The Mystery of Choice
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The little chemist of Quimperl? came up at that moment, rubbing his glasses with a coloured handkerchief.
"Yes, it is human blood," he said, "but one thing puzzles me: the corpuscles are yellow. I never saw any human blood before with yellow corpuscles. But your English Doctor Thompson asserts that he has – "
"Well, it's human blood, anyway – isn't it?" insisted Durand, impatiently.
"Ye-es," admitted Max Fortin.
"Then it's my business to trail it," said the big gendarme, and he called his men and gave the order to mount.
"Did you hear anything last night?" asked Durand of me.
"I heard the rain. I wonder the rain did not wash away these traces."
"They must have come after the rain ceased. See this thick splash, how it lies over and weighs down the wet grass blades. Pah!"
It was a heavy, evil-looking clot, and I stepped back from it, my throat closing in disgust.
"My theory," said the brigadier, "is this: Some of those Biribi fishermen, probably the Icelanders, got an extra glass of cognac into their hides and quarrelled on the road. Some of them were slashed, and staggered to your house. But there is only one trail, and yet – and yet, how could all that blood come from only one person? Well, the wounded man, let us say, staggered first to your house and then back here, and he wandered off, drunk and dying, God knows where. That's my theory."
"A very good one," said I calmly. "And you are going to trail him?"
"At once. Will you come?"
"Not now. I'll gallop over by-and-bye. You are going to the edge of the Kerselec forest?"
"Yes; you will hear us calling. Are you coming, Max Fortin? And you, Le Bihan? Good; take the dog-cart."
The big gendarme tramped around the corner to the stable and presently returned mounted on a strong gray horse; his sabre shone on his saddle; his pale yellow and white facings were spotless. The little crowd of white-coiffed women with their children fell back, as Durand touched spurs and clattered away followed by his two troopers. Soon after Le Bihan and Max Fortin also departed in the mayor's dingy dog-cart.
"Are you coming?" piped Le Bihan shrilly.
"In a quarter of an hour," I replied, and went back to the house.
When I opened the door of the morning room the death's-head moth was beating its strong wings against the window. For a second I hesitated, then walked over and opened the sash. The creature fluttered out, whirred over the flower beds a moment, then darted across the moorland toward the sea. I called the servants together and questioned them. Josephine, Catherine, Jean Marie Tregunc, not one of them had heard the slightest disturbance during the night. Then I told Jean Marie to saddle my horse, and while I was speaking Lys came down.
"Dearest," I began, going to her.
"You must tell me everything you know, Dick," she interrupted, looking me earnestly in the face.
"But there is nothing to tell – only a drunken brawl, and some one wounded."
"And you are going to ride – where, Dick?"
"Well, over to the edge of Kerselec forest.Durand and the mayor, and Max Fortin, have gone on, following a – a trail."
"Where did they find it?"
"Out in the road there." Lys crossed herself.
"Does it come near our house?"
"It comes up to the morning-room window," said I, giving in.
Her hand on my arm grew heavy. "I dreamed last night – "
"So did I – " but I thought of the empty cartridges in my revolver, and stopped.
"I dreamed that you were in great danger, and I could not move hand or foot to save you; but you had your revolver, and I called out to you to fire – "
"I did fire!" I cried excitedly.
"You – you fired?"
I took her in my arms. "My darling," I said, "something strange has happened – something that I can not understand as yet. But, of course, there is an explanation. Last night I thought I fired at the Black Priest."
"Ah!" gasped Lys.
"Is that what you dreamed?"
"Yes, yes, that was it! I begged you to fire – "
"And I did."
Her heart was beating against my breast. I held her close in silence.
"Dick," she said at length, "perhaps you killed the – the thing."
"If it was human I did not miss," I answered grimly. "And it was human," I went on, pulling myself together, ashamed of having so nearly gone to pieces. "Of course it was human! The whole affair is plain enough. Not a drunken brawl, as Durand thinks; it was a drunken lout's practical joke, for which he has suffered. I suppose I must have filled him pretty full of bullets, and he has crawled away to die in Kerselec forest. It's a terrible affair; I'm sorry I fired so hastily; but that idiot Le Bihan and Max Fortin have been working on my nerves till I am as hysterical as a schoolgirl," I ended angrily.
"You fired – but the window glass was not shattered," said Lys in a low voice.
"Well, the window was open, then. And as for the – the rest – I've got nervous indigestion, and a doctor will settle the Black Priest for me, Lys."
