VALERIE'S flushed face was lifted eagerly to his. She had caught impetuously at the sleeve of his soutane, and was urging him forward. And yet he was walking with deliberate measured tread across the green toward the presbytère. Strange how the blood seemed to be hammering feverishly at his temples! Every impulse prompted him to run, as a man running for his life, to reach the presbytère, to reach that room, to shut the door upon himself and that man whose return to consciousness meant—what? But it was too late to run now. Too late! Already the news seemed to have spread. Those who had been the last to linger at the grave of Théophile Blondin were gathering, on their way out from the little burying ground, around the door of the presbytère. It would appear bizarre, perhaps, that the curé should come tearing across the green with vestments flying simply because a man had regained consciousness! Ha, ha! Yes, very bizarre! Why should their curé run like one demented just because a man had regained consciousness! If the man were at his last gasp now, were just about to die—that would be different! He found a bitter mirth in that. Yes, decidedly, they would understand that! But as it was, they would think their curé had gone suddenly mad, perhaps, or they would think, perhaps—something else.

The dice were thrown, the card was turned—against him. His luck was out. It was like walking tamely to where the noose dangled and awaited his neck to walk toward those gaping people clustered around the door, to walk into the presbytère. But it was his only chance. Yes, there was a chance—one chance left. If he could hold out until evening, until darkness!

Until evening, until darkness—with the night before him in which to attempt his escape! But there were still eight hours or more to evening. There were only a few more steps to go before he reached the presbytère. The distance was pitifully short. In those few steps he must plan everything; plan that that accursed noose swaying before his eyes should——

Dies illa, dies iræ—that day, a day of wrath.” What brought those words flashing through his mind! He had said them once that morning—but a little while ago—in church—as a priest—at Théophile Blondin's funeral. Damn it, they were not meant for him! They did not mean to-day. They were not premonitory. He was not beaten yet!

In the shed behind the presbytère there was a pair of the old sacristan's overalls, and an old coat, and an old hat. He had noticed them yesterday. They would serve his purpose—a man in a pair of overalls and a dirty, torn coat would not look much like a priest. Yes, yes; that would do, it was the way—when night came. He would have the darkness, and he would hide the next day, and the day after, and travel only by night. It invited pursuit of course, the one thing that next to capture itself he had struggled and plotted to avoid, but it was the only chance now, and, if luck turned again, he might succeed in making his way out of the country—when night came.

But until then! What until then? That was where his danger lay now—in those hours until darkness.

“Yes!” whispered Raymond fiercely to himself. “Yes—if only you keep your head!”

What was the matter with him? Had he forgotten! It was what he had been prepared to face that night when he had brought the priest to the presbytère, should the man then have recovered sufficiently to speak. It should be still easier now to make any one believe that the man was wandering in his mind, was not yet lucid or coherent after so long a lapse from consciousness. And the very story that the man would tell must sound like the ravings of a still disordered mind! He, Raymond, would insist that the man be kept very quiet during the day; he, Raymond, would stay beside the other's bed. Was he not the curé! Would they not obey him, show deference to his judgment and his wishes—until night came!

They were close to the presbytère now, close to the little gaping crowd that surrounded the door; and, as though conscious for the first time that she was clinging to his arm, Valérie, in sudden embarrassment at her own eagerness, hurriedly dropped her hand to her side. And, at the act, Raymond looked at her quickly, in an almost startled way. Strange! But then his brain was in turmoil! Strange that extraneous things, things that had nothing to do with the one grim purpose of saving his neck should even for an instant assert themselves! But then they—no, she—had done that before. He remembered now... when they were putting on that bandage.

When that crucifix had tangled up his hands, and she had seemed to stand before him to save him from himself... those dark eyes, that pure, sweet face, the tender, womanly sympathy—the antithesis of himself! And to-night, when night came, when the night he longed for came, when the night that meant his only chance for life came, he—what was this!—this sudden pang of yearning that ignored, with a most curious authority, as though it had the right to ignore, the desperate, almost hopeless peril that was closing down upon him, that seemed to make the coming of the night now a thing he would put off, a thing to regret and to dread, that bade him search for some other way, some other plan that would not necessitate—

“A fool and a pretty face!”—it was the gibe and sneer and prod of that inward monitor. “See all these people who are so reverently making way for you, and eying you with affection and simple humility, see the rest of them coming back from all directions because the murderer is about to tell his story—well, see how they will make way for you, and with what affection and humility they will eye you when you come out of that house again, if all the wits the devil ever gave you are not about you now!”

He spoke to her quietly, controlling his voice:

“You have not told me yet what he said, mademoiselle?”

She shook her head.

“He did not say much—only to ask where he was and for a drink of water.”

He had no time to ask more. They had reached the group before the presbytère now, and the buzz of conversation, the eager, excited exchange of questions and answers was hushed, as, with one accord, men and women made way for their curé. And Raymond, lifting his hand in a kindly, yet authoritative gesture, cautioning patience and order, mounted the steps of the presbytère.

And then, inside the doorway, Raymond quickened his step. From the closed door at the end of the short hallway came the low murmur of voices. It was Madame Lafleur probably who was there with the other now. How much, how little had the man said—since Valérie had left the room? Raymond's lips tightened grimly. It was fortunate that Madame Lafleur had so great a respect for the cloth! He had nothing to fear from her. He could make her believe anything. He could twist her around his finger, and—he opened the door softly—and stood, as though turned suddenly rigid, incapable of movement, upon the threshold—and his hand upon the doorknob closed tighter and tighter in a vise-like grip. Across the room stood, not Madame Lafleur, but Monsieur Dupont, the assistant chief of the Tournayville police, and in Monsieur Dupont's hand was a notebook, and upon Monsieur Dupont's lips, as he turned and glanced quickly toward the door, there played an enigmatical smile.

“Ah! It is Monsieur le Curé!” observed Monsieur Dupont smoothly. “Well, come in, Monsieur le Curé—come in, and shut the door. I promise you, you will find it interesting. What? Yes, very interesting!”

“Oh, Monsieur Dupont is here!”—the words seemed to come to Raymond as from some great distance behind him.

He turned. It was Valérie. Of course, it was Valérie! He had forgotten. She had naturally followed him along the hall to the door. What did this Dupont mean by what he had said? What had Dupont already learned—that was so interesting! It would not do to have Valérie here, if—if he and Dupont——

“Perhaps, Mademoiselle Valérie,” he said gravely, “it would be as well if you did not come in. Monsieur Dupont appears to be officially engaged.”

“But, of course!” she agreed readily. “I did not know that any one was here. I left the man alone when I ran out to find you. I will come back when Monsieur Dupont has gone.”

And Raymond smiled, and stepped inside the room, and closed the door, and leaned with his back against it.

“Well, Monsieur le Curé”—Monsieur Dupont tapped with his pencil on the notebook—“I have it all down here. All! Everything that he has said.”

Raymond had not even glanced toward the bed—his eyes, cool, steady now, were on the officer, watching the other like a hawk.

“Yes?” he prompted calmly.

“And”—Monsieur Dupont made that infernal clucking noise with his tongue—“I have—nothing! Did I not tell you it was interesting? Yes, very interesting! Very!”

Was the man playing with him? How clever was this Dupont? No fool, at any rate! He had already shown that, in spite of his absurd mannerisms. Raymond's hand began to toy with the crucifix on his breast, while his fingers surreptitiously loosened several buttons of his soutane.

“Nothing?”—Raymond's eyebrows were raised in mild surprise. “But Mademoiselle Valérie told me he had regained consciousness.”

“Yes,” said Monsieur Dupont, “I heard her say so to some one as she left the house. I was keeping an eye on that vieille sauvage, Mother Blondin. But this—ah! Quite a more significant matter! Yes—quite! You will understand, Monsieur le Curé, that I lost no time in reaching here?”

And now for the first time Raymond looked swiftly toward the bed. It was only for the barest fraction of a second that he permitted his eyes to leave the police officer; but in that glance he had met coal black eyes, all pupils they seemed, fixed in a sort of intense penetration upon him. The man was still lying on his back, he had noticed that—but it was the eyes, disconcerting, full of something he could not define, boring into him, that dominated all else. He stepped nonchalantly toward Monsieur Dupont.

“It is astonishing that he has said nothing,” he murmured softly. “Will you permit me, Monsieur Dupont”—he held out his hand—“to see your book?”

“The book? H'm! Well, why not?” Monsieur Dupont shrugged his shoulders as he placed the notebook in Raymond's hand. “It is not customary—but, why not!”

And then upon Raymond came relief. It surged upon him until he could have laughed out hysterically, laughed like a fool in this Monsieur Dupont's face—this Monsieur Dupont who was the assistant chief of the police force of Tournayville. It was true! Dupont had at least told the truth. So far Dupont had learned nothing. Raymond's face was impassive as he scrutinised the page before him. Written with a flourish on the upper line, presumably to serve as a caption, were the words:

“The Murderer, Henri Mentone,” and beneath: “Evades direct answers. Hardened type—knows his way about. Pretends ignorance. Stubborn. Wily rascal—yes, very!”

Raymond handed the notebook back to Monsieur Dupont.

“It is perhaps not so strange after all, Monsieur Dupont,” he remarked with a thoughtful air. “We must not forget that the poor fellow has but just recovered consciousness. He is hardly likely to be either lucid or rational.”

“Bah!” ejaculated Monsieur Dupont grimly. “He is as lucid as I am. But I am not through with him yet! He is not the first of his kind I have had upon my hook!” He leaned toward the bed. “Now, then, my little Apache, you will answer my questions! Do you understand? No more evasions! None at all! They will do you no good, and——”

Raymond's hand fell upon Monsieur Dupont's shoulder. Though he had not looked again until now, he was conscious that those eyes from the bed had never for an instant swerved from his face. Now he met them steadily. He addressed Monsieur Dupont, but he spoke to the man on the bed.

“Have you warned him, Monsieur Dupont,” he said soberly, “that anything he says will be used against him? And have you told him that he is not obliged to answer? He is weak yet and at a disadvantage. He would be quite justified in waiting until he was stronger, and entirely competent to weigh his own words.”

Monsieur Dupont was possessed of an inconsistency all his own.

Tonnerre!” he snapped. “And what is the use of warning him when he will not answer at all?”

“You appear not quite to have given up hope!” observed Raymond dryly.

“H'm!” Monsieur Dupont scowled. “Very well, then”—he leaned once more over the bed, and addressed the man—“you understand? It is as Monsieur le Curé says. I warn you. You are not obliged to answer. Now then—your name, your age, your birthplace?”

Raymond shifted his position to the foot of the bed.

Damn those eyes! Move where he would, they never left his face. The man had paid no attention to Monsieur Dupont. Why, in God's name, why did the man keep on staring and gazing so fixedly at him—and why had the man refused to answer Dupont's questions—and why had not the man with his first words poured out his story eagerly!

“Well, well!” prodded Monsieur Dupont. “Did you not hear—eh? Your name?”

The man's eyes followed Raymond.

“Where am I?” he asked faintly.

It was too querulous, that tone, too genuinely weak and peevish to smack of trickery—and suddenly upon Raymond there came again that nervous impulse to laugh out aloud. So that was the secret of it, was it? There was a sort of sardonic humour then in the situation! The suggestion, the belief he had planned to convey to shield himself—that the man was still irrational—was, in fact, the truth! But how long would that condition last? He must put an end to this—get this cursed Dupont away!

“Where am I?” muttered the man again.

