The Secret of Sarek/Chapter II
CHAPTER II. ON THE EDGE OF THE ATLANTIC
VERONIQUE'S state of mind underwent a sudden alteration. Even as she had fled resolutely from the threat of danger that seemed to loom up before her from the evil past, so she was now determined to pursue to the end the dread road which was opening before her.
This change was due to a tiny gleam which flashed abruptly through the darkness. She suddenly realized the fact, a simple matter enough, that the arrow denoted a direction and that the number 10 must be the tenth of a series of numbers which marked a course leading from one fixed point to another.
Was it a sign set up by one person with the object of guiding the steps of another? It mattered little. The main thing was that there was here a clue capable of leading Veronique to the discovery of the problem which interested her: by what prodigy did the initials of her maiden name reappear amid this tangle of tragic circumstances?
The carriage sent from Le Faouet overtook her. She stepped in and told the driver to go very slowly to Rosporden.
She arrived in time for dinner; and her anticipations had not misled her. Twice she saw her signals turn, each time before a division in the road, accompanied by the numbers 11 and 12.
Veronique slept at Rosporden and resumed her investigations on the following morning.
The number 12, which she found on the wall of a church-yard, sent her along the road to Concarneau, which she had almost reached before she saw any further inscriptions. She fancied that she must have been mistaken, retraced her steps and wasted a whole day in useless searching.
It was not until the next day that the number 13, very nearly obliterated, directed her towards Fouesnant. Then she abandoned this direction, to follow, still in obedience to the signs, some country-roads in which she once more lost her way.
At last, four days after leaving Le Faouet, she found herself facing the Atlantic, on the great beach of Beg-Meil.
She spent two nights in the village without gathering the least reply to the discreet, questions which she put to the inhabitants. At last, one morning, after wandering among the half-buried groups of rocks which intersect the beach and upon the low cliffs, covered with trees and copses, which hem it in, she discovered, between two oaks stripped of their bark, a shelter built of earth and branches which must at one time have been used by customhouse officers. A small menhir stood at the entrance. The menhir bore the inscription, followed by the number 17. No arrow. A full stop underneath; and that was all.
In the shelter were three broken bottles and some empty meat-tins.
“This was the goal,” thought Veronique. “Some one has been having a meal here. Food stored in advance, perhaps.”
Just then she noticed that, at no great distance, by the edge of a little bay which curved like a shell amid the neighbouring rocks, a boat was swinging to and fro, a motor-boat. And she heard voices coming from the village, a man's voice and a woman's.
From the place where she stood, all that she could see at first was an elderly man carrying in his arms half-a-dozen bags of provisions, potted meats and dried vegetables. He put them on the ground and said:
“Well, had a pleasant journey, M'ame Honorine?”
“And where have you been?”
“Why, Paris... a week of it... running errands for my master.”
“Glad to be back?”
“Of course I am.”
“And you see, M'ame Honorine, you find your boat just where she was. I came to have a look at her every day. This morning I took away her tarpaulin. Does she run as well as ever?”
“Besides, you're a master pilot, you are. Who'd have thought, M'ame Honorine, that you'd be doing a job like this?”
“It's the war. All the young men in our island are gone and the old ones are fishing. Besides, there's no longer a fortnightly steamboat service, as there used to be. So I go the errands.”
“What about petrol?”
“We've plenty to go on with. No fear of that.”
“Well, good-bye for the present, M'ame Honorine. Shall I help you put the things on board?”
“Don't you trouble; you're in a hurry.”
“Well, good-bye for the present,” the old fellow repeated. “Till next time, M'ame Honorine. I'll have the parcels ready for you.”
He went away, but, when he had gone a little distance, called out:
“All the same, mind the jagged reefs round that blessed island of yours! I tell you, it's got a nasty name! It's not called Coffin Island, the island of the thirty coffins, for nothing! Good luck to you, M'ame Honorine!”
He disappeared behind a rock.