I glanced out of the window at Tregunc waiting with my horse at the gate.
"Dearest, I think I had better go to join Durand and the others."
"I will go too."
"I shall suffer every moment you are away."
"The ride is too fatiguing, and we can't tell what unpleasant sight you may come upon. Lys, you don't really think there is anything supernatural in this affair?"
"Dick," she answered gently, "I am a Bretonne." With both arms around my neck, my wife said, "Death is the gift of God. I do not fear it when we are together. But alone – oh, my husband, I should fear a God who could take you away from me!"
We kissed each other soberly, simply, like two children. Then Lys hurried away to change her gown, and I paced up and down the garden waiting for her.
She came, drawing on her slender gauntlets. I swung her into the saddle, gave a hasty order to Jean Marie, and mounted.
Now, to quail under thoughts of terror on a morning like this, with Lys in the saddle beside me, no matter what had happened or might happen, was impossible. Moreover, M?me came sneaking after us. I asked Tregunc to catch him, for I was afraid he might be brained by our horses' hoofs if he followed, but the wily puppy dodged and bolted after Lys, who was trotting along the high-road. "Never mind," I thought; "if he's hit he'll live, for he has no brains to lose."
Lys was waiting for me in the road beside the Shrine of Our Lady of St. Gildas when I joined her. She crossed herself, I doffed my cap, then we shook out our bridles and galloped toward the forest of Kerselec.
We said very little as we rode. I always loved to watch Lys in the saddle. Her exquisite figure and lovely face were the incarnation of youth and grace; her curling hair glistened like threaded gold.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the spoiled puppy M?me come bounding cheerfully alongside, oblivious of our horses' heels. Our road swung close to the cliffs. A filthy cormorant rose from the black rocks and flapped heavily across our path. Lys's horse reared, but she pulled him down, and pointed at the bird with her riding crop.
"I see," said I; "it seems to be going our way. Curious to see a cormorant in a forest, isn't it?"
"It is a bad sign," said Lys. "You know the Morbihan proverb: 'When the cormorant turns from the sea, Death laughs in the forest, and wise woodsmen build boats.'"
"I wish," said I sincerely, "that there were fewer proverbs in Brittany."
We were in sight of the forest now; across the gorse I could see the sparkle of gendarmes' trappings, and the glitter of Le Bihan's silver-buttoned jacket. The hedge was low and we took it without difficulty, and trotted across the moor to where Le Bihan and Durand stood gesticulating.
They bowed ceremoniously to Lys as we rode up.
"The trail is horrible – it is a river," said the mayor in his squeaky voice. "Monsieur Darrel, I think perhaps madame would scarcely care to come any nearer."
Lys drew bridle and looked at me.
"It is horrible!" said Durand, walking up beside me; "it looks as though a bleeding regiment had passed this way. The trail winds and winds about there in the thickets; we lose it at times, but we always find it again. I can't understand how one man – no, nor twenty – could bleed like that!"
A halloo, answered by another, sounded from the depths of the forest.
"It's my men; they are following the trail," muttered the brigadier. "God alone knows what is at the end!"
"Shall we gallop back, Lys?" I asked.
"No; let us ride along the western edge of the woods and dismount. The sun is so hot now, and I should like to rest for a moment," she said.
"The western forest is clear of anything disagreeable," said Durand.
"Very well," I answered; "call me, Le Bihan, if you find anything."
Lys wheeled her mare, and I followed across the springy heather, M?me trotting cheerfully in the rear.
We entered the sunny woods about a quarter of a kilometre from where we left Durand. I took Lys from her horse, flung both bridles over a limb, and, giving my wife my arm, aided her to a flat mossy rock which overhung a shallow brook gurgling among the beech trees. Lys sat down and drew off her gauntlets. M?me pushed his head into her lap, received an undeserved caress, and came doubtfully toward me. I was weak enough to condone his offence, but I made him lie down at my feet, greatly to his disgust.
I rested my head on Lys's knees, looking up at the sky through the crossed branches of the trees.
"I suppose I have killed him," I said. "It shocks me terribly, Lys."
"You could not have known, dear. He may have been a robber, and – if – not – Did – have you ever fired your revolver since that day four years ago, when the Red Admiral's son tried to kill you? But I know you have not."
"No," said I, wondering. "It's a fact, I have not. Why?"
"And don't you remember that I asked you to let me load it for you the day when Yves went off, swearing to kill you and his father?"
"Yes, I do remember. Well?"
