By SEABURY QUINN
A daring story of Devil-worship, the Black Mass, strange suicides, and the
salvation of one who had sinned greatly, yet was truly
repentant—a tale of Jules de Grandin
"...incense is an abomination unto me."
—Isaiah, 1, 13.
Detective sergeant Costello looked fixedly at the quarter-inch of ash on his cigar, as though he sought solution of his problem in its fire-cored grayness. "'Tis th' damndest mixed-up mess I've iver happened up against," he told us solemnly. "Here's this Eldridge felly, young an' rich an' idle, wid niver a care ter 'is name, savin' maybe, how he'd spend th' next month's income, then zowie! he ups an' hangs hisself. We finds him swingin' from th' doorpost of his bedroom wid his bathrobe girdle knotted around 'is neck an' about a mile o' tongue sthickin' out. Suicide? Sure, an' what else could it be wid a felly found sthrung up in a tight-locked flat like that?
"Then, widin a week there comes a call fer us to take it on th' lam up to th' house where Stanley Trivers lived. There he is, a-layin' on his bathroom floor wid a cut across 'is throat that ye could put yer foot into, a'most. In his pajammies he is, an' th' blood's run down an' spoilt 'em good an' proper. Suicide again? Well, maybe so an' maybe no, fer in all me time I've niver seen a suicidal cut across a felly's throat that was as deep where it wound up as where it stharted. They mostly gits remorse afore th' cut is ended, as ye know, an' th' pressure on th' knife gits less an' less; so th' cut's a whole lot shallower at th' end than 'twas at th' beginnin'. However, th' coroner says it's suicide, so suicide it is, as far as we're concerned. Anyhow, gintlemen, in both these cases th' dead men wuz locked in their houses, from th' inside, as wus plain by th' keys still bein' in th' locks.
"Now comes th' third one. 'Tis this Donald Atkins felly, over to th' Kensington Apartments. Sthretched on th' floor he is, wid a hole bored in 'is forehead an' th' blood a-runnin' over everything. He's on 'is back wid a pearl-stocked pistol in 'is hand. Suicide again, says Schultz, me partner, an' I'm not th' one ter say as how it ain't, all signs pointin' as they do, still——" He paused and puffed at his cigar till its gray tip glowed with sullen rose.
Jules de Grandin tweaked a needle-sharp mustache tip. "Tell me, my sergeant," he commanded, "what is it you have withheld? Somewhere in the history of these cases is a factor you have not revealed, some denominator common to them all which makes your police instinct doubt your senses' evidence——"
"How'd ye guess it, sor?" the big Irishman looked at him admiringly. "Ye've put yer finger right upon it, but——" He stifled an embarrassed cough, then, turning slightly red: "'Tis th' perfume, sor, as makes me wonder."
"Perfume?" the little Frenchman echoed. "What in Satan's foul name——"
"Well, sor, I ain't one o' them as sees a woman's skirts a-hidin' back of ivery crime, though you an' I both knows there's mighty few crimes committed that ain't concerned wid cash or women, savin' when they're done fer both. But these here cases have me worried. None o' these men wuz married, an', so far as I've found out, none o' them wuz kapin' steady company, yet—git this, sor; 'tis small, but maybe it's important—there wuz a smell o' perfume hangin' round each one of 'em, an' 'twas th' same in ivery case. No sooner had I got a look at this pore Eldridge felly hangin' like a joint o' beef from his own doorpost than me nose begins a-twitchin'. 'Wuz he a pansy, maybe?' I wonders when I smelt it first, for 'twas no shavin' lotion or toilet water, but a woman's heavy scent, strong an' swate an'—what's it that th' ads all say?—distinctive. Yis, sor, that's th' word fer it, distinctive. Not like anything I've smelt before, but kind o' like a mixin' up o' this here ether that they use ter put a man ter slape before they takes 'is leg off, an' kind o' like th' incense they use in church, an' maybe there wuz sumpin mixed wid it that wasn't perfume afther all, sumpin that smelt rank an' sickly-like, th' kind o' smell ye smell when they takes a floater from th' bay, sor.
"Well, I looks around ter see where it's a-comin' from, an' it's strongest in th' bedroom; but divil a sign o' any woman bein' there I find, 'ceptin' fer th' smell o' perfume.
"So when we runs in on th' Trivers suicide, an' I smells th' same perfume again, I say that this is sumpin more than mere coincidence, but th' same thing happens there. Th' smell is strongest in th' bedroom, but there ain't any sign that he'd had company th' night before; so just ter make sure I takes th' casin's off th' pillows an' has th' boys at th' crime lab'ratory look at 'em. Divil a trace o' rouge or powder do they find.
"Both these other fellies kilt theirselves at night or early in th' mornin', so, o' course, their beds wuz all unmade, but when we hustle over ter th' Kensington Apartments ter see about this Misther Atkins, 'tis just past three o'clock. Th' doctor says that he's been dead a hour or more; yet when I goes into his bedroom th' covers is pushed down, like he's been slapin' there an' got up in a hurry, an" th' perfume's strong enough ter knock ye down, a'most. Th' boys at th' crime lab say there's not a trace o' powder on th' linen, an' by th' time I gits th' pillows to 'em th' perfume's faded out."
He looked at us with vaguely troubled eyes and ran his hand across his mouth. "'Tis meself that's goin' nuts about these suicides a-comin' one on top th' other, an' this perfume bobbin' up in every case!" he finished.
De Grandin pursed his lips. "You would know this so strange scent if you encountered it again?"
"Faith, sor, I'd know it in me slape!"
"And you have never met with it before?"
"Indade an' I had not, nayther before nor since, savin' in th' imayjate prisence o' them three dead corpses."
"One regrets it is so evanescent. Perhaps if I could smell it I might be able to identify it. I recall when I was serving with le sûreté we came upon a band of scoundrels making use of a strange Indian drug called by the Hindoos chhota maut, or little death. It was a subtle powder which made those inhaling it go mad, or fall into a coma simulating death if they inspired enough. Those naughty fellows mixed the drug with incense which they caused to be burned in their victims' rooms. Some went mad and some appeared to die. One of those who went insane committed suicide——"
"Howly Mither, an' ye think we may be up against a gang like that, sor?"
"One cannot say, mon vieux. Had I a chance to sniff this scent, perhaps I could have told you. Its odor is not one that is soon forgotten. As it is"—he raised his shoulders in a shrug—"what can one do?"
"Will ye be afther holdin' yerself in readiness ter come a-runnin' if they's another o' these suicides, sor?" the big detective asked as he rose to say good-night. "I'd take it kindly if ye would."
"You may count on me, my friend. À bientôt," the little Frenchman answered with a smile.