Veronique had shuddered. The thirty coffins! The very words which she had read in the margin of that horrible drawing!
She leant forward. The woman had come a few steps nearer the boat and, after putting down some more provisions which she had been carrying, turned round.
Veronique now saw her full-face. She wore a Breton costume; and her head-dress was crowned by two black wings.
“Oh,” stammered Veronique, “that head-dress in the drawing... the head-dress of the three crucified women!”
The Breton woman looked about forty. Her strong face, tanned by the sun and the cold, was bony and rough-hewn but lit up by a pair of large, dark, intelligent, gentle eyes. A heavy gold chain hung down upon her breast. Her velvet bodice fitted her closely.
She was humming in a very low voice as she took up her parcels and loaded the boat, which made her kneel on a big stone against which the boat was moored. When she had done, she looked at the horizon, which was covered with black clouds. She did not seem anxious about them, however, and, loosing the painter, continued her song, but in a louder voice, which enabled Veronique to hear the words. It was a slow melody, a children's lullaby; and she sang it with a smile which revealed a set of fine, white teeth.
“And the mother said,
Rocking her child a-bed:
'Weep not. If you do,
The Virgin Mary weeps with you.
Babes that laugh and sing
Smiles to the Blessed Virgin bring.
Fold your hands this way
And to sweet Mary pray.'”
She did not complete the song. Veronique was standing before her, with her face drawn and very pale.
Taken aback, the other asked:
“What's the matter?”
Veronique, in a trembling voice, replied:
“That song! Who taught it you? Where do you get it from?... It's a song my mother used to sing, a song of her own country, Savoy.... And I have never heard it since... since she died....- So I want... I should like...”
She stopped. The Breton woman looked at her in silence, with an air of stupefaction, as though she too were on the point of asking questions. But Veronique repeated:
“Who taught it you?”
“Some one over there,” the woman called Honorine answered, at last.
“Yes, some one on my island.”
Veronique said, with a sort of dread:
“That's just a name they call it by. It's really the Isle of Sarek.”
They still stood looking at each other, with a look in which a certain doubt was mingled with a great need of speech and understanding. And at the same time they both felt that they were not enemies.
Veronique was the first to continue:
“Excuse me, but, you see, there are things which are so puzzling...”
The Breton woman nodded her head in approval and Veronique continued:
“So puzzling and so disconcerting!... For instance, do you know why I'm here? I must tell you. Perhaps you alone can explain... It's like this: an accident — quite a small accident, but really it all began with that — brought me to Brittany for the first time and showed me, on the door of an old, deserted, road-side cabin, the initials which I used to sign when I was a girl, a signature which I have not used for fourteen or fifteen years. As I went on, I discovered the same inscription many times repeated, with each time a different consecutive number. That was how I came here, to the beach at Beg-Meil and to this part of the beach, which appeared to be the end of a journey foreseen and arranged by... I don't know whom.”
“Is your signature here?” asked Honorine, eagerly. “Where?”
“On that stone, above us, at the entrance to the shelter.”
“I can't see from here. What are the letters?”
The Breton woman suppressed a movement. Her bony face betrayed profound emotion, and, hardly opening her lips, she murmured:
“Veronique... Veronique d'Hergemont.”
“Ah,” exclaimed the younger woman, “so you know my name, you know my name!”
Honorine took Veronique's two hands and held them in her own. Her weather-beaten face lit up with a smile. And her eyes grew moist with tears as she repeated:
“Mademoiselle Veronique!... Madame Veronique!... So it's you, Veronique!... O Heaven, is it possible! The Blessed Virgin Mary be praised!”
Veronique felt utterly confounded and kept on saying:
“You know my name... you know who I am.... Then you can explain all this riddle to me?”
After a long pause, Honorine replied:
“I can explain nothing. I don't understand either. But we can try to find out together.... Tell me, what was the name of that Breton village?”
“Le Faouet. I know. And where was the deserted cabin?”
