The Secret of Sarek/Chapter IV

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CHAPTER IV. THE POOR PEOPLE OF SAREK

HONORINE'S wound was deep but did not seem likely to prove fatal. When Veronique had dressed it and moved Marie Le Golf's body to the room filled with books and furnished like a study in which her father was lying, she closed M. d'Hergemont's eyes, covered him with a sheet and knelt down to pray. But the words of prayer would not come to her lips and her mind was incapable of dwelling on a single thought. She felt stunned by the repeated blows of misfortune. She sat down in a chair, holding her head in her hands. Thus she remained for nearly an hour, while Honorine slept a feverish sleep.

With all her strength she rejected her son's image, even as she had always rejected Vorski's. But the two images became mingled together, whirling around her and dancing before her eyes like those lights which, when we close our eyelids tightly, pass and pass again and multiply and blend into one. And it was always one and the same face, cruel, sardonic, hideously grinning.

She did not suffer, as a mother suffers when mourning the loss of a son. Her son had been dead these fourteen years; and the one who had come to life again, the one for whom all the wells of her maternal affection were ready to gush, forth, had suddenly become a stranger and even worse: Vorski's son! How indeed could she have suffered?

But ah, what a wound inflicted in the depths of her being! What an upheaval, like those cataclysms which shake the whole of a peaceful countryside! What a hellish spectacle! What a vision of madness and horror! What an ironical jest, a jest of the most hideous destiny! Her son killing her father at the moment when, after all these years of separation and sorrow, she was on the point of embracing them both and living with them in sweet and homely intimacy! Her son a murderer! Her son dispensing death and terror broadcast! Her son levelling that ruthless weapon, slaying with all his heart and soul and taking a perverse delight in it!

The motives which might explain these actions interested her not at all. Why had her son done these things? Why had his tutor, Stephane Maroux, doubtless an accomplice, possibly an instigator, fled before the tragedy? These were questions which she did not seek to solve. She thought only of the frightful scene of carnage and death. And she asked herself if death was not for her the only refuge and the only ending.

“Madame Veronique,” whispered Honorine.

“What is it?” asked Veronique, roused from her stupor.

“Don't you hear?”

“What?”

“A ring at the bell below. They must be bringing your luggage.”

She sprang to her feet.

“But what am I to say? How can I explain?... If I accuse that boy...”

“Not a word, please. Let me speak to them.”

“You're very weak, my poor Honorine.”

“No, no, I'm feeling better.”

Veronique went downstairs, crossed a broad entrance-hall paved with black and white flags and drew the bolts of a great door.

It was, as they expected, one of the sailors:

“I knocked at the kitchen-door first,” said the man. “Isn't Marie Le Goff there? And Madame Honorine?”

“Honorine is upstairs and would like to speak to you.”

The sailor looked at her, seemed impressed by this young woman, who looked so pale and serious, and followed her without a word.

Honorine was waiting on the first floor, standing in front of the open door:

“Ah, it's you, Correjou?... Now listen to me... and no silly talk, please.”

“What's the matter, M'ame Honorine? Why, you're wounded! What is it?”

She stepped aside from the doorway and, pointing to the two bodies under their winding-sheets, said simply:

“Monsieur Antoine and Marie Le Goff... both of them murdered.”

The man's face became distorted. He stammered:

“Murdered... you don't say so.... Why?”

“I don't know; we arrived after it happened.”

“But... young Francois?.... Monsieur Stephane?...”

“Gone.... They must have been killed too.”

“But... but... Maguennoc?”

“Maguennoc? Why do you speak of Maguennoc?”

“I speak of Maguennoc, I speak of Maguennoc... because, if he's alive... this is a very different business. Maguennoc always said that he would be the first. Maguennoc only says things of which he's certain. Maguennoc understands these things thoroughly.”

Honorine reflected and then said:

“Maguennoc has been killed.”

This time Correjou lost all his composure: and his features expressed that sort of insane terror which Veronique had repeatedly observed in Honorine. He made the sign of the cross and said, in a low whisper:

“Then... then... it's happening, Ma'me Honorine?... Maguennoc said it would.... Only the other day, in my boat, he was saying, 'It won't be long now.... Everybody ought to get away.'”

And suddenly the sailor turned on his heel and made for the staircase.

“Stay where you are, Correjou,” said Honorine, in a voice of command.

“We must get away. Maguennoc said so. Everybody has got to go.”

“Stay where you are,” Honorine repeated.

