IT hung there precariously. All through the mass that morning Raymond's eyes had kept straying to the great cross on the wall that old Mother Blondin had disturbed the night before. No one else, it was true, had appeared to notice it; but, having no reason to do so, no one else, very probably, had given it any particular attention—nevertheless, a single strand of cord on one end of the horizontal beam was all that now prevented the cross from pitching outward from the wall and crashing down into the body of the church.

The door of the sacristy leading into the chancel was open, and, in the sacristy now, Raymond's eyes fixed uneasily again on the huge, squared timbers of the cross. The support at the base held the weight of course, but the balance and adjustment was gone, and the slightest jar would be all that was necessary to snap that remaining cord above. Massive and unwieldy, the cross itself must be at least seven feet in height; and, though this was of course imagination, it seemed to waver there now ominously, as if to impress upon him the fact that in the cause of its insecurity he was not without a personal responsibility.

He had removed his surplice and stole; Gauthier Beaulieu, the altar boy, had gone; and there was only old Narcisse Pélude, the aged sacristan, who was still puttering about the room. And the church was empty now, save that he could still hear Valérie moving around up there in the little organ loft.

Raymond passed his hand wearily across his eyes. He was very tired. Valérie was lingering intentionally—and he knew why. He had not returned to the presbytère, his bed had not been slept in. Valérie and her mother could not have helped but discover that, and they would be anxious, and worried, and perhaps a little frightened—and that was why Valérie was lingering now, waiting for him. He had not dared to leave old Mother Blondin alone through the night. She had been very ill. And he had not gone to any one near at hand, to Madame Bouchard, for instance, to get her to take his place, for that would have entailed explanations which, not on his own account, but for old Mother Blondin's sake, he had not cared to make; and so, when the bell for mass had rung that morning, he had still been at the bedside of the old woman on the hill. And he had left her only then because she was sleeping quietly, and the immediate crisis seemed safely past.

Raymond's eyes, from the cross, rested speculatively for a moment on the bent figure of the aged sacristan. He could make those explanations to Valérie, he could go out there now and in a sort of timely corroboration of the story repair the damage done to the cross, and she would understand; but he could not publicly make those explanations. If it was to be known in the village that old Mother Blondin had come here to the church, it was for old Mother Blondin herself, and for no one else, to tell it. It was the same attitude he had adopted toward her once before. True, Mother Blondin had changed very greatly since then; but a tactless word from any one, a sneer, the suggestion of triumph over her, and the old sullen defiance might well rise supreme again—and old Mother Blondin, he knew now, had not very long to live. Valérie and her mother would very readily, and very sympathetically understand. He could tell Valérie, indeed he was forced to do so in order to explain his own absence from the presbytère; but to others, to the village, to old Narcisse Pélude here, since the broken fastenings of the cross must be replaced, old Mother Blondin's name need not be mentioned.

“Narcisse, how long has that great cross hung there on the wall?” he inquired abruptly.

“Ah—the great cross! Yes—Monsieur le Curé!” The old man laid down a vestment that he had been carefully folding, and wagged his head. “It is very old—very old, that cross. You will see how old it is when I tell you it was made by the grandfather of the present Bouchard, whose pew is right underneath it. Grandfather Bouchard was one of the first in St. Mar-leau, and you must know, Monsieur le Curé, that St. Marleau was then a very small place. It was the Grandfather Bouchard who built most of the old wooden church, and there was a little cupola for the bell, and above the cupola was that cross. Yes, Monsieur le Curé, there have been changes in St. Marleau, and——”

“But how long has it hung there on the wall, Narcisse?” Raymond interrupted with a tolerant smile—Narcisse had been known at times to verge on garrulity!

“But I am telling you, Monsieur le Curé,” said the old sacristan earnestly. “We began to build this fine stone church, and when it was finished the little old wooden church was torn down, and we brought the cross here, and it has been here ever since, and that is thirty-two—no, thirty-three years ago, Monsieur le Curé—it will be thirty-three years this coming November.”

“And in those thirty-three years,” observed Raymond, “I imagine that the cross has remained untouched?”

