THE July sun blazed unrelentingly upon the wide, hard-baked road that led, straight as a giant ruler, across the forlorn level country. Gorse and stubble, ground-pine and intensely green, wiry broom covered the moors, from which a quivering radiance of heat mounted to the molten sky, the horizon shook with it, and the distant dome of the Basilica of St. Anne of Auray, with its golden statue, wavered upward like a white flame.
It was St. Anne's Eve, and the incoming human tide was near its flood. The following day would bring the great feast, when the cure-working statue would be carried in procession. The throng pushed forward in anticipation. Here were ancient and dilapidated diligences, called into service by the influx of visitors, carts, drays, carriages of all ages and previous conditions of servitude, heavy, high swinging landaus, with emblazoned panels, bringing the chatelaines of the neighborhood, even the pumping, banging automobiles that all fashionable France had gone mad over. Mixed in and about the carriage pilgrims came the rank and file of foot farers: men from Beltz, with white trousers and coats of peacock blue; women of Lorient, in the dress made famous by the "chocolatière" of Dresden; peasants of Pont-Aven in their pleated collars and wide-winged head-dresses; deputations from Morlaix, wearing the fifteenth century "hénin" in all its glory; women of Point l'Abbé, broad-shouldered and square-hipped, marching through the heat in multitudinous black cloth skirts and yellow embroidered jackets. And in all alike, men, women, and children, the deep, contained fire of fanatic faith.
An ancient and dilapidated vehicle of the period of the first Empire, driven by a pompous peasant of Auray, in full regalia, swung from side to side in the jostling mass, like a distressed ship in a human sea. Reclining on the threadbare velvet cushions, four girls, of obviously foreign extraction, volleyed with assorted cameras on the crowd about them. Many shrank from the black boxes in fear of witchcraft, others, more experienced in the ways of strangers, grinned broadly or became suddenly petrified into awkwardness. From their coign of vantage the cameras continued to snap with regardless vehemence.
"Hold on, stop the driver! I want to take that ditch full of horrors," exclaimed the smallest of the quartette, a slim, blonde girl of eighteen or twenty, who answered cheerfully to the nick name of "Shorty."
A red-haired young woman rose from her seat.
"Oh, gorgeous person on the box-seat, have the obligeance to restrain Bucephalus."
The peasant grinned, and obeying her gesture, which was the only thing he understood, caused so sudden a halt, that the occupants of the Empire coach fell violently into each other's arms. Upon the stopping of the carriage, an immediate congestion of pedestrians and horses took place in the rear, and the pilgrimage was profaned by remarks not intended for the ears of St. Anne. With true American independence the four girls calmly proceeded to focus their kodaks at the line of writhing wretches, who, seeing the attention they were attracting, dragged themselves nearer, whining dolorously.
"For goodness sake, move on! the smell is positively fetid!" exclaimed a brown young woman of about thirty.
"Boston, you are a born obstructionist. Get out of my picture, will you? There are horrors enough in it without you."
Of the four, Victoria Claudel was, perhaps, the most noticeable. As she often said of herself, "she was made up of odds and ends." Her small, well-shaped head was set on a full, strong throat. She had very wide shoulders, a tremendous depth of chest, suggestive of great vitality, feet unusually small, and well-formed hands, unexpectedly large. The face that shone out from the shade of a battered campaign hat showed the same irregularity—a short, straight nose, large, oblique gray eyes, and a small, dainty mouth in a strong jaw. The forehead was somewhat high, and from it sprung, variously "cowlicked" and very unruly, a great mass of red-black hair, part of which crowning glory was at that moment attempting a descent upon her shoulders, and hung in a loop besprinkled with helpless hairpins. She was not beautiful, but far more than pretty. Vitality, power, vigorous impatience, and ingrained humor seemed to surround her as an atmosphere rings its planet.
Victoria put down her camera and distributed a handful of coppers among the pilgrim subjects.
"Give me change for a franc?" the red-haired Sonia Palintzka begged.
"Can't do it," Victoria returned. "Change it when you get to the hotel. I believe you are a reincarnation of Judas—I never knew you when you weren't trying to change your thirty pieces of silver."
Shorty fell over her companions in her haste. "Oh, look! See those peasants with the apple-green sleeves and the blue bodices. Heavens! he's going to run them down, and they are so beautiful!"
The older woman disengaged herself from the tangle of Shorty's skirts. "You are perfectly insane, child; do sit still! You've taken at least four pictures without winding one off."
The girl gasped, "Oh, I believe you're right! Oh, dear! my beggars will be spoiled."
"They seemed pretty far gone already," Boston ejaculated.
Their carriage halted for a moment. A balky horse somewhere in the crowd ahead was determinedly holding back the procession. The crush had moved the Empire chaise alongside a well-appointed, green-bodied brougham, from whose window a slim woman, dressed in mourning, was anxiously leaning.
"It must be horribly dark inside the lady," murmured Victoria, in an undertone: "see how it pours out of her."
Sonia nodded, the description was so apt. Great troubled, black eyes lit up the woman's haggard face; bushy brows almost met over the thin, high bred nose; hair so intensely black that the widow's cap surmounting it seemed lighter by comparison; even her skin was seared as if by fire, yellow brown as it met the raven locks, like burned parchment. All this darkness seemed to emanate from the eyes—two tunnels of Erebus that led inward to depths incalculable.
Conscious of scrutiny, the lady raised her head. The anxiety of her face froze to haughty annoyance, and she withdrew from the window abruptly.
"Snapping turtle!" Shorty remarked.
Victoria smiled. "Did look that way. See the child with her—she's ill. I suppose they are bringing her to St. Anne."
A fair-haired girl, dressed in black and thin to emaciation, lay in the other corner of the carriage. Her little feet rested on the lap of a maid who sat opposite, holding a smelling-bottle in one hand. As if in obedience to a command, the servant leaned forward and sharply drew down the green silk window-shade, darting, as she did so, a look of unconcealed scorn at Sonia's unaffectedly interested face.
"End of Act I.—curtain!" said Victoria.
A sway and jar in the packed roadway announced that at last progress was possible. The interrupted tramp of the march again began. Somewhere in the front a chorus of men's voices intoned the ancient Breton chant of St. Anne. It spread from rank to rank, as fire whips across a prairie, till the whole throng rocked with it—an immense emotional swell.
Vic's face paled a little, and she shook her shoulders as if to throw off the hysterical contagion of the crowd.
Sonia looked sympathy. "Grips one right by the throat, doesn't it?"
There was no more stopping now. The procession in its compact thousands advanced as if lifted bodily. The weary straightened themselves, the sick lifted their heads, the eyes of the dying lit once more.
"Makes one understand the crusades," Shorty murmured, tearfully.
The resistless stream poured on to its destination, spreading out as it reached the vast paved square in front of the church, and the green acres before the Scala Santa.
The three great doors of the Basilica, opened wide, could hardly accommodate the crowd that surged toward them. The square reeked with the smell of wax candles and the perfume of incense. Up and down every converging street, and bordering the square itself, hung a deep fringe of booths—literally a fringe, for from every roof depended bunches of blessed tapers of every size and quality, from the simple one-sou candle, a foot in length, to the great decorated "cierge," four feet high and as big around as a hand could grasp. Black and yellow festoons of prayer-beads swung to and fro, rattling as the heads of purchasers displaced them. At every booth brilliantly dressed peasants bargained cannily for medals and "pocket saints."
The Empire chaise with its modern occupants drew up before the door of the largest inn, facing directly on the place. It was preceded by the green-bodied brougham, from which the maid, assisted by the landlord, was lifting the invalid. The deference with which the party was treated marked them as people of importance, and Victoria wisely concealed her impatience till the illustrious wants should be ministered to.
"We engaged our rooms weeks ago, so we're all right, you know," she said, "and they'll treat us better if we don't fluster them in handling their grandees. Suppose we sit out here at one of the little tables till the coast is clear."
Settling themselves, they eagerly watched the crowd that wove its brilliant patterns before them.
"Jolly, isn't it?" Shorty commented. "We are the only rank outsiders. Evidently the great American tourist hasn't found this out yet."
"Give them time—they will—sooner or later," Miss Bently announced, sadly; "to-morrow there will be more—that man over—there, for instance; he's an Englishman, I'll wager a franc."
"Done," and Victoria held out her hand. "No Englishman would be so fearfully and wonderfully British."
"I don't see how we're to find out," said Shorty, wistfully.
"He's going into the hotel,—we'll ask the chambermaid what room he has, and look it up on the register."
"But," objected the Russian, "there won't be what you call a register here, only those miserable little slips you have to make out and hand to the landlord—how old you are and where you were born, and what for, and who filled your teeth and where you think you'll go to when you die,—and all sorts of little personalities that might interest the police."
"That's so," Shorty nodded, gravely. "Never mind, though, we'll find out; there is always somebody who makes it his business to know everybody else's."
"Very handsome sentence. Did you make it all yourself? " Victoria grinned. "Come in, it's safe now to tackle the hotel, they have disposed of the—the—what's feminine for hidalgo?"
Their entrance into the inn in their turn brought sorrow. The landlord remembered perfectly the correspondence with the young ladies, but what was he to do? Madame de Vernon-Château-Lamion had just arrived, bringing her little daughter to the good St. Anne. She had required the best rooms—as he said before, what could he do? It was vexatious; but the child was ill, very ill.
Sonia flushed and drew herself up. It was at such moments that she gave ground for the suspicion current in the artistic circles she frequented, that concealed under her simple incognito was a name as illustrious as the Orloffs' own. "My good man," she articulated, as she quenched the fire of his eloquence by an icy glance, "you are under contract to accommodate us. If the child is ill, we will not insist on our rights; but accommodate us you must, somewhere. You know perfectly well the conditions here during the feast. We have no intention of sleeping in the square with the peasants, or doing the 'Stations of the Cross' on our knees all night in the church. Now, what are you going to do?"
The landlord looked up at her stately height, at the gold glory of her hair, at the violet fire of her eyes—and wilted.
"Madame—mademoiselle must pardon. It is unfortunate, but perhaps, if the ladies would be graciously lenient—there were—rooms—oh, not the kind he wished he might provide—but rooms—one in the wing, where two of ces dames could stay—and one"—he hesitated, and fairly gasped—"over the—the stable."
Sonia's manner was magnificent. As a queen might condescend to accept a lowly state that humbler subjects cavilled at, because, being queen, she dignified whatever lodging she deigned to honor, she inclined her head. "Take us there," she said, "and let Madame Vernon-Château-Lamion know that because of the illness of her child we will permit her to occupy our apartments."
The fat little landlord gulped, and humbly led the way to the dingy hospitality he offered.
"Too bad we can't be together," Shorty wailed, as she inspected the cubby-hole in the wing.
Once more the host, by this time reduced to positive pathos, clamored his excuses.
Sonia silenced him. "This lady," indicating Victoria, "and I will occupy the stable." Again they journeyed through a labyrinth of passages to the much-scorned chamber, which proved to be better than its promise. It was, at least, clean and roomy, and the two little hospital cots looked comfortable enough. Its simple dormer-window commanded an uninspiring view of courtyard and barn, the slope of the roof being not so great but one might step out on it with safety, or, in case of necessity, slip across to the iron ladder that posed as fire-escape for the part of the hotel buildings adjoining the lofts. This much, the American girl's hasty inspection took in as she put down her simple baggage. Sonia, glancing through the dim window-glass, commented on the ease with which one might cross from one part of the house to another by judicious use of water-pipes and roofs. "It is to be hoped," she concluded, "that pilgrims are uniformly pious, otherwise a burglar would have what you call a 'picnic' of this house."
Victoria, deep in tepid ablutions, sputtered something about willingly parting with everything but her kodak films; but Sonia persisted:
"These are servants' quarters, or hostlers'. I don't think it is right to put such people in a room like this that has window communication with every back room in the house—yes, and probably every front one, too, for one would have only to cross the roof and use the balconies."
"Oh, come, trust the Breton hostlers; they haven't imagination enough to think of anything so complicated, and unless, Sonia, you are contemplating a little burglarious expedition, we're safe enough."
Victoria wiped her hands on the diminutive towel, twisted her short skirt straight, stuffed in a handful of strong hairpins, and announced her intention of going out. Her companion slowly left the window, went through the same feminine recipe for "straightening up," and patted her friend's shoulder with impulsive irrelevance.