The storm had blown itself out earlier in the evening, but the streets were still bright with the filmy remnant of the sleety rain and the moon was awash in a breaking surf of wind-clouds. It was longer by the north road, but with the pavements slick as burnished glass I preferred to take no chances and had throttled down my engine almost to a walking pace as we climbed the gradient leading to North Bridge. De Grandin sank his chin into the fur of his upturned coat collar and nodded sleepily. The party at the Merrivales had been not at all amusing, and we were due at City Hospital at seven in the morning. "Ah, bah," he murmured drowsily, "we were a pair of fools, my friend; we forgot a thing of great importance when we left the house tonight."
"U'm?" I grunted. "What?"
"To stay there," he returned. "Had we but the sense le bon Dieu gives an unfledged gosling, we should have—sapristi! Stop him, he is intent on self-destruction!"
At his shouted warning I looked toward the footwalk and descried a figure in a heavy ulster climbing up the guard rail. Shooting on my power, I jerked the car ahead, then cut the clutch and jammed the brakes down hard, swinging us against the curb abreast of the intending suicide. I kicked the door aside and raced around the engine-hood, but de Grandin disdained such delays and vaulted overside, half leaping, half sliding on the slippery pavement and cannoning full-tilt against the man who sought to climb the breast-high railing. "Parbleu, you shall not!" he exclaimed as he grasped the other's legs with outflung arms. "It is wet down there. Monsieur, and most abominably cold. Wait for summer if you care to practise diving!"
The man kicked viciously, but the little Frenchman hung on doggedly, and as the other loosed his hold upon the rail they both came crashing to the pavement where they rolled and thrashed like fighting dogs.
I hovered near the mêlée, intent on giving such assistance as I could, but my help was not required; for as I reached to snatch the stranger's collar, de Grandin gave a quick twist, arched his body upon neck and heels and with a blow as rapid as a striking snake's chopped his adversary on the Adam's apple with his stiffened hand. The result was instantaneous. The larger man collapsed as if he had been shot, and my little friend slipped out from underneath him, teeth flashing in an impish grin, small blue eyes agleam. "A knowledge of jiu-jutsu comes in handy now and then," he panted as he rearranged his clothing. "For a moment I had fears that he would take me with him to a watery bed."
"Well, what shall we do with him?" I asked. "He's out completely, and we can't afford to leave him here. Hell surely try to kill himself again if——"
"Parbleu! Attendez, s'il vous plait!" he interrupted, "Le parfum—do you smell him?" He paused with back-thrown head, narrow nostrils quivering as he sniffed the moist, cold air.
There was no doubt of it. Faint and growing quickly fainter, but plainly noticeable, the aura of a scent hung in the atmosphere. It was an odd aroma, not wholly pleasant, yet distinctly fascinating, seeming to combine the heavy sweetness of patchouli with the bitterness of frankincense and the penetrating qualities of musk and civet; yet underlying it there was a faint and slightly sickening odor of corruption.
"Why, I never smelled——" I began, but de Grandin waved aside my observation.
"Nor I," he nodded shortly, "but unless I am at fault this is the perfume which the good Costello told us of. Cannot you see, my friend? We have here our laboratory specimen, an uncompleted suicide with the redolence of this mysterious scent upon it. Help me lift him in the car, mon vieux; we have things to say to this one. We shall ask him, by example, why it was——"
"Suppose that he won't talk?" I broke in.
"Ha, you suppose that! If your supposition proves correct and he is of the obstinacy, you shall see a beautiful example of the third degree. You shall see me turn him inside out as if he were a lady's glove. I shall creep into his mind, me. I shall—mordieu, before the night is done I damn think I shall have at least a partial answer to the good Costello's puzzle! Come, let us be of haste; en avant!"
Despite his height the salvaged man did not weigh much, and we had no trouble getting him inside the car. In fifteen minutes we were home, just as our rescued human flotsam showed signs of returning consciousness.
"Be careful," warned de Grandin as he helped the passenger alight, "If you behave we shall treat you with the kindness, but if you try the monkey's tricks I have in readiness a second portion of the dish I served you on the Pont du Nord.
"Here," he added as we led our captive to the study, "this is the medicine for those who feel at odds with life." He poured a gill of Scots into a tumbler and poised the siphon over it. "Will you have soda with your whisky," he inquired, "or do you like it unpolluted?"
"Soda, please," the other answered sulkily, drained his glass in two huge gulps and held it out again.
"Eh bien," the Frenchman chuckled, "your troubles have not dulled your appetite, it seems. Drink, my friend, drink all you wish, for the evening is still young and we have many things to talk of, thou and I."
The visitor eyed him sullenly as he took a sip from his fresh glass. "I suppose you think you've done your Boy Scout's good deed for today?" he muttered.
"Mais oui, mats certainement," the Frenchman nodded vigorously. "We have saved you from irreparable wrong, my friend. Le bon Dieu did not put us here to——"
"That's comic!" the other burst out with a cackling laugh. "'Le bon Dieu'—much use He has for me!"
De Grandin lowered his arching brows a little; the effect was a deceptively mild, thoughtful frown. "So-o," he murmured, "that is the way of it? You feel that you have been cast off, that——"
"Why not? Didn't we—I—cast Him out? didn't I deny Him, take service with His enemies, mock at Him——"
"Be not deceived, my friend"—the double lines between the Frenchman's narrow brows was etched a little deeper as he answered in an even voice—"God is not mocked. It is easier to spit against the hurricane than jeer at Him. Besides, He is most merciful, He is compassionate, and His patience transcends understanding. Wicked we may be, but if we offer true repentance——"
"Even if you've committed the unpardonable sin?"
"Tiens, this péché irrémissible of which the theologians prate so learnedly, yet which none of them defines? You had a mother, one assumes; you may have sinned against her grievously, disappointed her high hopes in you, shown ingratitude as black as Satan's shadow, abused her trust or even done her bodily hurt. Yet if you went to her sincerely penitent and told her you were sorry, that you truly loved her and would sin no more, parbleu, she would forgive, you know it! Will the Heavenly Father be less merciful than earthly parents? Very well, then. Who can say that he has sinned past reconciliation?"
"I can; I did—we all did! We cast God out and embraced Satan——" Something that was lurking horror seemed to take form in his eyes, giving them a stony, glazed appearance. It was as if a filmy curtain were drawn down across them, hiding everything within, mirroring only a swift-mounting terror.
"Ah?" de Grandin murmured thoughtfully. "Now we begin to make the progress." Abruptly he demanded:
"You knew Messieurs Eldridge, Trivers and Atkins?" He flung the words more like a challenging accusation than a query.
"And they, too, thought they had sinned past redemption; they saw in suicide the last hope of escape; they were concerned with you in this iniquity?"