“But, yes, Monsieur le Curé! Untouched—yes, of course! It was consecrated by Monsignor the Bishop himself—not the present bishop, Monsieur le Curé will understand, but the old bishop who is since dead, and——”

“Quite so,” said Raymond. “Well, come here, nearer to the door, Narcisse. Now, look at the cross very carefully, and see if you can discover why I asked you if it had remained untouched all those years?”

The old man strained his eyes across the chancel to the opposite wall—and shook his head.

“No, Monsieur le Curé, I see nothing—only the cross there as usual.”

“Look higher up,” prompted Raymond. “Do you not see that all but one of the fastenings are broken, and that it is about to fall?”

“Fall? About to fall?” The old man rubbed his eyes, and stared, and rubbed his eyes again. “Yes—yes—it is true! I see now! The cords have rotted away. It is no wonder—in all that time. I—I should have thought of that long, long ago.” He turned a white face to Raymond. “It—it is the mercy of God that it did not happen, Monsieur le Curé, with anybody there! It would have killed Bouchard, and madame, and the children! It would have crushed them to death! Monsieur le Curé, I am a misérable! I am an old man, and I forget, but that is not an excuse. Yes, Monsieur le Curé, I am a misérable!

Raymond laid his hand on the old sacristan's shoulder.

“We will see that it does not fall on the excellent Bouchard, or on madame, or on the children,” he smiled. “Therefore, bring a ladder and some stout cord, Narcisse, and we will fix it at once.”

The old man stared again at the cross for a moment, then started hurriedly toward the sacristy door that gave on the side of the church.

“Yes, Monsieur le Curé—yes—at once,” he agreed anxiously. “There is a ladder beside the shed that is long enough. I will get it immediately. I am an old man, and I forget, but I am none the less a misérable. If Monsieur le Curé had not happened to notice it, and it had fallen on Bouchard! Monsieur le Curé is very good not to blame me, but I am none the less——”

The old man, shaking his head, and still talking, had disappeared through the doorway.

Old Narcisse Pélude—the self-styled misérable! The old man had taken it quite to heart! Raymond shrugged his shoulders whimsically. Well, so much the better! It was for old Mother Blondin to tell her own story—if she chose! He wondered, with a curious and seemingly unaccountable wistfulness, if she ever would! It had been a night that had left him strangely moved, strangely bewildered, unable even yet to focus his mind clearly and logically upon it. He could tell Valérie of old Mother Blondin, of how the old woman on the hill had come here seeking peace; he could not tell her that he, too, had come in the hope that he might find what old Mother Blondin had sought—at the Altar of God!

Valérie! Yes, he was strangely moved this morning. And now a yearning and an agony surged upon him. Valérie! Between Valérie's coming to him that night in the stillness of the hours just before the dawn, and his coming here to the church last night, there lay an analogy of souls near-spent, clutching at what they might to save themselves. Peace, and the seeking of a way, he had come for; and peace, and the seeking of a way, she had come for then. It seemed as though he could see that scene again—that room in the presbytère, and the lamp upon the desk, and that slim, girlish form upon her knees before him; and it seemed as though he could feel the touch again of that soft, dark, silken hair, as she laid his hands upon her bowed head; and it seemed as though he could hear her voice again, as it faltered through the Pater Noster: “Hallowed be Thy name... and lead us not into temptation... but deliver us from evil.” Had he, in any measure, found what he had sought last night? He did not know. He had knelt and prayed with old Mother Blondin. The Benedictus, as he had repeated it, had seemed real. He had known a profound solemnity, and the sense of that solemnity had remained with him, was with him now—and yet he blasphemed that solemnity, and the Altar of God, and this holy place in standing here at this very moment decked out in his stolen soutane and the crucifix that hung from his neck! Illogical? Why did he do it then? His eyes were on the floor. Illogical? It was to save his life—it was because he was fighting to save his life. It was not to repudiate the sincerity with which he had repeated the words of the Benedictus to old Mother Blondin—it was to save his life. Whatever he had found here, whether a deeper meaning in these holy symbolisms, he had not found the way—no other way but to blaspheme on with his soutane cloaked around him. And she—Valérie? Had she found what she had sought that night? He did not know. Refuse to acknowledge it, attempt to argue himself into disbelief, if he would, he knew that when she had knelt there that night in the front room of the presbytère she cared. And since then? Had she, in any measure, found what she had sought? Had she crushed back the love, triumphed over it until it remained only a memory in her life? He did not know. She had given no sign. They had never spoken of that night again. Only—only it seemed as though of late there had come a shadow into the fresh, young face, and a shadow into the dark, steadfast eyes, a shadow that had not been there on the night when he had first come to St. Marleau, and she and he had bent together over the wounded man upon the bed.