“A mile and a quarter away.”
“Did you look in?”
“Yes; and that was the most terrible thing of all. Inside the cabin was...”
“What was in the cabin?”
“First of all, the dead body of a man, an old man, dressed in the local costume, with long white hair and a grey beard.... Oh, I shall never forget that dead man!... He must have been murdered, poisoned, I don't know what....”
Honorine listened greedily, but the murder seemed to give her no clue and she merely asked:
“Who was it? Did they have an inquest?”
“When I came back with the people from Le Faouet, the corpse had disappeared.”
“Disappeared? But who had removed it?”
“I don't know.”
“So that you know nothing?”
“Nothing. Except that, the first time, I found in the cabin a drawing... a drawing which I tore up; but its memory haunts me like a nightmare that keeps on recurring. I can't get it out of my mind.... Listen, it was a roll of paper on which some one had evidently copied an old picture and it represented... Oh, a dreadful, dreadful thing, four women crucified! And one of the women was myself, with my name.... And the others wore a head-dress like yours.”
Honorine had squeezed her hands with incredible violence:
“What's that you say?” she cried. “What's that you say? Four women crucified?”
“Yes; and there was something about thirty coffins, consequently about your island.”
The Breton woman put her hands over Veronique's lips to silence them:
“Hush! Hush! Oh, you mustn't speak of all that! No, no, you mustn't.... You see, there are devilish things... which it's a sacrilege to talk about.... We must be silent about that.... Later on, we'll see... another year, perhaps.... Later on.... Later on....”
She seemed shaken by terror, as by a gale which scourges the trees and overwhelms all living things. And suddenly she fell on her knees upon the rock and muttered a long prayer, bent in two, with her hands before her face, so completely absorbed that Veronique asked her no more questions.
At last she rose and, presently, said:
“Yes, this is all terrifying, but I don't see that it makes our duty any different or that we can hesitate at all.”
And, addressing Veronique, she said, gravely:
“You must come over there with me.”
“Over there, to your island?” replied Veronique, without concealing her reluctance.
Honorine again took her hands and continued, still in that same, rather solemn tone which appeared to Veronique to be full of secret and unspoken thoughts:
“Your name is truly Veronique d'Hergemont?”
“Who was your father?”
“You married a man called Vorski, who said he was a Pole?”
“Yes, Alexis Vorski.”
“You married him after there was a scandal about his running off with you and after a quarrel between you and your father?”
“You had a child by him?”
“Yes, a son, Francois.”
“A son that you never knew, in a manner of speaking, because he was kidnapped by your father?”
“And you lost sight of the two after a shipwreck?”
“Yes, they are both dead.”
“How do you know?”
It did not occur to Veronique to be astonished at this question, and she replied:
“My personal enquiries and the police enquiries were both based upon the same indisputable evidence, that of the four sailors.”
“Who's to say they weren't telling lies?”
“Why should they tell lies?” asked Veronique, in surprise.
“Their evidence may have been bought; they may have been told what to say.”
“By your father.”
“But what an idea!... Besides, my father was dead!”
“I say once more: how do you know that?”
This time Veronique appeared stupefied:
“What are you hinting?” she whispered.
“One minute. Do you know the names of those four sailors?”
“I did know them, but I don't remember them.”
“You don't remember that they were Breton names?”
“Yes, I do. But I don't see that...”
“If you never came to Brittany, your father often did, because of the books he used to write. He used to stay in Brittany during your mother's lifetime. That being so, he must have had relations with the men of the country. Suppose that he had known the four sailors a long time, that these men were devoted to him or bribed by him and that he engaged them specially for that adventure. Suppose that they began by landing your father and your son at some little Italian port and that then, being four good swimmers, they scuttled and sank their yacht in view of the coast. Just suppose it.”
“But the men are living!” cried Veronique, in growing excitement. “They can be questioned.”