"They were, but no interfering busybody stopped them. Let me out of here, I'm going to——"
"Monsieur," de Grandin did not raise his voice, but the look he bent upon the other was as hard and merciless as though it were a leveled bayonet, "you are going to remain right here and tell us how it came about. You will tell of tills transgression which has caused three deaths already and almost caused a fourth. Do not fear to speak, my friend. We are physicians, and your confidence will be respected. On the other hand, if you persist in silence we shall surely place you in restraint. You would like to be lodged in a madhouse, have your every action watched, be strapped in a straitjacket if you attempted self-destruction, bein?" Slowly spoken, his words had the impact of a bodily assault, and the other reeled as from a beating.
"Not that!'" he gasped. "O God, anything but that! I'll tell you everything if you will promise——"
"You have our word, Monsieur; say on."
The visitor drew his chair up closer to the fire, as if a sudden cold had chilled his marrow. He was some forty years of age, slim and quite attractive, immaculately dressed, well groomed. His eyes were brown, deep-set and drawn, as if unutterably weary, with little pouches under them. His shoulders sagged as if the weight they bore was too much for them. His hair was almost wholly gray. "Beaten" was the only adjective to modify him.
"I think perhaps you knew my parents, Doctor Trowbridge," he began. "My father was James Balderson."
I nodded. Jim Balderson had been a senior when I entered college, and his escapades were bywords on the campus. Nothing but the tolerance which stamps a rich youth's viciousness as merely indication of high spirits had kept him from dismissal since his freshman year, and faculty and townsfolk sighed with relief when he took his sheepskin and departed simultaneously. The Balderson and Aidridge fortunes were combined when he married Bronson Aldridge's sole heir and daughter, and though he settled down in the walnut-paneled office of the Farmers Loan & Trust Company, his sons had carried on his youthful zest for getting into trouble. Drunken driving, divorce cases, scandals which involved both criminal and civil courts, were their daily fare. Two of them had died by violence, one in a motor smash-up, one when an outraged husband showed better marksmanship than self-restraint One had died of poison liquor in the Prohibition era. We had just saved die sole survivor from attempted suicide. "Yes, I knew your father," I responded.
"Do you remember Horton Hall?" he asked.
I bent my brows a moment. "Wasn't that the school down by the Shrewsbury where they had a scandal?—something about the headmaster committing suicide, or——"
"You're right. That's it. I was in die last class there. So were Eldridge, Trivers and Atkins.
"I was finishing my junior year when the war broke out in 'seventeen. Dad got bulletproof commissions for the older boys, but wouldn't hear of my enlisting in the Navy. 'You've a job to do right there at Horton,' he told me. 'Get your certificate; then we'll see about your joining up.' So back I went to finish out my senior year. Dad didn't know what he was doing to me. Things might have turned out differently if I'd gone in the service.
"Everyone who could was getting in the Army or the Navy. We'd lost most of our faculty when I went back in 'eighteen, and they'd put a new headmaster in, a Doctor Herbules. Fellows were leaving right and left, enlisting from the campus or being called by draft boards, and I was pretty miserable. One day as I was walking back from science lab., I ran full-tilt into old Herbules.
"'What's the matter, Balderson?' he asked. You look as if you'd lost your last friend.'
"'Well. I have, almost," I answered. "With so many fellows off at training-camp, having all kinds of excitement——'
"'You want excitement, eh?' he interrupted. 'I can give it to you; such excitement as you've never dreamed of. I can make you——' He stopped abruptly, and it seemed to me he looked ashamed of something, but he'd got my curiosity roused.
"'You're on, sir,' I told him. What is it, a prize-fight?'
"Herbules was queer. Everybody said so. He couldn't have been much past thirty; yet his hair was almost snow-white and there was a funny sort o' peaceful expression on his smooth face that reminded me of something that I couldn't cruite identify. He had the schoolmaster's trick of speaking with a sort of pedantic precision, and he never raised his voice; yet when he spoke in chapel we could understand him perfectly, no matter how far from the platform we were sitting. I'd never seen him show signs of excitement before, but now he was breathing hard and was in such deadly earnest that his lips were fairly trembling. 'What do you most want from life?' he asked me in a whisper.
"'Why, I don't know, just now I'd like best of all to get into the Army; I'd go to France and bat around with the mademoiselles, and get drunk any time I wanted——'
"'You'd like that sort of thing?' he laughed. 'I can give it to you. and more; more than you ever imagined. Wine and song and gayety and women—beautiful, lovely, cultured women, not the street-trulls that you'd meet in France—you can have all this and more, if you want to, Balderson.'
"'Lead me to it,' I replied 'When do we start?'
"Ah, my boy, nothing's given for nothing. There are some things you'll have to do, some promises to make, something to be paid——"
"'All right; how much?' I asked. Dad was liberal with me. I had a hundred dollars every month for spending money, and I could always get as much again from Mother if I worked it right.
"'No, no; not money,' he almost laughed in my face. 'The price of all this can't be paid in money. All we ask is that you give the Master something which I greatly doubt you realize you have, my boy.'
"It sounded pretty cock-eyed to me, but if the old boy really had something up his sleeve I wanted to know about it. Count me in,' I told him. "What do I do next?"
"There was no one within fifty yards of us, but he bent until his lips were almost in my ear before he whispered: "Next Wednesday at midnight, come to my house.'
"'Private party, or could I bring a friend or two?'
"His features seemed to freeze. 'Who is the friend?' he asked.
"'Well, I'd like to bring Eldridge and Trivers, and maybe Atkins, too. They're all pretty good eggs, and I know they crave excitement——'
"'Oh, by all means, yes. Be sure to bring them. It's agreed, then? Next Wednesday night at twelve, at my house.'
'Herbules was waiting for us in a perfect fever of excitement when we tiptoed up his front-porch steps on Wednesday night He had a domino and mask for each of us. The dominoes were fiery red, with hoods that pulled up like monks' cowls; the masks were black, and hideous. They represented long, thin faces with out-jutting chins; the lips were purple and set in horrid grins; the eyebrows were bright scarlet wool and at the top there was another patch of bright red worsted curled and cut to simulate a fringe of hair. 'Good Lord,' said Atkins as he tried his on, 'I look just like the Devil!'
"I thought that Herbules would have a stroke when he heard Atkins speak. 'You'll use that name with more respect after tonight, my boy,' he said.
"After that we all got in his car and drove down toward Red Bank.
"We stopped about a mile outside of town and parked the car in a small patch of woods, walked some distance down the road, climbed a fence and cut across a field till we reached an old deserted house. I'd seen the place as I drove past, and had often wondered why it was unoccupied, for it stood up on a hill surrounded by tall trees and would have made an ideal summer home, but I'd been told its well was dry, and as there was no other source of water, nobody wanted it.
"We didn't go to the front door, but tiptoed round the back, where Herbules struck three quick raps, waited for a moment, then knocked four more. "We'd all put on our robes and masks white he was knocking, and when the door was opened on a crack we saw the porter was robed and masked as we were. Nobody said a word, and we walked through a basement entrance, down a long and narrow hall, and turned a corner where we met another door. Here Herbules went through the same procedure, and the door swung back to let us in.
