"There are things about us, I'm sure, that make for disorder, disintegration, destruction, our destruction," he said once, while the fire blazed between us. "We've strayed out of a safe line somewhere."
And another time, when the gong sounds had come nearer, ringing much louder than before, and directly over our heads, he said, as though talking to himself:
"I don't think a phonograph would show any record of that. The sound doesn't come to me by the ears at all. The vibrations reach me in another manner altogether, and seem to be within me, which is precisely how a fourth dimension sound might be supposed to make itself heard."
I purposely made no reply to this, but I sat up a little closer to the fire and peered about me into the darkness. The clouds were massed all over the sky and no trace of moonlight came through. Very still, too, everything was, so that the river and the frogs had things all their own way.
"It has that about it," he went on, "which is utterly out of common experience. It is unknown. Only one thing describes it really: it is a non-human sound; I mean a sound outside humanity."
Having rid himself of this indigestible morsel, he lay quiet for a time; but he had so admirably expressed my own feeling that it was a relief to have the thought out, and to have confined it by the limitation of words from dangerous wandering to and fro in the mind.
The solitude of that Danube camping-place, can I ever forget it? The feeling of being utterly alone on an empty planet! My thoughts ran incessantly upon cities and the haunts of men. I would have given my soul, as the saying is, for the "feel" of those Bavarian villages we had passed through by the score; for the normal, human commonplaces, peasants drinking beer, tables beneath the trees, hot sunshine, and a ruined castle on the rocks behind the red-roofed church. Even the tourists would have been welcome.
Yet what I felt of dread was no ordinary ghostly fear. It was infinitely greater, stranger, and seemed to arise from some dim ancestral sense of terror more profoundly disturbing than anything I had known or dreamed of. We had "strayed," as the Swede put it, into some region or some set of conditions where the risks were great, yet unintelligible to us; where the frontiers of some unknown world lay close about us. It was a spot held by the dwellers in some outer space, a sort of peephole whence they could spy upon the earth, themselves unseen, a point where the veil between had worn a little thin. As the final result of too long a sojourn here, we should be carried over the border and deprived of what we called "our lives," yet by mental, not physical, processes. In that sense, as he said, we should be the victims of our adventure—a sacrifice.
It took us in different fashion, each according to the measure of his sensitiveness and powers of resistance. I translated it vaguely into a personification of the mightily disturbed elements, investing them with the horror of a deliberate and malefic purpose, resentful of our audacious intrusion into their breeding-place; whereas my friend threw it into the unoriginal form at first of a trespass on some ancient shrine, some place where the old gods still held sway, where the emotional forces of former worshipers still clung, and the ancestral portion of him yielded to the old pagan spell.
At any rate, here was a place unpolluted by men, kept clean by the winds from coarsening human influences, a place where spiritual agencies were within reach and aggressive. Never, before or since, have I been so attacked by indescribable suggestions of a "beyond region," of another scheme of life, another evolution not parallel to the human. And in the end our minds would succumb under the weight of the awful spell, and we should be drawn across the frontier into their world.
Small things testified to this amazing influence of the place, and now in the silence round the fire they allowed themselves to be noted by the mind. The very atmosphere had proved itself a magnifying medium to distort every indication: the otter rolling in the current, the hurrying boatman making signs, the shifting willows, one and all had been robbed of its natural character, and revealed in something of its other aspect—as it existed across the border in that other region. And this changed aspect I felt was new not merely to me, but to the race. The whole experience whose verge we touched was unknown to humanity at all. It was a new order of experience, and in the true sense of the word unearthly.
"It's the deliberate, calculating purpose that; reduces one's courage to zero," the Swede said suddenly, as if he had been actually following my thoughts. "Otherwise imagination might count for much. But the paddle, the canoe, the lessening food——"
"Haven't I explained all that once?" I interrupted viciously.
"You have," he answered dryly; "you have indeed."
He made other remarks too, as usual, about what he called the "plain determination to provide a victim"; but, having now arranged my thoughts better, I recognized that this was simply the cry of his frightened soul against the knowledge that he was being attacked in a vital part, and that he would be somehow taken or destroyed. The situation called for a courage and calmness of reasoning that neither of us could compass, and I have never before been so clearly conscious of two persons in me—the one that explained everything, and the other that laughed at such foolish explanations, yet was horribly afraid.
Meanwhile, in the pitchy night the fire died down and the woodpile grew small. Neither of us moved to replenish the stock, and the darkness consequently came up very close to our faces. A few feet beyond the circle of firelight it was inky black. Occasionally a stray puff of wind set the billows shivering about us, but apart from this not very welcome sound a deep and depressing silence reigned, broken only by the gurgling of the river and the humming in the air overhead.
We both missed, I think, the shouting company of the winds.
At length, at a moment when a stray puff prolonged itself as though the wind were about to rise again, I reached the point for me of saturation, the point where it was absolutely necessary to find relief in plain speech, or else to betray myself by some hysterical extravagance that must have been far worse in its effect upon both of us. I kicked the fire into a blaze, and turned to my companion abruptly. He looked up with a start.
"I can't disguise it any longer," I said; "I don't like this place, and the darkness, and the noises, and the awful feelings I get. There's something here that beats me utterly. I'm in a blue funk, and that's the plain truth. If the other shore was—different, I swear I'd be inclined to swim for it!"
The Swede's face turned very white beneath the deep tan of sun and wind. He stared straight at me and answered quietly, but his voice betrayed his huge excitement by its unnatural calmness. For the moment, at any rate, he was the strong man of the two. He was more phlegmatic, for one thing.
"It's not a physical condition we can escape from by running away," he replied, in the tone of a doctor diagnosing some grave disease; "we must sit tight and wait. There are forces close here that could kill a herd of elephants in a second as easily as you or I could squash a fly. Our only chance is to keep perfectly still. Our insignificance perhaps may save us."
I put a dozen questions into my expression of face, but found no words. It was precisely like listening to an accurate description of a disease whose symptoms had puzzled me.
"I mean that so far, although aware of our disturbing presence, they have not found us—not 'located' us, as the Americans say," he went on. "They're blundering about like men hunting for a leak of gas. The paddle and canoe and provisions prove that. I think they feel us, but cannot actually see us. We must keep our minds quiet—it's our minds they feel. We must control our thoughts, or it's all up with us."
"Death you mean?" I stammered, icy with the horror of his suggestion.
"Worse—by far," he said. "Death, according to one's belief, means either annihilation or release from the limitations of the senses, but it involves no change of character. You don't suddenly alter just because the body's gone. But this means a radical alteration, a complete change, a horrible loss of oneself by substitution—far worse than death, and not even annihilation. We happen to have camped in a spot where their region touches ours where the veil between has worn thin"—horrors! he was using my very own phrase, my actual words—"so that they are aware of our being in their neighborhood."
"But who are aware?" I asked.
I forgot the shaking of the willows in the windless calm, the humming overhead, everything except that I was waiting for an answer that I dreaded more than I can possibly explain.
He lowered his voice at once to reply, leaning forward a little over the fire, an indefinable change in his face that made me avoid his eyes and look down upon the ground.
"All my life," he said, "I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region—not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly different in kind—where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs, the rise and fall of nations, the destinies of empires, the fate of armies and continents, are all as dust in the balance; vast purposes, I mean, that deal directly with the soul, and not indirectly with mere expressions of the soul—"
"I suggest just now—" I began, seeking to stop him, feeling as though I was face to face with a madman. But he instantly overbore me with his torrent that had to come.
"You think," he said, "it is the spirits of the elements, and I thought perhaps it was the old gods. But I tell you now it is—neither. These would be comprehensible entities, for they have relations with men, depending upon them for worship or sacrifice, whereas these beings who are now about us have absolutely nothing to do with mankind, and it is mere chance that their space happens just at this spot to touch our own."
The mere conception, which his words somehow made so convincing, as I listened to them there in the dark stillness of that lonely island, set me shaking a little all over. I found it impossible to control my movements.
"And what do you propose?" I began again.
"A sacrifice, a victim, might save us by distracting them until we could get away," he went on, "just as the wolves stop to devour the dogs and give the sleigh another start. But—I see no chance of any other victim now."
I stared blankly at him. The gleam in his eyes was dreadful. Presently he continued.
"It's the willows, of course. The willows mask the others, but the others are feeling about for us. If we let our minds betray our fear, we're lost, lost utterly." He looked at me with an expression so calm, so determined, so sincere, that I no longer had any doubts as to his sanity. He was as sane as any man ever was. "If we can hold out through the night," he added, "we may get off in the daylight unnoticed, or rather, undiscovered."
"But you really think a sacrifice would——"
That gong-like humming came down very close over our heads as I spoke, but it was my friend's scared face that really stopped my mouth.
