The Secret of Sarek/Chapter V
CHAPTER V. “FOUR WOMEN CRUCIFIED”
VERONIQUE was left alone on Coffin Island. Until the sun sank among the clouds that seemed, on the horizon, to rest upon the sea, she did not move, but sat huddled against the window, with her head buried in her two arms resting on the sill.
The dread reality passed through the darkness of her mind like pictures which she strove not to see, but which at times became so clearly defined that she imagined herself to be living through those atrocious scenes again.
Still she sought no explanation of all this and formed no theories as to all the motives which might have thrown a light upon the tragedy. She admitted the madness of Francois and of Stephane Maroux, being unable to suppose any other reasons for such actions as theirs. And, believing the two murderers to be mad, she did not even try to attribute to them any projects or definite wishes.
Moreover, Honorine's madness, of which she had, so to speak, observed the outbreak, impelled her to look upon all that had happened as provoked by a sort of mental upset to which all the people of Sarek had fallen victims. She herself at moments felt that her brain was reeling, that her ideas were fading away in a mist, that invisible ghosts were hovering around her.
She dozed off into a sleep which was haunted by these images and in which she felt so wretched that she began to sob. Also it seemed to her that she could hear a slight noise which, in her benumbed wits, assumed a hostile significance. Enemies were approaching. She opened her eyes.
A couple of yards in front of her, sitting upon its haunches, was a queer animal, covered with long mud-coloured hair and holding its fore-paws folded like a pair of arms.
It was a dog; and she at once remembered Francois' dog, of which Honorine had spoken as a dear, devoted, comical, creature. She even remembered his name, All's-Well.
As she uttered this name in an undertone, she felt an angry impulse and was almost driving away the animal endowed with such an ironical nickname. All's-Well! And she thought of all the victims of the horrible nightmare, of all the dead people of Sarek, of her murdered father, of Honorine killing herself, of Francois going mad. All's-Well, forsooth!
Meanwhile the dog did not stir. He was sitting up as Honorine had described, with his head a little on one side, one eye closed, the corners of his mouth drawn back to his ears and his arms crossed in front of him; and there was really something very like a smile flitting over his face.
Veronique now remembered: this was the manner in which All's-Well displayed his sympathy for those in trouble. All's-Well could not bear the sight of tears. When people wept, he sat up until they in their turn smiled and petted him.
Veronique did not smile, but she pressed him against her and said:
“No, my poor dog, all's not well; on the contrary, all's as bad as it can be. No matter: we must live, mustn't we, and we mustn't go mad ourselves like the others?”
The necessities of life obliged her to act. She went down to the kitchen, found some food and gave the dog a good share of it. Then she went upstairs again.
Night had fallen. She opened, on the first floor, the door of a bedroom which at ordinary times must have been unoccupied. She was weighed down with an immense fatigue, caused by all the efforts and violent emotions which she had undergone. She fell asleep almost at once. All's Well lay awake at the foot of her bed.
Next morning she woke late, with a curious feeling of peace and security. It seemed to her that her present life was somehow connected with her calm and placid life at Besancon. The few days of horror which she had passed fell away from her like distant events whose return she had no need to fear. The men and women who had gone under in the great horror became to her mind almost like strangers whom one has met and does not expect to see again. Her heart ceased bleeding. Her sorrow for them did not reach the depths of her soul.
It was due to the unforeseen and undisturbed rest, the consoling solitude. And all this seemed to her so pleasant that, when a steamer came and anchored on the spot of the disaster, she made no signal. No doubt yesterday, from the mainland, they had seen the flash of the explosions and heard the report of the shots. Veronique remained motionless.
She saw a boat put off from the steamer and supposed that they were going to land and explore the village. But not only did she dread an enquiry in which her son might be involved: she herself did not wish to be found, to be questioned, to have her name, her identity, her story discovered and to be brought back into the infernal circle from which she had escaped. She preferred to wait a week or two, to wait until chance brought within hailing-distance of the island some fishing-boat which could pick her up.