"We were in a big room, twenty by forty feet, I guess, and we knew it was a cellar by the smell—stiflingly close, but clammy as a tomb at once. Rows of folding chairs like those used at bridge games—or funerals—were arranged in double rows with a passage like an aisle between, and at the farther end of the big room we saw an altar.
"In all my life I don't believe I'd been to church ten times, but we were nominally Protestants, so what I saw had less effect on me than if I'd been a Catholic or Episcopalian; but I knew at once the altar wasn't regulation. Oh, it was sufficiently impressive, but it had a sort of comic—no, not comic, grotesque, rather—note about it. A reredos of black cloth was hung against the wall, and before it stood a heavy table more than eight feet long and at least six wide, covered by a black cloth edged with white. It reminded me of something, though I couldn't quite identify it for a moment; then I knew. I'd seen a Jewish funeral once, and this cloth was like the black-serge pall they used to hide the plain pine coffin! At each end of the altar stood a seven-branched candelabrum made of brass, each with a set of tall black candles in it. These were burning and gave off a pale blue glow. They seemed to be perfumed, too, and the odor which they burned with was pleasant—at first. Then, as I sniffed a second time it seemed to me there was a faint suspicion of a stench about it, something like the fetor that you smell if you're driving down the road and pass a dog or cat that's been run over and has lain a while out in the sun—just a momentary whiff, but nauseating, just the same. Between the candelabra, right exactly in the center of the altar, but back against the wall, was a yard-high crucifix of some black wood with an ivory figure on it, upside down. Before the cross there was a silver wine goblet and a box of gilt inlay about the size and shape of a lady's powder-puff box.
"I heard Atkins catch his breath and give a sort of groan. He'd been brought up an Episcopalian and knew about such things. He turned half round to leave, but I caught him by the sleeve.
"'Come on, you fool, don't be a sissy!' I admonished, and next moment we were all so interested that he had no thought of leaving.
"There was a sort of congregation in the chapel; every seat was occupied by someone masked and robed just as we were, save three vacant places by the altar steps. These, we knew, were kept for us, but when we looked about for Herbules he was nowhere to be seen; so we went forward to our seats alone. We could hear a hum of whispering as we walked up the aisle, and we knew some of the voices were from women; but who was man and who was woman was impossible to tell, for each one looked just like his neighbor in his shrouding robe.
"The whispering suddenly became intense, like the susurrus of a hive of swarming bees. Every neck seemed suddenly to crane, every eye to look in one direction, and as we turned our glances toward the right side of the cellar we saw a woman entering through a curtained doorway. She wore a long, loose scarlet cape which she held together with one hand, her hair was very black, her eyes were large and luminously dark, seeming to have a glance of overbearing sensuousness and sweet humility at once. Her white, set face was an imponderable mask; her full red lips were fixed in an uneven, bitter line. Beneath the hem of her red cloak we saw the small feet in the golden, high-heeled slippers were unstockinged. As she neared the altar she sank low in genuflection, then wheeled about and faced us. For a moment she stood there, svelte, graceful, mysteriously beautiful with that thin white face and scarlet lips so like a mask; then with a sudden kicking motion she unshod her feet, opened wide her cloak and let it fall in scarlet billows on the dull-black carpet of the altar steps.
"She was so beautiful it almost hurt the eyes to look at her as she stood there in white silhouette against the ebon background of the black-draped altar, with her narrow, boy-like hips, slim thighs and full, high, pointed breasts. She was a thing of snow and fire, her body palely cool and virginal, her lips like flame, her eyes like embers blazing when a sudden wind stirs them to brightness.
"The modern strip-tease routine was unthought of in those days, and though I was sophisticated far beyond my eighteen years I had never seen a woman in the nude before. The flame of her raced in my blood and crashed against my brain with almost numbing impact. I felt myself go faint and sick with sudden weakness and desire.
"A long-drawn sigh came from the audience; then the tableau was abruptly broken as the girl turned from us, mounted nimbly to the black-draped altar and stretched herself full length upon it, crossed her ankles and thrust her arms out right and left, so that her body made a white cross on the sable altar-cloth. Her eyes were closed as though in peaceful sleep, but her bosoms rose and fell with her tumultuous breathing. She had become the altar!
"Silence fell upon the congregation like a shadow, and next instant Herbules came in. He wore a priest's vestments, a long red cassock, over it the alb and stole, and in his hand he bore a small red book. Behind him came his acolyte, but it was not an altar-boy. It was a girl, slender, copper-haired, petite. She wore a short surcoat of scarlet, cut low around the shoulders, sleeveless, reaching just below the hips, like the tabards worn by medieval heralds. Over it she wore a lace-edged cotta. Otherwise she was unclothed. We could hear the softly-slapping patter of her small bare feet upon the altar-sill as she changed her place from side to side, genuflecting as she passed the reversed crucifix. She swung a brazen censer to and fro before her and the gray smoke curled in spurting puffs from it. filling the entire place with a perfume like that generated by the candles, but stronger, more intense, intoxicating.
"Herbules began the service with a muttered Latin prayer, and though he seemed to follow a set ritual even I could see it was not that prescribed, by any church, for when he knelt he did so with his back turned toward the altar; when he crossed himself he did it with the thumb of his left hand, and made the sign beginning at the bottom, rather than the top. But even in this mummers' parody the service was majestic. I could feel its power and compulsion as it swept on toward its climax. Herbules took up the silver chalice and held it high above his head, then rested it upon the living altar, placing it between her breasts, and we could see the flesh around her nails grow white as she grasped the black-palled altar table with her fingers. Her body, shining palely on the coffin-pall under the flickering candles' light, was arched up like a tauted bow, she shook as if a sudden chill had seized her, and from her tight-drawn, scarlet lips there issued little whimpering sounds, not cries nor yet quite groans, but something which partook of both, and at the same time made me think of the soft, whining sounds a new-born puppy makes.
"The kneeling acolyte chimed a sacring-bell and the congregation bent and swayed like a wheat-field swept across by sudden wind.
"When all was finished we were bidden to come forward and kneel before the altar steps. Herbules came down and stood above us, and each of us was made to kiss the red book which he held and take a fearful oath, swearing that he would abstain from good and embrace evil, serve Satan faithfully and well, and do his best to bring fresh converts to the worship of the Devil. Should we in any manner break our oath, we all agreed that Satan might at once foreclose upon his mortgage on our souls, and bear us still alive to hell, and the sign that we were come for was to be the odor of the perfume which the candles and the censer gave that night.