"Hush!" he whispered, holding up his hand. "Do not mention them more than you can help. Do not refer to them by name. To name is to reveal: it is the inevitable clue, and our only hope lies in ignoring them, in order that they may ignore us."
"Even in thought?" He was extraordinarily agitated.
"Especially in thought. Our thoughts make spirals in their world. We must keep them out of our minds at all costs if possible."
I raked the fire together to prevent the darkness having everything its own way. I never longed for the sun as I longed for it then in the awful blackness of that summer night.
"Were you awake all last night?" he went on suddenly.
"I slept badly a little after dawn," I replied evasively, trying to follow his instructions, which I knew instinctively were true, "but the wind, of course—"
"I know. But the wind won't account for all the noises."
"Then you heard it too?"
"The multiplying countless little footsteps I heard," he said, adding, after a moment's hesitation, "and that other sound—"
"You mean above the tent, and the pressing down upon us of something tremendous, gigantic?"
He nodded significantly.
"It was like the beginning of a sort of inner suffocation?" I said.
"Partly, yes. It seemed to me that the weight of the atmosphere had been altered—had increased enormously, so that we should be crushed."
"And that," I went on, determined to have it all out, pointing upwards where the gong-like note hummed ceaselessly, rising and falling like wind. "What do you make of that?"
"It's their sound," he whispered gravely. "It's the sound of their world, the humming in their region. The division here is so thin that it leaks through somehow. But, if you listen carefully, you'll find it's not above so much as around us. It's in the willows. It's the willows themselves humming, because here the willows have been made symbols of the forces that are against us."
I could not follow exactly what he meant by this, yet the thought and idea in my mind were beyond question the thought and idea in his. I realized what he realized, only with less power of analysis than his. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him at last about my hallucination of the ascending figures and the moving bushes, when he suddenly thrust his face again close into mine across the firelight and began to speak in a very earnest whisper. He amazed me by his calmness and pluck, his apparent control of the situation. This man I had for years deemed unimaginative, stolid!
"Now listen," he said. "The only thing for us to do is to go on as though nothing had happened, follow our usual habits, go to bed, and so forth; pretend we feel nothing and notice nothing. It is a question wholly of the mind, and the less we think about them the better our chance of escape. Above all, don't think, for what you think happens!"
"All right," I managed to reply, simply breathless with his words and the strangeness of it all; "all right, I'll try, but tell me one thing more first. Tell me what you make of those hollows in the ground all about us, those sand-funnels?"
"No!" he cried, forgetting to whisper in his excitement. "I dare not, simply dare not, put the thought into words. If you have not guessed I am glad. Don't try to. They have put it into my mind; try your hardest to prevent their putting it into yours."
He sank his voice again to a whisper before he finished, and I did not press him to explain. There was already just about as much horror in me as I could hold. The conversation came to an end, and we smoked our pipes busily in silence.
Then something happened, something unimportant apparently, as the way is when the nerves are in a very great state of tension, and this small thing for a brief space gave me an entirely different point of view. I chanced to look down at my sand-shoe—the sort we used for the canoe—and something to do with the hole at the toe suddenly recalled to me the London shop where I had bought them, the difficulty the man had in fitting me, and other details of the uninteresting but practical operation. At once, in its train, followed a wholesome view of the modern skeptical world I was accustomed to move in at home. I thought of roast beef and ale, motor-cars, policemen, brass bands, and a dozen other things that proclaimed the soul of ordinariness or utility. The effect was immediate and astonishing even to myself. Psychologically, I suppose, it was simply a sudden and violent reaction after the strain of living in an atmosphere of things that to the normal consciousness must seem impossible and incredible. But, whatever the cause, it momentarily lifted the spell from my heart, and left me for the short space of a minute feeling free and utterly unafraid. I looked up at my friend opposite.
"You damned old pagan!" I cried, laughing aloud in his face. "You imaginative idiot! You superstitious idolator! You——"
I stopped in the middle, seized anew by the old horror. I tried to smother the sound of my voice as something sacrilegious. The Swede, of course, heard it too—that strange cry overhead in the darkness—and that sudden drop in the air as though something had come nearer.
He had turned ashen white under the tan. He stood bolt upright in front of the fire, stiff as a rod, staring at me.
"After that," he said in a sort of helpless, frantic way, "we must go! We can't stay now; we must strike camp this very instant and go on—down the river."
He was talking, I saw, quite wildly, his words dictated by abject terror—the terror he had resisted so long, but which had caught him at last.
"In the dark?" I exclaimed, shaking with fear after my hysterical outburst, but still realizing our position better than he did. "Sheer madness! The river's in flood, and we've only got a single paddle. Besides, we only go deeper into their country! There's nothing ahead for fifty miles but willows, willows, willows!"
He sat down again in a state of semi-collapse. The positions, by one of those kaleidoscopic changes nature loves, were suddenly reversed, and the control of our forces passed over into my hands. His mind at last had reached the point where it was beginning to weaken.
"What on earth possessed you to do such a thing?" he whispered, with the awe of genuine terror in his voice and face.
I crossed round to his side of the fire. I took both his hands in mine, kneeling down beside him and looking straight into his frightened eyes.
"We'll make one more blaze," I said firmly, "and then turn in for the night. At sunrise we'll be off full speed for Komorn. Now, pull yourself together a bit, and remember your own advice about not thinking fear!"
He said no more, and I saw that he would agree and obey. In some measure, too, it was a sort of relief to get up and make an excursion into the darkness for more wood. We kept close together, almost touching, groping among the bushes and along the bank. The humming overhead never ceased, but seemed to me to grow louder as we increased our distance from the fire. It was shivery work!
We were grubbing away in the middle of a thickish clump of willows where some driftwood from a former flood had caught high among the branches, when my body was seized in a grip that made me half drop upon the sand. It was the Swede. He had fallen against me, and was clutching me for support. I heard his breath coming and going in short gasps.
"Look! By my soul!" he whispered, and for the first time in my experience I knew what it was to hear tears of terror in a human voice. He was pointing to the fire, some fifty feet away. I followed the direction of his finger, and I swear my heart missed a beat.
There, in front of the dim glow, something was moving.
I saw it through a veil that hung before my eyes like the gauze drop-curtain used at the back of a theater—hazily a little. It was neither a human figure nor an animal. To me it gave the strange impression of being as large as several animals grouped together, like horses, two or three, moving slowly. The Swede, too, got a similar result, though expressing it differently, for he thought it was shaped and sized like a clump of willow bushes, rounded at the top, and moving all over upon its surface—"coiling upon itself like smoke," he said afterwards.
"I watched it settle downwards through the bushes," he sobbed at me. "Look, by God! It's coming this way! Oh, oh!"—he gave a kind of whistling cry. "They've found us."
I gave one terrified glance, which just enabled me to see that the shadowy form was swinging towards us through the bushes, and then I collapsed backwards with a crash into the branches. These failed, of course, to support my weight, so that with the Swede on the top of me we fell in a struggling heap upon the sand. I really hardly knew what was happening. I was conscious only of a sort of enveloping sensation of icy fear that plucked the nerves out of their fleshly covering, twisted them this way and that, and replaced them quivering. My eyes were tightly shut; something in my throat choked me; a feeling that my consciousness was expanding, extending out into space, swiftly gave way to another feeling that I was losing it altogether, and about to die.
An acute spasm of pain passed through me, and I was aware that the Swede had hold of me in such a way that he hurt me abominably. It was the way he caught at me in falling.
But it was this pain, he declared afterwards, that saved me: it caused me to forget them and think of something else at the very instant when they were about to find me. It concealed my mind from them at the moment of discovery, yet just in time to evade their terrible seizing of me. He himself, he says, actually swooned at the same moment, and that was what saved him.
I only know that at a later time, how long or short is impossible to say, I found myself scrambling up out of the slippery network of willow branches, and saw my companion standing in front of me holding out a hand to assist me. I stared at him in a dazed way, rubbing the arm he had twisted for me. Nothing came to me to say, somehow.
"I lost consciousness for a moment or two," I heard him say. "That's what saved me. It made me stop thinking about them."
"You nearly broke my arm in two," I said, uttering my only connected thought at the moment. A numbness came over me.
"That's what saved you!" he replied. "Between us, we've managed to set them off on a false tack somewhere. The humming has ceased. It's gone—for the moment at any rate!"
A wave of hysterical laughter seized me again, and this time spread to my friend too—great healing gusts of shaking laughter that brought a tremendous sense of relief in their train. We made our way back to the fire and put the wood on so that it blazed at once. Then we saw that the tent had fallen over and lay in a tangled heap upon the ground.
We picked it up, and during the process tripped more than once and caught our feet in sand.
"It's those sand-funnels," exclaimed the Swede, when the tent was up again and the firelight lit up the ground for several yards about us. "And look at the size of them!"
