RAYMOND descended from the train on the opposite side from the station platform. He proposed that Monsieur le Curé, pro tem., of St. Marleau, should have a start sufficient to afford a guarantee against the possibility of any further association with the other that night!

A furious gust of wind eddied down the length of the train, caught at his travelling bag, and banged it violently against his knees. He swore earnestly to himself, as he picked his way further back across the siding tracks to guard against the chance of being seen from the platform when the train started on again. It was obviously not going to be a pleasant experience, that walk! It was bad enough where he stood, here on the trackside, somewhat sheltered by the train; in the open the wind promised to attain the ferocity of a young tornado!

The train pulled out; and across the tracks a light glimmered from a window, and behind the light a building loomed up black and formless. The light, filtering out on the platform, disclosed two figures—the priest, and, evidently, the station agent.

Raymond sat down on his bag and waited. It was intensely dark, and he was far enough away to be secure from observation. He grinned maliciously, as he watched a shadowy sort of pantomime in which the priest clutched and struggled continually with his soutane as the wind kept wrapping it around his legs.

The other might be less infatuated with skirts by the time St. Marleau was reached!

The two figures moved down the platform together, and Raymond lost sight of them in the darkness. He rose, picked up his bag, walked a few yards along the track in the opposite direction to that which they had taken, crossed over the mainline, and clambered upon the platform. Here he stumbled over a trunk. The curé's, presumably! He continued on along the platform slowly—under the circumstances a little information from the station agent would not come in amiss. He jammed his slouch hat firmly down on his head, and yanked the brim savagely over his eyes against the wind. This was likely to prove considerably more than he had bargained for! Three miles of it! And for what! He began to call himself a fool. And then, the station agent returning alone from the lower end of the platform, head down, buffeting the wind, and evidently making for the curé's trunk to house it for the night, Raymond stepped forward and accosted the other.

The man brought himself up with a jerk. Raymond drew the other into the shelter of the station wall. In the meagre light from the window a few yards away, he could make out the man's face but very indistinctly; and the other, in his turn, appeared equally at a disadvantage, save that, possibly, expecting it to be an acquaintance from the village, he found a stranger instead.

'Cré nom!” ejaculated the man in surprise. “And where did you come from?”

“From the train—naturally,” Raymond answered. “You were busy with some one, and I waited.”

“Yes, that is so! I see!” The other nodded his head. “It was Father Aubert, the young curé who is come to the village. He has but just started, and if you are going to St. Marleau, and hurry, you will have company over the road.”

“Never mind about him!” said Raymond shortly. “I am not looking for that kind of company!”

Tiens!” exclaimed the man a little blankly. “Not that kind of company—but that is strange! It is a bad night and a lonely walk—and, I do not know him of course, but he seemed very pleasant, the young curé.”

“I daresay,” said Raymond, and shrugged his shoulders. “But I do not intend to walk at all if I can help it. Is there no horse to be had around here?”

“But, no!”—the other's tones expressed mild reproof at the question. “If there had been, I would have procured it for the curé. There is nothing. It is as near to the village as anywhere.”

“And that is three miles!” muttered Raymond irritably.

“It is three miles by the road, true, monsieur; but the village itself is not nearly so far. There is a short cut. If you take the path that leads straight ahead where the road turns off to the left to circle the woods, it will bring you to the brow of the hill overlooking the village and the river, and you will come out just where the road swings in again at the tavern. You save at least a mile.”

Raymond brightened.

“Ah! A tavern!” he cried. “That is better! I was beginning to think the cursed——”

“But—wait!” the man laughed suddenly. “It is not what you think! I should not advise you to go there.”

“No?” inquired Raymond, “and why not?”

“She is an old hag, an excommuniée, old Mother Blondin, who lives there—and her son, who is come back for the past week from God knows where with a scar all over his ugly face, is no better. It is not a tavern at all. That is a name we have for it amongst ourselves. We call it the tavern because it is said that she makes her own whiskey-blanc and sells it on the sly, and that there are some who buy it—though when her son is back she could not very well have enough for any customers. He has been drunk for a week, and he is a devil.”

“Your Mother Blondin is evidently no fool!” observed Raymond ironically. “And so it is said there are some who buy it—eh? And in turn I suppose she could buy out every farmer in the village! She should have money, your Mother Blondin! Hers is a profitable business.”