"Vic, you are a nice girl. I wish you would come to Russia with me this winter instead of going back to America."
Her friend smiled. "Wish I could, Sonia, but I've got to go, there's no getting out of it. It's business, you see. There will be a settling of the estate—Bob comes of age."
Sonia locked the door as they went out into the cheerless corridor that smelt not unpleasantly of hay and fodder. "Well, perhaps I'll come to America instead. I've always wanted to see what it is like."
"If you do, Sonia, I'll give you the best time you ever had in all your life. As a country, well, I don't like to be unpatriotic—you'll be disappointed; but the people make up for it—they are the whitest in the world." The gray eyes looked unutterable admiration into space.
They reached the staircase after much wandering, and descended to the floor below, turned toward the main entrance, and came face to face with the plaided, knickerbockered young man, whose back had attracted their comment. Victoria, because of her bet, favored the stranger with a long comprehensive stare as he passed. He was undeniably handsome, with fine, regular features, yellow hair concealed by a gray cap, very black eyes and eyebrows that contrasted strangely with his light mustache. He walked gracefully in spite of a slight limp.
"He is English," Sonia asserted, when well out of earshot.
Victoria shook her head. "I don't think so. I'm sure I don't know why, but I don't."
The Lorient-coifed chambermaid appeared burdened with towels and full of business. The girl confronted her. "Do you know who the young man is who just went up-stairs? He looks like some one I know, but I can't be sure."
"Oh, yes—fifty—seven." The woman patted the towels gently, as if struggling to remember among the press of patrons. "Fifty-seven—fifty-seven—came yesterday—had a headache and his dinner in his room. I think he went out awhile ago, but he didn't stay long. Seems to be expecting somebody from the way he sits by the window. English? of course. You should hear him speak French." She laughed. "His name? I don't know—oh, yes, his bag has 'J. O Farrell' marked on it; it's a cheap bag," and with this information she proceeded on her way.
"That settles it—you've lost," said Sonia.
"I suppose I have." Victoria's voice was puzzled and unconvinced.
As they emerged into the street, Shorty pounced upon them. "Come quick! There's a whole band of women from Faouët going to have their sickles blessed. Oh, it's too bad the light is going, I can't get a picture. It's fine, it's wonderful!"
Miss Bently's flat brown figure frantically beckoned them to hasten, and the three ran forward to the stone wall on which she stood, commanding a view of the church doors over the swaying heads of the crowd. A band of thirty or more women were forming in line, their black skirts kilted high, showing heavy ribbed stockings and wooden shoes. Their hard, weather-worn faces framed in the black triangular shawls that hung from under round black caps, similar to those worn by the priests of the Greek Church. In their hands they held new sickles, some naked and gleaming, some wrapped in wisps of wheat straw. Some argument of precedence was evidently in progress, which, being at last compromised, the strange procession disappeared under the sculptured arches of the portico.
"Where is the miraculous fountain, Shorty?" Sonia inquired, as the thinning crowd permitted them to descend from their perch.
"Over here. Follow me; it's a sight; Boston and I have been prospecting."
Elbowing their way across the "place," by the medal-sellers, and the mushroom villages of candlemongers, they became involved in a temporary street of cider tents, wherein, bronzed and bedecked, the men of Brittany, like men the world over, comforted first the body before grappling with that illusive and unsatisfactory thing—the soul. Under the brown sail awnings they sat, on long oak benches, drinking gravely and without noise, as is the fashion of that strange race, that takes all its pleasures, even dancing, as if Weltschmerz were the impulse. They regarded the foreigners with amiable curiosity, commenting aloud and unabashed in their rough, guttural Celtic, which is identical with the ancient and fast-disappearing language of Cornwall. To the right of the Scala Santa, the four came upon the fountain, a large and inartistic stone monument, presenting to the public a huge sign, "Beware of pickpockets," and four granite shells, from which the water flowed through sunken cisterns, resembling the tanks of a natatorium. Wide stone steps led down, and every available inch of the approaches was crowded by the faithful, old and young, high and low, bonnet and coif together. The sightless washed their eyes in the healing waters, diseased skins were laved in it, open sores and wounds were soothed and cleansed, the idiotic were baptized, those sick of internal troubles lifted it to their lips and drank. The relatives of those too ill to come filled bottles from the pools, corked them, and preciously carried them away in their arms. The crowd of worshippers constantly renewed itself, as those satisfied rose to their feet and departed with hope in their hearts and microbes in their systems. For the most part, the throng was earnest and silent. Once only a woman shrieked, casting the bandages from her wounded head. Her eyes, burning with fever, stared like two mad stars in her haggard, drawn face, as she struggled with her stalwart sons, who at last led her away, muttering and calling. A momentary hush fell upon the crowd at the fountain, a shade of doubt crept from face to face as the sound of the woman's ravings grew fainter, then, with renewed vigor, they washed and bottled and drank.
"And the miracle is," Victoria said, slowly, "that they won't all die before morning."
Miss Bently turned from the scene a trifle pale. "It is rather sickening, but I suppose if you get a good new microbe to fight your own bacilli, they have a chance of killing each other. I don't doubt there are any number of cures from that cause."
"I'm coming down to-morrow morning early," Shorty announced, "to photograph that. No one would believe us if we told about it—it's too unspeakably awful."
"Look at this, girls," Sonia interrupted, pointing to a billboard, on which, amidst the usual notice to "Beware of pickpockets," were the announcements of special indulgences—"For each step of the Scala Santa on the knees with two 'Aves' and 'a Pater,' one hundred years of purgatory remitted; for the entire Scala, ten thousand years; 'Stations of the Cross,' with 'Paters,' and 'Aves,' one thousand years."
"Haven't you seen those before?" Shorty exclaimed, with superiority. "There's a beautiful framed announcement at the foot of the holy stairs, which are just jammed full of people taking advantage of the indulgences. It makes one's knees sore to see them. Heavens! there's a whole covey of Englishwomen over there."