But no one came to the Priory. The steamer put off; and nothing disturbed her isolation.
And so she remained for three days. Fate seemed to have reconsidered its intention of making fresh assaults upon her. She was alone and her own mistress. All's Well, whose company had done her a world of good, disappeared.
The Priory domain occupied the whole end of the island, on the site of a Benedictine abbey, which had been abandoned in the fifteenth century and gradually fallen into ruin and decay.
The house, built in the eighteenth century by a wealthy Breton ship-owner out of the materials of the old abbey and the stones of the chapel, was in no way interesting either outside or in. Veronique, for that matter, did not dare to enter any of the rooms. The memory of her father and son checked her before the closed doors.
But, on the second day, in the bright spring sunshine, she explored the park. It extended to the point of the island and, like the sward in front of the house, was studded with ruins and covered with ivy. She noticed that all the paths ran towards a steep promontory crowned with a clump of enormous oaks. When she reached the spot, she found that these oaks stood round a crescent-shaped clearing which was open to the sea.
In the centre of the clearing was a cromlech with a rather short, oval table upheld by two supports of rock, which were almost square. The spot possessed an impressive magnificence and commanded a boundless view.
“The Fairies' Dolmen, of which Honorine spoke,” thought Veronique. “I cannot be far from the Calvary and Maguennoc's flowers.”
She walked round the megalith. The inner surface of the two uprights bore a few illegible engraved signs. But the two outer surfaces facing the sea formed as it were two smooth slabs prepared to receive an inscription; and here she saw something that caused her to shudder with anguish. On the right, deeply encrusted, was an unskilful, primitive drawing of four crosses with four female figures writhing upon them. On the left was a column of lines of writing, whose characters, inadequately carved in the stone, had been almost obliterated by the weather, or perhaps even deliberately effaced by human hands. A few words remained, however, the very words which Veronique had read on the drawing which she found beside Maguennoc's corpse:
“Four women crucified.... Thirty coffins.... The God-Stone which gives life or death.”
Veronique moved away, staggering. The mystery was once more before her, as everywhere in the island, and she was determined to escape from it until the moment when she could leave Sarek altogether.
She took a path which started from the clearing and led past the last oak on the right. This oak appeared to have been struck by lightning, for all that remained of it was the trunk and a few dead branches.
Farther on, she went down some stone steps, crossed a little meadow in which stood four rows of menhirs and stopped suddenly with a stifled cry, a cry of admiration and amazement, before the sight that presented itself to her eyes.
“Maguennoc's flowers,” she whispered.
The last two menhirs of the central alley which she was following stood like the posts of a door that opened upon the most glorious spectacle, a rectangular space, fifty yards long at most, which was reached by a short descending flight of steps and bordered by two rows of menhirs all of the same height and placed at accurately measured intervals, like the columns of a temple. The nave and side-aisles of this temple were paved with wide, irregular, broken granite flag-stones, which the grass, growing in the cracks, marked with patterns similar to those of the lead which frames the pieces of a stained-glass window.
In the middle was a small bed of flowers thronging around an ancient stone crucifix. But such flowers! Flowers which the wildest imaginations or fancy never conceived, dream-flowers, miraculous flowers, flowers out of all proportion to ordinary flowers!
Veronique recognized all of them; and yet she stood dumbfounded at their size and splendour. There were flowers of many varieties, but few of each variety. It was like a nosegay made to contain every colour, every perfume and every beauty that flowers can possess.
And the strangest thing was that these flowers, which do not usually bloom at the same time and which open in successive months, were all growing and blossoming together! On one and the same day, these flowers, all perennial flowers whose time does not last much more than two or three weeks, were blooming and multiplying, full and heavy, vivid, sumptuous, proudly borne on their sturdy stems.
There were spiderworts, there were ranunculi, tiger-lilies, columbines, blood-red potentillas, irises of a brighter violet than a bishop's cassock. There were larkspurs, phlox, fuchsias, monk's-hoods, montbretias. And, above all this, to Veronique's intense emotion, above the dazzling flower-bed, standing a little higher in a narrow border around the pedestal of the crucifix, with all their blue, white and violet clusters seeming to lift themselves so as to touch the Saviour's very form, were veronicas!
She was faint with emotion. As she came nearer, she had read on a little label fastened to the pedestal these two words.
Veronique did not believe in miracles. She was obliged to admit that the flowers were wonderful, beyond all comparison with the flowers of our climes. But she refused to think that this anomaly was not to be explained except by supernatural causes or by magic recipes of which Maguennoc held the secret. No, there was some reason, perhaps a very simple one, of which events would afford a full explanation.
Meanwhile, amid the beautiful pagan setting, in the very centre of the miracle which it seemed to have wrought by its presence, the figure of Christ Crucified rose from the mass of flowers which offered Him their colours and their perfumes. Veronique knelt and prayed.
Next day and the day after, she returned to the Calvary of the Flowers. Here the mystery that surrounded her on every side had manifested itself in the most charming fashion; and her son played a part in it that enabled Veronique to think of him, before her own flowers, without hatred or despair.
But, on the fifth day, she perceived that her provisions were becoming exhausted; and in the middle of the afternoon the went down to the village.
There she noticed that most of the houses had been left open, so certain had their owners been, on leaving, of coming back again and taking what they needed in a second trip.
Sick at heart, she dared not cross the thresholds. There were geraniums on the window-ledges. Tall clocks with brass pendulums were ticking off the time in the empty rooms. She moved away.
In a shed near the quay, however, she saw the sacks and boxes which Honorine had brought with her in the motor-boat.
“Well,” she thought, “I shan't starve. There's enough to last me for weeks; and by that time...”
She filled a basket with chocolate, biscuits, a few tins of preserved meat, rice and matches; and she was on the point of returning to the Priory, when it occurred to her that she would continue her walk to the other end of the island. She would fetch her basket on the way back.
A shady road climbed upwards on the right. The landscape seemed to be the same: the same flat stretches of moorland, without ploughed fields or pastures; the same clumps of ancient oaks. The island also became narrower, with no obstacle to block the view of the sea on either side or of the Penmarch headland in the distance.
There was also a hedge which ran from one cliff to the other and which served to enclose a property, a shabby property, with a straggling, dilapidated, tumbledown house upon it, some out-houses with patched roofs and a dirty, badly-kept yard, full of scrap-iron and stacks of firewood.
Veronique was already retracing her steps, when she stopped in alarm and surprise. It seemed to her that she heard some one moan. She listened, striving to plumb the vast silence, and once again the same sound, but this time more distinctly, reached her ears; and there were others: cries of pain, cries for help, women's cries. Then had not all the inhabitants taken to flight? She had a feeling of joy mingled with some sorrow, to know that she was not alone in Sarek, and of fear also, at the thought that events would perhaps drag her back again into the fatal cycle of death and horror.
So far as Veronique was able to judge, the noise came not from the house, but from the buildings on the right of the yard. This yard was closed with a simple gate which she had only to push and which opened with the creaking sound of wood upon wood.
The cries in the out-house at once increased in number. The people inside had no doubt heard Veronique approach. She hastened her steps.
Though the roof of the out-buildings was gone in places, the walls were thick and solid, with old arched doors strengthened with iron bars. There was a knocking against one of these doors from the inside, while the cries became more urgent:
But there was a dispute; and another, less strident voice grated:
“Be quiet, Clemence, can't you? It may be them!”
“No, no, Gertrude, it's not! I don't hear them!... Open the door, will you? The key ought to be there.”
Veronique, who was seeking for some means of entering, now saw a big key in the lock. She turned it; and the door opened.
She at once recognized the sisters Archignat, half-dressed, gaunt, evil-looking, witch-like. They were in a wash-house filled with implements; and Veronique saw at the back, lying on some straw, a third woman, who was bewailing her fate in an almost inaudible voice and who was obviously the third sister.