All round the tent and about the fireplace where we had seen the moving shadows there were deep funnel-shaped hollows in the sand, exactly similar to the ones we had already found over the island, only far bigger and deeper, beautifully formed, and wide enough in some instances to admit the whole of my foot and leg.
Neither of us said a word. We both knew that sleep was the safest thing we could do, and to bed we went accordingly without further delay, having first thrown sand on the fire and taken the provision sack and the paddle inside the tent with us. The canoe, too, we propped in such a way at the end of the tent that our feet touched it, and the least motion would disturb and wake us.
In case of emergency, too, we again went to bed in our clothes, ready for a sudden start.
It was my firm intention to lie awake all night and watch, but the exhaustion of nerves and body decreed otherwise, and sleep after a while came over me with a welcome blanket of oblivion. The fact that my companion also slept quickened its approach. At first he fidgeted and constantly sat up, asking me if I "heard this" or "heard that." He tossed about on his cork mattress, and said the tent was moving and the river had risen over the point of the island; but each time I went out to look I returned with the report that all was well, and finally he grew calmer and lay still. Then at length his breathing became regular and I heard unmistakable sounds of snoring—the first and only time in my life when snoring has been a welcome and calming influence.
This, I remember, was the last thought in my mind before dozing off.
A difficulty in breathing woke me, and I found the blanket over my face. But something else besides the blanket was pressing upon me, and my first thought was that my companion had rolled off his mattress on to my own in his sleep. I called to him and sat up, and at the same moment it came to me that the tent was surrounded. That sound of multitudinous soft pattering was again audible outside, filling the night with horror.
I called again to him, louder than before. He did not answer, but I missed the sound of his snoring, and also noticed that the flap of the tent door was down. This was the unpardonable sin. I crawled out in the darkness to hook it back securely, and it was then for the first time I realized positively that the Swede was not there. He had gone.
I dashed out in a mad run, seized by a dreadful agitation, and the moment I was out I plunged into a sort of torrent of humming that surrounded me completely and came out of every quarter of the heavens at once. It was that same familiar humming—gone mad! A swarm of great invisible bees might have been about me in the air. The sound seemed to thicken the very atmosphere, and I felt that my lungs worked with difficulty.
But my friend was in danger, and I could not hesitate.
The dawn was just about to break, and a faint whitish light spread upwards over the clouds from a thin strip of clear horizon. No wind stirred. I could just make out the bushes and river beyond, and the pale sandy patches. In my excitement I ran frantically to and fro about the island, calling him by name, shouting at the top of my voice the first words that came into my head. But the willows smothered my voice, and the humming muffled it, so that the sound only traveled a few feet round me. I plunged among the bushes, tripping headlong, tumbling over roots, and scraping my face as I tore this way and that among the preventing branches.
Then, quite unexpectedly, I came out upon the island's point and saw a dark figure outlined between the water and the sky. It was the Swede. And already he had one foot in the river! A moment more and he would have taken the plunge.
I threw myself upon him, flinging my arms about his waist and dragging him shorewards with all my strength. Of course he struggled furiously, making a noise all the time just like that cursed humming, and using the most outlandish phrases in his anger about "going inside to Them," and "taking the way of the water and the wind," and God only knows what more besides, that I tried in vain to recall afterwards, but which turned me sick with horror and amazement as I listened. But in the end I managed to get him into the comparative safety of the tent, and flung him breathless and cursing upon the mattress, where I held him until the fit had passed.
I think the suddenness with which it all went and he grew calm, coinciding as it did with the equally abrupt cessation of the humming and pattering outside—I think this was almost the strangest part of the whole business perhaps. For he just opened his eyes and turned his tired face up to me so that the dawn threw a pale light upon it through the doorway, and said, for all the world just like a frightened child:
"My life, old man—it's my life I owe you. But it's all over now anyhow. They've found a victim in our place!"
Then he dropped back upon his blankets and went to sleep literally under my eyes. He simply collapsed, and began to snore again as healthily as though nothing had happened and he had never tried to offer his own life as a sacrifice by drowning. And when the sunlight woke him three hours later—hours of ceaseless vigil for me—it became so clear to me that he remembered absolutely nothing of what he had attempted to do, that I deemed it wise to hold my peace and ask no dangerous questions.
He woke naturally and easily, as I have said, when the sun was already high in a windless hot sky, and he at once got up and set about the preparation of the fire for breakfast. I followed him anxiously at bathing, but he did not attempt to plunge in, merely dipping his head and making some remark about the extra coldness of the water.
"River's falling at last," he said, "and I'm glad of it."
"The humming has stopped too," I said.
He looked up at me quietly with his normal expression. Evidently he remembered everything except his own attempt at suicide.
"Everything has stopped," he said, "because——"
He hesitated. But I knew some reference to that remark he had made just before he fainted was in his mind, and I was determined to know it.
"Because 'They've found another victim'?" I said, forcing a little laugh.
"Exactly," he answered, "exactly! I feel as positive of it as though—as though—I feel quite safe again, I mean," he finished.
He began to look curiously about him. The sunlight lay in hot patches on the sand. There was no wind. The willows were motionless. He slowly rose to feet.
"Come," he said; "I think if we look, we shall find it."
He started off on a run, and I followed him. He kept to the banks, poking with a stick among the sandy bays and caves and little back-waters, myself always close on his heels.
"Ah!" he exclaimed presently, "ah!"
The tone of his voice somehow brought back to me a vivid sense of the horror of the last twenty-four hours, and I hurried up to join him. He was pointing with his stick at a large black object that lay half in the water and half on the sand. It appeared to be caught by some twisted willow roots so that the river could not sweep it away. A few hours before the spot must have been under water.
"See," he said quietly, "the victim that made our escape possible!"
And when I peered across his shoulder I saw that his stick rested on the body of a man. He turned it over. It was the corpse of a peasant, and the face was hidden in the sand. Clearly the man had been drowned but a few hours before, and his body must have been swept down upon our island somewhere about the hour of the dawn—at the very time the fit had passed.
"We must give it a decent burial, you know."
"I suppose so," I replied. I shuddered a little in spite of myself, for there was something about the appearance of that poor drowned man that turned me cold.
The Swede glanced up sharply at me, and began clambering down the bank. I followed him more leisurely. The current, I noticed, had torn away much of the clothing from the body, so that the neck and part of the chest lay bare.
Halfway down the bank my companion suddenly stopped and held up his hand in warning; but either my foot slipped, or I had gained too much momentum to bring myself quickly to a halt, for I bumped into him and sent him forward with a sort of leap to save himself. We tumbled together on to the hard sand so that our feet splashed into the water. And, before anything could be done, we had collided a little heavily against the corpse.
The Swede uttered a sharp cry. And I sprang back as if I had been shot.
At the moment we touched the body there arose from its surface the loud sound of humming—the sound of several hummings—which passed with a vast commotion as of winged things in the air about us and disappeared upwards into the sky, growing fainter and fainter till they finally ceased in the distance. It was exactly as though we had disturbed some living yet invisible creatures at work.
My companion clutched me, and I think I clutched him, but before either of us had time properly to recover from the unexpected shock, we saw that a movement of the current was turning the corpse round so that it became released from the grip of the willow roots. A moment later it had turned completely over, the dead face uppermost, staring at the sky. It lay on the edge of the main stream. In another moment it would be swept away.
The Swede started to save it, shouting again something I did not catch about a "proper burial" and then abruptly dropped upon his knees on the sand and covered his eyes with his hands. I was beside him in an instant.
I saw what he had seen.
For just as the body swung round to the current the face and the exposed chest turned full towards us, and showed plainly how the skin and flesh were indented with small hollows, beautifully formed, and exactly similar in shape and kind to the sand-funnels that we had found all over the island.
"Their mark!" I heard my companion mutter under his breath. "Their awful mark!"
And when I turned my eyes again from his ghastly face to the river, the current had done its work, and the body had been swept away into midstream and was already beyond our reach and almost out of sight, turning over and over on the waves like an otter.
The Shadows on the Wall
BY MARY E. WILKINS FREEMAN
From The Wind in the Rose-bush, by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Copyright by Harper and Brothers. By permission of the publishers and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.
"Henry had words with Edward in the study the night before Edward died," said Caroline Glynn.
She spoke not with acrimony, but with grave severity. Rebecca Ann Glynn gasped by way of assent. She sat in a wide flounce of black silk in the corner of the sofa, and rolled terrified eyes from her sister Caroline to her sister Mrs. Stephen Brigham, who had been Emma Glynn, the one beauty of the family. The latter was beautiful still, with a large, splendid, full-blown beauty, she filled a great rocking-chair with her superb bulk of femininity, and swayed gently back and forth, her black silks whispering and her black frills fluttering. Even the shock of death—for her brother Edward lay dead in the house—could not disturb her outward serenity of demeanor.