"When this ritual was finished we were bidden name our dearest wish, and told it would be granted. I could hear the others mumble something, but could not understand their words. I don't know what possessed me when it came my turn to ask a boon of Satan—possibly he put the thought into my mind, maybe it was my longing to get out of school and go to France before the war was ended. At any rate, when Herbules bent over me I muttered, 'I wish the pater would bump off:
"He leaned toward me with a smile and whispered, "You begin your postulancy well, my son,' then held his hand out to me, signifying that I should return his clasp with both of mine. As I put out my hands to take his I saw by my wristwatch that it was exactly half-past twelve.
"What followed was the wildest party I had ever seen or dreamt of. The farmhouse windows had been boarded up and curtained, and inside the rooms were literally ablaze with light. Men and women, some draped in their red dominoes, some in evening dress, some naked as the moment that they first drew breath, mingled in a perfect saturnalia of unrestrained salacity. On tables stood ice-buckets with champagne, and beside them tall decanters of cut glass filled with port and sherry, tokay, madeira, muscatel and malaga. Also there was bottled brandy, vodka and whisky, trays of cigarettes, boxes of cigars, sandwiches, cake and sweetmeats. It was like the carnival at New Orleans, only ten times gayer, madder, more abandoned. I was grasped by naked men and women, whirled furiously around in a wild dance, then let go only to be seized by some new partner and spun around until I almost fell from dizziness. Between times I drank, mixing wine and spirits without thought, stuffed sandwiches and cake and candy in my mouth, then drank fresh drafts of chilled champagne or sharp-toned brandy.
"Staggering drunkenly about the table I was reaching for another glass when I felt a hand upon my shoulder. Turning, I beheld a pair of flashing eyes laughing at me through the peep-holes of a mask. 'Come with me, my neophyte,' the masked girl whispered; 'there is still a chalice you have left untasted.'
"She pulled me through the crowd, led me up the stairs and thrust a door ajar. The little room we entered was entirely oriental. A Persian lamp hung like a blazing ruby from the ceiling, on the floor were thick, soft rugs and piles of down-filled pillows. There was no other furniture.
"With a laugh she turned her back to me, motioning me to slip the knot which held the girdle of her domino; then she bent her head while I withdrew the pins that held her hair. It rippled in a cascade to her waist—below, nearly to her knees—black and glossy as the plumage of a grackle's throat, and as it cataracted down she swung around, shrugging her shoulders quickly, and let the scarlet domino fall from her. An upswing of her hand displaced the black-faced, purple, grinning mask, and I looked directly in the face of the pale girl who half an hour earlier had lain upon the altar of the Devil. 'Kiss me!' she commanded. 'Kiss me!' Her arms were tight about my neck, pulling my lips to hers, drawing her slender, unclothed body tight against me. Her lips clung to my mouth as though they were a pair of scarlet leeches; through her half-closed lids I saw the glimmer of her bright black eyes, burning like twin points of quenchless fire. . . .
"It was daylight when we reached the dorm next day, and all of us reported sick at chapel. Sometime about eleven, as I rose to get a drink of water, a knock came at my door. It was a telegram that stated:
"I hurried back to school as soon as possible. My father's death had startled—frightened—me, but I put it down to coincidence. He'd been suffering from Bright's disease for several years, and probably his number'd just turned up, I told myself. Besides, the longing for the celebration of the sacrilegious Mass with its sensual stimulation, followed by the orgiastic parties, had me in a grip as strong as that which opium exerts upon its addicts.
"Twice a week, each Wednesday and Friday, my three friends and I attended the salacious services held in the old farmhouse cellar, followed by the revels in the upper rooms, and bit by bit we learned about our fellow cultists. Herbules, the head and center of the cult, was a priest stripped of his orders. Pastor of a parish in the suburbs of Vienna, he had dabbled in the Blade Art, seduced a number of his congregation from their faith, finally celebrated the Black Mass. The ecclesiastical authorities unfrocked him, the civil government jailed him on a morals charge, but disgrace could not impair his splendid education or his brilliant mind, and as soon as his imprisonment was over he emigrated to America and at once secured a post as teacher. Though his talents were unquestionable, his morals were not, and scandal followed every post he held. He was at the end of his string when he managed to worm his way into the Horton trustees' confidence and secured the post left vacant by the former headmaster's entrance in the Army.
"Our companion Devil-worshippers were mostly college and preparatory students looking for a thrill, now tangled in the net of fascination that the cult spun round its devotees, but a few of them were simply vicious, while others turned to demonolatry because they had lost faith in God.
"One of these was Marescha Nurmi, the girl who acted as the living altar. She was my constant partner at the orgies, and bit by bit I learned her history. Only nineteen, she was the victim of a heart affection and the doctors gave her but a year to live. When they pronounced sentence she was almost prostrated; then in desperation she turned to religion, going every day to church and spending hours on her knees in private prayer. But medical examination showed her illness was progressing, and when she chanced to hear of Herbules' devil-cult she came to it. 'I'm too young, too beautiful to die!' she told me as we lay locked in each others' arms one night. 'Why should God take my life? I never injured Him. All right, if He won't have me, Satan will. He'll give me life and happiness and power, let me live for years and years; keep me young and beautiful when all these snivelling Christian girls are old and faded. What do I care if I go to hell to pay for it? I'll take my heaven here on earth, and when the bill's presented I won't welch!'
"There's an old saying that each time God makes a beautiful woman the Devil opens a new page in his ledger. He must have had to put in a whole set of books when Marescha was converted to our cult. She was attractive as a witch, had no more conscience than a snake, and positively burned with ardor to do evil. Night after night she brought new converts to the cult, sometimes young men, sometimes girls. 'Come on, you little fool,' I heard her urge a girl who shrank from the wild orgy following initiation. 'Take off your robe; that's what we're here for. This is our religion, the oldest in the world; it's revolt against the goody-goodies, revolt against the narrowness of God; we live for pleasure and unbridled passion instead of abnegation and renunciation—life and love and pleasure in a world of vivid scarlet, instead of fear and dreariness in a world all cold and gray. That's our creed and faith. We're set apart, we're marked for pleasure, we worshippers of Satan.'"
"Tiens, the lady was a competent sales-woman," de Grandin murmured. "Did she realize her dreams?"
The laugh that prefaced Balderson's reply was like the echo of a chuckle in a vaulted tomb. "I don't know if she got her money's worth, but certainly she paid," he answered. "It was nearing graduation time, and the celebrations were about to stop until the fall, for it would be impossible to keep the farm-house windows shuttered so they'd show no gleam of light, especially with so many people on the roads in summer. Herbules had just completed invocation, raised the chalice overhead and set it on Marescha's breast when we saw her twitch convulsively. The little whimpering animal-cries she always made when the climax of the obscene parody was reached gave way to a choked gasping, and we saw the hand that clutched the altar-table suddenly relax. She raised her head and stared around the chapel with a look that sent the chill of horror rippling through me, then cried out in a strangled voice: 'O Lord, be pitiful!' Then she fell back on the coffin-pall that draped the altar and her fingers dangled loosely on its edge, her feet uncrossed and lay beside each other.