Tiens!” clucked Monsieur Dupont. “You see, Monsieur le Curé! You see? Yes, you see. He plays the game well—with finesse, eh?” He turned to the man. “Where are you, eh? Well, you are better off where you are now than where you will be in a few days! I promise you that! Now, again—your name?”

The man shook his head.

“Monsieur Dupont,” said Raymond, a little severely. “You will arrive at nothing like this. The man is not himself. To-morrow he will be stronger.”

“Bah! Nonsense! Stronger!” jerked out Monsieur Dupont derisively. “Our fox is quite strong enough! Monsieur le Curé, you are not a police officer—do not let your pity deceive you. And permit me to continue!” He slipped his hand into his pocket, and adroitly flashed a visiting card suddenly before the man's eyes. “Well, since you cannot recall your name, this will perhaps be of assistance! You see, Monsieur Henri Mentone, that you get yourself nowhere by refusing to answer!” Once more the man shook his head.

“So!” Monsieur Dupont complacently returned the card to his pocket. “Now we will continue. You see now where you stand. Your age?”

Again the man shook his head.

“He does not know!” remarked Monsieur Dupont caustically. “Very convenient memory! Yes—very! Well, will you tell us where you came from?”

For the fourth time the man shook his head—and at that instant Raymond edged close to Monsieur Dupont's side. What was that in those eyes now—that something that was creeping into them—that dawning light, as they searched his face!

“He does not know that, either!” complained Monsieur Dupont sarcastically. “Magnificent! Yes—very! He knows nothing at all! He——”

With a low cry, the man struggled to his elbow, propping himself up in bed.

“Yes, I know!”—his voice, high-pitched, rang through the room. “I know now!” He raised his hand and pointed at Raymond. “I know you!

Raymond's hand was thrust into the breast of his soutane, where he had unbuttoned it beneath the crucifix—and Raymond's fingers closed upon the stock of an automatic in his upper left-hand vest pocket.

“Poor fellow!” murmured Raymond pityingly. “You see, Monsieur Dupont”—he moved still a little closer—“you have gone too far. You have excited him. He is incoherent. He does not know what he is saying.”

Monsieur Dupont was clucking with his tongue, as he eyed the man speculatively.

“Yes, yes; I know you now!” cried the man again. “Oh, monsieur, monsieur!”—both hands were suddenly thrust out to Raymond, and there was a smile on the trembling lips, an eager flush dyeing the pale cheeks. “It is you, monsieur! I have been very sick, have I not? It—it was like a dream. I—I was trying to remember—your face. It is your face that I have seen so often bending over me. Was that not it, monsieur—monsieur, you who have been so good—was that not it? You would lift me upon my pillow, and give me something cool to drink. And was it not you, monsieur, who sat there in that chair for long, long hours? It seems as though I saw you there always—many, many times.”

It was like a shock, a revulsion so strong that for the moment it unnerved him. Raymond scarcely heard his own voice.

“Yes,” he said—his forehead was damp, as he brushed his hand across it.

Monsieur Dupont blew out his cheeks.

Nom d'un nom!” he exploded. “Ah, your pardon, Monsieur le Curé! But it is mild, a very mild oath, is it not—under the circumstances? Yes—very! I admire cleverness—yes, I do! The man has a head! What an appeal to the emotions! Poignant! Yes, that's the word—poignant. Looking for sympathy! Trying to make an ally of you, Monsieur le Curé!”

“Get rid of the fool! Get rid of the fool!” prompted that inward monitor impatiently.

Raymond, with a significant look, plucked at Monsieur Dupont's sleeve, and led the other across the room away from the bed.

“Do you think so?” he asked, in a lowered voice.

“Eh?” inquired Monsieur blankly. “Think what?”

“What you just said—that he is trying to make an ally of me.”

“Oh, that—zut!” sniffed Monsieur Dupont. “But what else?”

“Then suppose”—Raymond dropped his voice still lower—“then suppose you leave him with me until tomorrow. And meanwhile—you understand?”

Monsieur Dupont pondered the suggestion.

