FICTION

The Hand of God

JAMES CLIFTON PETERS December 15 1933
FICTION

The Hand of God

JAMES CLIFTON PETERS December 15 1933

The Hand of God

JAMES CLIFTON PETERS

DOM NICHOLAS stood in front of the great fireplace, toasting his legs in the heat. His swollen shadow cut the room in half, while to right and left and between his straddled feet the firelight escaped in quivering, ruddy pools.

He was not a large man. this Dom Nicholas, nor was he young. The cowl of his mix; was thrown back and a sheen of light glistened on his bald head, a head which could no longer boast even the thin fringe of a monkish tonsure. The face was hidden in shadow, but the hands, which in his slow gestures were now and again outlined against the fire, were thin and blue-veined, delicate, all but transparent. The fine hands of an old man of high birth and breeding. So he stood, talking in his low voice with Tabary, the innkeeper.

Outside, the wind moaned softly. At times it rose to an eerie whoop, or made a sepulchral groaning in the chimney. The signboard above the door squealed as it swung back and forth, back and forth, Long feathers of frost twisted like snakes across the threshold.

Presently Tabarv rose and busied himself with lighting a small hand-lantern.

“ Tis evening,” he said. ‘‘It grows dark and bitter cold. God pity any poor folk belated on the road these nights.” Dom Nicholas nodded his agreement.

“We have not had such a winter within my memory,” he said. “The famine tramples us with iron hoofs. In Paris the poor folk die like flies.”

“I have heard,” and Tabary crossed himself, "that they

come into the very city from outer parts in search of food.” Dorn Nicholas nodded.

"It is so indeed. But a week since a woman and her child were set upon and devoured. Lone men too have been attacked and torn to pieces. The people go about now in companies, or do not stir out at all after dark. And is it the same with you?”

The innkeeper shuddered.

"In the night I lie awake and hearken to them howling. Sometimes they prowl about this house. I look out of the window at them and they glare back at me with eyes of green fire. They whine and snuffle and click their white fangs and seek to force an entrance. Their bodies are lean and famished. I have never seen so many of them before. The people whisper that they are devils sent to punish us for our sins. Do you think they are devils, Dorn Nicholas?”

HE MONK shook his head.

“Not devils, good friend. Only wolves. A plague of wolves driven by famine into our country'. Belike they come from the great forests of Muscovy'. I remember, long ago, a similar horde. It was just such a time of terror as this. But it passed as all things pass.”

"It—passed,” repeated Tabary'. “If I could believe that this will pass—”

"Be assured of that.”

Tabary lifted his hand.

"Hear them,” he said. “They are howling from the hills beyond the river. They will come down from there in a

grey flood and quarter the plain. Only one man dare travel the roads this night.”

“Someone travels at night here? Knows he of the wolves?” The monk’s voice had grown suddenly sharp.

“He knows of them. He seeks them out by night.”

Dorn Nicholas' brow contracted.

“Do I scent witchcraft in this?” he asked softly.

ho I scent witcncrazt in tnis~ ne a But the innkeeper shook his head.

“He goes to slay them. Alone and armed only with his swrord, he seeks combat wñth the grey ones.”

"A man of bravery, that,” said Dorn Nicholas, writh a flash of admiration. "His name, Tabary?”

But once again the other man shook his head.

"Brave, perhaps; but a very devil!” he said with a frightened glance to right and left. "One who fears nothing. respects nothing. Who knows no law save his own desires. He comes here sometimes for a goblet of wine. He sits at the table, all reeking with his slaughter, and talks. His words make my blood run cold. He ha' no reverence, that one, no heart or human compassion. He is an incarnate devil.”

“Then be very sure that when the bowl of his iniquity is full he will receive just punishment. That is an infallible laws friend Tabary'. The Hand of God will reach out for him one day.”