"Oh, that reminds me," Victoria spoke up, "I lost my bet, Boston, my love. We asked the chambermaid about the man you thought was English. It seems his name is O'Farrell, and he speaks very bad French, so I suppose that settles it—but," and she shook her head, "somehow it doesn't go; maybe he's half-and-half, perhaps his mother was French or Italian, or something. I flatter myself I'm a good guesser, and certainly he does not spell 'English' to me."
"Oh! you're too sharp," Shorty laughed, as they returned to the hotel entrance.
They had hardly crossed the threshold when they became aware of the advancing presence of the swarthy Madame Vernon-Château-Lamion. With a well-bred haughtiness she inclined her dark head, and addressed herself directly to Sonia, including Victoria in the same glance. Boston and Shorty she ignored magnificently, turning by instinct to her social equals.
"I am informed that I am indebted to you ladies for the suite I now occupy. I assure you that were it not for my daughter's critical condition I should at once seek lodgings elsewhere. As it is, I must, most unwillingly, impose upon your kindness."
"Madame," returned Victoria, "we are glad to contribute to your daughter's comfort."
"We trust," added Sonia, with unexpected gentleness, "that your prayers for her may be heard."
The mother crossed herself. "May God so will! My thanks!" she added, with a return of her frigid politeness, and with another slight bow she left them.
"What a very aristocratic old blackbird," remarked Shorty, after a pause, piqued that her blonde prettiness had attracted no acknowledgment of her existence from the gaunt countess.
"Yes," Sonia gravely assented, "she has blue blood, as you say."
"I don't say anything of the sort," Miss Bently sharply objected. "I should, from her appearance, suggest Caw's Jet Black Ink, or stove polish."
Though early, the dining-room was already crowded, which necessitated an irritating wait, but the four were at last settled at a small table, and the conversation returned to the countess.
"Did you see the lace she wore? Antique Venetian, and a gem of a piece!" Victoria spoke with a sort of detached envy.
Sonia nodded. "Yes; but what made me want to break the—what number Commandment is it, about envy?—was her pin. Did you notice it?"
"Rather!" and Victoria's face glowed with appreciation. "What was it? I never saw anything like it."
"Nor I," continued Sonia, "though I've seen—" Here she checked herself, and added, lamely, "a great deal. It was sixteenth century, I'm certain. Those pendants were unmistakable; and I think I never saw such an emerald—the size, the color!"
"It had a big flaw, though," and Victoria took up the description. "It was the marvellous delicacy of the setting and the design that struck me. I don't believe its intrinsic value is so great, even with the emerald, but the art of it, the art of it! It makes the modern work seem absolutely pot-boiling; there were old masters in jewelry as well as in paint and stone."
"I think," Sonia continued, "the two gold dolphins that surround the centre stone must have been heraldic. I believe it was a sort of acrostic of a coat-of-arms. I've seen such pieces in Russia, and I know they were used in Spain."
"Oh, stop talking like a pair of antiquaries," Shorty interrupted. "You don't know anything about it, and you re missing the circus—just look at the freaks in this—salle à manger."
The great bare room did, in fact, present an extraordinary assortment of humanity. At the upper end, a long table accommodated fifteen or twenty priests, whose black garments made a dark spot in the otherwise bright hall. Next to them, a gaily dressed, chattering party of women and men, just arrived in their automobiles from the estates of Kerkonti and Merone. The main body consisted of wealthy Breton peasants, dressed in all the gorgeousness of their feast-day clothes, and obviously uncomfortable. Here and there the inevitable, fat, greasy, commercial traveller serenely bulked, and the equally fat and oily bourgeoise-women shopkeepers of Lorient, and the other adjoining commercial cities, wielded ready knives. A few elegant but soberly dressed families attested that the aristocracy of France is by no means devoid of the faith that animated its distant forbears. An eminent journalist from Paris took notes obviously from his position by the fireplace, a well-known painter, accompanied by his equally well-known model, sat in the corner. A lonesome looking English boy, who was "doing" Brittany on his wheel, yawned by the window, and a party of very old gentlemen, who seemed to have no particular reason for attending the festival, unless, as Victoria suggested, they hoped for a Faust-like renewal of youth, completed the company.
"I don't see my Englishman," Miss Bently observed.
"Evidently his headache has come on again, and he's having his supper in his room. The chambermaid said he hadn't been well," Sonia explained.
The meal dragged on indefinitely, the frantic serving-wenches vainly trying to cope with the number of their charges. Every dish was cold or poor. Soup arrived after the meat, and vegetables with the pudding. But there was little objection. Every one was either too devout or too interested to trouble about food for the time being. The four dissimilar girls were probably as much of an incongruity as the other guests or the distorted meal. Theirs was one of those oddly combined friendships, evolved in studios, with which all dwellers in France have become familiar. At bottom there is always the stratum of common ambitions, appreciation, and Bohemianism, in spite of unbridgeable divergencies of character and traditions.
Just now the four were equally delighted. Miss Bently and Sonia with the paintable qualities of the pilgrimage; Shorty, with the photographic possibilities, and Victoria with the human passion of excitement and faith that ran riot in and about her. Although her training had been in the field of applied art, she was slowly but certainly turning toward the alluring fields of literature, her short experience with newspaper work having bred ambitions. Now, unconsciously, she groped for words into which to translate the pictures and the emotions of the hour, and went about with sentences speaking themselves in her head—so good sometimes that she longed to jot them down, yet never quite dared because of a curious self-consciousness that made her hate to explain her occupation to her companions. "Hysteria, the most instantly contagious of diseases," she caught herself murmuring, as, supper finished, they again sought the square and its picturesque gatherings. "I wonder, if it is possible for any one in his senses to remain unmoved by such an immense and intensely human cry of faith—the faith of the children, and catered to as to children." What marvellous charm was in the lights, the incense, the fountain of healing, the fairy-tale statue discovered, though buried, because of the great radiance that shone over the spot! What mattered it that antiquarians had pronounced it a Venus, relic of the Roman occupation? Converted into St. Anne and re-carved, no saint in Christendom is more efficacious to cure—"as bread pills cure a child," she concluded, aloud. Surprised to hear her own voice, she looked up. She had become separated from her friends, and had somehow drifted to the church door. Impulsively, she entered and knelt for a moment, the better to take in the mystery of the great building, whose mighty pillars sprang upwards like giant spouts of water, and spread across the arched ceiling in a spray of lacy stone. The lights were dim, but below, by the great white altar, by the side chapels and at each pillar foot, thousands upon thousands of candles sent up a radiance mellowed and softened in the immensity of the nave.