Correjou stopped, undecidedly. And Honorine continued:

“We are agreed. We must go. We shall start to-morrow, towards the evening. But first we must attend to Monsieur Antoine and to Marie Le Goff. Look here, you go to the sisters Archignat and send them to keep watch by the dead. They are bad women, but they are used to doing that. Say that two of the three must come. Each of them shall have double the ordinary fee.”

“And after that, Ma'me Honorine?”

“You and all the old men will see to the coffins; and at daybreak we will bury the bodies in consecrated ground, in the cemetery of the chapel.”

“And after that, Ma'me Honorine?”

“After that, you will be free and the others too. Yow can pack up and be off.”

“But you, Ma'me Honorine?”

“I have the boat. That's enough talking. Are we agreed?”

“Yes, we're agreed. It means one more night to spend here. But I suppose that nothing fresh will happen between this and to-morrow?...”

“Why no, why no... Go, Correjou. Hurry. And above all don't tell the others that Maguennoc is dead... or we shall never keep them here.”

“That's a promise, Ma'me Honorine.”

The man hastened away.

An hour later, two of the sisters Archignat appeared, two skinny, shrivelled old hags, looking like witches in their dirty, greasy caps with the black-velvet bows. Honorine was taken to her own room on the same floor, at the end of the left wing.

And the vigil of the dead began.

Veronique spent the first part of the night beside her father's body and then went and sat with Honorine, whose condition seemed to grow worse. She ended by dozing off and was wakened by the Breton woman, who said to her, in one of those accesses of fever in which the brain still retains a certain lucidity:

“Francois must be hiding... and M. Stephane too... The island has safe hiding-places, which Maguennoc showed them. We shan't see them, therefore; and no one will know anything about them.”

“Are you sure?”

“Quite, do listen to me. To-morrow, when everybody has left Sarek and when we two are alone, I shall blow the signal with my horn and he will come here.”

Veronique was horrified:

“But I don't want to see him!” she exclaimed, indignantly. “I loathe him!... Like my father, I curse him!... Have you forgotten? He killed my father, before our eyes! He killed Marie Le Goff! He tried to kill you!... No, what I feel for him is hatred and disgust! The monster!”

The Breton woman took her hand, as she had formed a habit of doing, and murmured:

“Don't condemn him yet.... He did not know what he was doing.”

“What do you mean? He didn't know? Why, I saw his eyes, Vorski's eyes!”

“He did not know... he was mad.”

“Mad? Nonsense!”

“Yes, Madame Veronique. I know the boy. He's the kindest creature on earth, If he did all this, it was because he went mad suddenly... he and M. Stephane. They must both be weeping in despair now.”

“It's impossible. I can't believe it.”

“You can't believe it because you know nothing of what is happening... and of what is going to happen.... But, if you did know... Oh, there are things... there are things!”

Her voice was no longer audible. She was silent, but her eyes remained wide open and her lips moved without uttering a sound.

Nothing occurred until the morning. At five o'clock Veronique heard them nailing down the coffins; and almost immediately afterwards the door of the room in which she sat was opened and the sisters Archignat entered like a whirlwind, both greatly excited.

They had heard the truth from Correjou, who, to give himself courage, had taken a drop too much to drink and was talking at random:

“Maguennoc is dead!” they screamed. “Maguennoc is dead and you never told us! Give us our money, quick! We're going!”

The moment they were paid, they ran away as fast as their legs would carry them; and, an hour later, some other women, informed by them, came hurrying to drag their men from their work. They all used the same words:

“We must go! We must get ready to start!... It'll be too late afterwards. The two boats can take us all.”

Honorine had to intervene with all her authority and Veronique was obliged to distribute money. And the funeral was hurriedly conducted. Not far away was an old chapel, carefully restored by M. d'Hergemont, where a priest came once a month from Pont-l'Abbe to say mass. Beside it was the ancient cemetery of the abbots of Sarek. The two bodies were buried here; and an old man, who in ordinary times acted as sacristan, mumbled the blessing.

All the people seemed smitten with madness. Their voices and movements were spasmodic. They were obsessed with the fixed idea of leaving the island and paid no attention to Veronique, who knelt a little way off, praying and weeping.

It was all over before eight o'clock. Men and women made their way down across the island. Veronique, who felt as though she were living in a nightmare world where events followed upon one another without logic and with no connected sequence, went back to Honorine, whose feeble condition had prevented her from attending her master's funeral.

“I'm feeling better,” said the Breton woman. “We shall go to-day or to-morrow and we shall go with Francois.”

Veronique protested angrily; but Honorine repeated:

“With Francois, I tell you, and with M. Stephane. And as soon as possible. I also want to go... and to take you with me... and Francois too. There is death in the island. Death Is the master here. We must leave Sarek. We shall all go.”

Veronique did not wish to thwart her. But at nine o'clock hurried steps were heard outside. It was Correjou, coming from the village. On reaching the door he shouted:

“They've stolen your motor-boat, Ma'me Honorine! She's disappeared!”

“Impossible!” said Honorine.

But the sailor, all out of breath, declared:

“She's disappeared. I suspected something this morning early. But I expect I had had a glass too much; I did not give it another thought. Others have since seen what I did. The painter has been cut.... It happened during the night. And they've made off. No one saw or heard them.”

The two women exchanged glances; and the same thought occurred to both of them: Francois and Stephane Maroux had taken to flight.

Honorine muttered between her teeth:

“Yes, yes, that's it: he understands how to work the boat.”

Veronique perhaps felt a certain relief at knowing that the boy had gone and that she would not see him again. But Honorine, seized with a renewed fear, exclaimed:

“Then... then what are we to do?”

“You must leave at once, Ma'me Honorine. The boats are ready... everybody's packing up. There'll be no one in the village by eleven o'clock.”

Veronique interposed:

“Honorine's not in a condition to travel.”

“Yes, I am; I'm better,” the Breton woman declared.

“No, it would be ridiculous. Let us wait a day or two.... Come back in two days, Correjou.”

She pushed the sailor towards the door. He, for that matter, was only too anxious to go:

“Very well,” he said, “that'll do: I'll come back the day after to-morrow. Besides, we can't take everything with us. We shall have to come back now and again to fetch our things.... Goodbye, Ma'me Honorine; take care of yourself.”

And he ran outside.

“Correjou! Correjou!”

Honorine was sitting up in bed and calling to him in despair:

“No, no, don't go away, Correjou!... Wait for me and carry me to your boat.”

She listened; and, as the man did not return, she tried to get up:

“I'm frightened,” she said. “I don't want to be left alone.”

Veronique held her down:

“You're not going to be left alone, Honorine. I shan't leave you.”

There was an actual struggle between the two women; and Honorine, pushed back on her bed by main force, moaned, helplessly:

“I'm frightened.... I'm frightened.... The island is accursed.... It's tempting Providence to remain behind.... Maguennoc's death was a warning.... I'm frightened....”

She was more or less delirious, but still retained a half-lucidity which enabled her to intersperse a few intelligible and reasonable remarks among the incoherent phrases which revealed her superstitious Breton soul.

She gripped Veronique by her two shoulders and declared:

“I tell you, the island's cursed. Maguennoc confessed as much himself one day: 'Sarek is one of the gates of hell,' he said. 'The gate is closed now, but, on the day when it opens, every misfortune you can think of will be upon it like a squall.”

She calmed herself a little, it Veronique's entreaty, and continued, in a lower voice, which grew fainter as she spoke:

“He loved the island, though... as we all do. At such times he would speak of it in a way which I did not understand: 'The gate is a double one, Honorine, and it also opens on Paradise.' Yes, yes, the island was good to live in.... We loved it.... Maguennoc made flowers grow on it.... Oh, those flowers! They were enormous: three times as tall... and as beautiful...”

The minutes passed slowly. The bedroom was at the extreme left of the house, just above the rocks which overhung the sea and separated from them only by the width of the road.

Veronique sat down at the window, with her eyes fixed on the white waves which grew still more troubled as the wind blew more strongly. The sun was rising. In the direction of the village she saw nothing except a steep headland. But, beyond the belt of foam studded with the black points of the reefs, the view embraced the deserted plains of the Atlantic. Honorine murmured, drowsily:

“They say that the gate is a stone... and that it comes from very far away, from a foreign country. It's the God-Stone. They also say that it's a precious stone... the colour of gold and silver mixed.... The God-Stone.... The stone that gives life or death.... Maguennoc saw it.... He opened the gate and put his arm through.... And his hand... his hand was burnt to a cinder.”

Veronique felt oppressed. Fear was gradually overcoming her also, like the oozing and soaking of stagnant water. The horrible events of the last few days, of which she had been a terrified witness, seemed to evoke others yet more dreadful, which she anticipated like an inevitable hurricane that is bound to carry off everything in its headlong course.

She expected them. She had no doubt that they would come, unloosed by the fatal power which was multiplying its terrible assaults upon her.

“Don't you see the boats?” asked Honorine.

“No,” she said, “you can't see them from here.”

“Yes, you can: they are sure to come this way. They are heavy boats: and there's a wider passage at the point.”

The next moment, Veronique saw the bow of a boat project beyond the end of the headland. The boat lay low in the water, being very heavily laden, crammed with crates and parcels on which women and children were seated. Four men were rowing lustily.

“That's Correjou's,” said Honorine, who had left her bed, half-dressed. “And there's the other: look.”

The second boat came into view, equally burdened. Only three men were rowing, with a woman to help them.

Both boats were too far away — perhaps seven or eight hundred yards — to allow the faces of the occupants to be seen. And no sound of voices rose from those heavy hulls with their cargoes of wretchedness, which were fleeing from death.

“Oh dear, oh dear!” moaned Honorine. “If only they escape this hell!”

“What can you be afraid of, Honorine? They are in no danger.”

“Yes, they are, as long as they have not left the island.”

“But they have left it.”

“It's still the island all around the island. It's there that the coffins lurk and lie in wait.”

“But the sea is not rough.”

“There's more than the sea. It's not the sea that's the enemy.”

“Then what is?”

“I don't know.... I don't know....”

The two boats veered round at the southern point Before them lay two channels, which Honorine pointed out by the name of two reefs, the Devil's Rock and the Sarek Tooth.

It at once became evident that Correjou had chosen the Devil's Channel.

“They're touching it,” said Honorine. “They are there. Another hundred yards and they are safe.”

She almost gave a chuckle:

“Ah, all the devil's machinations will be thwarted, Madame Veronique! I really believe that we shall be saved, you and I and all the people of Sarek.”

Veronique remained silent Her depression continued and was all the more overwhelming because she could attribute it only to vague presentiments which she was powerless to fight against She had drawn an imaginary line up to which the danger threatened, would continue to threaten, and where it still persisted; and this line Correjou had not yet reached.

Honorine was shivering with fever. She mumbled:

“I'm frightened.... I'm frightened....”

“Nonsense,” declared Veronique, pulling herself together, “It's absurd! Where can the danger come from?”

“Oh,” cried the Breton woman, “what's that? What does it mean?”

“What? What is it?”

They had both pressed their foreheads to the panes and were staring wildly before them. Down below, something had so to speak shot out from the Devil's Rock. And they at once recognized the motor-boat which they had used the day before and which according to Correjou had disappeared.

“Francois! Francois!” cried Honorine, in stupefaction. “Francois and Monsieur Stephane!”

Veronique recognized the boy. He was standing in the bow of the motor-boat and making signs to the people in the two rowing-boats. The men answered by waving their oars, while the women gesticulated. In spite of Veronique's opposition, Honorine opened both halves of the window; and they could hear the sound of voices above the throbbing of the motor, though they could not catch a single word.

“What does it mean?” repeated Honorine. “Francois and M. Stephane!... Why did they not make for the mainland?”

“Perhaps,” Veronique explained, “they were afraid of being observed and questioned on landing.”

“No, they are known, especially Francois, who often used to go with me. Besides, the identity-papers are in the boat. No, they were waiting there, hidden behind the rock.”

“But, Honorine, if they were hiding, why do they show themselves now?”

“Ah, that's just it, that's just it!... I don't understand... and it strikes me as odd.... What must Correjou and the others think?”

The two boats, of which the second was now gliding in the wake of the first, had almost stopped. All the passengers seemed to be looking round at the motor-boat, which came rapidly in their direction and slackened spend when she was level with the second boat. In this way, she continued on a line parallel with that of the two boats and fifteen or twenty yards away.

“I don't understand.... I don't understand,” muttered Honorine.

The motor had been cut off and the motor-boat now very slowly reached the space that separated the two fish-boats.

And suddenly the two women saw Francois stoop and then stand up again and draw his right arm back, as though he were going to throw something.

And at the same time Stephane Maroux acted in the same way.

Then the unexpected, terrifying thing happened.

“Oh!” cried Veronique.

She hid her eyes for a second, but at once raised her head again and saw the hideous sight in all its horror.

Two things had been thrown across the little space, one from the bow, flung by Francois, the other from the stern, flung by Stephane Maroux.

And two bursts of fire at once shot up from the two boats, followed by two whirls of smoke.

The explosions re-echoed. For a moment, nothing of what happened amid that black cloud was visible. Then the curtain parted, blown aside by the wind, and Veronique and Honorine saw the two boats swiftly sinking, while their occupants jumped into the sea.