But even her expression of masterly placidity changed before her sister Caroline's announcement and her sister Rebecca Ann's gasp of terror and distress in response.
"I think Henry might have controlled his temper, when poor Edward was so near his end," she said with an asperity which disturbed slightly the roseate curves of her beautiful mouth.
"Of course he did not know," murmured Rebecca Ann in a faint tone.
"Of course he did not know it," said Caroline quickly. She turned on her sister with a strange, sharp look of suspicion. Then she shrank as if from the other's possible answer.
Rebecca gasped again. The married sister, Mrs. Emma Brigham, was now sitting up straight in her chair; she had ceased rocking, and was eyeing them both intently with a sudden accentuation of family likeness in her face.
"What do you mean?" said she impartially to them both. Then she, too, seemed to shrink before a possible answer. She even laughed an evasive sort of laugh.
"Nobody means anything," said Caroline firmly. She rose and crossed the room toward the door with grim decisiveness.
"Where are you going?" asked Mrs. Brigham.
"I have something to see to," replied Caroline, and the others at once knew by her tone that she had some solemn and sad duty to perform in the chamber of death.
"Oh," said Mrs. Brigham.
After the door had closed behind Caroline, she turned to Rebecca.
"Did Henry have many words with him?" she asked.
"They were talking very loud," replied Rebecca evasively.
Mrs. Brigham looked at her. She had not resumed rocking. She still sat up straight, with a slight knitting of intensity on her fair forehead, between the pretty rippling curves of her auburn hair.
"Did you—ever hear anything?" she asked in a low voice with a glance toward the door.
"I was just across the hall in the south parlor, and that door was open and this door ajar," replied Rebecca with a slight flush.
"Then you must have——"
"I couldn't help it."
"Most of it."
"What was it?"
"The old story."
"I suppose Henry was mad, as he always was, because Edward was living on here for nothing, when he had wasted all the money father left him."
Rebecca nodded, with a fearful glance at the door.
When Emma spoke again her voice was still more hushed. "I know how he felt," said she. "It must have looked to him as if Edward was living at his expense, but he wasn't."
"No, he wasn't."
"And Edward had a right here according to the terms of father's will, and Henry ought to have remembered it."
"Yes, he ought."
"Did he say hard things?"
"Pretty hard, from what I heard."
"I heard him tell Edward that he had no business here at all, and he thought he had better go away."
"What did Edward say?"
"That he would stay here as long as he lived and afterward, too, if he was a mind to, and he would like to see Henry get him out; and then——"
"Then he laughed."
"What did Henry say?"
"I didn't hear him say anything, but——"
"I saw him when he came out of this room."
"He looked mad?"
"You've seen him when he looked so."
Emma nodded. The expression of horror on her face had deepened.
"Do you remember that time he killed the cat because she had scratched him?"
Then Caroline reentered the room; she went up to the stove, in which a wood fire was burning—it was a cold, gloomy day of fall—and she warmed her hands, which were reddened from recent washing in cold water.
Mrs. Brigham looked at her and hesitated. She glanced at the door, which was still ajar; it did not easily shut, being still swollen with the damp weather of the summer. She rose and pushed it together with a sharp thud, which jarred the house. Rebecca started painfully with a half-exclamation. Caroline looked at her disapprovingly.
"It is time you controlled your nerves, Rebecca," she said.
Mrs. Brigham, returning from the closed door, said imperiously that it ought to be fixed, it shut so hard.
"It will shrink enough after we have had the fire a few days," replied Caroline.
"I think Henry ought to be ashamed of himself for talking as he did to Edward," said Mrs. Brigham abruptly, but in an almost inaudible voice.
"Hush," said Caroline, with a glance of actual fear at the closed door.
"Nobody can hear with the door shut. I say again I think Henry ought to be ashamed of himself. I shouldn't think he'd ever get over it, having words with poor Edward the very night before he died. Edward was enough sight better disposition than Henry, with all his faults."
"I never heard him speak a cross word, unless he spoke cross to Henry that last night. I don't know but he did from what Rebecca overheard."
"Not so much cross, as sort of soft, and sweet, and aggravating," sniffed Rebecca.
"What do you really think ailed Edward?" asked Emma in hardly more than a whisper. She did not look at her sister.
"I know you said that he had terrible pains in his stomach, and had spasms, but what do you think made him have them?"
"Henry called it gastric trouble. You know Edward has always had dyspepsia."
Mrs. Brigham hesitated a moment. "Was there any talk of an—examination?" said she.
Then Caroline turned on her fiercely.
"No," said she in a terrible voice. "No."
The three sisters' souls seemed to meet on one common ground of terrified understanding through their eyes.
The old-fashioned latch of the door was heard to rattle, and a push from without made the door shake ineffectually. "It's Henry," Rebecca sighed rather than whispered. Mrs. Brigham settled herself, after a noiseless rush across the floor, into her rocking-chair again, and was swaying back and forth with her head comfortably leaning back, when the door at last yielded and Henry Glynn entered. He cast a covertly sharp, comprehensive glance at Mrs. Brigham with her elaborate calm; at Rebecca quietly huddled in the corner of the sofa with her handkerchief to her face and only one small uncovered reddened ear as attentive as a dog's, and at Caroline sitting with a strained composure in her armchair by the stove. She met his eyes quite firmly with a look of inscrutable fear, and defiance of the fear and of him.
Henry Glynn looked more like this sister than the others. Both had the same hard delicacy of form and aquilinity of feature. They confronted each other with the pitiless immovability of two statues in whose marble lineaments emotions were fixed for all eternity.
Then Henry Glynn smiled and the smile transformed his face. He looked suddenly years younger, and an almost boyish recklessness appeared in his face. He flung himself into a chair with a gesture which was bewildering from its incongruity with his general appearance. He leaned his head back, flung one leg over the other, and looked laughingly at Mrs. Brigham.
"I declare, Emma, you grow younger every year," he said.
She flushed a little, and her placid mouth widened at the corners. She was susceptible to praise.
"Our thoughts to-day ought to belong to the one of us who will never grow older," said Caroline in a hard voice.
Henry looked at her, still smiling. "Of course, we none of us forget that," said he, in a deep, gentle voice; "but we have to speak to the living, Caroline, and I have not seen Emma for a long time, and the living are as dear as the dead."
"Not to me," said Caroline.
She rose and went abruptly out of the room again. Rebecca also rose and hurried after her, sobbing loudly.
Henry looked slowly after them.
"Caroline is completely unstrung," said he.
Mrs. Brigham rocked. A confidence in him inspired by his manner was stealing over her. Out of that confidence she spoke quite easily and naturally.
"His death was very sudden," said she.
Henry's eyelids quivered slightly but his gaze was unswerving.
"Yes," said he, "it was very sudden. He was sick only a few hours."
"What did you call it?"
"You did not think of an examination?"
"There was no need. I am perfectly certain as to the cause of his death."
Suddenly Mrs. Brigham felt a creep as of some live horror over her very soul. Her flesh prickled with cold, before an inflection of his voice. She rose, tottering on weak knees.
"Where are you going?" asked Henry in a strange, breathless voice.
Mrs. Brigham said something incoherent about some sewing which she had to do—some black for the funeral—and was out of the room. She went up to the front chamber which she occupied. Caroline was there. She went close to her and took her hands, and the two sisters looked at each other.
"Don't speak, don't, I won't have it!" said Caroline finally in an awful whisper.
"I won't," replied Emma.
That afternoon the three sisters were in the study.
Mrs. Brigham was hemming some black material. At last she laid her work on her lap.
"It's no use, I cannot see to sew another stitch until we have a light," said she.
Caroline, who was writing some letters at the table, turned to Rebecca, in her usual place on the sofa.
"Rebecca, you had better get a lamp," she said.
Rebecca started up; even in the dusk her face showed her agitation.
"It doesn't seem to me that we need a lamp quite yet," she said in a piteous, pleading voice like a child's.
"Yes, we do," returned Mrs. Brigham peremptorily. "I can't see to sew another stitch."
Rebecca rose and left the room. Presently she entered with a lamp. She set it on the table, an old-fashioned card-table which was placed against the opposite wall from the window. That opposite wall was taken up with three doors; the one small space was occupied by the table.
"What have you put that lamp over there for?" asked Mrs. Brigham, with more of impatience than her voice usually revealed. "Why didn't you set it in the hall, and have done with it? Neither Caroline nor I can see if it is on that table."
"I thought perhaps you would move," replied Rebecca hoarsely.
"If I do move, we can't both sit at that table. Caroline has her paper all spread around. Why don't you set the lamp on the study table in the middle of the room, then we can both see?"
Rebecca hesitated. Her face was very pale. She looked with an appeal that was fairly agonizing at her sister Caroline.
