avery short space of time; and before he died he came to be known as theFather of the Village and was held in great love and veneration by all.
A short time before his end, however, he began to act queerly. He spenthis money just as usefully and wisely, but the shock of sudden wealthafter a life of poverty, people said, had unsettled his mind. He claimedto see things that others did not see, to hear voices, and to havevisions. Evidently, he was not of the harmless, foolish, visionaryorder, but a man of character and of great personal force, for thepeople became divided in their opinions, and the vicar, good man,regarded and treated him as a "special case." For many, his name andatmosphere became charged almost with a spiritual influence that wasnot of the best. People quoted texts about him; kept when possible outof his way, and avoided his house after dark. None understood him, butthough the majority loved him, an element of dread and mystery becameassociated with his name, chiefly owing to the ignorant gossip of thefew.
A grove of pine trees behind the farm--the girl pointed them out to meon the slope of the hill--he said was the Wood of the Dead, because justbefore anyone died in the village he saw them walk into that wood,singing. None who went in ever came out again. He often mentioned thenames to his wife, who usually published them to all the inhabitantswithin an hour of her husband's confidence; and it was found that thepeople he had seen enter the wood--died. On warm summer nights he wouldsometimes take an old stick and wander out, hatless, under the pines,for he loved this wood, and used to say he met all his old friendsthere, and would one day walk in there never to return. His wife triedto break him gently off this habit, but he always had his own way; andonce, when she followed and found him standing under a great pine in thethickest portion of the grove, talking earnestly to someone she couldnot see, he turned and rebuked her very gently, but in such a way thatshe never repeated the experiment, saying--
"You should never interrupt me, Mary, when I am talking with the others;for they teach me, remember, wonderful things, and I must learn all Ican before I go to join them."
This story went like wild-fire through the village, increasing withevery repetition, until at length everyone was able to give an accuratedescription of the great veiled figures the woman declared she had seenmoving among the trees where her husband stood. The innocent pine-grovenow became positively haunted, and the title of "Wood of the Dead" clungnaturally as if it had been applied to it in the ordinary course ofevents by the compilers of the Ordnance Survey.
On the evening of his ninetieth birthday the old man went up to his wifeand kissed her. His manner was loving, and very gentle, and there wassomething about him besides, she declared afterwards, that made herslightly in awe of him and feel that he was almost more of a spirit thana man.
He kissed her tenderly on both cheeks, but his eyes seemed to lookright through her as he spoke.
"Dearest wife," he said, "I am saying good-bye to you, for I am nowgoing into the Wood of the Dead, and I shall not return. Do not followme, or send to search, but be ready soon to come upon the same journeyyourself."
The good woman burst into tears and tried to hold him, but he easilyslipped from her hands, and she was afraid to follow him. Slowly she sawhim cross the field in the sunshine, and then enter the cool shadows ofthe grove, where he disappeared from her sight.
That same night, much later, she woke to find him lying peacefully byher side in bed, with one arm stretched out towards her, _dead_. Herstory was half believed, half doubted at the time, but in a very fewyears afterwards it evidently came to be accepted by all thecountryside. A funeral service was held to which the people flocked ingreat numbers, and everyone approved of the sentiment which led thewidow to add the words, "The Father of the Village," after the usualtexts which appeared upon the stone over his grave.
This, then, was the story I pieced together of the village ghost as thelittle inn-keeper's daughter told it to me that afternoon in theparlour of the inn.
"But you're not the first to say you've seen him," the girl concluded;"and your description is just what we've always heard, and that window,they say, was just where he used to sit and think, and think, when hewas alive, and sometimes, they say, to cry for hours together."
"And would you feel afraid if you had seen him?" I asked, for the girlseemed strangely moved and interested in the whole story.
"I think so," she answered timidly. "Surely, if he spoke to me. He didspeak to _you_, didn't he, sir?" she asked after a slight pause.
"He said he had come for someone."
"Come for someone," she repeated. "Did he say--" she went onfalteringly.
"No, he did not say for whom," I said quickly, noticing the suddenshadow on her face and the tremulous voice.
"Are you really sure, sir?"
