IT was Valerie who held the lamp; and beside her in the doorway stood a gentle-faced, silverhaired, slim little old lady—and the latter was another Valerie, only a Valerie whom the years in their passing had touched in a gentle, kindly way, as though the whitening hair and the age creeping upon her were but a crowning. And Raymond, turning to mount the stoop of the presbytère, as some of the villagers lifted the wounded priest from the wagon, drew his breath in sharply, and for an instant faltered in his step. It was as though, framed there in the doorway, those two forms of the women, those two faces that seemed to radiate an innate sanctity, were like guardian angels to bar the way against a hideous and sacrilegious invasion of some holy thing within. And Valerie's eyes, those great, deep, dark eyes burned into him. And her face, that he saw now for the first time plainly, was very beautiful, and with a beauty that was not of feature alone—for her expression seemed to write a sort of creed upon her face, a creed that frankly mirrored faith in all around her, a faith that, never having been startled, or dismayed, or disillusioned, and knowing no things for evil, accepted all things for good.

And Raymond's step faltered. It seemed as though he had never seen a woman's face like that—that it was holding him now in a thrall that robbed his surroundings momentarily of their danger and their peril.

And then, the next instant, that voice within him was speaking again.

“You fool!” it whispered fiercely. “What are you doing! If you want your life, play for it! Look around you! A false move, a rational word from the lips of that limp thing they are carrying there behind you, and these people, who believe where you mock, who would kneel if you but lifted your hand in sign of benediction, would turn upon you with the merciless fury of wild beasts! You fool! You fool! Do you like the feel of hemp, as it tightens around your neck!”

And then Raymond lifted his head, and his eyes, and with measured pace walked forward up the steps to where the two women stood.

Valérie's introduction was only another warning to him to be upon his guard—she seemed to imply that he naturally knew her mother's name.

“Father Aubert, this is my mother,” she said.

With a sort of old-world grace, the elder woman bowed.

“Ah, Monsieur le Curé,” she said quickly, “what a terrible thing to have happened! Valérie has just told me. And what a welcome to the parish for you! Not even a room, with that pauvre unfortunate, misérable and murderer though he is, and——”

“But it is a welcome of the heart, I can see that,” Raymond interposed, and smiled gravely, and took both of the old lady's hands in his own. “And that is worth far more than the room, which, in any case, I shall hardly need to-night. It is you, not I, who should have cause to grumble, for, to my own unexpected arrival, I bring you the added trouble and inconvenience of this very badly wounded and, I fear, dying man.”

“But—that!” she exclaimed simply. “But Monsieur le Curé would never have thought of doing otherwise! Valérie meant only kindness, but she should not have made any other suggestion. It is for nothing else, if not this, the presbytère! Le pauvre misérable”—she crossed herself reverently—“even if he has blood that thought of doing otherwise! Valérie meant only kindness, but she should not have made any other suggestion. It is for nothing else, if not this, the presbytère! Le pauvre misérable”—she crossed herself reverently—“even if he has blood that is not his own upon him.”

They were coming up the steps, carrying the wounded priest.

“This way!” said the little old lady softly. “Valérie, dear, hold your lamp so that they can see. Ah, le pauvre misérable; ah, Monsieur le Curé!”

The girl leading, they passed down a short hallway, entered a bedroom at the rear of the house, and Valérie set the lamp upon the table.

Raymond motioned to the men to lay the priest upon the bed. He glanced quietly about him, as he moved to the priest's side. He must get these people away—there were reasons why he should be alone. Alone! His brain was like some horrible, swirling vortex. Why alone? For what reasons? Not that hellish purpose that had flashed so insidiously upon him out there on the ride down to the presbytère! Not that! Strange how outwardly calm, how deadly calm, how composed and self-possessed he was, when such a thought had even for an instant's space found lodgment in his soul. It was well that he was calm, he would need to be calm—he was doing what that inner monitor had told him to do—he was playing the game—he was playing for his life. Well, he had only to dismiss these men now, who hung so curiously awe-struck about the bed, and then get rid of the women—no, they had gone now; Valérie, with her beautiful face, and those great dark eyes; and the mother, whose gray hair did not seem to bring age with it at all, and—no, they were back again—no, they were not—those were not women's steps entering the room.

He had been making pretence at loosening the priest's collar, and he looked up now. The trunk! He had forgotten all about the trunk. The newcomers were two men carrying the trunk. They set it down against the wall near the door. It was a little more than probable that they had seized the opportunity afforded by the trunk to see what was going on in the room. They would be favoured amongst their fellows without! They, too, hats in hand, stared, curious and awe-struck, toward the bed.

“Thank you, all of you,” Raymond heard himself saying in a low tone. “But go now, my friends, go quietly; madame and her daughter will give me any further assistance that may be needed.”

They filed obediently from the room—on tiptoe—their coarse, heavy boots squeaking the more loudly therefor. Raymond's hands sought the priest's collar again, to loosen it this time with a definite object in view. He had changed only his outer garments with the other. He dared not have the priest undressed until he had made sure that there were no tell-tale marks on the underclothing; a laundry number, perhaps, that the police would pounce instantly upon. He found himself experiencing a sort of facetious soul-grin—detectives always laid great stress upon laundry marks!

Again he was interrupted. With the collar in his hand, his own collar, that he had removed now from the priest's neck, he turned to see Valérie and her mother entering the room. They were very capable, those two—too capable! They were carrying basins of water, and cloths that were obviously intended for bandages. He had not meant to use any bandages, he had meant to—what?

He forced a grave smile of approval to his lips, and nodded his head.

The elder woman glanced about her a little in surprise.