"Herbules was going on as if nothing had happened, but the woman who sat next to me let out a sudden wail. 'Look at her,' she screamed. 'Look at her face!'
"Marescha's head had turned a little to one side, and we saw her features in the altar-candles' light. Her dark hair had come unbound and fell about her face as though it sought to hide it. Her eyes were not quite closed, nor fully open, for a thread of gray eyeball was visible between the long black lashes. Her mouth was partly open,, not as though she breathed through it, but lax, slack, as though she were exhausted. Where a line of white defined the lower teeth we saw her tongue had fallen forward, lying level with the full, red lip.
"Somewhere in the rear of the chapel another woman's voice, shrilly pitched, but controlled, cried out: 'She's dead!'
"There was a wave of movement in the worshippers. Chairs were overturned, gowns rustled, whispered questions buzzed like angry bees. Then the woman sitting next me screamed again: 'This is no natural death, no illness killed her; she's been stricken dead for sacrilege, she's sacrificed for our sins—fly, fly before the wrath of God blasts all of us!'
"Herbules stood at the altar facing us. A mask as of some inner feeling, of strange, forbidden passions, of things that raced on scurrying feet within his brain, seemed to drop across his features. His face seemed old and ancient, yet at the same time ageless; his eyes took on a glaze like polished agate. He raised both hands above his head, the fingers flexed like talons, and laughed as if at some dark jest known only to himself. 'Whoso leaves the temple of his Lord without partaking of this most unholy sacrament, the same will Satan cast aside, defenseless from the vengeance of an outraged God!' he cried.
"Then I knew. Karl Erik Herbules, renegade Christian priest, brilliant scholar, poisoner of souls and votary of Satan, was mad as any Tom o' Bedlam!
"He stood there by the Devil's altar hurling, curses at us, threatening us with Heaven's vengeance, casting an anathema upon us with such vile insults and filthy language as a fishwife would not dare to use.
"But panic had the congregation by the throat. They pushed and fought and scratched and bit like frenzied cats, clawing and slashing at one another till they gained the exit, then rushing pellmell down the hill to their parked cars without a backward look, leaving Herbules alone beside the altar he had raised to Satan, with the dead girl stretched upon it.
"There was no chance that Herbules would help. He kept reciting passages from the Black Mass, genuflecting to the altar, filling and refilling the wine-cup and stuffing his mouth with the wafers meant to parody the Host. So Trivers, Eldridge, Atkins and I took Marescha's body to the river, weighted it with window-irons and dropped it in the water. But the knots we tied must have been loose, or else the weights were insufficient, for as we turned to leave, her body Boated almost to the surface and one white arm raised above the river's glassy face, as though to wave a mute farewell. It must have been a trick the current played as the tide bore her away, but to us it seemed that her dead hand pointed to us each in turn; certainly there was no doubt it bobbed four times above the river's surface before the swirling waters sucked it out of sight.
"You've probably heard garbled rumors of what happened afterward. The farmhouse burned that night and because there was no water to be had, there was no salvage. Still, a few things were not utterly destroyed, and people in the neighborhood still wonder how those Persian lamps and brazen candlesticks came to be in that deserted house.
"Herbules committed suicide that night, and when the auditors went over his accounts they found he'd practically wrecked Horton. There was hardly a cent left, for he'd financed his whole grisly farce of Devil worship with the money he embezzled. The trustees made the losses good and gave up in disgust. Ours was the last class graduated.
"They found Marescha's body floating in the Shrewsbury two days later, and at first the coroner was sure she'd been the victim of a murder; for while the window-weights had fallen off, the cords that tied them were still knotted round her ankles. When the autopsy disclosed she'd not been drowned, but had been put into the river after death from heart disease, the mystery was deepened, but until tonight only four people knew its answer. Now there are only three."
"Three, Monsieur?" de Grandin asked.
"That's fight. Trivers, Atkins and Eldridge are dead. I'm still here, and you and Doctor Trowbridge——"
"Your figures are at fault, my friend. You forget we are physicians, and your narrative was given us in confidence."
"But see here," I asked as the silence lengthened, "what is there about all this to make you want to kill yourself? If you'd been grown men when you joined these Devil-worshippers it would have been more serious, but college boys are always in some sort of mischief, and this all happened twenty years ago. You say you are sincerely sorry for it, and after all. the leaders in the movement died, so——"
Balderson broke through my moralizing with a short, hard laugh. "Men die more easily than memories, Doctor. Besides——"
"Yes, Monsieur, besides?" de Grandin prompted as our guest stared silently into the study fire.
"Do you believe the spirits of the dead—die dead who are in Hell, or at least cut off from Heaven—can come back to plague the living?" he demanded.
De grandin brushed the ends of his small waxed mustache with that gesture which always reminded me of a tomcat combing his whiskers. "You have experienced such a visitation?"
"I have. So did the others."
"Mordieu! How was it?"
"You may remember reading that Ted Eldridge hanged himself? Three days before it happened, he met me on the street, and I could see that he was almost frantic. 'I saw Marescha last night!' he told me in a frightened whisper.
"'Marescha? You must be off your rocker, man! We put her in the Shrewsbury——'
"'And she's come back again. Remember the perfume of the candles and the incense Herbules used in celebrating the Black Mass? I'd come home from New York last night, and was getting ready for a drink before I went to bed, when I began to smell it. At first I thought it was some fool trick that my senses played on me, but the scent kept getting stronger. It seemed as if I were back in that dreadful chapel with the tall black candles burning and the hellish incense smoldering, Herbules in his red vestments and Marescha lying naked on the altar—I could almost hear the chanting of inverted prayers and the little whimpering noises that she made. I gulped my drink down in two swallows and turned round. She was standing there, with water on her face and streaming from her hair, and her hands held out to me——'
"'You're crazy as a goat!' I told him. 'Come have a drink.'
"He looked at me a moment, then turned away, walking quickly down the street and muttering to himself.
"I'd not have thought so much about it if I hadn't read about his suicide next day, and if Stanley Trivers hadn't called me on the telephone. "Hear about Ted Eldridge?' he asked the moment I had said hello. When I told him I'd just read about it he demanded: 'Did you see him—recently?'
"'Yes, ran into him in Broad Street yesterday,' I answered.
"'Seemed worried, didn't he? Did he tell you anything about Marescha?'
"'Say, what is this?' I asked. 'Did he say anything to you——'
"'Yes, he did, and I thought he had a belfry full o' bats.'
"'There's not much doubt the poor old lad was cuckoo——'
"'That's where you're mistaken, Balderson. According to the paper he'd been dead for something like four hours when they found him. That would have made it something like four o'clock when he died.'
"'So this: I waked up at four o'clock this morning, and the room was positively stifling with the odor of the incense they used in the Black Chapel——'
"'Yeah? I suppose you saw Marescha, too?'