"He has slain many men,” the innkeeper went on. "He picks a quarrel with them and forces a duel. He is a wizard with the blade and no man can stand against him. Nor is any woman safe from his lust. He has borne many of them

away to his castle lair on the great crag where the river loops upon itself. I have seen it happen time and again. He is a scourge even to the wolves. He boasts that the beasts know and hate him, that they sit about his castle with lolling jaws and dare him to come out and fight. He says that and laughs. Sometimes I think him mad. Or possessed of an evil spirit. Either way I fear him.”

Dorn Nicholas made no answer. His head was bent in meditation and his fingers toyed with his rosar}'. The wind grew stronger as it swirled about the four comers of the inn. The bare trees rattled their frozen branches. Far in the distance they could hear the howling of the wolves.

Then hoofs rang on the cobbled courtyard. They listened to the snorting and pawing of a horse, to the voice of a stableboy and the deeper tones of a man. A knock thudded heavily upon the door.

TABARY unbarred the massive portal, swung it open.

A whirl of steam and powdery snow rolled across the floor. It thinned, disappeared. Dorn Nicholas bent his keen old eyes on the newcomers.

They were two. A youth and a girl. Very like they were, each to . the other. Brother and sister it might well be. Breeding spoke from every line of their features, in the careless ease of their manner. The garments they wore spoke of wealth. The monk nodded his approval. In all his long life he had never seen a more attractive pair.

“A bitter night,” the youth commented, drawing off his snow-powdered cloak. “The ground is like iron and there is a wind which cuts to the bone, even through these robes. Art cold, Denise?”

“A little,” the girl answered. Her voice, Dom Nicholas thought, was like the little silver bell which chimed during the Mass at his monastery in distant Picardy.

“A goblet of Burgundy will warm you. And, innkeeper, we shall need dinner and beds for the night. You can supply us?”

“Of a certainty, messire. The roads hereabouts are ill travelling at night. You were unmolested?”

“Quite. We had planned on reaching your inn before the night but were delayed. Yours is a sinister country to travel through after the sun is set. How the wolves howl !” “The sound rings one in,” the girl said with a shudder. “It rolls from every side so that one might be walking into the creatures’ very jaws without realizing his danger. But I felt no fear. Raoul was with me.” And she pressed her brother’s arm proudly.

He grimaced. “A broken reed she would lean upon,” he said to Dorn Nicholas. “Of what avail my poor sword against the fangs of a wolf pack? Besides, I am frightened to death of the beasts.”

“And yet you travel in the very place where they are most numerous,” the monk pointed out, his eyes twinkling. He was beginning to like this laughing-eyed young man.

“That is because it is the only way to our home. And this silly sister of mine will spend her Christmas in no other house than the White Château. So we make all haste and brave all peril to get her there.”

Dorn Nicholas started. He took a pace forward and peered into the faces of the two.

“You are the children of Enguerrand de la Brisetout,” he said after a moment’s keen scrutiny. “But I might have known. The names—yet it is many years and I am growing no younger. I give you greeting, Denise and Raoul de la Brisetout.”

“You know us then,” said Raoul, and knitted his brows. But his sister left his side and came to Dorn Nicholas. “Give me your blessing, uncle,” she said calmly.

Raoul sprang to her side. He stared hard at the monk. “Saint Ives !” he exclaimed. “It is he. How did you know him, Denise?”

“The picture,” she said. “The great portrait in the hall. A few years make no vast difference. An improvement, mayhap.” Her dark eyes smiled at Dorn Nicholas.

"\ou will come home with us. uncle?” asked Raoul wistfully. “Father pines for a sight of you. And mother, too. They speak of you often, telling us how you were a very gallant gentleman who left the world to become abbot of a monastery in Picardy. We shall be very merry in the great hall this year. And you have not been there in our lifetime.”

“You will come, uncle?” questioned Denise. Her white fingers played with the front of Dorn Nicholas’ gown, her eyes pleaded with him.

He nodded.