Subconsciously he had been listening for her step; and now, as he heard her descending the stairs from the organ loft, he stepped out from the sacristy into the chancel, and down into the nave of the church. He could see her now, and she had seen him. She had halted at the foot of the stairs under the gallery at the back of the church. Valérie! How sweet and beautiful she looked this morning! There was just a tinge of rising colour in her cheeks, a little smile, half tremulous, half gay on the parted lips, a dainty gesture of severity and playfulness in the shake of her head, as he approached.

“Oh, Father Aubert,” she exclaimed, “you do not know how relieved we were, mother and I, when we saw you enter the church this morning for mass! We—we were really very anxious about you; and we did not know what to think when mother called you as usual half an hour before the mass, and found that you were not there, and that you had not slept in your bed.”

“Yes, I know,” said Raymond gravely; “and that is what I have come to speak to you about now. I was afraid you would be anxious, but I knew you would understand—though you would perhaps wonder a little—when I told you what kept me away last night. Let us walk down the side aisle there to the chancel, Mademoiselle Valérie, and I will explain.”

A bewildered little pucker gathered on her forehead.

“The side aisle, Father Aubert?” she repeated in a puzzled way.

“Yes; come,” he said. “You will see.”

He led her down the aisle, and, halting before the cross, pointed upward.

“Why, the fastenings, all but one, are broken!” she cried out instantly. “It is a miracle that it has not fallen! What does it mean?”

“It is the story of last night, Mademoiselle Valerie,” he answered with a sober smile. “Sit down in the pew there, and I will tell you. I have sent Narcisse for a ladder, and we will repair the damage presently, but there will be time before he gets back. He believes that the fastenings have grown old and rotten, which is true; and that they parted simply from age, which is not quite so much the fact. I have allowed him to form his own conclusions; I have even encouraged him to believe in them.”

She was sitting in the pew now. The bewildered little pucker had grown deeper. She kept glancing back and forth from Raymond, standing before her in the aisle, to the broken fastenings of the cross high up on the wall.

“But that is what any one would naturally think,” she said slowly. “I thought so myself. I—I do not quite understand, Father Aubert.”

“I think you know,” said Raymond quietly, “that some nights I do not sleep very well, Mademoiselle Valerie. Last night was one of those. When midnight came I was still wakeful, and I had not gone to bed. I was very restless; I knew I could not sleep, and so I decided to go out for a little while.”

“Yes,” she said impulsively; “I know. I heard you.”

“You heard me?” He looked at her in quick surprise. “But I thought I had been very careful indeed to make no noise. I—I did not think that I had wakened———”

A flush came suddenly to her cheeks, and she turned her head aside.

“I—I was not asleep,” she said hurriedly. “Go on, Father Aubert, I did not mean to interrupt you.”

Raymond did not speak for a moment. He was not looking at her now—he dared not trust his eyes to drink deeper of that flush that had come with the simple statement that she too had been awake. Valérie! Valérie! It was the silent voice of his soul calling her. And suddenly he seemed to be looking out from his prison land upon the present scene—upon Valérie and the good, young Father Aubert together, looking upon them both, as he had looked upon them together many times. And suddenly he hated that figure in priestly dress with a deadly hate—because Valérie had tossed upon her bed awake, and had not slept; and because, as though gifted with prophetic vision, he could see the shadow in Valérie's fresh, pure face change and deepen into misery immeasurable, and the young life, barely on its threshold, be robbed of youth with its joy and gladness, and with sorrow grow prematurely old.

“You went out, Father Aubert,” she prompted. “And then?”