The darkness of confessionals and recessed chapels was gemmed with colored lamps, that vaguely showed the lines of waiting penitents. The place reeked with incense, the odor of melted wax and the vague heaviness of crowded human breaths.
The subdued shuffling of feet, the audible heart-throb of prayer shook the air. Victoria was glad to be here, to throw herself into the immensity of this sea of faith—herself unbelieving. Only by an effort could she free herself from the mocking of her judgment, and she longed, yearned, to experience the exaltation of the least of these sun-tanned, ignorant tillers of the soil, or the still more romantic faith of those who plough the sea, and sow the wave-furrows with their lives and hopes. The votive ships that hung dimly overhead filled her with visions of the shipwrecks they commemorated, the hairbreadth escapes to which they attested by their presence in the sanctuary. St. Anne's shrine glowed in its concentrated mass of candles, a very saint's glory. The legended statue stood all golden, on the lower table of the altar, where kissing lips might reach the daintiness of the embroidered cloth. The church shook with the dim resonance of chimes, swung far overhead in the bell-tower. The throng, she observed, was lighting tapers at the shrine, and she became aware that each of the pilgrims crowding at her side carried a candle protected by a folded, funnel-shaped paper, stamped with the images of St. Anne and the Virgin. As the lights shone through the mellow translucence of the parchment, they seemed a sudden florescence of myriad calla lilies of miraculous radiance. Through the door of the chapel, into the open starlit night, the pilgrims poured, the procession carrying her along with it. She disengaged herself for a moment, and rather shamefacedly purchased a candle, and begged a light from her neighbor, a tottering old woman, the white bands of whose coif were hardly less pale than the face they framed.
The waiting seemed endless in the crowded night, filled with snatches of hymns and songs. All was swaying life and excited unrest except the quiet, unmoved stars overhead. Then the vast illuminated procession heaved under way. Once more the chant that had brought the pilgrims to their journey's end in the afternoon burst forth, both from the candle-bearers and the dense black human hedge that lined the route.
Gradually the exaltation of Victoria's mood faded. In its place the artist and the journalist awoke. How could it be described ? What words could ever bring the look of it before other eyes? What color, what inspiration of the brush, could reproduce one atom of it? Unconscious of her actions, she quenched the flame of her taper, stepped from the ranks of the procession, and, absorbed into the onlooking multitude, watched with the interest of her whole complex sensitive ness, the multitude that streamed by in the glow of the tapers.
Wonderful! Compelling! the expressions on those peasant faces, thrown into sharp relief by the lights that burned beneath and around them. The intense realism of a Holbein, the shadowed depths of Rembrandt, the unearthly, grotesque force of Dürer, and more, more, even the rapt, enthralled enthusiasm of Fra Angelico, would be necessary to render their power. And yet, it was not to be done! Oh, the centuries bridged by those faces under the mediæval head-dresses! This was no nineteenth century. That ecstatic woman's head, in its halo of illuminated linen convolutions, must be fresh risen from some carven tomb, where its marble counterpart lies staring blankly at the Gothic arches overhead. These men and women around her—were they not ghosts of those serfs of ancient days, unchanged in manner, dress, or speech? It was all old, unspeakably old, a mirage of what had disappeared over the horizon of memory.
The procession turned. Victoria, still in her dream, followed slowly. Where was she being led, she wondered vaguely; back to the tombs into which the ghostly multitude must descend and disappear until evoked again by the feast of souls or the intercession of St. Anne?
Into the vast reverberating depths of the church they poured once more, through its echoing aisles, past its blinding altar—out again through the connecting porches into the great cloisters of the monastery. In the centre of the lantern-lighted court a gigantic crucifix lifted its head, from which, with horrible realism, a life-size figure of Christ leaned, bleeding. Choir-boys in red and white swung censers to and fro.
The high, nasal tenor of a priest's voice intoned alone for a moment; then the responses broke from the multitude with the roar of breaking surf. Again the tenor of the priest, again the deep, growling bass of the crowd. The mass continued, and the memory of it remained with Victoria all her life. The smell of incense, the thin, penetrating voice, the wave thunder of the litanies. A vision of weird, illuminated faces and dimly revealed arches, of a pale, far-off, star-sprinkled sky, against which the martyred Christ silhouetted, grimly rigid. The chimes rang out,—paused,—and the single bourdon throbbed the hour. Victoria, to her amazement, counted twelve. Where had the time gone? It seemed hardly an hour since she slipped into the church. There was no apparent diminution of the crowd, and the enthusiasm continued at white heat. She became suddenly conscious that she was weary and footsore. Her excited nerves relaxed almost to the crying point. It was as if the stroke of midnight had destroyed the enchantment.
Too tired to take any further interest in her surroundings, her feet and thoughts turned gratefully hotelwards. The narrow cot at her journey s end suddenly absorbed all her ambitions and hopes. With lagging steps she made her way out of the cloisters, and wearily crossed the square, still vaguely filled with rumor—a ghostly reminiscence of the day's tumult. When she reached the hotel office it was deserted; every one was out-of-doors, apparently. She found a candle and dragged herself up the long winding stairs and through the dark passages, guided by instinct and the smell of hay, to the little corridor connecting the main building with the lofts. Her room door gave as she touched it, but no light shone from within, and suddenly Sonia, her hair falling about her ears, her eyes wide with excitement, stood before her. Only an instant the vision lasted, her candle was extinguished, and Sonia's voice gave warning in a whisper:
"Be quiet! Somebody is coming over the roofs!"
In the darkness the two girls stood listening. The noise of bells in the square came vaguely to them. But distinct, though muffled, rasped the sound of some one walking cautiously over the tiles. Softly the girls crept to the window, and standing well back, could make out the top of the fire-escape leading to the courtyard.
The cautious tread ceased, and was followed by a slight scraping and shuffling as of some one crawling. Victoria, with sudden inspiration, recalled a clothes-press in the wall near which she crouched. She felt for Sonia's hand in the darkness, secured the extinguished candle, cautiously opened the closet door, and entered, closing it behind her. Hurriedly she struck a light, then putting down the candle, as quickly slipped into the room once more.