“I was on my way there,” he said, “for the first time in a quarter of a century. We are well met. But I see that the good Tabary has prepared meat for you. Eat and drink. I go in the next room to pray.” His voice shook a little as he spoke. That was the only emotion he displayed.

The night grew cold and colder. Trees burst with loud reports as the frost sank into their hearts. Blasts of icy wind shook the inn, its voice skirled in the chimney as gust after gust came roaring out of the darkness. The eerie howling of the wolf pack grew louder, nearer, until the whole world seemed filled with that sobbing, awful wail.

W hen Dorn Nicholas came again into the main room he found that another traveller had arrived. The latter sat at the table with Raoul and they played at some game of

chance. There was a little mound of gold at the newcomer's elbow and he sipped often of an immense goblet. In the firelight Raoul’s face was pale and worried, his hand shook as he flung the dice. The monk moved across the room that he might observe the pair more closely. He took up his place again in front of the fire.

His first glance at the newcomer struck an arrow of ice into Dorn Nicholas’ very heart. It was as though he had had a glimpse of ultimate evil. There was about the man some flavor of birth and training. A fallen angel might well look so, the monk thought. Might have such a body— long, lithe, powerful-looking—borne in a very courtly fashion. And just such a handsome and aquiline face. Yet a face which repelled. There was something darkling about it, something abominable. As though the man were a living blasphemy.

THE CASUAL indifference of the man’s play was in direct contrast to the nervous anxiety of Raoul. When it came to his turn the stranger flung the dice with a careless sweep, scarcely glancing at the upturned numbers. Yet ever the little heap of gold at his elbow grew larger. At intervals he sent a cool glance into the comer to the left of the hearth. It was a calculating sort of look and it reeked of evil. Dorn Nicholas followed the direction of those glances.

Denise sat on a low stool there, her anxious eyes fixed upon her brother. Her face was very white, her eyes great dark shadows. As each of the stranger’s glances fell upon her she shuddered and grew tense as though under a douche of icy water. The monk moved to her side.

He laid a hand upon her shoulder and she started as though awakened from a trance. Her smile was a pitiful thing.

“Doubles or quits?” suggested the stranger. His voice in the silence was resonant and deep.

Raoul nodded. The stranger held the dice-box poised an instant while he listened to the sound of the wolves. Their howling throbbed all about the inn, rising and falling, seeming one instant to be leagues distant across the frozen earth and in the next at the very door.

“They know I am here,” the man said. He laughed. “They come to serenade me. Wait a while, spawn of the devil!” he shouted. “I will be out to play with you soon.” He sent the dice spinning across the table. He won.

“Doubles or quits,” Raoul said doggedly.

“With all my heart.”

"Raoul should not game,” the girl said in a low voice. “He is but an indifferent player, uncle.”

“Does he not know as much?”

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“Yes. But the fire of it is in his blood. He can never resist the offer of a game. And this man enticed him cunningly. Who is he, uncle? I—I fear him !”

Dom Nicholas soothed her.

“The fellow can do you no harm,” he said.

“I am afraid of him, though. There is something evil about him. The wolves have followed him here. Perhaps he is one of them. A werewolf.”

Dom Nicholas scoffed. He must do something to ease the girl’s mind. His own spirit was perturbed. The very air was vibrant with the presence of something evil. He shivered.

Abruptly Raoul pushed back his chair. His face was a blank mask.

“That is all,” he said in a flat voice. “You have won my last gold piece, messire. The game must needs end here.”

"You have nothing else you would care to stake? Your luck is overdue to change.”

But Raoul shook his head.

“Iam but a poor hand at this gaming,” he said. “I should never have played at all.” He laughed ruefully. “I do not know what my father will say when I tell him of this night’s work.”

“Then cast again,” said the stranger. “Come, I play but for the sport of it. I promise to stake the whole of my winnings on a single throw.”

“I have nothing else to stake,” said Raoul, while his eyes strayed wistfully to the heap of gold. “Save only this silver-mounted sword of mine, and its value is far too little. It would not be fair.”