“Two of them are dead; they died a natural death a few years ago. The third is an old man called Maguennoc; you will find him at Sarek. As for the fourth, you may have seen him just now. He used the money which he made out of that business to buy a grocer's shop at Beg-Meil.”
“Ah, we can speak to him at once!” cried Veronique, eagerly. “Let's go and fetch him.”
“Why should we? I know more than he does.”
“You know? You know?”
“I know everything that you don't. I can answer all your questions. Ask me what you like.”
But Veronique dared not put the great question to her, the one which was beginning to quiver in the darkness of her consciousness. She was afraid of a truth which was perhaps not inconceivable, a truth of which she seemed to catch a faint glimpse; and she stammered, in mournful accents:
“I don't understand, I don't understand.... Why should my father have behaved like that? Why should he wish himself and my poor child to be thought dead?”
“Your father had sworn to have his revenge.”
“On Vorski, yes; but surely not on me, his daughter?.... And such a revenge!”
“You loved your husband. Once you were in his power, instead of running away from him, you consented to marry him. Besides, the insult was a public one. And you know what your father was, with his violent, vindictive temperament and his rather... his rather unbalanced nature, to use his own expression.”
“But since then?”
“Since then! Since then! He felt remorseful as he grew older, what with his affection for the child... and he tried everywhere to find you. The journeys I have taken, beginning with my journey to the Carmelites at Chartres! But you had left long ago... and where for? Where were you to be found?”
“You could have advertised in the newspapers.”
“He did try advertising, once, very cautiously, because of the scandal. There was a reply. Some one made an appointment and he kept it. Do you know who came to meet him? Vorski, Vorski, who was looking for you too, who still loved you... and hated you. Your father became frightened and did not dare act openly.”
Veronique did not speak. She felt very faint and sat down on the stone, with her head bowed.
Then she murmured:
“You speak of my father as though he were still alive to-day.”
“And as though you saw him often.”
“And on the other hand ”— Veronique lowered her voice —“on the other hand you do not say a word of my son. And that suggests a horrible thought: perhaps he did not live? Perhaps he is dead since? Is that why you do not mention him?”
She raised her head with an effort. Honorine was smiling.
“Oh, please, please,” Veronique entreated, “tell me the truth! It is terrible to hope more than one has a right to. Do tell me.”
Honorine put her arm round Veronique's neck:
“Why, my poor, dear lady, would I have told you all this if my handsome Francois had been dead?”
“He is alive, he is alive?” cried Veronique wildly.
“Why, of course he is and in the best of health! Oh, he's a fine, sturdy little chap, never fear, and so steady on his legs! And I have every right to be proud of him, because it's I who brought him up„ your little Francois.”
She felt Veronique, who was leaning on her shoulder, give way to emotions which were too much for her and which certainly contained as much suffering as joy; and she said:
“Cry, my dear lady, cry; it will do you good. It's a better sort of crying than it was, eh? Cry, until you've forgotten all your old troubles. I'm going back to the village. Have you a bag of any kind at the inn? They know me there. I'll bring it back with me and we'll be off.”
When the Breton woman returned, half an hour later, she saw Veronique standing and beckoning to her to hurry and heard her calling:
“Quick, quick! Heavens, what a time you've been! We have not a minute to lose.”
Honorine, however, did not hasten her pace and did not reply. Her rugged face was without a smile.
“Well, are we going to start?” asked Veronique, running up to her. “There's nothing to delay us, is there, no obstacle? What's the matter? You seem quite changed.”
“Then let's be quick.”
Honorine, with her assistance, put the bag and the provisions on board. Then, suddenly standing in front of Veronique, she said:
“You're quite sure, are you, that the woman on the cross, as she was shown in the drawing, was yourself?”
“Absolutely. Besides, there were my initials above the head.”
“That's a strange thing,” muttered Honorine, “and it's enough to frighten anybody.”
“Why should it be? It must have been someone who used to know me and who amused himself by... It's merely a coincidence, a chance fancy reviving the past.”