"It's ready when we want it. I closed the door so he couldn't see the light or hear the match."
A soft pressure of Sonia's hand answered her.
The scuffling noise continued, so slight, that had they not been on their guard it must have passed unnoticed.
Another telegraphic squeeze passed between them as the dark bulk of a man's body and head loomed just above the iron ladder.
A pause, in which the girls held their breath and listened to the beating of their hearts. The man looked down, listened, swung his legs clear, and placed his feet on the fire-escape.
"Now!" cried Sonia, careless of noise, only anxious for swiftness. Opening the closet, she snatched up the light, and leaned out as she raised it high above her head. "Who's there?" Her voice rang sharp and loud.
The light fell full on the startled face of the man. A handsome face, whose yellow hair and contrasting black eyes were unmistakable.
The Englishman!" whispered Victoria.
For an instant only, fear shone in his eyes—almost at once his face cleared to a charming smile.
"Don't be frightened," he said, softly, in very bad French, "it is nothing. My friend amused himself by locking me in my room for a joke, so I crawled out on the balcony and over the roofs to get even with him. Don't wake up the house. I'm awfully sorry I frightened you." He nodded pleasantly, and disappeared over the gutter's edge into the darkness below.
They heard him reach the courtyard; they heard his footsteps cross the court, and the lift of the latch as he let himself into the street by the stable gate. The girls stared at each other in silence; then Sonia laughed.
"That's a joke on us, as you say, but it has frightened sleep from me for the rest of the night."
Victoria crossed to the table, took up one of her Russian friend's cigarettes, lighted it, and began to walk the floor.
Pausing abruptly before her companion, she inquired, sharply, "What did he want with a camera at night?"
"I don't know, I'm sure. Did he have one?"
"Yes, I saw it—a five by eight, I should say—in its black leather case, slung over his shoulder."
"Flashlight," suggested Sonia.
Victoria shook her head. "Aren't the odd numbers on this side of the hall?"
Sonia nodded in bewilderment.
"Then why did he say he climbed out on the balcony? The balcony is on the front, and the chambermaid said fifty-seven."
"She may have made a mistake."
"He's not an Englishman."
"He never said he was."
"I know; but he's dressing the part and has overdone it."
Victoria frowned and threw the cigarette out of the open window with unnecessary energy. "Sonia," she said, gravely, "you know I am going back to America in November. My passage is taken. The estate must be settled, I can't put it off. Now if I take this thing up it may mean endless trouble for me and legal complications. Sonia, you have to do it. Go down-stairs and find out if that man's story is true. Arouse somebody—everybody—but find out! Leave me out of it when you tell your story. Go on; there is no time to lose. I'll meet you down-stairs as if I had just come in. Go!"
Sonia sprang to her feet and disappeared down the hallway. Victoria followed a moment later, and joined her friend in the deserted office. With some difficulty they aroused a weary chambermaid.
"The Englishman! why, the young ladies were dreaming. The gentleman had gone away that afternoon, just before dinner, saying he felt so badly he thought it best to go to his home."
The girls caught at each other with a common impulse. "The landlord—wake him up. Where is he?"
The chambermaid demurred. "It had been a busy day. They were all worn out. Was it permitted that people with nightmare should be waking honest folk out of their sleep—"
Victoria sprang at her and shook her by the shoulders. "Wake the landlord, do you hear? There is something wrong. It must be looked into."
Further parleying was made unnecessary by the appearance of the host, his suspenders hanging, his face swollen with drowsiness, and an expression anything but good-humored.
Sonia stated the case to him with hurried clearness, but his brain, being sleep-clouded and French, failed to take in its import.
"The Englishman in fifty-seven? He had paid his bill and gone. Was it permitted to wake people at midnight, name of a name, with such stories?"
Victoria's anger mounted with opposition. "Very well, then. Mademoiselle Palintzka had given him warning. If a crime had been committed and the culprit escaped, his was the responsibility. Mademoiselle had done all she could. Where was the commissaire of police? He should be notified, then mademoiselle would wash her hands of the whole affair."
At the mention of police the fat little man shook his lethargy from him and announced himself willing to investigate—but what, and where?
"Take the pass-keys and a light, and rouse every one in the front of the house," Sonia commanded. "Undoubtedly the man came from there. If the occupants were out of the place, look about and see if anything has been disturbed."
The garçon-de-peine appeared inopportunely, and the party was once more delayed while voluminous explanations were made to him.
"A half-hour at least since we got here, and nothing done," Victoria fretted, as at last the cortege, composed of the garçon, chambermaid, and landlord, armed with lights, pass-keys, and the sabre which adorned the hall wall (a witness to the prowess of the proprietor in the Franco-Prussian War), got under way.
An examination of the lower floor was quickly made. On the first landing the rooms opened showed only the confusion of occupancy, and the contents were of such scanty nature as to offer no allurement to thieves. Few of the patrons were in, but to these the landlord poured forth apologies and explanations that rapidly brought the excited inmates in scanty apparel to swell the throng of investigators. Room after room offered no solution of the mystery. The second floor was reached. Here the procession paused, the host addressing himself uncertainly to Sonia.
"These were the apartments of the countess. Should they rouse her? The child was ill; there was also the maid. If any attack had been made on them they were sufficient in number to have made some outcry."
"Knock!" commanded Sonia.
A light tap on the door received no answer.
"They sleep," murmured the chambermaid, with a scornful glance at the disturbers of her own rest
"Louder!" said the Russian, shortly.
Still no answer.
"Madame la Comtesse!" called the garçon-de-peine, in discreet tones.
"Madame!" "Madame!" in various keys from the bystanders.
"Try the maid's door," the bonne suggested.
A deputation attacked the two doors further down the hall. No answer.
The party looked at each other.
"They certainly did not go out this evening," the garçon ventured. "The little girl was worse; they had dinner in their rooms. The child was in bed then, for I brought up the tray."
"The keys!" Victoria impatiently demanded. "You are losing time. Go in!"
The keys were produced and fitted to the lock, but not until the whole party had once more invoked the countess to answer. The door was opened slowly, and they entered, preceded by the landlord, vaguely muttering apologies.