“Well, very well—why not?” decided Monsieur Dupont. “Perhaps not a bad idea—perhaps not. And if it does not succeed”—Monsieur Dupont shrugged his shoulders—“well, we know everything anyhow; and I will make him pay through the nose for his tricks! But he is under arrest, Monsieur le Curé, you understand that? There is a cell in the jail at Tournayville that——”

“Naturally—when he is able to be moved,” agreed Raymond readily. “We will speak to the doctor about that. In the meantime he probably could not walk across this room. He is quite safe here. I will be responsible for him.”

“And I will put a flea in the doctor's ear!” announced Monsieur Dupont, moving toward the door. “The assizes are next week, and after the assizes, say, another six weeks and”—Monsieur Dupont's tongue clucked eloquently several times against the roof of his mouth. “We will not keep him waiting long!” Monsieur Dupont opened the door, and, standing on the threshold where he was hidden from the bed, laid his forefinger along the side of his nose. “You are wrong, Monsieur le Curé”—he had raised his voice to carry through the room. “But still you may be right! You are too softhearted; yes, that is it—soft-hearted. Well, he has you to thank for it. I would not otherwise consider it—it is against my best judgment. I bid you good-bye, Monsieur le Curé!”

Raymond closed the door—but it was a moment, standing there with his back to the bed, before he moved. His face was set, the square jaws clamped, a cynical smile flickering on his lips. It had been close—but of the two, as between Monsieur Dupont and himself and the gallows, Monsieur Dupont had been the nearer to death! He saw Monsieur Dupont in his mind's-eye sprawled on the floor. It would not have been difficult to have stopped forever any outcry from that weak thing upon the bed. And then the window; and after that—God knew! And it would have been God's affair! It was God Who had instituted that primal law that lay upon every human soul, the law of self-preservation; and it was God's choosing, not his, that he was here! Who was to quarrel with him if he stopped at nothing in his fight for life! Well, Dupont was gone now! That danger was past. He had only to reckon now with Valérie and her mother—until night came. He raised his hand heavily to his forehead and pushed back his hair. Valérie! Until night came! Fool! What was Valérie to him! And yet—he jeered at himself in a sort of grim derision—and yet, if it were not his one chance for life, he would not go to-night. He could call himself a fool, if he would; that ubiquitous and caustic other self, that was the cool, calculating, unemotional personification of Three-Ace Artie, could call him a fool, if it would—those dark eyes of Valérie's—no, not that—it was not eyes, nor hair, nor lips, they were only part of Valérie—it was Valérie, like some rare fragrance, fresh and pure and sweet in her young womanhood, that——

“Monsieur!”—the man was calling from the bed.

And then Raymond turned, and walked back across the room, and drew a chair to the bedside, and sat down. And Raymond smiled—but not at the bandaged, outstretched form before him. A fool! Well, so be it! The fool would sit here for the rest of the morning, and the rest of the afternoon, and listen to the babbling wanderings of another fool who had not had sense enough to die; and he would play this cursed rôle of saint, and fumble with his crucifix, and mumble his * Latin, and keep this Mademoiselle Valérie, who meant nothing to him, from the room—until to-night. And—what was this other fool saying?

“Monsieur—monsieur, who was that man who just went out?”

Raymond answered mechanically:

“It was Monsieur Dupont, the assistant chief of the Tournayville police.”

“What was he doing here?” asked the other slowly, as though trying to puzzle out the answer to his own question. “Why was he asking me all those questions?”

Raymond, tight-lipped, looked the man in the eyes.

“We've had enough of this, haven't we?” he challenged evenly. “I thought at first you were still irrational. You're not—that is now quite evident. Well—we are alone—what is your object? You had a chance to tell Dupont your story!”

A pitiful, stunned look crept into the man's face. He stretched out his hand over the coverlet toward Raymond. “You—you, too, monsieur!” he said numbly. “What does it mean? What does it mean?”