"'I did! She was standing by my bed, with water streaming from her face and body, and tears were in her eyes.'
"I tried to talk him out of it, tell him that it was a trick of his imagination stimulated by Ted Eldridge's wild talk, but he insisted that he'd really seen her. Two days later he committed suicide.
"Don Atkins followed. I didn't talk with him before he shot himself, but I'll wager that he saw her, too, and smelled that Devil's incense."
De Grandin looked at me with upraised brows, then shook his head to caution silence ere he turned to face our guest. "And you, Monsieur?" he asked.
"Yes, I too. Don killed himself sometime in early afternoon, and I was home that day. I'd say that it was shortly after two, for I'd lunched at the City Club and come home to pack a bag and take a trip to Nantakee. I had the highboy open and was taking out some shirts when I began to notice a strange odor in the air. But it wasn't strange for long; as it grew stronger I recognized it as the scent of Herbules' incense. It grew so strong that it was almost overpowering. I stood there by the chest of drawers, smelling the increasing scent, and determined that I'd not turn round. You know how Coleridge puts it:
Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread . . .
"The odor of the incense grew until I could have sworn somebody swung a censer right behind me. Then, suddenly, I heard the sound of falling water. 'Drip—drip—drip!' it fell upon the floor, drop by deliberate drop. The suspense was more than I could bear, and I wheeled about.
"Marescha stood behind me, almost close enough to touch. Water trickled from the hair that hung in gleaming strands across her breast and shoulders, it hung in little gleaming globules on her pale, smooth skin, ran in little rivulets across her forehead, down her beautifully shaped legs, made tiny puddles on the polished floor beside each slim bare foot. I went almost sick with horror as I saw the knotted cords we'd used to tie the window-weights on her still bound about her ankles, water oozing from their coils. She did not seem dead. Her lovely slender body seemed as vital as when I had held it in my arms, her full and mobile lips were red with rouge, her eyes were neither set and staring nor expressionless. But they were sad, immeasurably sad. They seemed to probe into my spirit's very depths, asking, beseeching, entreating. And to make their plea more eloquent, she slowly raised her lovely hands and held them out to me, palms upward, lingers slightly curled, as though she besought alms.
"There was a faint resemblance to her bitter, crooked smile upon her lips, but it was so sad, so hopelessly entreating, that it almost made me weep to see it.
"'Mar——' I began, but the name stuck in my throat. This couldn't be the body that I'd held against my heart, those lips were not the lips I'd kissed a thousand times; this was no girl of flesh and blood. Marescha lay deep in a grave in Shadow Lawns Cemetery; had lain there almost twenty years. Dust had filled those sad, entreating eyes long before the college freshmen of this year were born. The worms . . .
"Somewhere I had heard that if you called upon the Trinity a ghost would vanish. 'In the name of the Father——' I began, but it seemed as if a clap of thunder sounded in my ears.
"'What right have you to call upon the Triune God?' a mighty voice seemed asking. 'You who have mocked at Heaven, taken every sacred name in vain, made a jest of every holy thing—how dare you invoke Deity? Your sacrilegious lips cannot pronounce the sacred name!'
"And it was true. I tried again, but the words clogged in my throat; I tried to force them out, but only strangling inarticulacies sounded.
"Marescha's smile was almost pityingly tender, but still she stood there pleading, entreating, begging me, though what it was she wanted I could not divine. I threw my aim across my eyes to shut the vision out, but when I took it down she was still there, and still the water dripped from her entreating hands, ran in little courses from her dankly-hanging hair, fell drop by drop from the sopping cords that ringed her ankles.
"I stumbled blindly from the house and walked the streets for hours. Presently I bought a paper, and the headlines told me Donald Atkins had been found, a suicide, in his apartment.
"When I reached my house again the incense still hung in the air, but the vision of Marescha was not there. I drank almost a pint of brandy, neat, and fell across my bed. When I recovered from my alcoholic stupor Marescha stood beside me, her great eyes luminous with tears, her hands outstretched in mute entreaty.
"She's been with me almost every waking instant since that night. I drank myself into oblivion, but every time I sobered she was standing by me. I'd walk the streets for hours, but every time I halted she would be there, always silent, always with her hands held out, always with that look of supplication in her tear-filled eyes. I'd rush at her and try to drive her off with blows and kicks. She seemed to float away, staying just outside my reach, however savagely I ran at her, and though I cursed her, using every foul word I knew, she never changed expression, never showed resentment; just stood and looked at me with sad, imploring eyes, always seeming to be begging me for something.
"I can't endure it any longer, gentlemen. Tonight she stood beside me when I halted on North Bridge, and I'd have been at peace by now if you'd not come along——"
"Non, there you are mistaken, mon ami," de Grandin contradicted. "Had you carried your intention out and leaped into the river you would have sealed your doom irrevocably. Instead of leaving her you would have joined her for eternity."
"All right," Balderson asked raspingly, "I suppose you have a better plan?"
"I think I have," the little Frenchman answered. "First, I would suggest you let us give you sedatives. You will not be troubled while you sleep, and while you rest we shall be active."
"Shakespeare was right," I said as we left our patient sleeping from a dose of chloral hydrate. "Conscience does make cowards of us all. The memory of that early indiscretion has haunted that quartet of worthless youngsters twenty years. No wonder they kept seeing that poor girl after they'd thrown her so callously into the Shrewsbury. Of all the heartless, despicable things——"
He emerged from a brown study long enough to interrupt: "And is your conscience clean, my friend?"
"What has my conscience to do with it? I didn't throw a dead girl in the river; I didn't——"
"Précisément, neither did the good Costello, yet both of you described the odor of that Devil's incense: Costello when he went to view the bodies of the suicides, you when we halted Monsieur Balderson's attempt at self-destruction. Were you also haunted by that scent, or were you not?"
"I smelled it," I responded frigidly, "but I wasn't haunted by it. Just what is it you're driving at?"
"That the odor of that incense, or even the perception of the dead Marescha's revenant, is no optical illusion caused by guilty conscience. It is my firm conviction that the apparition which appeared to these unfortunate young men was the earthbound spirit of a girl who begged a boon from them."
"Then you don't think that she haunted them because they'd thrown her body in the river?"
"Entirely no. I think she came to ask their help, and in their fear and horror at beholding her they could not understand her plea. First one and then another, lashed with the scorpion-whip of an accusing conscience, destroyed himself because he dared not look into her pleading eyes, thinking they accused him of mistreating her poor body, when all the pauvre belle créature asked was that they help her to secure release from her earthbound condition."
"Why should she have appealed to them?"