"Why don't you put the lamp on this table, as she says?" asked Caroline, almost fiercely. "Why do you act so, Rebecca?"
Rebecca took the lamp and set it on the table in the middle of the room without another word. Then she seated herself on the sofa and placed a hand over her eyes as if to shade them, and remained so.
"Does the light hurt your eyes, and is that the reason why you didn't want the lamp?" asked Mrs. Brigham kindly.
"I always like to sit in the dark," replied Rebecca chokingly. Then she snatched her handkerchief hastily from her pocket and began to weep. Caroline continued to write, Mrs. Brigham to sew.
Suddenly Mrs. Brigham as she sewed glanced at the opposite wall. The glance became a steady stare. She looked intently, her work suspended in her hands. Then she looked away again and took a few more stitches, then she looked again, and again turned to her task. At last she laid her work in her lap and stared concentratedly. She looked from the wall round the room, taking note of the various objects. Then she turned to her sisters.
"What is that?" said she.
"What?" asked Caroline harshly.
"That strange shadow on the wall," replied Mrs. Brigham.
Rebecca sat with her face hidden; Caroline dipped her pen in the inkstand.
"Why don't you turn around and look?" asked Mrs. Brigham in a wondering and somewhat aggrieved way.
"I am in a hurry to finish this letter," replied Caroline shortly.
Mrs. Brigham rose, her work slipping to the floor, and began walking round the room, moving various articles of furniture, with her eyes on the shadow.
Then suddenly she shrieked out:
"Look at this awful shadow! What is it? Caroline, look, look! Rebecca, look! What is it?"
All Mrs. Brigham's triumphant placidity was gone. Her handsome face was livid with horror. She stood stiffly pointing at the shadow.
Then after a shuddering glance at the wall Rebecca burst out in a wild wail.
"Oh, Caroline, there it is again, there it is again!"
"Caroline Glynn, you look!" said Mrs. Brigham. "Look! What is that dreadful shadow?"
Caroline rose, turned, and stood confronting the wall.
"How should I know?" she said.
"It has been there every night since he died!" cried Rebecca.
"Yes; he died Thursday and this is Saturday; that makes three nights," said Caroline rigidly. She stood as if holding her calm with a vise of concentrated will.
"It—it looks like—like—" stammered Mrs. Brigham in a tone of intense horror.
"I know what it looks like well enough," said Caroline. "I've got eyes in my head."
"It looks like Edward," burst out Rebecca in a sort of frenzy of fear. "Only——"
"Yes, it does," assented Mrs. Brigham, whose horror-stricken tone matched her sisters', "only—Oh, it is awful! What is it, Caroline?"
"I ask you again, how should I know?" replied Caroline. "I see it there like you. How should I know any more than you?"
"It must be something in the room," said Mrs. Brigham, staring wildly around.
"We moved everything in the room the first night it came," said Rebecca; "it is not anything in the room."
Caroline turned upon her with a sort of fury. "Of course it is something in the room," said she. "How you act! What do you mean talking so? Of course it is something in the room."
"Of course it is," agreed Mrs. Brigham, looking at Caroline suspiciously. "It must be something in the room."
"It is not anything in the room," repeated Rebecca with obstinate horror.
The door opened suddenly and Henry Glynn entered. He began to speak, then his eyes followed the direction of the others. He stood staring at the shadow on the wall.
"What is that?" he demanded in a strange voice.
"It must be due to something in the room," Mrs. Brigham said faintly.
Henry Glynn stood and stared a moment longer. His face showed a gamut of emotions. Horror, conviction, then furious incredulity. Suddenly he began hastening hither and thither about the room. He moved the furniture with fierce jerks, turning ever to see the effect upon the shadow on the wall. Not a line of its terrible outlines wavered.
"It must be something in the room!" he declared in a voice which seemed to snap like a lash.
His face changed, the inmost secrecy of his nature seemed evident upon his face, until one almost lost sight of his lineaments. Rebecca stood close to her sofa, regarding him with woeful, fascinated eyes. Mrs. Brigham clutched Caroline's hand. They both stood in a corner out of his way. For a few moments he raged about the room like a caged wild animal. He moved every piece of furniture; when the moving of a piece did not affect the shadow he flung it to the floor.
Then suddenly he desisted. He laughed.
"What an absurdity," he said easily. "Such a to-do about a shadow."
"That's so," assented Mrs. Brigham, in a scared voice which she tried to make natural. As she spoke she lifted a chair near her.
"I think you have broken the chair that Edward was fond of," said Caroline.
Terror and wrath were struggling for expression on her face. Her mouth was set, her eyes shrinking. Henry lifted the chair with a show of anxiety.
"Just as good as ever," he said pleasantly. He laughed again, looking at his sisters. "Did I scare you?" he said. "I should think you might be used to me by this time. You know my way of wanting to leap to the bottom of a mystery, and that shadow does look—queer, like—and I thought if there was any way of accounting for it I would like to without any delay."
"You don't seem to have succeeded," remarked Caroline dryly, with a slight glance at the wall.
Henry's eyes followed hers and he quivered perceptibly.
"Oh, there is no accounting for shadows," he said, and he laughed again. "A man is a fool to try to account for shadows."
Then the supper bell rang, and they all left the room, but Henry kept his back to the wall—as did, indeed, the others.
Henry led the way with an alert motion like a boy; Rebecca brought up the rear. She could scarcely walk, her knees trembled so.
"I can't sit in that room again this evening," she whispered to Caroline after supper.
"Very well; we will sit in the south room," replied Caroline. "I think we will sit in the south parlor," she said aloud; "it isn't as damp as the study, and I have a cold."
So they all sat in the south room with their sewing. Henry read the newspaper, his chair drawn close to the lamp on the table. About nine o'clock he rose abruptly and crossed the hall to the study. The three sisters looked at one another. Mrs. Brigham rose, folded her rustling skirts compactly round her, and began tiptoeing toward the door.
"What are you going to do?" inquired Rebecca agitatedly.
"I am going to see what he is about," replied Mrs. Brigham cautiously.
As she spoke she pointed to the study door across the hall; it was ajar. Henry had striven to pull it together behind him, but it had somehow swollen beyond the limit with curious speed. It was still ajar and a streak of light showed from top to bottom.
Mrs. Brigham folded her skirts so tightly that her bulk with its swelling curves was revealed in a black silk sheath, and she went with a slow toddle across the hall to the study door. She stood there, her eye at the crack.
In the south room Rebecca stopped sewing and sat watching with dilated eyes. Caroline sewed steadily. What Mrs. Brigham, standing at the crack in the study door, saw was this:
Henry Glynn, evidently reasoning that the source of the strange shadow must be between the table on which the lamp stood and the wall, was making systematic passes and thrusts with an old sword which had belonged to his father all over and through the intervening space. Not an inch was left unpierced. He seemed to have divided the space into mathematical sections. He brandished the sword with a sort of cold fury and calculation; the blade gave out flashes of light, the shadow remained unmoved. Mrs. Brigham, watching, felt herself cold with horror.
Finally Henry ceased and stood with the sword in hand and raised as if to strike, surveying the shadow on the wall threateningly. Mrs. Brigham toddled back across the hall and shut the south room door behind her before she related what she had seen.
"He looked like a demon," she said again. "Have you got any of that old wine in the house, Caroline? I don't feel as if I could stand much more."
"Yes, there's plenty," said Caroline; "you can have some when you go to bed."
"I think we had all better take some," said Mrs. Brigham. "Oh, Caroline, what——"
"Don't ask; don't speak," said Caroline.
"No, I'm not going to," replied Mrs. Brigham; "but——"
Soon the three sisters went to their chambers and the south parlor was deserted. Caroline called to Henry in the study to put out the light before he came upstairs. They had been gone about an hour when he came into the room bringing the lamp which had stood in the study. He set it on the table, and waited a few minutes, pacing up and down. His face was terrible, his fair complexion showed livid, and his blue eyes seemed dark blanks of awful reflections.
Then he took up the lamp and returned to the library. He set the lamp on the center table and the shadow sprang out on the wall. Again he studied the furniture and moved it about, but deliberately, with none of his former frenzy. Nothing affected the shadow. Then he returned to the south room with the lamp and again waited. Again he returned to the study and placed the lamp on the table, and the shadow sprang out upon the wall. It was midnight before he went upstairs. Mrs. Brigham and the other sisters, who could not sleep, heard him.
The next day was the funeral. That evening the family sat in the south room. Some relatives were with them. Nobody entered the study until Henry carried a lamp in there after the others had retired for the night. He saw again the shadow on the wall leap to an awful life before the light.
The next morning at breakfast Henry Glynn announced that he had to go to the city for three days. The sisters looked at him with surprise. He very seldom left home, and just now his practice had been neglected on account of Edward's death.