The other man’s eyes narrowed.

“Let me name the stake,” he said,

“after we have thrown.” He flicked the dice across the table, “Look,” he said with a laugh, “only three. You cannot help but beat that. Here.” He held out the box. As though mesmerized, Raoul grasped and shook it. He sent the cubes dancing across the table.

Both men stared incredulously.

The stranger swore. “I have never seen such a pair of throws but thrice before. A three for me; a two for you. It is incred-v ible. But I have won, it seems. I must claim my stake. It shall be a light one, I promise you.”

He towered to his feet. Dom Nicholas felt his niece’s hand like a lump of ice in his.

The burning eyes of the stranger turned full upon them.

“This girl here,” he said. “She is a pretty baggage. I claim her for my stake.”

AS THOUGH stunned, Raoul stared at /\ him. His face went white with anger.

“That is a sorry jest, messire,” he said in a low voice. “She is my sister.”

“Is it so? Still, I claim her as my stake.”

“She is of gentle blood. The daughter of Enguerrand de la Brisetout. Such women are not bartered for.”

“And I am the Comte de Fauchet. A blood fully the equal of hers. I say that all women are for barter if so be it the price is but great enough. And I claim my stake.”

He took a stride forward. With a single motion. Raoul picked up his goblet and dashed the contents full into the man’s face. Then he stepped back, his hand on the hilt of his sword.

The comte stood stock still for a single instant. His mouth was a little to one side;

one nostril was nearly shut and the other widely inflated. His eyes were like burning coals.

“I shall kill you for that,” he sáid softly. “And I swear that it shall not save your sister.”

His sword rasped out of the steel scabbard.

“On guard T he cried.

But before the blades could cross Dom Nicholas was between the two len.

“This must not be,” he cried sternly. He fixed the older man with his cold eyes. “You would fight and slay a callow boy? Where then is this honor you prate about?”

Like a flash the Comte de Fauchet reversed his weapon and brought the iron pommel crashing down upon the monk’s cowled head. Consciousness left Dorn Nicholas in a sheet of vivid fire.

His eyes opened on a whirl of figures. The clang of steel echoed in his ears as blade beat on blade. The red firelight splintered on the leaping steel and shot about the room in darts and slivers of light. There was a stamping of feet and the harsh breathing of men. The monk staggered erect.

And then Raoul was down in a welter of blood. His legs twitched once or twice and were still. The sobbing of his breath died away. The comte stood above him, his sword gleaming wet and red from point to pommel. His dark face was Satanic.

Then the wet sword clanged home in its sheath. The man bowed mockingly.

“I leave you with your dead,” he said. “The wench may have the night to mourn him. In the morning I come for her. She is mine. I have won her twice over, with the dice and with the sword. You dare not leave the inn while the grey ones are abroad, and with the dawn I come once again to claim her.”

He strode to the door. Then turned.

“Remember, Tabary,” he said to the innkeeper. “I shall expect to find her here when I return. If I do not—well, the red cock will crow over your dwelling. And you, sir monk, thwart me not. The next time I use the blade.”

Dorn Nicholas stretched out a thin hand.

“Vile creature!” he said. “The cup of your iniquity is overfull. You have taken the life of a splendid boy, one worth a score such as you. Now you would go further and sully a fair, innocent maid. God is not blind, I tell you. Even now His Hand closes upon you. Beware!”

The Comte de Fauchet raised his face and waited. There was no sound but the hissing of the fire and the wailing howls of the wolf pack. And a girl’s terrible sobbing, i# “He is perhaps deaf, this God of yours,” the comte said at last. He laughed. “Or perhaps this Hand you mention shrinks from touching the likes of me. Well, you have until the dawn to convince Him of my unfitness for life. I return then.”

He strode out into the bitter cold and the dark. Abruptly the long howling stopped, broke off short as though cut with a knife.