“Oh, it's not the past that's worrying me! It's the future.”
“Remember the prophecy.”
“I don't understand.”
“Yes, yes, the prophecy made about you to Vorski.”
“Ah, you know?”
“I know. And it is so horrible to think of that drawing and of other much more dreadful things which you don't know of.”
Veronique burst out laughing:
“What! Is that why you hesitate to take me with you, for, after all, that's what we're concerned with?”
“Don't laugh. People don't laugh when they see the flames of hell before them.”
Honorine crossed herself, closing her eyes as she spoke. Then she continued:
“Of course... you scoff at me... you think I'm a superstitious Breton woman, who believes in ghosts and jack-o'-lanterns. I don't say you're altogether wrong. But there, there! There are some truths that blind one. You can talk it over with Maguennoc, if you get on the right side of him.”
“One of the four sailors. He's an old friend of your boy's. He too helped to bring him up. Maguennoc knows more about it than the most learned men, more than your father. And yet...”
“And yet Maguennoc tried to tempt fate and to get past what men are allowed to know.”
“What did he do?”
“He tried to touch with his hand — you understand, with his own hand: he confessed it to me himself — the very heart of the mystery.”
“Well?” said Veronique, impressed in spite of herself.
“Well, his hand was burnt by the flames. He showed me a hideous sore: I saw it with my eyes, something like the sore of a cancer; and he suffered to that degree...”
“That it forced him to take a hatchet in his left hand and cut off his right hand himself.”
Veronique was dumbfounded. She remembered the corpse at Le Faouet and she stammered:
“His right hand? You say that Maguennoc cut off his right hand?”
“With a hatchet, ten days ago, two days before I left.... I dressed the wound myself.... Why do you ask?”
“Because,” said Veronique, in a husky voice,” because the dead man, the old man whom I found in the deserted cabin and who afterwards disappeared, had lately lost his right hand.”
Honorine gave a start. She still wore the sort of scared expression and betrayed the emotional disturbance which contrasted with her usually calm attitude. And she rapped out:
“Are you sure? Yes, yes, you're right, it was he, Maguennoc.... He had long white hair, hadn't he? And a spreading beard?... Oh, how abominable!”
She restrained herself and looked around her, frightened at having spoken so loud. She once more made the sign of the cross and said, slowly, almost under her breath:
“He was the first of those who have got to die... he told me so himself... and old Maguennoc had eyes that read the book of the future as easily as the book of the past. He could see clearly where another saw nothing at all. 'The first victim will be myself, Ma'me Honorine. And, when the servant has gone, in a few days it will be the master's turn.'”
“And the master was...?” asked Veronique, in a whisper.
Honorine drew herself up and clenched her fists violently:
“I'll defend him! I will!” she declared. “I'll save him! Your father shall not be the second victim. No, no, I shall arrive in time! Let me go!”
“We are going together,” said Veronique, firmly.
“Please,” said Honorine, in a voice of entreaty, “please don't be persistent. Let me have my way. I'll bring your father and your son to you this very evening, before dinner.”
“The danger is too great, over there, for your father... and especially for you. Remember the four crosses! It's over there that they are waiting.... Oh, you mustn't go there!... The island is under a curse.”
“And my son?”
“You shall see him to-day, in a few hours.”
Veronique gave a short laugh:
“In a few hours! Woman, you must be mad! Here am I, after mourning my son for fourteen years, suddenly hearing that he's alive; and you ask me to wait before I take him in my arms! Not one hour! I would rather risk death a thousand times than put off that moment.”
Honorine looked at her and seemed to realize that Veronique's was one of those resolves against which it is useless to fight, for she did not insist. She crossed herself for the third time and said, simply:
“God's will be done.”
They both took their seats among the parcels which encumbered the narrow space. Honorine switched on the current, seized the tiller and skilfully steered the boat through the rocks and sandbanks which rose level with the water.