The candles lit up a scene of the wildest confusion. The drawers of the bureau were emptied upon the floor, a trunk stood open, from which the tilted trays had spilled their contents.
On the bed lay the countess, breathing heavily, a handkerchief over her head. The air was full of the smell of chloroform.
Sonia snatched the saturated linen from the woman's face, while Victoria hurried to the adjoining room. The same confusion reigned, but to a less degree. The thief had evidently known where to look for his booty.
The sick child was stretched stiffly on her side, a little ball of cotton at her nostrils. Across the foot of the bed the maid lay huddled, a gag in her mouth and a cloth securely tied above it. Evidently she had been overpowered before the anæsthetic had been applied.
Victoria snatched the cotton from the child's face and untied gag and bandages. The others crowded into the room, wet towels were brought, brandy applied, and windows opened wide. The atmosphere grew lighter. The countess stirred uneasily, and muttered.
"The doctor—send for him at once!" called Victoria. "The child—quick, quick! don't stand there staring; don't you see that in her weak condition this may be fatal?"
The garçon hurriedly blundered off, and while willing hands ministered to the other victims, Victoria worked with agonized suspense over the limp little body. The heavy, gasping breath, the persistent coma, and the pinched, waxen face, were terrifying. Would the doctor never come? The maid was regaining consciousness, and from the other room the incoherent ramblings of the countess announced returning life. But the child made no sound, only that horrible, rasping breath that rattled in her throat.
Sonia came to the bedside and leaned over. "I wish I knew what to do," she murmured, "but we've done all we can. I have sent half a dozen of those jabbering idiots to fetch the police, so I suppose that some time in the next week they will start on that man's track."
"Oh, why—oh, why didn't we give the alarm! We had him—caught—red-handed," Victoria moaned, as she bathed the unconscious face on the pillow. "The coolness of the villain," she went on, "to invent that plausible excuse on the spur of the moment, for we must have frightened him, but not out of his wits, unfortunately."
"If he gets away I'll never forgive myself," Sonia hotly exclaimed.
"Then you never will, for he has everything in his favor. The pilgrimage—it's the easiest thing in the world to get away with a change of clothes, or even without, for that matter, in this press of the visitors. To-morrow's jam will be bigger than ever. There are fifty trains a day to and from Auray. Every road is choked with vehicles. He'd be a fool if he were caught, and we know he isn't that. Oh, why isn't the doctor here?"
"Madelaine, Madelaine!" the countess's voice screamed suddenly from the next room.
"Thank Heaven!" Victoria muttered, "the mother's all right. Perhaps she knows what is best to be done. Go and see. Bring her in here as soon as you dare—yet, no—the shock, right after the chloroform—I don't know what to say. Oh, where is the doctor?"
As if in answer to her prayer the sound of opening doors and the stir of voices announced an arrival.
"Bring him here, Sonia," she begged. "The child is so weak, she needs him first."
The hotel-keeper, talking excitedly and followed by a commissaire and a gendarme, pressed into the room.
"This is the lady," indicating Sonia. "It was she who gave the alarm—"
"The doctor—didn't the doctor come?" interrupted Victoria, beside herself with disappointment.
"Not yet, mademoiselle,—presently," the gendarme answered, kindly, as he advanced to the bedside. His face grew graver as he watched the child's labored breathing. "We must get on the rascal's track at once. Did you see him, too? I understand you and the other lady room together."
Victoria prevaricated. "My friend recognized him when she saw him going down the fire-escape, but I can give you a good description of him, for I noticed him particularly during the day."
She rapidly portrayed the stranger, while her hearer jotted hastily in a note-book. In the window recess Sonia and the commissaire were engaged in animated conversation. Finally an exhaustive examination was made of the rooms, and the balcony by which the thief had entered and left. Nothing of any interest was found, but the maid, at last fully conscious, though laboring under great excitement, was able to give her testimony.
"The countess, worn out by her journey, had thrown herself, fully dressed, on her bed; the child was dozing. She. the witness, was sitting at the table with her back to the window, when she became conscious of a peculiar odor. She turned her head, and was at once caught from behind, and a gag forced between her teeth. She struggled, but was instantly overpowered. A cloth saturated with something was tied over her nose and mouth, and she lost consciousness."
"Had she seen her assailant?"
"Not fully. She had the impression of a very heavy, thick-set man. She thought he had a black beard. His clothes were dark, of that she was sure. As he had attacked her from behind, she had not been able to see him clearly; but of his hands, which she had seen upon her shoulder and in fastening the gag, she had a definite recollection. They were coarse, hairy, and callous, the hands of a laborer, or, at least, one accustomed to manual work."
"Would she recognize them if she saw them again?"
"Certainly. She would never forget them—" and she became hysterical.
The countess remembered nothing, having passed from her natural sleep into the anæsthetic with only a slight struggle. But from her the motive of the crime was learned. She had brought a large sum of money and a quantity of jewels, which it had been her intention to present to the miraculous statue, if, by St. Anne's intercession, her child were cured. It was evident the thief had some knowledge of this treasure, the police argued, from the fact that none of the more accessible rooms in the house had been disturbed.
The countess gave her testimony through tears and entreaties, begging to be taken to her daughter. The arrival of the doctor interrupted the examination, and by his orders the unfortunate mother was at once admitted to the child's bedside. The effects of the anæsthetic had passed, but no recognition lit the feverish eyes. Even the mother's voice and touch failed in their mission. When at last the long closed lips parted, shriek after shriek of blind terror woke the silence of the room. The doctor intervened, and drugged the child to unconsciousness again.
The room had been cleared of all strangers, except Sonia and Victoria, who remained in obedience to the supplication of the distracted woman. To Victoria's trembling inquiry the doctor shook his head.
"It's only a matter of time. Meningitis—she would have died anyway, but the fright and the chloroform—it will not be long."
"You must prepare her. She still hopes for a miracle," said Victoria, glancing at the kneeling figure of the black countess, who, prostrated at the foot of her daughter's bed, repeated prayer after prayer with agonized rapidity, clasping a worn rosary in her burning hands.