"How can you leave your patients now?" asked Mrs. Brigham wonderingly.
"I don't know how to, but there is no other way," replied Henry easily. "I have had a telegram from Dr. Mitford."
"Consultation?" inquired Mrs. Brigham.
"I have business," replied Henry.
Doctor Mitford was an old classmate of his who lived in a neighboring city and who occasionally called upon him in the case of a consultation.
After he had gone, Mrs. Brigham said to Caroline that, after all, Henry had not said that he was going to consult with Doctor Mitford, and she thought it very strange.
"Everything is very strange," said Rebecca with a shudder.
"What do you mean?" inquired Caroline.
"Nothing," replied Rebecca.
Nobody entered the study that day, nor the next. The third day Henry was expected home, but he did not arrive and the last train from the city had come.
"I call it pretty queer work," said Mrs. Brigham. "The idea of a doctor leaving his patients at such a time as this, and the idea of a consultation lasting three days! There is no sense in it, and now he has not come. I don't understand it, for my part."
"I don't either," said Rebecca.
They were all in the south parlor. There was no light in the study; the door was ajar.
Presently Mrs. Brigham rose—she could not have told why; something seemed to impel her—some will outside her own. She went out of the room, again wrapping her rustling skirts round that she might pass noiselessly, and began pushing at the swollen door of the study.
"She has not got any lamp," said Rebecca in a shaking voice.
Caroline, who was writing letters, rose again, took the only remaining lamp in the room, and followed her sister. Rebecca had risen, but she stood trembling, not venturing to follow.
The doorbell rang, but the others did not hear it; it was on the south door on the other side of the house from the study. Rebecca, after hesitating until the bell rang the second time, went to the door; she remembered that the servant was out.
Caroline and her sister Emma entered the study. Caroline set the lamp on the table. They looked at the wall, and there were two shadows. The sisters stood clutching each other, staring at the awful things on the wall. Then Rebecca came in, staggering, with a telegram in her hand. "Here is—a telegram," she gasped. "Henry is—dead."
BY ROBERT W. CHAMBERS
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? R.W.C.
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.
All-wise, Hast thou seen all there is to see with thy two eyes? Dost thou know all there is to know, and so, Omniscient, Darest thou still to say thy brother lies? R.W.C.
"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, Mome on the other.
"Who has the list?" I asked, lighting my pipe. "You say there is a list?"
"The list was found rolled up in a brass cylinder," said the chemist. He added: "You should not smoke here. You know that if a single spark drifted into the wheat—"
"Ah, but I have a cover to my pipe," said I, smiling.
Fortin watched me as I closed the pepper-box arrangement over the glowing bowl of the pipe. Then he continued:
"The list was made out on thick yellow paper; the brass tube has preserved it. It is as fresh to-day as it was in 1760. You shall see it."
"Is that the date?"
"The list is dated 'April, 1760.' The Brigadier Durand has it. It is not written in French."
"Not written in French!" I exclaimed.
"No," replied Fortin solemnly, "it is written in Breton."
"But," I protested, "the Breton language was never written or printed in 1760."
"Except by priests," said the chemist.
"I have heard of but one priest who ever wrote the Breton language," I began.
Fortin stole a glance at my face.
"You mean—the Black Priest?" he asked.
Fortin opened his mouth to speak again, hesitated, and finally shut his teeth obstinately over the wheat stem that he was chewing.
"And the Black Priest?" I suggested encouragingly. But I knew it was useless; for it is easier to move the stars from their courses than to make an obstinate Breton talk. We walked on for a minute or two in silence.
"Where is the Brigadier Durand?" I asked, motioning Mome to come out of the wheat, which he was trampling as though it were heather. As I spoke we came in sight of the farther edge of the wheat field and the dark, wet mass of cliffs beyond.
"Durand is down there—you can see him; he stands just behind the mayor of St. Gildas."
"I see," said I; and we struck straight down, following a sun-baked cattle path across the heather.
When we reached the edge of the wheat field, Le Bihan, the mayor of St. Gildas, called to me, and I tucked my gun under my arm and skirted the wheat to where he stood.
"Thirty-eight skulls," he said in his thin, high-pitched voice; "there is but one more, and I am opposed to further search. I suppose Fortin told you?"
I shook hands with him, and returned the salute of the Brigadier Durand.
"I am opposed to further search," repeated Le Bihan, nervously picking at the mass of silver buttons which covered the front of his velvet and broadcloth jacket like a breastplate of scale armor.
Durand pursed up his lips, twisted his tremendous mustache, and hooked his thumbs in his saber belt.
"As for me," he said, "I am in favor of further search."
"Further search for what—for the thirty-ninth skull?" I asked.
Le Bihan nodded. Durand frowned at the sunlit sea, rocking like a bowl of molten gold from the cliffs to the horizon. I followed his eyes. On the dark glistening cliffs, silhouetted against the glare of the sea, sat a cormorant, black, motionless, its horrible head raised toward heaven.
"Where is that list, Durand?" I asked.
The gendarme rummaged in his despatch pouch and produced a brass cylinder about a foot long. Very gravely he unscrewed the head and dumped out a scroll of thick yellow paper closely covered with writing on both sides. At a nod from Le Bihan he handed me the scroll. But I could make nothing of the coarse writing, now faded to a dull brown.
"Come, come, Le Bihan," I said impatiently, "translate it, won't you? You and Max Fortin make a lot of mystery out of nothing, it seems."
Le Bihan went to the edge of the pit where the three Bannalec men were digging, gave an order or two in Breton, and turned to me.
As I came to the edge of the pit the Bannalec men were removing a square piece of sailcloth from what appeared to be a pile of cobblestones.
"Look!" said Le Bihan shrilly. I looked. The pile below was a heap of skulls. After a moment I clambered down the gravel sides of the pit and walked over to the men of Bannalec. They saluted me gravely, leaning on their picks and shovels, and wiping their sweating faces with sunburned hands.
"How many?" said I in Breton.
"Thirty-eight," they replied.
I glanced around. Beyond the heap of skulls lay two piles of human bones. Beside these was a mound of broken, rusted bits of iron and steel. Looking closer, I saw that this mound was composed of rusty bayonets, saber blades, scythe blades, with here and there a tarnished buckle attached to a bit of leather hard as iron.
I picked up a couple of buttons and a belt plate. The buttons bore the royal arms of England; the belt plate was emblazoned with the English arms and also with the number "27."
"I have heard my grandfather speak of the terrible English regiment, the 27th Foot, which landed and stormed the fort up there," said one of the Bannalec men.
"Oh!" said I; "then these are the bones of English soldiers?"
"Yes," said the men of Bannalec.
Le Bihan was calling to me from the edge of the pit above, and I handed the belt plate and buttons to the men and climbed the side of the excavation.
"Well," said I, trying to prevent Mome from leaping up and licking my face as I emerged from the pit, "I suppose you know what these bones are. What are you going to do with them?"
"There was a man," said Le Bihan angrily, "an Englishman, who passed here in a dog-cart on his way to Quimper about an hour ago, and what do you suppose he wished to do?"
"Buy the relics?" I asked, smiling.
"Exactly—the pig!" piped the mayor of St. Gildas. "Jean Marie Tregunc, who found the bones, was standing there where Max Fortin stands, and do you know what he answered? He spat upon the ground, and said: 'Pig of an Englishman, do you take me for a desecrator of graves?'"
I knew Tregunc, a sober, blue-eyed Breton, who lived from one year's end to the other without being able to afford a single bit of meat for a meal.
"How much did the Englishman offer Tregunc?" I asked.
"Two hundred francs for the skulls alone."
I thought of the relic hunters and the relic buyers on the battlefields of our civil war.
"Seventeen hundred and sixty is long ago," I said.
"Respect for the dead can never die," said Fortin.
"And the English soldiers came here to kill your fathers and burn your homes," I continued.
"They were murderers and thieves, but—they are dead," said Tregunc, coming up from the beach below, his long sea rake balanced on his dripping jersey.
"How much do you earn every year, Jean Marie?" I asked, turning to shake hands with him.
"Two hundred and twenty francs, monsieur."
"Forty-five dollars a year," I said. "Bah! you are worth more, Jean. Will you take care of my garden for me? My wife wished me to ask you. I think it would be worth one hundred francs a month to you and to me. Come on, Le Bihan—come along, Fortin—and you, Durand. I want somebody to translate that list into French for me."
Tregunc stood gazing at me, his blue eyes dilated.
"You may begin at once," I said, smiling, "if the salary suits you?"
"It suits," said Tregunc, fumbling for his pipe in a silly way that annoyed Le Bihan.
"Then go and begin your work," cried the mayor impatiently; and Tregunc started across the moors toward St. Gildas, taking off his velvet-ribboned cap to me and gripping his sea rake very hard.
