Water, however, being entirely absent, except in the form of rain, I determined to return to Fouzilhic, and ask a guide a little farther on my way - 'a little farther lend thy guiding hand.'
The thing was easy to decide, hard to accomplish. In this sensible roaring blackness I was sure of nothing but the direction of the wind. To this I set my face; the road had disappeared, and I went across country, now in marshy opens, now baffled by walls unscalable to Modestine, until I came once more in sight of some red windows. This time they were differently disposed. It was not Fouzilhic, but Fouzilhac, a hamlet little distant from the other in space, but worlds away in the spirit of its inhabitants. I tied Modestine to a gate, and groped forward, stumbling among rocks, plunging mid-leg in bog, until I gained the entrance of the village. In the first lighted house there was a woman who would not open to me. She could do nothing, she cried to me through the door, being alone and lame; but if I would apply at the next house, there was a man who could help me if he had a mind.
They came to the next door in force, a man, two women, and a girl, and brought a pair of lanterns to examine the wayfarer. The man was not ill-looking, but had a shifty smile. He leaned against the doorpost, and heard me state my case. All I asked was a guide as far as Cheylard.
'C'EST QUE, VOYEZ-VOUS, IL FAIT NOIR,' said he.
I told him that was just my reason for requiring help.
'I understand that,' said he, looking uncomfortable; 'MAIS - C'EST - DE LA PEINE.'
I was willing to pay, I said. He shook his head. I rose as high as ten francs; but he continued to shake his head. 'Name your own price, then,' said I.
'CE N'EST PAS CA,' he said at length, and with evident difficulty; 'but I am not going to cross the door - MAIS JE NE SORTIRAI PAS DE LA PORTE.'
I grew a little warm, and asked him what he proposed that I should do.
'Where are you going beyond Cheylard?' he asked by way of answer.
'That is no affair of yours,' I returned, for I was not going to indulge his bestial curiosity; 'it changes nothing in my present predicament.'
'C'EST VRAI, CA,' he acknowledged, with a laugh; 'OUI, C'EST VRAI. ET D'OU VENEZ-VOUS?'
A better man than I might have felt nettled.
'Oh,' said I, 'I am not going to answer any of your questions, so you may spare yourself the trouble of putting them. I am late enough already; I want help. If you will not guide me yourself, at least help me to find some one else who will.'
'Hold on,' he cried suddenly. 'Was it not you who passed in the meadow while it was still day?'
'Yes, yes,' said the girl, whom I had not hitherto recognised; 'it was monsieur; I told him to follow the cow.'
'As for you, mademoiselle,' said I, 'you are a FARCEUSE.'
'And,' added the man, 'what the devil have you done to be still here?'
What the devil, indeed! But there I was.
'The great thing,' said I, 'is to make an end of it'; and once more proposed that he should help me to find a guide.
'C'EST QUE,' he said again, 'C'EST QUE - IL FAIT NOIR.'
'Very well,' said I; 'take one of your lanterns.'
'No,' he cried, drawing a thought backward, and again intrenching himself behind one of his former phrases; 'I will not cross the door.'
I looked at him. I saw unaffected terror struggling on his face with unaffected shame; he was smiling pitifully and wetting his lip with his tongue, like a detected schoolboy. I drew a brief picture of my state, and asked him what I was to do.
'I don't know,' he said; 'I will not cross the door.'
Here was the Beast of Gevaudan, and no mistake.
'Sir,' said I, with my most commanding manners, 'you are a coward.'
And with that I turned my back upon the family party, who hastened to retire within their fortifications; and the famous door was closed again, but not till I had overheard the sound of laughter. FILIA BARBARA PATER BARBARIOR. Let me say it in the plural: the Beasts of Gevaudan.
The lanterns had somewhat dazzled me, and I ploughed distressfully among stones and rubbish-heaps.