"In all that congregation of benighted worshippers of evil, she knew them best. They saw her die, they gave her body sepulture; one of them, at least, had been her lover, and was, presumably, bound to her by ties of mutual passion. She was most strongly in their minds and memories. It was but natural that she should appeal to them for succor. Did not you notice one outstanding fact in all the testimony—the poor Marescha appeared to them in turn, looking not reproachfully, but pleadingly? Her lips were held, she might not put her plea in words. She could but come to them as they had last beheld her, entreat them by dumb show, and hope that they would understand. One by one they failed her; one by one they failed to understand——"
"Well, is there anything that we can do about it?"
"I think there is. Come, let us be upon our way."
"Where the deuce——"
"To the rectory of St. Chrysostom. I would interview the Reverend Doctor Bentley."
"At this time of night?"
"Mais certainement, clergymen and doctors, they have no privacy, my friend. Surely, you need not be told that."
The freshly lighted fire burned brightly in the Reverend Peter Bentley's study, the blue smoke spiraled upward from the tips of our cigars, the gray steam curled in fragrant clouds from the glasses of hot Scotch which stood upon the coffee-table. Looking anything but clerical in red-flannel bathrobe, black pajamas and red Turkish slippers, Doctor Bentley listened with surprizing tolerance to de Grandin's argument.
"But it seems the poor girl died in mortal sin," he murmured, obviously more in sorrow than in righteous indignation. "According to your statement, her last frantic words called on the Devil to fulfill his bargain: 'O Lord, be pitiful——'"
"Précisément, mon père, but who can say her prayer was made to Satan? True, those so bewildered, misled followers of evil were wont to call the Devil Lord and Master, but is it not entirely possible that she repented and addressed her dying prayer to the real Lord of the heaven and earth? Somewhere an English poet says of the last-minute prayer of a not-wholly-righteous fox-hunter who was unhorsed and broke his sinful neck:
Betwixt the stirrup and the ground
I mercy asked; mercy I found.
"Me, I believe in all sincerity that her repentance was as true as that the thief upon the cross expressed; that in the last dread moment she perceived the grievous error of her ways and made at once confession of sin and prayer for pity with her dying breath.
"But she had bent the knee at Satan's shrine. With her fair body—that body which was given her to wear as if it were a garment to the greater glory of the Lord—she parodied the sacred faircloth of the altar. By such things she had cut herself adrift, she had put herself beyond communion with the righteous which is the blessed company of all the faithful. There was no priest to shrive her sin-encumbered soul, no one to read words of forgiveness and redemption above her lifeless clay. Until some one of her companions in iniquity will perform the service of contrition for her, until the office for the burial of Christian dead is read above her grave, she lies excommunicate and earthbound. She cannot even expiate her faults in Purgatory till forgiveness of sins has been formally pronounced. Sincerely repentant, hell is not for her; unshrived, and with no formal statement of conditional forgiveness, she cannot quit the earth, but must wander here among the scenes of her brief and sadly misspent life. Do we dare withhold our hands to save her from a fate like that?"
Doctor Bentley sipped thoughtfully at his hot Scotch. "There may be something in your theory," he admitted. "I'm not especially strong on doctrine, but I can't believe the fathers of the early church were the crude nincompoops some of our modern theologians call them. They preached posthumous absolution, and there are instances recorded where excommunicated persons who had hovered round the scenes they'd known in life were given rest and peace when absolution was pronounced above their graves. Tell me, is this Balderson sincerely sorry for his misdeeds?"
"I could swear it, mon père."
"Then bring him to the chapel in the morning. If he will make confession and declare sincere repentance, then submit himself to holy baptism, I'll do what you request. It's rather mediæval, but—I'd hate to think that I'm so modern that I would not take a chance to save two souls."
The penitential service in the Chapel of the Intercession was a brief but most impressive one. Only Balderson, I and de Grandin occupied the pews, with Doctor Bentley in his stole and cassock, but without his surplice, at the little altar:
". . . we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against Thy holy laws . . . remember not, Lord, our offenses nor the offenses of our forefathers, neither take Thou vengeance of our sins . . . we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickednesses; the memory of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable . . ."
After absolution followed the short service ordered for the baptism of adults; then we set out for Shadow Lawns.
Now Doctor Bentley wore his full canonicals, and his surplice glinted almost whiter than the snow that wrapped the mounded graves as he paused beside an unmarked hillock in the Nurmi family plot.
Slowly he began in that low, full voice with which he fills a great church to its farthest corner: "I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. . . ."
It was one of those still winter days, quieter than an afternoon in August, for no chirp of bird or whir of insect sounded. no breath of breeze disturbed the evergreens; yet as he read the opening sentence of the office for the burial of the dead a low wail sounded in the copse of yew and hemlock on the hill, as though a sudden wind moaned in the branches, and I stiffened as a scent was borne across the snow-capped grave mounds. Incense! Yet not exactly incense, either. There was an undertone of fetor in it, a faint, distinctly charnel smell. Balderson was trembling, and despite myself I flinched, but Doctor Bentley and de Grandin gave no sign of recognition.
"Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts, shut not Thy merciful ears to our prayer, but spare us, Lord most holy . . ." intoned the clergyman, and,
"Amen," said Jules de Grandin firmly as the prayer concluded.
The Æolian wailing in the evergreens died to a sobbing, low clamation as Doctor Bentley traced in sand a cross upon the snow-capped grave, declaring: "Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our departed sister, and we commit her body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection into eternal life. . . ."
And now there was no odor of corruption in the ghostly perfume, but the clean, inspiring scent of frankincense, redolent of worship at a thousand consecrated altars.
As the last amen was said and Doctor Bentley turned away I could have sworn I heard a gentle slapping sound and saw the blond hairs of de Grandin's small mustache bend inward, as though a pair of lips invisible to me had kissed him on the mouth.
Doctor Bentley dined with us that night, and over coffee and liqueurs we discussed the case.
"It was a fine thing you did," the cleric told de Grandin, "Six men in seven would have sent him packing and bid him work out his salvation—or damnation—for himself. There's an essential nastiness in Devil-worship which is revolting to the average man, not to mention its abysmal wickedness——"
"Tiens, who of us can judge another's wickedness?" the little Frenchman answered. "The young man was repentant, and repentance is the purchase price of heavenly forgiveness. Besides"—a look of strain, like a nostalgic longing, came into his eyes—"before the altar of a convent in la belle France kneels one whom I have loved as I can never love another in this life. Ceaselessly, except the little time she sleeps, she makes prayer and intercession for a sinful world. Could I hold fast the memory of our love if I refused to match in works the prayer she makes in faith? Eh bien, mon père, my inclination was to give him a smart kick in the posterior; to bid him go and sin no more, but sinfully or otherwise, to go. Ha, but I am strong, me. I overcame that inclination."
The earnestness of his expression faded and an impish grin replaced it as he poured a liberal potion of Napoleon 1811 in his brandy-sniffer. "Jules de Grandin," he apostrophized himself, "you have acted like a true man. You have overcome your natural desires; you have kept the faith.
"Jules de Grandin, my good and much-admired self—be pleased to take a drink!"