"You offer him more than my salary," said the mayor, after a moment's contemplation of his silver buttons.
"Pooh!" said I, "what do you do for your salary except play dominoes with Max Portin at the Groix Inn?"
Le Bihan turned red, but Durand rattled his saber and winked at Max Fortin, and I slipped my arm through the arm of the sulky magistrate, laughing.
"There's a shady spot under the cliff," I said; "come on, Le Bihan, and read me what is in the scroll."
In a few moments we reached the shadow of the cliff, and I threw myself upon the turf, chin on hand, to listen.
The gendarme, Durand, also sat down, twisting his mustache into needlelike points. Fortin leaned against the cliff, polishing his glasses and examining us with vague, near-sighted eyes; and Le Bihan, the mayor, planted himself in our midst, rolling up the scroll and tucking it under his arm.
"First of all," he began in a shrill voice, "I am going to light my pipe, and while lighting it I shall tell you what I have heard about the attack on the fort yonder. My father told me; his father told him."
He jerked his head in the direction of the ruined fort, a small, square stone structure on the sea cliff, now nothing but crumbling walls. Then he slowly produced a tobacco pouch, a bit of flint and tinder, and a long-stemmed pipe fitted with a microscopical bowl of baked clay. To fill such a pipe requires ten minutes' close attention. To smoke it to a finish takes but four puffs. It is very Breton, this Breton pipe. It is the crystallization of everything Breton.
"Go on," said I, lighting a cigarette.
"The fort," said the mayor, "was built by Louis XIV, and was dismantled twice by the English. Louis XV restored it in 1730. In 1760 it was carried by assault by the English. They came across from the island of Groix—three shiploads, and they stormed the fort and sacked St. Julien yonder, and they started to burn St. Gildas—you can see the marks of their bullets on my house yet; but the men of Bannalec and the men of Lorient fell upon them with pike and scythe and blunderbuss, and those who did not run away lie there below in the gravel pit now—thirty-eight of them."
"And the thirty-ninth skull?" I asked, finishing my cigarette.
The mayor had succeeded in filling his pipe, and now he began to put his tobacco pouch away.
"The thirty-ninth skull," he mumbled, holding the pipe stem between his defective teeth—"the thirty-ninth skull is no business of mine. I have told the Bannalec men to cease digging."
"But what is—whose is the missing skull?" I persisted curiously.
The mayor was busy trying to strike a spark to his tinder. Presently he set it aglow, applied it to his pipe, took the prescribed four puffs, knocked the ashes out of the bowl, and gravely replaced the pipe in his pocket.
"The missing skull?" he asked.
"Yes," said I, impatiently.
The mayor slowly unrolled the scroll and began to read, translating from the Breton into French. And this is what he read:
"ON THE CLIFFS OF ST. GILDAS, APRIL 13, 1760.
"On this day, by order of the Count of Soisic, general in chief of the Breton forces now lying in Kerselec Forest, the bodies of thirty-eight English soldiers of the 27th, 50th, and 72d regiments of Foot were buried in this spot, together with their arms and equipments."
The mayor paused and glanced at me reflectively.
"Go on, Le Bihan," I said.
"With them," continued the mayor, turning the scroll and reading on the other side, "was buried the body of that vile traitor who betrayed the fort to the English. The manner of his death was as follows: By order of the most noble Count of Soisic, the traitor was first branded upon the forehead with the brand of an arrowhead. The iron burned through the flesh and was pressed heavily so that the brand should even burn into the bone of the skull. The traitor was then led out and bidden to kneel. He admitted having guided the English from the island of Groix. Although a priest and a Frenchman, he had violated his priestly office to aid him in discovering the password to the fort. This password he extorted during confession from a young Breton girl who was in the habit of rowing across from the island of Groix to visit her husband in the fort. When the fort fell, this young girl, crazed by the death of her husband, sought the Count of Soisic and told how the priest had forced her to confess to him all she knew about the fort. The priest was arrested at St. Gildas as he was about to cross the river to Lorient. When arrested he cursed the girl, Marie Trevec——"
"What!" I exclaimed, "Marie Trevec!"
"Marie Trevec," repeated Le Bihan; "the priest cursed Marie Trevec, and all her family and descendants. He was shot as he knelt, having a mask of leather over his face, because the Bretons who composed the squad of execution refused to fire at a priest unless his face was concealed. The priest was l'Abbe Sorgue, commonly known as the Black Priest on account of his dark face and swarthy eyebrows. He was buried with a stake through his heart."
Le Bihan paused, hesitated, looked at me, and handed the manuscript back to Durand. The gendarme took it and slipped it into the brass cylinder.
"So," said I, "the thirty-ninth skull is the skull of the Black Priest."
"Yes," said Fortin. "I hope they won't find it."
"I have forbidden them to proceed," said the mayor querulously. "You heard me, Max Fortin."
I rose and picked up my gun. Mome 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'Abbe Sorgue, forced to write the above by my executioners, have written it in my own blood; and with it I leave my curse. My curse on St. Gildas, on Marie Trevec, and on her descendants. I will come back to St. Gildas when my remains are disturbed. Woe to that Englishman whom my branded skull shall touch!"
"What rot!" I said. "Do you believe it was really written in his own blood?"
"I am going to test it," said Fortin, "at the request of Monsieur le Maire. I am not anxious for the job, however."
"See," said Le Bihan, holding out the scroll to me, "it is signed, 'L'Abbe Sorgue.'"
I glanced curiously over the paper.
"It must be the Black Priest," I said. "He was the only man who wrote in the Breton language. This is a wonderfully interesting discovery, for now, at last, the mystery of the Black Priest's disappearance is cleared up. You will, of course, send this scroll to Paris, Le Bihan?"
"No," said the mayor obstinately, "it shall be buried in the pit below where the rest of the Black Priest lies."
I looked at him and recognized that argument would be useless. But still I said, "It will be a loss to history, Monsieur Le Bihan."
"All the worse for history, then," said the enlightened Mayor of St. Gildas.
We had sauntered back to the gravel pit while speaking. The men of Bannalec were carrying the bones of the English soldiers toward the St. Gildas cemetery, on the cliffs to the east, where already a knot of white-coiffed women stood in attitudes of prayer; and I saw the somber robe of a priest among the crosses of the little graveyard.
"They were thieves and assassins; they are dead now," muttered Max Fortin.
"Respect the dead," repeated the Mayor of St. Gildas, looking after the Bannalec men.
"It was written in that scroll that Marie Trevec, of Groix Island, was cursed by the priest—she and her descendants," I said, touching Le Bihan on the arm. "There was a Marie Trevec who married an Yves Trevec of St. Gildas——"
"It is the same," said Le Bihan, looking at me obliquely.
"Oh!" said I; "then they were ancestors of my wife."
"Do you fear the curse?" asked Le Bihan.
"What?" I laughed.
"There was the case of the Purple Emperor," said Max Fortin timidly.
Startled for a moment, I faced him, then shrugged my shoulders and kicked at a smooth bit of rock which lay near the edge of the pit, almost embedded in gravel.
"Do you suppose the Purple-Emperor drank himself crazy because he was descended from Marie Trevec?" I asked contemptuously.
"Of course not," said Max Fortin hastily.
"Of course not," piped the mayor. "I only—Hellow! what's that you're kicking?"
"What?" said I, glancing down, at the same time involuntarily giving another kick. The smooth bit of rock dislodged itself and rolled out of the loosened gravel at my feet.
"The thirty-ninth skull!" I exclaimed. "By jingo, it's the noddle of the Black Priest! See! there is the arrowhead branded on the front!"
The mayor stepped back. Max Fortin also retreated. There was a pause, during which I looked at them, and they looked anywhere but at me.
"I don't like it," said the mayor at last, in a husky, high voice. "I don't like it! The scroll says he will come back to St. Gildas when his remains are disturbed. I—I don't like it, Monsieur Darrel—"
"Bosh!" said I; "the poor wicked devil is where he can't get out. For Heaven's sake, Le Bihan, what is this stuff you are talking in the year of grace 1896?"
The mayor gave me a look.
"And he says 'Englishman.' You are an Englishman, Monsieur Darrel," he announced.
"You know better. You know I'm an American."
"It's all the same," said the Mayor of St. Gildas, obstinately.
"No, it isn't!" I answered, much exasperated, and deliberately pushed the skull till it rolled into the bottom of the gravel pit below.
"Cover it up," said I; "bury the scroll with it too, if you insist, but I think you ought to send it to Paris. Don't look so gloomy, Fortin, unless you believe in werewolves and ghosts. Hey! what the—what the devil's the matter with you, anyway? What are you staring at, Le Bihan?"
"Come, come," muttered the mayor in a low, tremulous voice, "it's time we got out of this. Did you see? Did you see, Fortin?"