“Yes,” said the other. “For me, that is the way I look at it. It is gossip that her stocking is well lined; but I believe the gossip. It is perhaps well for her if it is so, for she will need it. She is getting old and does not see very well, though, bon Dieu, she is still sharp enough with her wits! But”—his shoulders lifted in a shrug—“the way to the village, eh? Well, whether you take the road or the path, you arrive at Mother Blondin's. You go down the hill from there, and the village is on each side of you along the bank of the river. Ask at the first house, and they will show you the way to Madame Dussault's—that is the only place to go. She keeps a boarding house whenever there is anybody to board, for it is not often that any stranger comes to St. Marleau. Are you going to stay long?”

“I don't know,” said Raymond pleasantly—and ignored the implied invitation for further confidences.

“Well, if you like,” offered the station agent, “you can leave your bag here, and it can go over with the cure's trunk in the morning. He said he would send somebody for it then. You won't find it easy carrying that bag a night like this.”

“Oh, it's only a small one; I guess I can manage it all right,” said Raymond lightly. He extended his hand—the priest was far enough along by now so that he would not overtake the other; and, though it was still early, not much after eight o'clock, the countryside was not given to keeping late hours, and, if he was to reach St. Marleau before this Dussault household, for instance, had retired for the night, it was time he started. “Much obliged for the information! Goodnight!” he smiled, and picked up his bag—and a moment later, the station behind him, was battling in the face of furious wind gusts along the road.

It was very dark; and the road was execrable, full of ruts and hollows into which he was continually stumbling. He had a flashlight in his bag; but, bad as the walking was, it was, after all, he decided, the lesser of the two evils—if he used the flashlight, he ran a very large risk of inviting the companionship of the priest ahead of him! Also, he had not gone very far before he heartily regretted that he had not foregone the few little conveniences that the bag contained, and had left the thing behind. The wind, as it was, threatened to relieve him of it a score of times. Occasionally he halted and turned his back, and stood still for a breathing spell. His mood, as he went along, became one that combined a sullen stubbornness to walk ten miles, if necessary, once he had started, and an acrimonious and savage jeer at himself for having ever been fool enough to bring about his present discomfiture.

Finally, however, he reached the turn of the road referred to by the station agent, and here he stood for a moment debating with himself the advisability of taking the short cut. His eyes grown accustomed to the darkness, he could distinguish his surroundings with some distinctness, and he made out a beaten track that led off in the same direction which, until then, he had been following; but also, a little beyond this again, he made out a black stretch of wooded land. He shook his head doubtfully. The short cut was a mere path at best, and he might, or might not, be able to follow it through the trees. If he lost it, and it would be altogether too easy a thing to do, his predicament would not be enviable. It was simply a question of whether the mile he might save thereby was worth the risk. He shook his head again—this time decisively.

“I'm not much on the 'straight and narrow' anyhow!” he muttered facetiously—and started on again, following the road.

Gradually the road and the trees began to converge; and presently, the road swerving again, this time sharply toward the river, he found himself travelling through the woods, and injected into the midst of what seemed like the centre of some unearthly and demoniacal chorus rehearsing its parts—the wind shrieked through the upper branches of the trees, and moaned disconsolately through the lower ones; it cried and sobbed; it screamed, and mourned, and sighed; and in the darkness, still blacker shapes, like weird, beckoning arms, the limbs swayed to and fro. And now and then there came a loud, ominous crackle, and then a crash, as a branch, dried and rotten, came hurtling to the ground.

“Damn it,” confessed Raymond earnestly to himself, “I don't like this! I wish St. Marleau was where Canuck John is now!”

He quickened his pace—or, rather, tried to do so; but it was much blacker here than out in the open, and besides the road now appeared to be insanely full of twists and turns, and in spite of his efforts his progress was no faster.

It seemed interminable, never-ending. He went on and on. A branch crashed down louder than before somewhere ahead of him. He snarled in consonance with the wind-shrieks and the wind-moans that now came to hold a personal malevolence in their pandemonium for himself. His coat caught once on a projecting branch and was torn. He cursed Canuck John, and cursed himself with abandon. And then abruptly, as the road twisted again, he caught the glimmer of a light through the trees—and his eyes upon the light, rather than upon the ground to pick his way, he stumbled suddenly and pitched forward over something that was uncannily soft and yielding to the touch.

With a startled cry, Raymond picked himself up. It was the body of a man sprawled across the road. He wrenched open his bag, and, whipping out his flashlight, turned it upon the other.

The man lay upon his back, motionless, inert; the white, ghastly face, blood-streaked, was twisted at a sharp angle to the body, disclosing a gaping wound in the head that extended from the temple back across the skull—and a yard away, mute testimony to its tragic work, lay the rotten limb of a tree, devoid of leaves, perhaps ten feet in length and of the thickness of one's two fists, its end jagged and splintered where it had snapped away from its parent trunk.

It was the priest—Father Aubert, the young curé of St. Marleau.

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