The old sacristan would be back with the ladder very shortly, at almost any minute now—and he had to tell Valérie about old Mother Blondin and the cross before Narcisse returned. He looked up. He found himself speaking at first mechanically, and then low and earnestly, swayed strangely by his own words. And so, standing there in the aisle of the church, he told Valerie the story of the night, of the broken cross, of the broken life so near its end. And there was amazement, and wonder, and surprise in Valerie's face as she listened, and then a tender sympathy—and at the end, the dark eyes, as they lifted to his, were filled with tears.

“It is very wonderful,” she said almost to herself. “Old Mother Blondin—it could be only God who brought her here.”

Raymond did not answer. The old sacristan had entered the church, and was bringing the ladder down the aisle. It was the sacristan who spoke, catching sight of Valérie, as Raymond, taking one end of the ladder, raised it against the wall beside the cross.

Tiens!” The old man lifted the coil of thin rope which he held, and with the back of his hand mopped away a bead of perspiration from his forehead. “You have seen then what has happened, mademoiselle! Father Aubert has made light of it; but what will Monsieur le Curé, your uncle, say when he hears of it! Yes, it is true—I am a misérable—I do not deserve to be sacristan any longer! It was consecrated by Monsignor the Bishop, that cross, when the church was consecrated, and——”

Raymond took the cord quietly from the old man's hand, and began to mount the ladder. He went up slowly—not that the ladder was insecure, but that his mind and thoughts were far removed from the mere mechanical task which he had set himself to perform. Valérie's words had set that turmoil at work in his soul again. She had not hesitated to say that it was God who had brought old Mother Blondin here. And he too believed that now. Peace he had not found, nor the way, but he believed that now. Therefore he must believe now that there was a God—yes, the night had brought him that. And if there was a God, was it God who had led him, as old Mother Blondin had been led, to fall upon his knees in that pew below there where Valérie now sat, and pray? Had he prayed for old Mother Blondin's sake alone? Was God partial then? Old Mother Blondin, he knew, even if her surrender were not yet complete, had found the way. He had not. He had found no way—to save that man who was to be hanged by the neck until he was dead—to save Valérie from shame and misery if she cared, if she still cared—to save himself! Old Mother Blondin alone had found the way. Was it because she was the lesser sinner of the two—because he had blasphemed God beyond all recall—because he still dared to blaspheme God—because he had stood again that morning at the altar and had officiated as God's holy priest—because he stood here now in God's house, an impostor, an intruder and a defiler! No way! And yet through him old Mother Blondin had found her God again! Was it irony—God's irony—God's answer, irrefutable, to his former denial of God's existence!

No way! Ten feet below him Valérie and the old sacristan talked and watched; the weather-beaten timbers of the great cross were within reach of his hands; there, inside the chancel rail, was the altar—all these things were real, were physically real. It did not seem as though it could be so. It seemed as though, instead, he were taking part in some horrible, and horribly vivid dream-life. Only there would be no awakening! There was no way—he would twist this cord about the iron hooks on the cross and the iron hook on the wall, and descend, and go through another day, and be the good, young Father Aubert, and toss through another night, and wait, clinging to the miserable hope, spurned even by his gambler's instinct, that “something” might happen—wait for the deciding of that appeal, and picture the doomed man in the death cell, and dream his dreams, and watch Valérie from his prison land, and know through the hours and minutes torment and merciless unrest. Yes, he believed there was a God. He believed that God had brought them both here, old Mother Blondin to cling to the foot of the cross, and himself to find her there—but to him there had come no peace—no way. His blasphemy, his desecration of God's altar and God's church had been made to serve God's ends—old Mother Blondin had found the way. But that purpose was accomplished now. How much longer, then, would God suffer this to continue? Not long! To-morrow, the next day, the day after, would come the answer to the appeal—and then he must choose. Choose! Choose what? What was there to choose where—his hands gripped hard on the rung of the ladder. Enough! Enough of this! It was terrible enough in the nights! There was no end to it! It would go on and on—the same ghoulish cycle over and over again. He would not let it master him now, for there would be no end to it! He was here to fix the cross. To fix God's cross, the consecrated cross—it was a fitting task for one who walked always with that symbol suspended from his neck! It was curious how that symbol had tangled up his hands the night his fingers had crept toward that white throat on the bed! Even the garb of priest that he wore God turned to account, and—no! He lifted his hand and swept it fiercely across his eyes. Enough! That was enough! It was only beginning somewhere else in the cycle that inevitably led around into all the rest again.