The candles, guttering in their holders, threw gigantic deformed shadows on the bare walls, lighted up the tumbled bed, and drew sharp lines about the face of the dying child. Against the whiteness of sheets and pillows, the intensely black, shrunken figure of the bereaved woman seemed doubly sombre.
The doctor, with his squat figure, oddly assorted garments, and heavy, weary face, seemed a creature of Balzac's pen turned flesh and blood. Victoria gazed on the scene, her nerves tingling.
"I think," she whispered to him, "we, my friend and I, would better go. You can't let this blow strike her suddenly. I'm sure she'd go mad. If you should need us, send word; we'll come at once. But she would better be alone when she knows."
The physician nodded, and Victoria, beckoning to Sonia, slipped from the room into the hall. The whole house seemed dimly astir, but they saw no one as they made their way to their room. They did not undress, but lay down on their cots without speaking, and gazed on the sickly dawn that made a pale square of the window. An hour—two hours; the stir of waking things grew in the outer air; crowing of cocks, singing of birds, vague hallos, the stamping and champing of stabled horses. The chimes rang four, then five, then six. The light of the newly risen sun was streaming pale yet brilliant on the old courtyard. Above the chimney-pots the white church spires gleamed against the hazy blue of the July morning. St. Anne's colossal statue, doubly gilded by its own precious leaf and the sun's contribution, gleamed and glittered. Through the opened window, a shaft of light boiled with tiny motes of gold.
Sonia turned for the thousandth time on her narrow bed.
"Are you asleep, Victoria?" she murmured.
Her friend shifted her position, threw a rounded arm over her tumbled hair, and sighed. "No, I'm not—are you?"
"I can't shake off the impression. That poor, poor woman!"
"Nor I," and Sonia half-raised herself. "Have you ever read Maeterlinck's play, 'The Intruder?' Well, I feel like the blind man, who sees Death in the room. I have an actual horror of what seems a physical presence."
Victoria slipped her feet to the bare floor. "So have I. It's all a nightmare, and, Sonia, think what a contrast. Yesterday we were with the pilgrimage; the songs of praise, peace, good-will to men; faith, hope, charity, lights, music, mystery. Then, suddenly, it's sickness, crime, death! We came to a miracle play, and we have seen a tragedy!"
There was a silence, during which the square of sunshine crept softly down the room.
Sonia spoke. "To have robbed that woman, bringing her offerings to St. Anne, seems worse than robbing a church, doesn't it? How shall such a man be punished?"
"He won't be caught," Victoria answered, with conviction. "He has timed himself so well. He's a man of resource. If we hadn't seen him, he would have been perfectly safe. I bet he carried his stuff away in that leather camera-case. A foreigner with a camera, the most natural thing in the world, supposing he were seen before he could put his booty in a place of safety."
"Did you notice," said Sonia, dreamily, "that the maid's description of the hands didn't fit at all?"
Her friend nodded. "Yes, there may have been two men. One may have gone down the ladder when you came to the door for me; hardly, though! you would have heard distinctly if there had been more than one. Oh, well, I suppose the woman was too excited to see straight. The beard, of course, may have been false; but they won't find him, anyway."
"We ought to get up, I suppose. It's after eight. Are you going out to see the procession?"
The Russian rose as she spoke, and proceeded to make as dainty a toilet as the place permitted. Victoria followed her example languidly. "I suppose we might as well see all there is to be seen, but I have no heart for anything. Where are the girls? I should have thought they would have come for us long ago."
Sonia wrapped her hair in a shining coil. "No, I told them last night to get up and go out when they pleased, and leave us to sleep late. I have no patience with travelling in a party where all feel they must hang together, even if their tastes are varied. If the girls went out early, they probably breakfasted in the tents, and don't know anything yet. I suppose we ought to eat," she added, after a moment.
"I'm not hungry," the answer came promptly.
Sonia leaned from the window and called to a passing servant, "Send two déjeuners up, please." Then, withdrawing her head, she smiled. "There are advantages in living over the stable; it ensures better service. We might have spent the whole morning ringing a bell, and been ignored, but bawling out of the window ensures attention."
Breakfast arrived with surprising promptness, the two girls having developed into important persons in the household. At any other time the curiosity and manœuvring of the servant would have been vastly amusing, now it was only an irritation. They answered awestruck questions with abrupt sharpness, and finally, unable to rid themselves of her queries, took refuge in silence.
"It's nearly time for the procession," Sonia observed, glancing at her watch, as the reluctant waitress disappeared; "we ought to go early if we want to see anything."
Absently adjusting the old campaign hat on her heavy hair, Victoria picked up her beloved camera. "I'm going to inquire how they are; I'll meet you in the office."
"Better finish your coffee," Sonia called after her. But the firm tread was already reverberating far down the bare hallway. The Russian pushed back her plate, and rose wearily. Truly life was a strange thing, so strange it dizzied one's brain with its questions of whence and whither. Perhaps even now that little child knew more than she, with all her varied and multiplied experiences. If there be any conscious knowledge on that mysterious other side! She drew her hat over her eyes and stepped out. The passage was cold and chill. She shivered slightly, and quickened her step. Out in the warmth and sunshine once more, her thoughts would be more cheerful, she reflected, as she made her way through the labyrinthine passages. She reached the office, filled with chattering visitors by whom the robbery of the night was being discussed from every standpoint. The crowd made way for her, and she reached the doorway, where she leaned, waiting. The square was a seething mass of struggling humanity, swaying, vast, expectant. Men in white, bearing staves, were opening a passage before the great main entrance of the church. A full brass band was massing its forces, ready to herald the opening of the doors. Everywhere people were hurrying, running, calling, scrambling for better positions, or endeavoring to fight their way through the press. All was color, light, animation, expectation, and faith. A soft touch on her arm roused her. She looked up into Victoria's face, set hard and white as two heavy tears slipped slowly down her cheeks.
For a moment Victoria dared not trust her voice, but swallowed hard, looking straight ahead with fixed eyes.
"She's dead!" she said, simply. "I have seen her."
The band crashed forth a strain of triumph, the cathedral doors swung wide, and amid the acclaiming of the crowd, surrounded by cardinals and bishops in scarlet and purple, the statue of many miracles, under its canopy of gold, swung glittering into the sunlight.