At that moment, one of the first two collapsed from exhaustion; and the other, whose eyes were bright with fever, seized Veronique by the arm and began to gasp:
“Did you see them, tell me?... Are they there?... How is it they didn't kill you?... They are the masters of Sarek since the others went off.... And it's our turn next.... We've been locked in here now for six days.... Listen, it was on the day when everybody left We three came here, to the wash-house, to fetch our linen, which was drying. And then they came.... We didn't hear them.... One never does hear them.... And then, suddenly, the door was locked on us.... A slam, a turn of the key... and the thing was done.... We had bread, apples and best of all, brandy.... We didn't do so badly.... Only, were they going to come back and kill us? Was it our turn next?... Oh, my dear good lady, how we strained our ears! And how we trembled with fear!... My eldest sister's gone crazy.... Hark, you can hear her raving.... The other, Clemence, has borne all she can.... And I... I... Gertrude...”
Gertrude had plenty of strength left, for she was twisting Veronique's arm:
“And Correjou? He came back, didn't he, and went away again? Why didn't anyone come to look for us? It would have been easy enough: everybody knew where we were; and we called out at the least sound. So what does it all mean?”
Veronique hesitated what to reply. Still, why should she conceal the truth?
“The two boats went down.”
“The two boats sank in view of Sarek. All on board were drowned. It was opposite the Priory... after leaving the Devil's Passage.”
Veronique said no more, so as to avoid mentioning the names of Francois and his tutor or speaking of the part which these two had played. But Clemence now sat up, with distorted features. She had been leaning against the door and raised herself to her knees.
“Honorine is dead.”
The two sisters both cried Out at once. Then they were silent and looked at each other. The same thought struck them both. They seemed to be reflecting. Gertrude was moving her fingers as though counting. And the terror on their two faces increased.
Speaking in a very low voice, as though choking with fear, Gertrude, with her eyes fixed on Veronique, said:
“That's it... that's it... I've got the total.... Do you know how many there were in the boats, without my sisters and me? Do you know? Twenty.... Well, reckon 4t up: twenty... and Maguennoc, who was the first to die... and M. Antoine, who died afterwards... and little Francois and M. Stephane, who vanished, but who are dead too... and Honorine and Marie Le Goff, both dead.... So reckon it up: that makes twenty-six, twenty—six... The total's correct, isn't it?... Now take twenty-six from thirty.... You understand, don't you? The thirty coffins: they have to be filled.... So twenty-six from thirty... leaves four, doesn't it?”
She could no longer speak; her tongue faltered. Nevertheless the terrible syllables came from her mouth; and Veronique heard her stammering:
“Eh? Do you understand?... That leaves four... us four... the three sisters Archignat, who were kept behind and locked up... and yourself.... So — do you follow me? — the three crosses — you know, the 'four women crucified' — the number's there... it's our four selves... there's no one besides us on the island... four women....”
Veronique had listened in silence. She broke out into a slight perspiration.
She shrugged her shoulders, however:
“Well? And then? If there's no one except ourselves on the island, what are you afraid of?”
“Them, of course! Them!”
Veronique lost her patience:
“But if everybody has gone!” she exclaimed.
Gertrude took fright:
“Speak low. Suppose they heard you!”
“They: the people of old.
“The people of old?”
“Yes, those who used to make sacrifices... the people who killed men and women... to please their gods.”
“But that's a thing of the past! The Druids: is that what you mean? Come, come; there are no Druids nowadays.”
“Speak quietly! Speak quietly! There are still... there are evil spirits...”
“Then they're ghosts?” asked Veronique, horror-stricken by these superstitions.
“Ghosts, yes, but ghosts of flesh and blood... with hands that lock doors and keep you imprisoned... creatures that sink boats, the same, I tell you, that killed M. Antoine, Marie le Gaff and the others... that killed twenty-six of us....”