The sight, the infernal sight, did not last long. They saw, standing on one of the buoys that marked the channel, a woman holding a child in her arms, without moving: then some motionless bodies, no doubt killed by the explosion; then two men fighting, mad perhaps. And all this went down with the boats. A few eddies, some blade specks floating on the surface; and that was all.

Honorine and Veronique, struck dumb with terror, had not uttered a single word. The thing surpassed the worst that their anguished minds could have conceived.

When it was all over, Honorine put her hand to her head and, in a hollow voice which Veronique was never to forget, said:

“My head's bursting. Oh, the poor people of Sarek! They were my friends, the friends of my childhood; and I shall never see them again.... The sea never gives up its dead at Sarek: it keeps them. It has its coffins all ready: thousands and thousands of hidden coffins.... Oh, my head is bursting!... I shall go mad... mad like Francois, my poor Francois!”

Veronique did not answer. She was grey in the face. With clutching fingers she clung to the balcony, gazing downwards as one gazes into an abyss into which one is about to fling oneself. What would her son do? Would he save those people, whose shouts of distress now reached her ears, would he save them without delay? One may have fits of madness; but the attacks pass away at the sight of certain things.

The motor-boat had backed at first to avoid the eddies. Francois and Stephane, whose red cap and white cap were still visible, were standing in the same positions at the bow and the stern; and they held in their hands... what? The two women could not see clearly, because of the distance, what they held in their hands. It looked like two rather long sticks.

“Poles, to help them,” suggested Veronique.

“Or guns,” said Honorine.

The black specks were still floating. There were nine of them, the nine heads of the survivors, whose arms also the two women saw moving from time to time and whose cries for help they heard.

Some were hurriedly moving away from the motor-boat, but four were swimming towards it; and, of those four, two could not fail to reach it.

Suddenly Francois and Stephane made the same movement, the movement of marksmen taking aim.

There were two flashes, followed by the sound of a single report.

The heads of the two swimmers disappeared.

“Oh, the monsters!” stammered Veronique, almost swooning and falling on her knees.

Honorine, beside her, began screaming:

“Francois! Francois!”

Her voice did not carry, first because it was too weak and then the wind was in her face. But she continued:

“Francois! Francois!”

She next stumbled across the room and into the corridor, in search of something, and returned to the window, still shouting:

“Francois! Francois!”

She had ended by finding the shell which she used as a signal. But, on lifting it to her mouth, she found that she could produce only dull and indistinct sounds from it:

“Oh, curse the thing!” she cried, flinging the shell away. “I have no strength left.... Francois! Francois!”

She was terrible to look at, with her hair all in disorder and her face covered with the sweat of fever. Veronique implored her:

“Please, Honorine, please!”

“But look at them, look at them!”

The motor-boat was drifting forward down below, with the two marksmen at their posts, holding their guns ready for murder.

The survivors fled. Two of them hung back in the rear.

These two were aimed at. Their heads disappeared from view.

“But look at them!” Honorine said, explosively, in a hoarse voice. “They're hunting them down! They're killing them like garnet... Oh, the poor people of Sarek!...”

Another shot. Another black speck vanished.

Veronique was writhing in despair. She shook the rails of the balcony, as she might have shaken the bars of a cage in which she was imprisoned.

“Vorski! Vorski!” she groaned, stricken by the recollection of her husband. “He's Vorski's son!”

Suddenly she felt herself seized by the throat and saw, close to her own face, the distorted face of the Breton woman.

“He's your son!” spluttered Honorine. “Curse you! You are the monster's mother and you shall be punished for it!”

And she burst out laughing and stamping her feet in an overpowering fit of hilarity.

“The cross, yes, the cross! You shall be crucified, with nails through your hands!... What a punishment, nails through your hands!”

She was mad.

Veronique released herself and tried to hold the other motionless: but Honorine, filled with malicious rage, threw her off, making her lose balance, and began to climb into the balcony.

She remained standing outside the window, lifting up her arms and once more shouting:

“Francois! Francois!”

The first floor was not so high on this side of the house, owing to the slope of the ground. Honorine jumped into the path below, crossed it, pushed her way through the shrubs that lined it and ran to the ridge of rocks which formed the cliff and overhung the sea.

She stopped for a moment, thrice called out the name of the child whom she had reared and flung herself headlong into the deep.

In the distance, the man-hunt drew to a finish.

The heads sank one by one. The massacre was completed.

Then the motor-boat with Francois and Stephane on board fled towards the coast of Brittany, towards the beaches of Beg-Meil and Concarneau.

Veronique was left alone on Coffin Island.