"Oh, quite sure," I answered cheerfully. "I did not even ask him." Thegirl looked at me steadily for nearly a whole minute as though therewere many things she wished to tell me or to ask. But she said nothing,and presently picked up her tray from the table and walked slowly outof the room.
Instead of keeping to my original purpose and pushing on to the nextvillage over the hills, I ordered a room to be prepared for me at theinn, and that afternoon I spent wandering about the fields and lyingunder the fruit trees, watching the white clouds sailing out over thesea. The Wood of the Dead I surveyed from a distance, but in the villageI visited the stone erected to the memory of the "Father of theVillage"--who was thus, evidently, no mythical personage--and saw alsothe monuments of his fine unselfish spirit: the schoolhouse he built,the library, the home for the aged poor, and the tiny hospital.
That night, as the clock in the church tower was striking half-pasteleven, I stealthily left the inn and crept through the dark orchard andover the hayfield in the direction of the hill whose southern slope wasclothed with the Wood of the Dead. A genuine interest impelled me to theadventure, but I also was obliged to confess to a certain sinking in myheart as I stumbled along over the field in the darkness, for I wasapproaching what might prove to be the birth-place of a real countrymyth, and a spot already lifted by the imaginative thoughts of aconsiderable number of people into the region of the haunted andill-omened.
The inn lay below me, and all round it the village clustered in a softblack shadow unrelieved by a single light. The night was moonless, yetdistinctly luminous, for the stars crowded the sky. The silence of deepslumber was everywhere; so still, indeed, that every time my foot kickedagainst a stone I thought the sound must be heard below in the villageand waken the sleepers.
I climbed the hill slowly, thinking chiefly of the strange story of thenoble old man who had seized the opportunity to do good to his fellowsthe moment it came his way, and wondering why the causes that operateceaselessly behind human life did not always select such admirableinstruments. Once or twice a night-bird circled swiftly over my head,but the bats had long since gone to rest, and there was no other sign oflife stirring.
Then, suddenly, with a singular thrill of emotion, I saw the first treesof the Wood of the Dead rise in front of me in a high black wall. Theircrests stood up like giant spears against the starry sky; and thoughthere was no perceptible movement of the air on my cheek I heard afaint, rushing sound among their branches as the night breeze passed toand fro over their countless little needles. A remote, hushed murmurrose overhead and died away again almost immediately; for in these treesthe wind seems to be never absolutely at rest, and on the calmest daythere is always a sort of whispering music among their branches.
For a moment I hesitated on the edge of this dark wood, and listenedintently. Delicate perfumes of earth and bark stole out to meet me.Impenetrable darkness faced me. Only the consciousness that I wasobeying an order, strangely given, and including a mighty privilege,enabled me to find the courage to go forward and step in boldly underthe trees.
Instantly the shadows closed in upon me and "something" came forward tomeet me from the centre of the darkness. It would be easy enough to meetmy imagination half-way with fact, and say that a cold hand grasped myown and led me by invisible paths into the unknown depths of the grove;but at any rate, without stumbling, and always with the positiveknowledge that I was going straight towards the desired object, Ipressed on confidently and securely into the wood. So dark was it that,at first, not a single star-beam pierced the roof of branches overhead;and, as we moved forward side by side, the trees shifted silently pastus in long lines, row upon row, squadron upon squadron, like the unitsof a vast, soundless army.
And, at length, we came to a comparatively open space where the treeshalted upon us for a while, and, looking up, I saw the white river ofthe sky beginning to yield to the influence of a new light that nowseemed spreading swiftly across the heavens.
"It is the dawn coming," said the voice at my side that I certainlyrecognised, but which seemed almost like a whispering from the trees,"and we are now in the heart of the Wood of the Dead."
We seated ourselves on a moss-covered boulder and waited the coming ofthe sun. With marvellous swiftness, it seemed to me, the light in theeast passed into the radiance of early morning, and when the wind awokeand began to whisper in the tree tops, the first rays of the risen sunfell between the trunks and rested in a circle of gold at our feet.
"Now, come with me," whispered my companion in the same deep voice, "fortime has no existence here, and that which I would show you is already_there_!"