It startled Raymond. There was trickery here, it could be nothing else—and yet there was sincerity too genuine to be assumed in the other's words and acts. Raymond sat back in his chair, and for a long minute, brows knitted, studied the man. It was possible, of course, that the other might not have recognised him—they had only been together for a few moments in the smoking compartment of the train, and, dressed now as a priest, that might well be the case—but why not the story then?—why not the simple statement that he was the new curé coming to the village, that he had been struck down and—bah! What was the man's game! Well, he would force the issue, that was all! He leaned over the bed; and, his hand upon the other's, his fingers closed around the man's wrist until, beneath their tips, they could gauge the throb of the other's pulse. And his eyes, steel-hard, were on the other.

“I am the curé,” he said, in a low, level tone, “of St. Marleau—while Father Allard is away. My name is—François Aubert.”

“And mine,” said the man, “is”—he shook his head—“mine is”—his face grew piteously troubled—“it is strange—I do not remember that either.”

There had been no tell-tale nervous flutter of the man's pulse. Raymond's hand fell away from the other's wrist. What was this curious, almost uncanny presentiment that was creeping upon him! Was it possible that the man was telling the truth! Was it possible that—his own brain was whirling now—he steadied himself, forcing himself to speak.

“Did you not read the card that Dupont showed you?”

“Yes,” said the other. “Henri Mentone—is that my name?”

“Do you not know!”—Raymond's tone was suddenly sharp, incisive.

“No,” the other answered. “No, I cannot remember.” He reached out his arms imploringly to Raymond again. “Oh, monsieur, what does it mean? I do not know where I am—I do not know how I came here.”

“You are in the presbytère at St. Marleau,” said Raymond, still sharply. Was it true; or was the man simply magnificent in duplicity? No—there could be no reason, no valid reason for the man to play a part?—no reason why he should have withheld his story from Dupont. It was not logical. He, Raymond, who alone knew all the story, knew that. It must be true—but he dared not yet drop his guard. He must be sure—his life depended on his being sure. He was speaking again—uncompromisingly: “You were picked up unconscious on the road by the tavern during the storm three nights ago—you remember the storm, of course?”

Again that piteously troubled look was on the other's face.

“No, monsieur, I do not remember,” he said tremulously.

“Well, then,” persisted Raymond, “before the storm—you surely remember that! Where you came from? Where you lived? Your people?”

“Where I came from, my—my people”—the man repeated the words automatically. He swept his hand across his bandaged head. “It is gone,” he whispered miserably. “I—it is gone. There—there is nothing. I do not remember anything except a girl in this room saying she would run for the curé, and then that man came in.” A new trouble came into his eyes. “That man—you said he was a police officer—why was he here? And—you have not told me yet—why should he ask me questions?”

There was still a card to play. Raymond leaned again over the man.

“All this will not help you,” he said sternly. “Far better that you should confide in me! The proof against you is overwhelming. You are already condemned. You murdered Théophile Blondin that night, and stole Mother Blondin's money. Mother Blondin struck you that blow upon the head as you ran from the house. You were found on the road; and in your pockets was Mother Blondin's money—and her son's revolver, with which you shot him. In a word, you are under arrest for murder.”

“Murder!”—the man, wide-eyed, horror-stricken, was staring at Raymond—and then he was clawing himself frantically into an upright position in the bed. “No, no! Not that! It cannot be true! Not—murder!” His voice rose into a piercing cry, and rang, and rang again through the room. He reached out his arms. “You are a priest, monsieur—by that holy crucifix, by the dear Christ's love, tell me that it is not so! Tell me! Murder! It is not true! It cannot be true! No, no—no! Monsieur—father—do you not hear me crying to you, do you not—” His voice choked and was still. His face was buried in his hands, and great sobs shook his shoulders.

And Raymond turned his head away—and Raymond's face was gray and drawn. There was no longer room for doubt. That blow upon the skull had blotted out the man's memory, left it—a blank.

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