Veronique did not reply. There was no reply to make. She knew, she knew only too well who had killed M. d'Hergemont, Marie Le Goff and the others and sunk the two boats.
“What time was it when the three of you were locked in?” she asked.
“Half-past ten.... We had arranged to meet Correjou in the village at eleven.”
Veronique reflected. It was hardly possible that Francois and Stephane should have had time to be at half-past ten in this place and an hour later to be behind the rock from which they had darted out upon the two boats. Was it to be presumed that one or more of their accomplices were left on the island?
“In any case,” she said, “you must come to a decision. You can't remain in this state. You must rest yourselves, eat something....”
The second sister had risen to her feet. She said, in the same hollow and violent tones as her sister:
“First of all, we must hide... and be able to defend ourselves against them.”
“What do you mean?” asked Veronique.
She too, in spite of herself, felt this need of a refuge against a possible enemy.
“What do I mean? I'll tell you. The thing has been talked about a lot in the island, especially this year; and Maguennoc decided that, at the first attack, everybody should take shelter in the Priory.”
“Why in the Priory?”
“Because we could defend ourselves there. The cliffs are perpendicular. You're protected on every side.”
“What about the bridge?”
“Maguennoc and Honorine thought of everything. There's a little hut fifteen yards to the left of the bridge. That's the place they hit on to keep their stock of petrol in. Empty three or four cans over the bridge, strike a match... and the thing's done. You're just as in your own home. You can't be got at and you can't be attacked.”
“Then why didn't they come to the Priory instead of taking to flight in the boats?”
“It was safer to escape in the boats. But we no longer have the choice.”
“And when shall we start?”
“At once. It's daylight still;” and that's better than the dark.”
“But your sister, the one on her back?”
“We have a barrow. We've got to wheel her. There's a direct road to the Priory, without passing through the village.”
Veronique could not help looking with repugnance upon the prospect of living in close intimacy with the sisters Archignat. She yielded, however, swayed by a fear which she was unable to overcome:
“Very well,” she said. “Let's go. I'll take you to the Priory and come back to the village to fetch some provisions.”
“Oh, you mustn't be away long!” protested one of the sisters. “As soon as the bridge is cut, we'll light a bonfire on Fairies' Dolmen Hill and they'll send a steamer from the mainland. To-day the fog is coming up; but to-morrow...”
Veronique raised no objection. She now accepted the idea of leaving Sarek, even at the cost of an enquiry which would reveal her name.
They started, after the two sisters had swallowed a glass of brandy. The madwoman sat huddled in the wheel-barrow, laughing softly and uttering little sentences which she addressed to Veronique as though she wanted her to laugh too:
“We shan't meet them yet.... They're getting ready....”
“Shut up, you old fool!” said Gertrude. “You'll bring us bad luck.”
“Yes, yes, we shall see some sport.... It'll be great fun.... I have a cross of gold hung round my neck... and another cut into the skin of my head.... Look!... Crosses everywhere.... One ought to be comfortable on the cross.... One ought to sleep well there....”
“Shut up, will you, you old fool?” repeated Gertrude, giving her a box on the ear.
“All right, all right!... But it's they who'll hit you; I see them hiding!...”
The path, which was pretty rough at first, reached the table-land formed by the west cliffs, which were loftier, but less rugged and worn away than the others. The woods were scarcer; and the oaks were all bent by the wind from the sea.
“We are coming to the heath which they call the Black Heath,” said Clemence Archignat.
“They live underneath.”
Veronique once more shrugged her shoulders:
“How do you know?”
“We know more than other people,” said Gertrude. “They call us witches; and there's something in it. Maguennoc himself, who knew a great deal, used to ask our advice about anything that had to do with healing, lucky stones, the herbs you gather on St. John's Eve...”
“Mugwort and vervain,” chuckled the madwoman. “They are picked at sunset.”
