The Secret of Sarek/Chapter IX
CHAPTER IX. THE DEATH-CHAMBER
VERONIQUE'S estimate was correct, provided that the door opened outwards and that her enemies were at once revealed to view. She therefore examined the door and suddenly observed that, against all logical expectation, it had a large strong bolt at the bottom. Should she make use of it?
She had no time to weigh the advantages or drawbacks of this plan. She had heard a jingle of keys and, almost at the same time, the sound of a key grating in the lock.
Veronique received a very clear vision of what was likely to happen. When the assailants burst in, she would be thrust aside, she would be hampered in her movements, her aim would be inaccurate and her shots would miss, whereupon they would shut the door again and promptly hurry off to Francois' cell. The thought of it made her lose her head; and her action was instinctive and immediate. First, she pushed the bolt at the foot of the door. Next, half rising, she slammed the iron shutter over the wicket. A latch clicked. It was no longer possible either to enter or to look in.
Then at once she realized the absurdity of her action, which had not opposed any obstacle to the menace of the enemy. Stephane, leaping to her side, said:
“Good heavens, what have you done? Why, they saw that I was not moving and they now know that I am not alone!”
“Exactly,” she answered, striving to defend herself. “They will try to break down the door, which will give us the time we want.”
“The time we want for what?”
“To make our escape.”
“Francois will call out to us. Francois will...”
She did not complete her sentence. They now heard the sound of footsteps moving swiftly down the passage. There was no doubt about it; the enemy, without troubling about Stephane, whose flight appeared impossible, was making for the upper floor of cells. Moreover, might he not suppose that the two friends were acting in agreement and that it was the boy who was in Stephane's cell and who had barred the door?
Veronique therefore had precipitated events and given them a turn which she had so many reasons to dread; and Francois, up above, would be caught at the very moment when he was preparing to escape.
She was utterly overwhelmed:
“Why did I come here?” she muttered. “It would have been so simple to wait! The two of us would have saved you to a certainty.”
One idea flashed through the confusion of her mind: had she not sought to hasten Stephane's release because of what she knew of this man's love for her? And was it not an unworthy curiosity that had prompted her to make the attempt? A horrible idea, which she at once rejected, saying:
“No, I had to come. It is fate which is persecuting us.”
“Don't believe it,” said Stephane. “Everything will come right.”
“Too late!” said she, shaking her head.
“Why? How do we know that Francois has not left his cell? You yourself thought so just now....”
She did not reply. Her face became drawn and very pale. By virtue of her sufferings she had acquired a kind of intuition of the evil that threatened her. This evil now surrounded her on every hand. A second series of ordeals was before her, more terrible than the first.
“There's death all about us,” she said.
He tried to smile:
“You are talking like the people of Sarek. You have the same fears...”
“They were right to be afraid. And you yourself feel the horror of it all.”
She rushed to the door, drew the bolt, tried to open it; but what could she do against that massive, iron-clad door?
Stephane seized her by the arm:
“One moment.... Listen.... It sounds as if...”
“Yes,” she said, “it's up there that they are knocking... above our heads... in Francois' cell...”
“Not at all, not at all: listen....”
There was a long silence; and then blows were heard in the thickness of the cliff. The sound came from below them.
“The same blows that I heard this morning,” said Stephane, in dismay. “The same attempt of which I spoke to you.... Ah, I understand!
“What? What do you mean?”
The blows were repeated, at regular intervals, and then ceased, to be followed by a dull, continuous sound, pierced by shriller creakings and sudden cracks, like the straining of machinery newly started, or of one of those capstans which are used for hoisting boats up a beach.
Veronique listened, desperately expectant of what was coming, trying to guess, seeking to find some clue in Stephane's eyes. He stood in front of her, looking at her as a man, in the hour of danger, looks at the woman he loves.
And suddenly she staggered and had to press her hand against the wall. It was as though the cave and indeed the whole cliff were bodily moving from its place.
“Oh,” she murmured, “is it I who am trembling like this? Is it from fear that I am shaking from head to foot?”
Seizing Stephane's hands, she said:
“Tell me! I want to know!...”
He did not answer. There was no fear in his eyes bedewed with tears, there was nothing but immense love and unbounded despair. He was thinking only of her.
Besides, was it necessary for him to explain what was happening? Did not the reality itself become more and more apparent as the seconds passed? A strange reality indeed, having no connection with commonplace facts, a reality quite beyond anything that the imagination might invent in the domain of evil, a strange reality which Veronique, who was beginning to grasp its indication, still refused to believe.
Acting like a trap-door, but like a trap-door working the reverse way, the square of enormous joists which was set in the middle of the cave rose, pivoting on the fixed axis by which it was hinged parallel with the cliff. The almost imperceptible movement was that of an enormous lid opening; and the thing already formed a sort of spring-board reaching from the edge to the back of the cave, a spring-board with as yet a very slight slope, on which it was easy enough to keep one's balance.
At the first moment, Veronique thought that the enemy's object was to crush them between the implacable floor and the granite of the ceiling. But, almost immediately afterwards, she understood that the hateful mechanism, by standing erect like a drawbridge when hoisted up, was intended to hurl them over the precipice. And it would carry out that intention inexorably. The result was fatal and inevitable. Whatever they might try, whatever efforts they might make to hold on, a minute would come when the floor of that draw-bridge would be absolutely vertical, forming an integral part of the perpendicular cliff.
“It's horrible, it's horrible,” she muttered.
Their hands were still clasped. Stephane was; weeping silent tears.
Presently she moaned:
“There's nothing to be done, is there?”
“Nothing,” he replied.
“Still, there is room beyond that wooden floor... The cave is round. We might...”
“The space is too small. If we tried to stand between the sides of the square and the wall, we should be crushed to death. That has all been planned. I have often thought about it.”
“We must wait.”
“For what? For whom?”
“Oh, Francois!” she said, with a sob. “Perhaps he too is doomed.... Or perhaps he is looking for us and will fall into some trap. In any case, I shall not see him.... And he will know nothing.... And he will not even have seen his mother before dying....”
She pressed Stephane's hands and said:
“Stephane, if one of us escapes death — and I hope it may be you...”
“It will be you,” he said, in a tone of conviction. “I am even surprised that the enemy should condemn you to the same torture as myself. But no doubt he doesn't know that it's you who are here with me.”
“It surprises me too!” said Veronique. “A different torture is set aside for me. But what does it matter, if I am not to see my son again!... Stephane, I can safely leave him in your charge, can't I? I know all that you have already done for him.”
The floor continued to rise very slowly, with an uneven vibration and sudden jerks. The slope became more accentuated. A few minutes more and they would no longer be able to speak freely and quietly.
“If I survive, I swear to fulfil my task to the end. I swear it in memory...”
“In memory of me,” she said, in a firm voice, “in memory of the Veronique whom you knew... and loved.”
He looked at her passionately:
“So you know?”
“Yes; and I tell you frankly, I have read your diary. I know your love for me... and I accept it.” She gave a sad smile. “That poor love which you offered to the woman who was absent... and which you are now offering to the woman who is about to die.”
“No, no,” he said, eagerly, “don't believe that.... Salvation may be near at hand.... I feel it. My love does not belong to the past but to the future.”
He stooped to put his lips to her hands.
“Kiss me,” she said, offering him her forehead.
Each of them had been obliged to place one foot on the brink of the precipice, on the straight edge of granite which ran parallel with the fourth side of the spring-board.
They kissed gravely.
“Hold me firmly,” said Veronique.
She leant back as far as she could, raising her head, and called in a muffled voice:
But there was no one at the upper opening, from which the ladder was still hanging by one of its hooks, well out of reach.
Veronique bent over the sea. At this spot, the swell of the cliff did not project as much as elsewhere; and she saw, in between the foam-topped reefs, a little pool of still, water, very calm and so deep that she could not see the bottom. She thought that death would be gentler there than on the sharp-pointed rocks and, yielding to a sudden longing to have done with it all and to avoid a lingering agony, she said to Stephane:
“Why wait for the end? Better die than suffer this torture.”
“No, no!” he exclaimed, horrified at the thought that Veronique might disappear from his sight.
“Then you're still hoping?”
“Until the last second, since it's your life that's at stake.”
“I have no longer any hope.”
Nor was he borne up by hope; but he would have given anything to lull Veronique's sufferings and to bear the whole weight of the supreme ordeal himself.
The floor continued to rise. The vibration had ceased and the slope became much more marked, already reaching the bottom of the wicket, half way up the door. Then there was a sound like a sudden stoppage of machinery, followed by a violent jolt, and the whole wicket was covered. It was becoming impossible for them to stand erect.
They lay down on the slanting floor, bracing their feet against the granite edge.
Two more jerks occurred, each time pushing the upper end still higher. The top of the inner wall was reached; and the enormous mechanism moved slowly forward, along the ceiling, towards the opening of the cave. They could see very plainly that it would fit this opening exactly and close it hermetically, like a draw-bridge. The rock had been hewn in such a way that the deadly task might be accomplished without leaving any loophole for chance.
They did not utter a word. With hands tight-clasped, they resigned themselves to the inevitable. Their death was assuming the aspect of an event decreed by destiny. The machine had been constructed far back in the centuries and had no doubt been reconstructed, repaired and put in order at a more recent date; and during those centuries, worked by invisible executioners, it had caused the death of culprits, of guilty men and innocent, of men of Armorica, Gaul, France or foreign lands. Prisoners of war, sacrilegious monks, persecuted peasants, renegade Chouans and soldiers of the Revolution; one by one the monster had hurled them over the cliff.
To-day it was their turn.
They had not even the bitter solace of rage and hatred. Whom were they to hate? They were dying in the deepest obscurity, with no hostile face emerging from that implacable night. They were dying in the accomplishment of a task unknown to themselves, to make up a total, so to speak, and for the fulfilment of absurd prophecies, of imbecile intentions, such as the orders given by the barbarian gods and formulated by fanatical priests. They were — it was a thing unheard of — the victims of some expiatory sacrifice, of some holocaust offered to the divinities of a blood-thirsty creed!
The wall stood behind them. In a few more minutes it would be perpendicular. The end was approaching.
Time after time Stephane had to hold Veronique back. An increasing terror distracted her mind. She yearned to fling herself down.
“Please, please,” she stammered, “do let me.... I am suffering more than I can bear.”
Had she not found her son again, she would have retained her self-control to the end. But the thought of Francois was unsettling her. The boy must also be a prisoner, they must be torturing him too and immolating him, like his mother, on the altars of the execrable gods.
“No, no, he will come,” Stephane declared. “You will be saved.... I will have it so.... I know it.”
She replied, wildly:
“He is imprisoned as we are.... They are burning him with torches, driving arrows into him, tearing his flesh.... Oh, my poor little son!
“He will come, dear, he told you he would. Nothing can separate a mother and son who have been brought together again.”
“We have found each other in death; we shall be united in death. I wish it might be at once! I don't want him to suffer!”
The agony was too great. With an effort she released her hands from Stephane's and made a movement to fling herself down. But she immediately threw herself back against the draw-bridge, with a cry of amazement which was echoed by Stephane.
Something had passed before their eyes and disappeared again. It came from the left.
“The ladder!” exclaimed Stephane. “It's the ladder, isn't it?”
“Yes, it's Francois,” said Veronique, catching her breath with joy and hope, “He is saved. He is coming to rescue us.”
At that moment, the wall of torment was almost upright, vibrating implacably beneath their shoulders. The cave no longer existed behind them. The depths had already claimed them; at most they were clinging to a narrow ledge.
Veronique leant outwards again. The ladder swung back and then became stationary, fixed by its two hooks.
Above them, at the opening in the cliff, was a boy's face; and the boy was smiling and making gestures:
“Mother, mother... quick!”
The call was eager and urgent. The two arms were outstretched towards the pair below. Veronique moaned:
“Oh, it's you, it's you, my darling!”
“Quick, mother, I'm holding the ladder!... Quick!... It's quite safe!”
“I'm coming, darling, I'm coming.”
She had seized the nearest upright. This time, with Stephane's assistance, she had no difficulty in placing her foot on the bottom rung. But she said:
“And you, Stephane? You're coming with me, aren't you?”
“I have plenty of time,” he said. “Hurry.”
“No, you must promise.”
“I swear. Hurry.”
She climbed four rungs and stopped:
“Are you coming, Stephane?”
He had already turned towards the cliff and slipped his left hand into a narrow fissure which remained between the draw-bridge and the rock. His right hand reached the ladder and he was able to set foot on the lowest rung. He too was saved.
With what delight Veronique covered the rest of the distance! What mattered the void below her, now that her son was there, waiting for her to clasp him to her breast at last!
“Here I am, here I am,” she said. “Here I am, my darling.”
She swiftly put her head and shoulders in the window. He pulled her through; and she climbed over the ledge. At last she was with her son.
They flung themselves into each other's arms:
“Oh, mother, mother, is it really true? Mother!”
But she had no sooner closed her arms about him than she drew back a little, she did not know why. An inexplicable discomfort checked her first outburst.
“Come here,” she said, dragging him to the light of the window. “Come and let me look at you.”
The boy did as she wished. She examined him for two or three seconds, no longer, and suddenly, giving a start of terror, ejaculated:
“Then it's you? It's you, the murderer?”
Oh, horror! She was once more looking on the face of the monster who had killed her father and Honorine before her eyes!
“So you know me?” he chuckled.
Veronique realised her mistake from the boy's very tone. This was not Francois but the other, the one who had played his devilish part in the clothes which Francois usually wore.
He gave another chuckle:
“Ah, you're beginning to see things as they are, ma'am! You know me now, don't you?”
The hateful face contracted, became wicked and cruel, animated by the vilest expression.
“Vorski! Vorski!” stammered Veronique. “It's Vorski I recognise in you.”
He burst out laughing:
“Why not? Do you think I'm going to disown my father as you did?”
“Vorski's son! His son!” Veronique repeated.
“Lord bless me, yes, his son: why shouldn't I be? Surely the good fellow had the right to have two sons! Me first and dear Francois next!”
“Vorski's son!” Veronique exclaimed once more.
“And one of the best, I tell you, ma'am, a worthy son of his father and brought up on the highest principles. I've shown you as much already, haven't I? But it's not finished, we're only at the beginning.... Here, would you like me to give you a fresh proof? Just take a squint at that stick-in-the-mud of a tutor!... No, but look how things go when I take a hand in them.”
He sprang to the window. Stephane's head appeared. The boy picked up a stone and struck with all his might, throwing him backwards.
Veronique, who at the first moment had hesitated, not realising the danger, now rushed and seized the boy's arm. It was too late. The head vanished. The hooks of the ladder slipped off the ledge. There was a loud cry, followed by the sound of a body falling into the water below.
Veronique ran to the window. The ladder was floating on the part of the little pool which she was able to see, lying motionless in its frame of rocks. There was nothing to point to the place where Stephane had fallen, not an eddy, not a ripple.
She called out:
No reply, nothing but the great silence of space in which the winds are still and the sea asleep.
“You villain, what have you done?” she cried.
“Don't take on, missus,” he said. “Master Stephane brought up your kid to be a duffer. Come it's a laughing matter, it is, really. Give us a kiss, won't you, daddy's missus? But, I say, what a face you're pulling! Surely you don't hate me as much as all that?”
He went up to her, with his arms outstretched. Veronique swiftly covered him with her revolver:
“Be off, be off, or I'll kill you as I would a mad dog! Be off!”
The boy's face became more inhuman than ever. He fell back step by step, snarling:
“Oh, I'll make you pay for this, my pretty lady!... What do you mean by it? I come up to give you a kiss... I'm full of kindly feelings... and you want to shoot me! You shall pay for it in blood... in nice red flowing blood... blood... blood....”
He seemed to love the sound of the word. He repeated it time after time, then once more gave a burst of evil laughter and fled down the tunnel which led to the Priory, shouting:
“The blood of your son, Mother Veronique!... The blood of your darling Francois!”