"Well, I – I took the cartridges first to St. Gildas chapel and dipped them in holy water. You must not laugh, Dick," said Lys gently, laying her cool hands on my lips.
"Laugh, my darling!"
Overhead the October sky was pale amethyst, and the sunlight burned like orange flame through the yellow leaves of beech and oak. Gnats and midges danced and wavered overhead; a spider dropped from a twig halfway to the ground and hung suspended on the end of his gossamer thread.
"Are you sleepy, dear?" asked Lys, bending over me.
"I am – a little; I scarcely slept two hours last night," I answered.
"You may sleep, if you wish," said Lys, and touched my eyes caressingly.
"Is my head heavy on your knees?"
I was already in a half doze; still I heard the brook babbling under the beeches and the humming of forest flies overhead. Presently even these were stilled.
The next thing I knew I was sitting bolt upright, my ears ringing with a scream, and I saw Lys cowering beside me, covering her white face with both hands.
As I sprang to my feet she cried again and clung to my knees. I saw my dog rush growling into a thicket, then I heard him whimper, and he came backing out, whining, ears flat, tail down. I stooped and disengaged Lys's hand.
"Don't go, Dick!" she cried. "O God, it's the Black Priest!"
In a moment I had leaped across the brook and pushed my way into the thicket. It was empty. I stared about me; I scanned every tree trunk, every bush. Suddenly I saw him. He was seated on a fallen log, his head resting in his hands, his rusty black robe gathered around him. For a moment my hair stirred under my cap; sweat started on forehead and cheek-bone; then I recovered my reason, and understood that the man was human and was probably wounded to death. Ay, to death; for there, at my feet, lay the wet trail of blood, over leaves and stones, down into the little hollow, across to the figure in black resting silently under the trees.
I saw that he could not escape even if he had the strength, for before him, almost at his very feet, lay a deep, shining swamp.
As I stepped forward my foot broke a twig. At the sound the figure started a little, then its head fell forward again. Its face was masked. Walking up to the man, I bade him tell where he was wounded. Durand and the others broke through the thicket at the same moment and hurried to my side.
"Who are you who hide a masked face in a priest's robe?" said the gendarme loudly.
There was no answer.
"See – see the stiff blood all over his robe!" muttered Le Bihan to Fortin.
"He will not speak," said I.
"He may be too badly wounded," whispered Le Bihan.
"I saw him raise his head," I said; "my wife saw him creep up here."
Durand stepped forward and touched the figure.
"Speak!" he said.
"Speak!" quavered Fortin.
Durand waited a moment, then with a sudden upward movement he stripped off the mask and threw back the man's head. We were looking into the eye sockets of a skull. Durand stood rigid; the mayor shrieked. The skeleton burst out from its rotting robes and collapsed on the ground before us. From between the staring ribs and the grinning teeth spurted a torrent of black blood, showering the shrinking grasses; then the thing shuddered, and fell over into the black ooze of the bog. Little bubbles of iridescent air appeared from the mud; the bones were slowly engulfed, and, as the last fragments sank out of sight, up from the depths and along the bank crept a creature, shiny, shivering, quivering its wings.
It was a death's-head moth.
I wish I had time to tell you how Lys outgrew superstitions – for she never knew the truth about the affair, and she never will know, since she has promised not to read this book. I wish I might tell you about the king and his coronation, and how the coronation robe fitted. I wish that I were able to write how Yvonne and Herbert Stuart rode to a boar hunt in Quimperl?, and how the hounds raced the quarry right through the town, overturning three gendarmes, the notary, and an old woman. But I am becoming garrulous, and Lys is calling me to come and hear the king say that he is sleepy. And his Highness shall not be kept waiting.
THE KING'S CRADLE SONG
THE WHITE SHADOW
THE WHITE SHADOW
"Three great hulking cousins," said she, closing her gray eyes disdainfully.
We accepted the rebuke in astonished silence. Presently she opened her eyes, and seemed surprised to see us there yet.
"O," she said, "if you think I am going to stay here until you make up your minds – "
"I've made up mine," said Donald. "We will go to the links. You may come."
"I shall not," she announced. "Walter, what do you propose?"
Walter looked at his cartridge belt and then at the little breech-loader standing in a corner of the arbour.
"Oh, I know," she said, "but I won't! I won't! I won't!"
The uncles and aunts on the piazza turned to look at us; her mother arose from a steamer-chair and came across the lawn.
"Won't what, Sweetheart?" she asked, placing both hands on her daughter's shoulders.