“Oh, are the men gone!” she exclaimed. “Tiens! The stupids! But I will call one of them back, and he will help you undress le pauvre, Father Aubert.”

It was only an instant before Raymond answered; but it seemed, before he did so, that he had been listening in a kind of panic for long minutes dragged out interminably to that inner voice that kept telling him to play the game, play the game, and that only fools lost their heads at insignificant little unexpected denouements. She was only suggesting that the man should be undressed; whereas the man must under no circumstances be undressed until—until——

“I think perhaps we had better not attempt it in his condition until the doctor arrives, madame,” he said slowly, thoughtfully, as though his words were weighted with deliberation. “It might do far more harm than good. For the present, I think it would be better simply to loosen his clothing, and make him as comfortable as possible in that way.”

“Yes; I think so, too,” said Valérie—she had moved a little table to the bedside, and was arranging the basins of water and the cloths upon it.

“Of course!” agreed the little old lady simply. “Monsieur le Curé knows best.”

“Yes,” said Valérie, speaking in hushed tones, as she cast an anxious look at the white, blood-stained face upon the bed, “and I think it is a mercy that Father Aubert knows something about medicine, for otherwise the doctor might be too late. I will help you, Monsieur le Curé—everything is ready.”

He knew nothing about medicine—there was nothing he knew less about! What fiend had prompted him to make such a claim!

“I am afraid, mademoiselle,” he said soberly, “that my knowledge is far too inadequate for such a case as this.”

“We will be able to do something at least, father”—there was a brave, troubled smile in her eyes as she lifted them for an instant to his; and then, bending forward, with deft fingers she removed the torn piece of shirt from the wounded man's head.

And then, between them, while the mother watched and wrung out the cloths, they dressed the wound, a ghastly, unsightly thing across the side of the man's skull—only it was Valerie, not he, who was efficient. And strangely, as once before, but a little while before, when out there in front of the house, it was Valerie, and not the man, and not the wound, and not the peril in which he stood that was dominant, swaying him for the moment. There was a wondrous tenderness in her hands as she worked with the bandages, and sometimes her hands touched his; and sometimes, close together, as they leaned over the bed together, her hair, dark, luxuriant, brushed his cheek; and the low-collared blouse disclosed a bare and perfect throat that was white like ivory; and the half parted lips were tender like the touch of her fingers; and in her face at sight of the gruesome wound, bringing an added whiteness, was dismay, and struggling with dismay was a wistful earnestness and resolution that was born of her woman's sympathy; and she seemed to steal upon and pervade his senses as though she were some dream-created vision, for she was not reality at all since his subconsciousness told him that in actual reality no one existed at all except that moaning thing upon the bed—that moaning thing upon the bed and himself—himself, who seemed to be swinging by a precarious hold, from which even then his fingers were slipping away, over some bottomless abyss that yawned below him. “Valérie! Valérie!” He was repeating her name to himself, as though calling to her for aid from the edge of that black gulf, and——

“Fool!” jeered that inner voice. “Have you never seen a pretty girl before? She'd be the first to turn upon you, if she knew!”

“You lie!” retorted another self.

“Where's Three-Ace Artie gone?” inquired the voice with cold contempt.

Raymond straightened up. Valérie, turning from the bed, gathered the basins and soiled cloths together, and moved quietly from the room.

“Will he live, father?”—it was the little gray-haired woman, Valérie's mother, Valérie's older self, who was looking up into his face so anxiously, whose lips quivered a little as she spoke.

Would the man live! A devil's laugh seemed suddenly to possess Raymond's soul. They would be alone together, that gasping, white-faced thing on the bed, and himself; they would be alone together before the doctor came—he would see to that. There had been interruption, confusion... his brain itself was confusion... extraneous thoughts had intervened... but they would be alone presently. And—great God!—what hellish mockery!—she asked him if this man would live!

“I am afraid”—he was not looking at her; his hand, clutching at the skirt of the soutane he wore, closed and tightened and clenched—“I am afraid he will not live.”

“Ah, le pauvre!” she whispered, and her eyes filled with tears. “Ah, Monsieur le Curé, I do not know these things so well as you. It is true that he is a very guilty man, but is not God very good and tender and full of compassion, father? Oh, I should not dare to say these things, for it is you who know what is right and best”—she had caught his sleeve, and was leading him across the room. “And Mother Church, Monsieur le Curé, is very merciful and very tender and very compassionate too—and, oh—and, oh—can there not be mercy and love even for such as he—must he lose his soul too, as well as his life?”

Raymond, in a blind, wondering way, stared at her. The tears were streaming down her cheeks now. They had halted before a low, old-fashioned cupboard, an armoire much like the armoire in the old hag's house, and now she opened the doors in the lower portion, and took out a worn and rusty black leather bag, and set it upon the top of the armoire.

“It is only to show you where it is, father, if—if it might be so—even for him—the Sacrament”—and, turning, she crossed the room, and meeting Valérie upon the threshold drew the girl away with her, and closed the door softly.

It was a bag such as the parish priests carried with them on their visits to the sick and dying. Raymond eyed it sullenly. The Sacrament!

“What have I to do with that!” he snarled beneath his breath.

“Are you not a priest of God?”

He whirled like a flash, startled, sweeping his glances around the room. And then he laughed in smothered, savage relief. It was only that voice within that chose a cursed mockery this time to put him upon his guard.

He was staring now at the sprawled form on the bed, at a red stain that was already creeping through the fresh bandages. His face grew hard and set; a flush came and died away, leaving it an ashen gray.

And then he stepped to the door—and listened—and locked it.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook