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In certain old books you shall find strange mention of witches, warlocks, succubae, spirits, daemons, and a thousand other powers of darkness, whose pronounced vocation was the plague of poor humanity. Within these books you may read (if you will) divers wondrous accounts, together with many learned disquisitions upon the same, and most minute and particular descriptions of witch-marks and the like.
Aforetime, when a man committed some great offence against laws human or divine, he was said to be possessed of a daemon--that is to say, he became the medium and instrument through, and by which, the evil was wrought; thus, when in due season he came to be hanged, tortured, or burned, it was inflicted not so much as a punishment upon him, the man, as to exorcise, once and for all, the devil which possessed him.
In these material, common-sense days, we are wont to smile the superior smile at the dark superstitions and deplorable ignorance of our forefathers; yet life is much the same now as then, the devil goeth up and down in the world, spirits, daemons, and the thousand powers of darkness abide with us still, though to-day they go by different names, for there is no man in this smug, complacent age of ours, but carries within him a power of evil greater or less, according to his intellect. Scratch off the social veneer, lift but a corner of the very decent cloak of our civilization, and behold! there stands the Primal Man in all his old, wild savagery, and with the devil leering upon his shoulder. Indeed, to-day as surely as in the dim past, we are all possessed of a devil great or small, weaker or stronger as the case may be; a demon which, though he sometimes seems to slumber, is yet watchful and ever ready to spring up and possess us, to the undoing of ourselves and others.
Thus, as I followed my companion through the wood, I was conscious of a Daemon that ran beside me, leaping and gambolling at my elbow, though I kept my eyes straight before me. Anon, his clutching fingers were upon my arm, and fain I would have shaken him off, but could not; while, as I watched the swing and grace of the lithe, feminine body before me, from the little foot to the crowning glory of her hair, she seemed a thousand times more beautiful than I had supposed. And I had saved her tonight--from what? There had been the fear of worse than death in her eyes when that step had sounded outside her chamber door. Hereupon, as I walked, I began to recall much that I had read in the old romances of the gratitude of rescued ladies.
"Truly," said I to myself, "in olden days a lady well knew how to reward her rescuer!"
"Woman is woman--the same to-day as then--try her, try her!" chuckled the Daemon. And now, as I looked more fully at this Damon, he seemed no daemon at all, but rather, a jovial companion who nodded, and winked, and nudged me slyly with his elbow. "What are pretty faces for but to be admired?" said he in my ear; "what are slender waists for but to be pressed; and as for a kiss or two in a dark wood, with no one to spy--they like it, you dog, they like it!"
So we traversed the alleys of the wood, now in shadow, now in moonlight, the Lady, the Daemon, and I, and always the perfume of hidden flowers seemed sweeter and stronger, the gleam of her hair and the sway of her body the more alluring, and always the voice at my ear whispered: "Try her, you dog, try her."
At last, being come to a broad, grassy glade, the lady paused, and, standing in the full radiance of the dying moon, looked up at me with a smile on her red lips.
"They can never find us now!" she said.
"No, they can never find us now," I repeated, while the Daemon at my elbow chuckled again.
"And--oh, sir! I can never, never thank you," she began.
"Don't," said I, not looking at her; "don't thank me till--we are out of the wood."
"I think," she went on slowly, "that you--can guess from--from what you saved me, and can understand something of my gratitude, for I can never express it all."
"Indeed," said I, "indeed you overestimate my service."
"You risked your life for me, sir," said she, her eyes glistening, "surely my thanks are due to you for that? And I do thank you--from my heart!" And with a swift, impulsive gesture, she stretched out her hands to me. For a brief moment I hesitated, then seized them, and, drew her close. But, even as I stooped above her, she repulsed me desperately; her loosened hair brushed my eyes and lips--blinded, maddened me; my hat fell off, and all at once her struggles ceased.
"Sir Maurice Vibart!" she panted, and I saw a hopeless terror in her face. But the Daemon's jovial voice chuckled in my ear:
"Ho, Peter Vibart, act up to your cousin's reputation; who's to know the difference?" My arms tightened about her, then I loosed her suddenly, and, turning, smote my clenched fist against a tree; which done, I stooped and picked up my hat and blackthorn staff.
"Madam," said I, looking down upon my bleeding knuckles, "I am not Sir Maurice Vibart. It seems my fate to be mistaken for him wherever I go. My name is Peter, plain and unvarnished, and I am very humbly your servant." Now as I spoke, it seemed that the Daemon, no longer the jovial companion, was himself again, horns, hoof, and tail--nay, indeed, he seemed a thousand times more foul and hideous than before, as he mouthed and jibed at me in baffled fury; wherefore, I smiled and turned my back upon him.
"Come," said I, extending my hand to the trembling girl, "let us get out of these dismal woods." For a space she hesitated, looking up at me beneath her lashes, then reached out, and laid her fingers in mine; and, as we turned away, I knew that the Daemon had cast himself upon the ground, and was tearing at the grass in a paroxysm of rage and bafflement.
"It is strange," said I, after we had gone some little distance, "very strange that you should only have discovered this resemblance here, and now, for surely you saw my face plainly enough at the inn."
"No; you see, I hardly looked at you."
"And, now that you do look at me, am I so very much like Sir Maurice?"
"Not now," she answered, shaking her head, "for though you are of his height, and though your features are much the same as his, your expression is different. But--a moment ago--when your hat fell off--"
"Yes?" said I.
"Your expression--your face looked--"
"Demoniac?" I suggested.
"Yes," she answered.
"Yes?" said I.
So we went upon our way, nor paused until we had left the Daemon and the dark woods behind us. Then I looked from the beauty of the sweet, pure earth to the beauty of her who stood beside me, and I saw that her glance rested upon the broken knuckles of my right hand. Meeting my eyes, her own drooped, and a flush crept into her cheeks, and, though of course she could not have seen the Daemon, yet I think that she understood.
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