"Mamma, Walter wants me to shoot, and Don wants me to play golf, and I – won't!"
"She doesn't know what she wants," said I.
"Don't I?" she said, flushing with displeasure.
"Her mother might suggest something," hazarded Donald. We looked at our aunt.
"Sweetheart is spoiled," said that lady decisively. "If you children don't go away at once and have a good time, I shall find employment for her."
"Algebra?" I asked maliciously.
"How dare you!" cried Sweetheart, sitting up. "Oh, isn't he mean! isn't he ignoble! – and I've done my algebra; haven't I, mamma?"
"But your French?" I began.
Donald laughed, and so did Walter. As for Sweetheart, she arose in all the dignity of sixteen years, closed her eyes with superb insolence, and, clasping her mother's waist with one round white arm, marched out of the arbour.
"We tease her too much," said Donald.
"She's growing up fast; we ought not to call her 'Sweetheart' when she puts her hair up," added Walter.
"She's going to put it up in October, when she goes back to school," said Donald. "Jack, she will hate you if you keep reminding her of her algebra and French."
"Then I'll stop," said I, suddenly conscious what an awful thing it would be if she hated me.
Donald's two pointers came frisking across the lawn from the kennels, and Donald picked up his gun.
"Here we go again," said I. "Donny's going to the coverts after grouse, Walter's going up on the hill with his dust-shot and arsenic, and I'm going across the fields after butterflies. Why the deuce can't we all go together, just for once?"
"And take Sweetheart? She would like it if we all went together," said Walter; "she is tired of seeing Jack net butterflies."
"Collecting birds and shooting grouse are two different things," began Donald. "You spoil my dogs by shooting your confounded owls and humming birds."
"Oh, your precious dogs!" I cried. "Shut up, Donny, and give Sweetheart a good day's tramp. It's a pity if three cousins can't pool their pleasures for once."
Donald nodded uncertainly.
"Come on," said Walter, "we'll find Sweetheart. Jack, you get your butterfly togs and come back here."
I nodded, and watched my two cousins sauntering across the lawn – big, clean-cut fellows, resembling each other enough to be brothers instead of cousins.
We all resembled each other more or less, Donald, Walter, and I. As for Sweetheart, she looked like none of us.
It was all very well for her mother to call her Sweetheart, and for her aunts to echo it in chorus, but the time was coming when we saw we should have to stop. A girl of sixteen with such a name is ridiculous, and Sweetheart was nearly seventeen; and her hair was "going up" and her gowns were "coming down" in October.
Her own name was pretty enough. I don't know that I ought to tell it, but I will: it was the same as her mother's. We called her Sweetheart sometimes, sometimes "The Aspen Beauty." Donald had given her that name from a butterfly in my collection, the Vanessa Pandora, commonly known as the Aspen beauty, from its never having been captured in America except in our village of Aspen.
Here, in the north of New York State, we four cousins spent our summers in the family house. There was not much to do in Aspen. We used the links, we galloped over the sandy roads, we also trotted our several hobbies, Donald, Walter, and I. Sweetheart had no hobby; to make up for this, however, she owned a magnificent team of b?tes-noires – Algebra and French.
As for me, my butterfly collection languished. I had specimens of nearly every butterfly in New York State, and I rather longed for new states to conquer. Anyway, there were plenty of Aspen beauties – I mean the butterflies – flying about the roads and balm-of-Gilead trees, and perhaps that is why I lingered there long enough to collect hundreds of duplicates for exchange. And perhaps it wasn't.
I thought of these things as I sat in the sun-flecked arbour, watching the yellow elm leaves flutter down from the branches. I thought, too, of Sweetheart, and wondered how she would look with her hair up. And while I sat there smoking, watching the yellow leaves drifting across the lawn, a sharp explosion startled me and I raised my head.
Sweetheart was standing on the lawn, gazing dreamily at the smoking d?bris of a large firecracker.
"What's that for?" I asked.
"It proclaims my independence," said Sweetheart – "my independence forever. Hereafter my cousins will ask to accompany me on my walks; they need no longer charitably permit me to accompany them. Are you three boys going to ride your hobbies?"
"We are," I said.
"Then good-bye. I am going to walk."
"Can't we come too?" I asked, laughing.
"Oh," she said graciously, "if you put it in that way I could not refuse."
"May we bring our guns?" asked Donald from the piazza.
"May I bring my net?" I added, half amused, half annoyed.
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