We trod gently and silently over the soft pine needles. Already the sunwas high over our heads, and the shadows of the trees coiled closelyabout their feet. The wood became denser again, but occasionally wepassed through little open bits where we could smell the hot sunshineand the dry, baked pine needles. Then, presently, we came to the edge ofthe grove, and I saw a hayfield lying in the blaze of day, and twohorses basking lazily with switching tails in the shafts of a ladenhay-waggon.
So complete and vivid was the sense of reality, that I remember thegrateful realisation of the cool shade where we sat and looked out uponthe hot world beyond.
The last pitchfork had tossed up its fragrant burden, and the greathorses were already straining in the shafts after the driver, as hewalked slowly in front with one hand upon their bridles. He was astalwart fellow, with sunburned neck and hands. Then, for the firsttime, I noticed, perched aloft upon the trembling throne of hay, thefigure of a slim young girl. I could not see her face, but her brownhair escaped in disorder from a white sun-bonnet, and her still brownerhands held a well-worn hay rake. She was laughing and talking with thedriver, and he, from time to time, cast up at her ardent glances ofadmiration--glances that won instant smiles and soft blushes inresponse.
The cart presently turned into the roadway that skirted the edge of thewood where we were sitting. I watched the scene with intense interestand became so much absorbed in it that I quite forgot the manifold,strange steps by which I was permitted to become a spectator.
"Come down and walk with me," cried the young fellow, stopping a momentin front of the horses and opening wide his arms. "Jump! and I'll catchyou!"
"Oh, oh," she laughed, and her voice sounded to me as the happiest,merriest laughter I had ever heard from a girl's throat. "Oh, oh! that'sall very well. But remember I'm Queen of the Hay, and I must ride!"
"Then I must come and ride beside you," he cried, and began at once toclimb up by way of the driver's seat. But, with a peal of silverylaughter, she slipped down easily over the back of the hay to escapehim, and ran a little way along the road. I could see her quite clearly,and noticed the charming, natural grace of her movements, and theloving expression in her eyes as she looked over her shoulder to makesure he was following. Evidently, she did not wish to escape for long,certainly not for ever.
In two strides the big, brown swain was after her, leaving the horses todo as they pleased. Another second and his arms would have caught theslender waist and pressed the little body to his heart. But, just atthat instant, the old man beside me uttered a peculiar cry. It was lowand thrilling, and it went through me like a sharp sword.
HE had called her by her own name--and she had heard.
For a second she halted, glancing back with frightened eyes. Then, witha brief cry of despair, the girl swerved aside and dived in swiftlyamong the shadows of the trees.
But the young man saw the sudden movement and cried out to herpassionately--
"Not that way, my love! Not that way! It's the Wood of the Dead!"
She threw a laughing glance over her shoulder at him, and the windcaught her hair and drew it out in a brown cloud under the sun. But thenext minute she was close beside me, lying on the breast of mycompanion, and I was certain I heard the words repeatedly uttered withmany sighs: "Father, you called, and I have come. And I come willingly,for I am very, very tired."
At any rate, so the words sounded to me, and mingled with them I seemedto catch the answer in that deep, thrilling whisper I already knew: "Andyou shall sleep, my child, sleep for a long, long time, until it is timefor you to begin the journey again."
In that brief second of time I had recognised the face and voice of theinn-keeper's daughter, but the next minute a dreadful wail broke fromthe lips of the young man, and the sky grew suddenly as dark as night,the wind rose and began to toss the branches about us, and the wholescene was swallowed up in a wave of utter blackness.
Again the chill fingers seemed to seize my hand, and I was guided by theway I had come to the edge of the wood, and crossing the hayfield stillslumbering in the starlight, I crept back to the inn and went to bed.
A year later I happened to be in the same part of the country, and thememory of the strange summer vision returned to me with the addedsoftness of distance. I went to the old village and had tea under thesame orchard trees at the same inn.
But the little maid of the inn did not show her face, and I tookoccasion to enquire of her father as to her welfare and her whereabouts.
"Married, no doubt," I laughed, but with a strange feeling that clutchedat my heart.
"No, sir," replied the inn-keeper sadly, "not married--though she wasjust going to be--but dead. She got a sunstroke in the hayfields, just afew days after you were here, if I remember rightly, and she was gonefrom us in less than a week."