"I saw," whispered Max Fortin, pallid with fright.
The two men were almost running across the sunny pasture now, and I hastened after them, demanding to know what was the matter.
"Matter!" chattered the mayor, gasping with exasperation and terror. "The skull is rolling up hill again," and he burst into a terrified gallop, Max Fortin followed close behind.
I watched them stampeding across the pasture, then turned toward the gravel pit, mystified, incredulous. The skull was lying on the edge of the pit, exactly where it had been before I pushed it over the edge. For a second I stared at it; a singular chilly feeling crept up my spinal column, and I turned and walked away, sweat starting from the root of every hair on my head. Before I had gone twenty paces the absurdity of the whole thing struck me. I halted, hot with shame and annoyance, and retraced my steps.
There lay the skull.
"I rolled a stone down instead of the skull," I muttered to myself. Then with the butt of my gun I pushed the skull over the edge of the pit and watched it roll to the bottom; and as it struck the bottom of the pit, Mome, my dog, suddenly whipped his tail between his legs, whimpered, and made off across the moor.
"Mome!" 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 Mome 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.
Mome 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."
Mome 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 Mome, 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, Mome came sneaking out to be comforted, and I forgave him for Lys's sake, whereupon he frisked.
"You bounding cur," said I, "now what on earth started you off across the moor? If you do it again I'll push you along with a charge of dust shot."
As yet I had scarcely dared think about the ghastly hallucination of which I had been a victim, but now I faced it squarely, flushing a little with mortification at the thought of my hasty retreat from the gravel pit.
"To think," I said aloud, "that those old woman's tales of Max Fortin and Le Bihan should have actually made me see what didn't exist at all! I lost my nerve like a schoolboy in a dark bedroom." For I knew now that I had mistaken a round stone for a skull each time, and had pushed a couple of big pebbles into the pit instead of the skull itself.
"By jingo!" said I, "I'm nervous; my liver must be in a devil of a condition if I see such things when I'm awake! Lys will know what to give me."
I felt mortified and irritated and sulky, and thought disgustedly of Le Bihan and Max Fortin.
But after a while I ceased speculating, dismissed the mayor, the chemist, and the skull from my mind, and smoked pensively, watching the sun low dipping in the western ocean. As the twilight fell for a moment over ocean and moorland, a wistful, restless happiness filled my heart, the happiness that all men know—all men who have loved.
Slowly the purple mist crept out over the sea; the cliffs darkened; the forest was shrouded.
Suddenly the sky above burned with the afterglow, and the world was alight again.
Cloud after cloud caught the rose dye; the cliffs were tinted with it; moor and pasture, heather and forest burned and pulsated with the gentle flush. I saw the gulls turning and tossing above the sand bar, their snowy wings tipped with pink; I saw the sea swallows sheering the surface of the still river, stained to its placid depths with warm reflections of the clouds. The twitter of drowsy hedge birds broke out in the stillness; a salmon rolled its shining side above tidewater.
The interminable monotone of the ocean intensified the silence. I sat motionless, holding my breath as one who listens to the first low rumor of an organ. All at once the pure whistle of a nightingale cut the silence, and the first moonbeam silvered the wastes of mist-hung waters.
I raised my head.
Lys stood before me in the garden.
When we had kissed each other, we linked arms and moved up and down the gravel walks, watching the moonbeams sparkle on the sand bar as the tide ebbed and ebbed. The broad beds of white pinks about us were atremble with hovering white moths; the October roses hung all abloom, perfuming the salt wind.
"Sweetheart," I said, "where is Yvonne? Has she promised to spend Christmas with us?"
"Yes, Dick; she drove me down from Plougat this afternoon. She sent her love to you. I am not jealous. What did you shoot?"
"A hare and four partridges. They are in the gun room. I told Catherine not to touch them until you had seen them."
Now I suppose I knew that Lys could not be particularly enthusiastic over game or guns; but she pretended she was, and always scornfully denied that it was for my sake and not for the pure love of sport. So she dragged me off to inspect the rather meager game bag, and she paid me pretty compliments, and gave a little cry of delight and pity as I lifted the enormous hare out of the sack by his ears.
"He'll eat no more of our lettuce," I said attempting to justify the assassination.
"Unhappy little bunny—and what a beauty! O Dick, you are a splendid shot, are you not?"
I evaded the question and hauled out a partridge.
"Poor little dead things'" said Lys in a whisper; "it seems a pity—doesn't it, Dick? But then you are so clever——"
"We'll have them broiled," I said guardedly, "tell Catherine."
Catherine came in to take away the game, and presently 'Fine Lelocard, Lys's maid, announced dinner, and Lys tripped away to her boudoir.
I stood an instant contemplating her blissfully, thinking, "My boy, you're the happiest fellow in the world—you're in love with your wife'"
I walked into the dining-room, beamed at the plates, walked out again; met Tregunc in the hallway, beamed on him; glanced into the kitchen, beamed at Catherine, and went up stairs, still beaming.
Before I could knock at Lys's door it opened, and Lys came hastily out. When she saw me she gave a little cry of relief, and nestled close to my breast.
"There is something peering in at my window," she said.
"What!" I cried angrily.
"A man, I think, disguised as a priest, and he has a mask on. He must have climbed up by the bay tree."
I was down the stairs and out of doors in no time. The moonlit garden was absolutely deserted. Tregunc came up, and together we searched the hedge and shrubbery around the house and out to the road.
"Jean Marie," said I at length, "loose my bulldog—he knows you—and take your supper on the porch where you can watch. My wife says the fellow is disguised as a priest, and wears a mask."
Tregunc showed his white teeth in a smile. "He will not care to venture in here again, I think, Monsieur Darrel."
I went back and found Lys seated quietly at the table.
"The soup is ready, dear," she said. "Don't worry; it was only some foolish lout from Bannalec. No one in St. Gildas or St. Julien would do such a thing."
I was too much exasperated to reply at first, but Lys treated it as a stupid joke, and after a while I began to look at it in that light.
Lys told me about Yvonne, and reminded me of my promise to have Herbert Stuart down to meet her.
"You wicked diplomat!" I protested. "Herbert is in Paris, and hard at work for the Salon."
"Don't you think he might spare a week to flirt with the prettiest girl in Finistere?" inquired Lys innocently.
"Prettiest girl! Not much!" I said.
"Who is, then?" urged Lys.
I laughed a trifle sheepishly.
"I suppose you mean me, Dick," said Lys, coloring up.
"Now I bore you, don't I?"
"Bore me? Ah, no, Dick."
After coffee and cigarettes were served I spoke about Tregunc, and Lys approved.
"Poor Jean! He will be glad, won't he? What a dear fellow you are!"
"Nonsense," said I; "we need a gardener; you said so yourself, Lys."
But Lys leaned over and kissed me, and then bent down and hugged Mome—who whistled through his nose in sentimental appreciation.
"I am a very happy woman," said Lys.
"Mome was a very bad dog to-day," I observed.
"Poor Mome!" said Lys, smiling.
When dinner was over and Mome lay snoring before the blaze—for the October nights are often chilly in Finistere—Lys curled up in the chimney corner with her embroidery, and gave me a swift glance from under her dropping lashes.
"You look like a schoolgirl, Lys," I said teasingly. "I don't believe you are sixteen yet."
She pushed back her heavy burnished hair thoughtfully. Her wrist was as white as surf foam.
"Have we been married four years? I don't believe it," I said.
She gave me another swift glance and touched the embroidery on her knee, smiling faintly.
"I see," said I, also smiling at the embroidered garment. "Do you think it will fit?"
"Fit?" repeated Lys. Then she laughed
"And," I persisted, "are you perfectly sure that you—er—we shall need it?"
"Perfectly," said Lys. A delicate color touched her cheeks and neck. She held up the little garment, all fluffy with misty lace and wrought with quaint embroidery.
"It is very gorgeous," said I; "don't use your eyes too much, dearest. May I smoke a pipe?"
"Of course," she said selecting a skein of pale blue silk.
For a while I sat and smoked in silence, watching her slender fingers among the tinted silks and thread of gold.
Presently she spoke: "What did you say your crest is, Dick?"
"My crest? Oh, something or other rampant on a something or other——"
"Don't be flippant."
"But I really forget. It's an ordinary crest; everybody in New York has them. No family should be without 'em."
"You are disagreeable, Dick. Send Josephine upstairs for my album."
"Are you going to put that crest on the—the—whatever it is?"
"I am; and my own crest, too."
I thought of the Purple Emperor and wondered a little.
"You didn't know I had one, did you?" she smiled.
"What is it?" I replied evasively.
"You shall see. Ring for Josephine."
I rang, and, when 'Fine appeared, Lys gave her some orders in a low voice, and Josephine trotted away, bobbing her white-coiffed head with a "Bien, Madame!"