He fought his mind back to his immediate surroundings. He was above the horizontal arm of the cross now, and he could see and appreciate how narrowly a catastrophe had been averted the night before. It was, as Valérie had said, a miracle that the cross had not fallen, for the single strand of cord that still held it was frayed to a threadlike thinness.

He glanced above him, decided to make the vertical beam, or centre, of the cross secure first by passing the cord around the upper hook in the wall that was still just a little beyond his reach, stepped quickly up to the next rung of the ladder—and lurched suddenly, pitching heavily to one side. It was his soutane, the garb of priest, the garb of God's holy priest—his foot had caught in the skirt of his soutane. He flung out his hands against the wall to save himself. It was too late! The ladder swayed against the cross—the threadlike fastening snapped—and the massive arms of the cross lunged outward toward him, pushing the ladder back. A cry, hoarse, involuntary, burst from his lips—it was echoed by another, a cry from Valérie, a cry that rang in terror through the church. Two faces, white with horror, looking up at him from below, flashed before his eyes—and he was plunging backward, downward with the ladder—and hurtling through the air behind it, the mighty cross, with arms outspread as though in vengeance and to defy escape, pursued and rushed upon him, and—— There was a terrific crash, the rip and rend and tear of splintering wood—and blackness.

There came at first a dull sense of pain; then the pain began to increase in intensity. There were insistent murmurings; there were voices. He was coming back to consciousness; but he seemed to be coming very slowly, for he could not move or make any sign. His side commenced to cause him agony. His head ached and throbbed as though it were being pounded under quick and never-ending hammer blows; and yet it seemed to be strangely and softly cushioned. The murmurings continued. He began to distinguish words—and then suddenly his brain was cleared, cleared as by some terrific mental shock that struck to the soul, uplifting it in a flood of glory, engulfing it in a fathomless and abysmal misery. It was Valerie—it was Valerie's voice—Valerie whispering in a frightened, terrified, almost demented way—whispering that she loved him, imploring him to speak.

“... Oh, will no one come! Can Narcisse find no one! I—I cannot bring him back to consciousness! Speak to me! Speak to me! You must—you shall! It is I who have sinned in loving you. It is I who have sinned and made God angry, and brought this upon you. But God will not let you die—because—because—it was my sin—and—and you would never know. I—I promised God that you would never know. And you—you shall not die! You shall not! You shall not! Speak to me—oh, speak to me!”

Speak to her! Speak to Valerie! Not even to whisper her name—when the blood in a fiery tide whipped through his veins; when impulse born of every fibre of his being prompted him to lift his arms to her face, so close to his that he could feel her breath upon his cheek, and draw it closer, closer, until it lay against his own, and to hold it there, and find her lips, and feel them cling to his! There was a physical agony from his hurts upon him that racked him from head to foot—but there was an agony deeper still that was in his soul. His head was pillowed on her knee, but even to open his eyes and look up into that pure face he loved was denied him, even to whisper a word that would allay her fears and comfort her was denied him. From Valérie's own lips had come the bitterest and dearest words that he would ever hear. He could temporise no longer now. He could juggle no more with his false and inconsistent arguments. Valérie cared, Valérie loved him—as he had known she cared, as he had known she loved him. A moan was on his lips, forced there by a sudden twinge of pain that seemed unendurable. He choked it back. She must not know that he had heard—he must simulate unconsciousness. He could not save her from much now, from the “afterwards” that was so close upon him—but he could save her from this. She should not know! God's cross in God's church... his blasphemy, his sacrilege had been answered... the very garb of priest had repaid him for its profanation and struck him down... and Valérie... Valérie was here... holding him... and Valérie loved him... but Valérie must not know... it was between Valérie and her God... she must not know that he had heard.

Her hands were caressing his face, smoothing back his hair, bathing his forehead with the water which had been her first thought perhaps before she had sent Narcisse for help. Valérie's hands! Like fire, they were, upon him, torturing him with a torture beyond the bodily torment he was suffering; and like the tenderest, gladdest joy he had ever known, they were. A priest of God—and Valérie! No, it went deeper far than that; it was a life of which this was but the inevitable and bitter culmination—and Valérie. But for that, in a surge of triumphant ecstasy, victor of a prize beyond all price, his arms might have swept out in the full tide of his manhood's strength around her, claiming her surrender—a surrender that would have been his right—a surrender that would have been written deep in love and trust and faith and glory in those dark, tear-dimmed eyes.

And now her hands closed softly, and remained still, and held his face between them—and she was gazing down at him. He could see her, he had no need to open his eyes for that—he could see the sweet, quivering lips; the love, the terror, the yearning, the fear mingling in the white, beautiful face. And then suddenly, with a choked sob, she bent forward and kissed him, and laid her face against his cheek.

“He will not speak to me!”—her voice was breaking. “Then listen, my lover—my lover, who cannot hear—my lover, who will never know. Is it wrong to kiss you, is it making my sin the greater to tell you—you who will not hear. There is only God to know. And out of all my life it is for just this once—for just this once. Afterwards, if you live, I will ask God to forgive—for it is only for this once—this once out of all my life. And—and—if you die—then—then I will ask God to be merciful and—and take me too. You did not know I loved you so, and I had never thought to tell you. And if you live you will never know, because you are God's priest, and my sin is very terrible, but—but I—I shall know that you are somewhere, a big and brave and loyal man, and glad in your life, and—and loved, as all love you here in St. Marleau. All through my life I will love you—all through my life—and—and I will remember that for just this once, for this moment out of all the years, I gave myself to you.”

She drew him closer. An agony that was maddening shot through his side as she moved him. If he might only clench his teeth deep in his lips that he might not scream out! But he could not do that for Valeric would see—and Valérie must not know. Tighter and tighter she held him in her strong, young arms—and now, like the bursting wide of flood-gates, there was passion in her voice.

“I love you! I love you! I love you! And I am afraid—and I am afraid! For I am only a woman, and it is a woman's love. Would you turn from me if you knew? No, no—I—I do not know what I am saying—only that you are here with my arms around you—and that—that your face is so pale—and that—and that you will not speak to me.”

She was crying. She bent lower until, as a mother clasps a child, his head lay upon her breast and shoulder, and her own head was buried on his breast. And again with the movement came excruciating pain, and now a weakness, a giddy swirling of his senses. It passed. He opened his eyes for an instant, for she could not see him now. He was lying just inside the chancel rail, and almost at the altar's foot. The sunlight streamed through the windows of the church, but they were in shadow, Valérie and he, in a curious shadow—it seemed to fall in a straight line across them both, and yet be spread out in two wide arms that completely covered them. And at first he could not understand, and then he saw that the great cross lay forward with its foot against the wall and the arms upon the shattered chancel rail—and the shadow was the shadow of the cross. What did it mean? Was it there premonitory of a wrath still unappeased, that was still to know fulfilment; or was it there in pity—on Valérie—into whose life he had brought a sorrow that would never know its healing? He closed his eyes again—the giddiness had come once more.

“I—I promised God that he would never know”—she was speaking scarcely above her breath, and the passion was gone out from her voice now, and there was only pleading and entreaty. “Mary, dear and holy Mother, have pity, and listen, and forgive—and bring him back to life. It came, and it was stronger than I—the love. But I will keep my promise to God—always—always. Forgive my sin, if it is not too great for forgiveness, and help me to endure—and—and——” her voice broke in a sob, and was still.

Her lips touched his brow gently; her hands smoothed back his hair. Dizziness and torturing pain were sweeping over him in swiftly alternating flashes. There were beads of agony standing out, he knew, upon his forehead—but they were mingled and were lost in the tears that suddenly fell hot upon him. Valerie! Valerie! God give him strength that he might not writhe, that he might not moan. No, he need not fear that—the pain was not so great now—it seemed to be passing gradually, very gradually, even soothingly, away—there were other voices—they seemed a long way off—there seemed to be footsteps and the closing of a door—and the footsteps came nearer and nearer—but as they came nearer they grew fainter and fainter—and blackness fell again.

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