A great river of stillness flowed across the night.

DOM NICHOLAS turned wearily back into the room.

“You must take her away,” Tabary said agitatedly. “I shall have the horses brought to the door. Tarry not to consider the man’s threats. I protect my home. Do you save the maid.”

But Dorn Nicholas shook his head. “There is no need,” he said.

“You must chance the wolves,” the innkeeper told him. “Surely God will seal their jaws. He will not allow this foulness.”

“He has marked all that has passed. He knows the full measure of the man’s iniquity. Even now His Hand strikes.”

Tabary bowed his head. “I do not understand.” he said humbly.

Then the voice of Denise cut through the quiet.

“He lives,” she cried. “Raoul lives. I feel the beating of his heart. Oh, uncle, come quickly.”

In two swift strides the monk was at her side. He knelt above* the boy, made an examination.

“God is very good,” he said presently. “With His help we can yet save the lad. And I have some small skill in medicines.”

There was no question then of leaving the inn.

Toward dawn Dorn Nicholas joined Tabary in the large room. He was pale and very weary.

“All is well,” he said in response to the other’s questioning glance. “He has lost much blood, but he will live. His sister is with him. But what have you there?”

“My crossbow. I have spent the night in fashioning a silver bolt. Man or devil, I shall kill that fellow when he comes again.”

Dom Nicholas shook his head.

“It is not needful. Did I not say that God has already closed His Hand upon the comte?”

“Yet perhaps I am meant to be the instrument in that Hand,” said Tabary humbly.

“The ways of God are more subtle than that. Thou shalt do no murder, He has said. The punishment of the comte is already an accomplished fact. Tell me, did the wolves howl again last night?”

“But the once. It was a fearful sound. Unlike their other cries. Then they fell silent and I have not heard them since.”

Dorn Nicholas nodded. “Bring horses,” he said. “We ride abroad.”

Their breath rose like steam ten, fifteen, twenty feet into the air, as they rode through the grey morning. The hoofs rang like chimes on the frozen road.

They crested the brow of a small hill and drew rein abruptly.

AT THEIR FEET was an area of tom ^ snow. Red blood stained the white roadway. The ground was seamed with the footprints of many wolves. In the midst of the tom, bloody patch were a few gnawed bones and fragments of leather and clothing and metal. Nothing more.

“It is the Comte de Fauchet.” said Tabary in an awed voice. “The wolves have eaten him at the last.”

He leaped to the ground.

“But look, Dorn Nicholas,” he cried. “Here is his sword. It has never been drawn from the scabbard. He died defenseless •when the wolves swept in upon him.”

The monk nodded.

“That is the subtle Hand of God, Tabary,” he said gravely. “He could not draw that sword. No power of man can draw it. Nay, though the wolves were all about him, ravening for his flesh, the evil comte could not draw in his own defense.”

“You mean,” and the innkeeper’s eyes were very wide and frightened, "that there was an enchantment on the blade?”

But Dorn Nicholas shook his head.

“God does not deal in black magic, Tabary,” he said, and his voice was very stem. “He punishes in a natural way. Try you to draw the sword.”

Gingerly Tabary grasped the hilt and scabbard and sought to draw the weapon. It did not move. Every ounce of his strength flowed into his efforts until the sweat stood out in drops upon his forehead. And still the sword remained fixed and immovable in its sheath.

“What is this?” he gasped, and his eyes were filled with a great fear.

“It is the Hand of God, Tabary. When the comte thrust his blade into its scabbard last night it was wet with the blood óf the boy he sought to kill in unequal combat that his evil lusts might be satisfied. The intense cold froze that wet blade immovably in its scabbard.”

Tabary crossed himself.

“You knew this last night,” he said slowly.

Dorn Nicholas nodded.

“I warned the comte that the Hand was closing upon him. He laughed and mocked. Just payment has been exacted.”

And Dorn Nicholas turned his horse and rode back to the inn.