“Or tradition too,” continued Gertrude. “We know what's been said in the island for hundreds of years; and it's always been said that there was a whole town underneath, with streets and all, in which they used to live of old. And there are some left still, I've seen them myself.”
Veronique did not reply.
“Yes, my sister and I saw one. Twice, when the June moon was six days old. He was dressed in white... and he was climbing the Great Oak to gather the sacred mistletoe... with a golden sickle. The gold glittered in the moonlight. I saw it, I tell you, and others saw it too.... And he's not the only one. There are several of them left over from the old days to guard the treasure.... Yes, as I say, the treasure.... They say it's a stone which works miracles, which can make you die if you touch it and which makes you live if you lie down on it. That's all true, Maguennoc told us so, all perfectly true. They of old guard the stone, the God-Stone, and they are to sacrifice all of us this year.... yes, all of us, thirty dead people for the thirty coffins....”
“Four women crucified,” crooned the madwoman.
“And it will be soon. The sixth day of the moon is near at hand. We must be gone before they climb the Great Oak to gather the mistletoe. Look, you can see the Great Oak from here. It's in the wood on this side of the bridge. It stands out above the others.”
“They are hiding behind it,” said the madwoman, turning round in her wheel-barrow. “They are waiting for us.”
“That'll do; and don't you stir.... As I was saying, you see the Great Oak... over there... beyond the end of the heath. It is... it is...”
She dropped the wheel-barrow, without finishing her sentence.
“Well?” asked Clemence. “What's the matter?”
“I've seen something,” stammered Gertrude. “Something white, moving about.”
“Something? What do you mean? They don't show themselves in broad daylight! You've gone cross-eyed.”
They both looked for a moment and then went on again. Soon the Great Oak was out of sight.
The heath which they were now crossing was wild and rough, covered with stones lying flat like tombstones and all pointing in the same direction.
“It's their burying-ground,” whispered Gertrude.
They said nothing more. Gertrude repeatedly had to stop and rest. Clemence had not the strength to push the wheel-barrow. They were both of them tottering on their legs; and they gazed into the distance with anxious eyes.
They went down a dip in the ground and up again. The path joined that which Veronique had taken with Honorine on the first day; and they entered the wood which preceded the bridge.
Presently the growing excitement of the sisters Archignat made Veronique understand that they were approaching the Great Oak; and she saw it standing on a mound of earth and roots, bigger than the others and separated from them by wider intervals. She could not help thinking that it was possible for several men to hide behind that massive trunk and that perhaps several were hiding there now.
Notwithstanding their fears, the sisters had quickened their pace; and they kept their eyes turned from the fatal tree.
They left it behind. Veronique breathed more freely. All danger was passed; and she was just about to laugh at the sisters Archignat, when one of them, Clemence, spun on her heels and dropped with a moan.
At the same time something fell to the ground, something that had struck Clemence in the back. It was an axe, a stone axe.
“Oh, the thunder-stone, the thunder-stone!” cried Gertrude.
She looked up for a second, as if, in accordance with the inveterate popular belief, she believed that the axe came from the sky and was an emanation of the thunder.
But, at that moment, the madwoman, who had got out of her barrow, leapt from the ground and fell head forward. Something else had whizzed through the air. The madwoman was writhing with pain. Gertrude and Veronique saw an arrow which had been driven through her shoulder and was still vibrating.
Then Gertrude fled screaming.
Veronique hesitated. Clemence and the madwoman were rolling about on the ground. The madwoman giggled:
“Behind the oak! They're hiding... I see them.”
“Help!... Lift me up... carry me... I'm terrified!”
But another arrow whizzed past them and fell some distance farther.
Veronique now also took to her heels, urged not so much by panic, though this would have been excusable, as by the eager longing to find a weapon and defend herself. She remembered that in her father's study there was a glass case filled with guns and revolvers, all bearing the word “loaded,” no doubt as a warning to Francois; and it was one of these that she wished to seize in order to face the enemy. She did not even turn round. She was not interested to know whether she was being pursued. She ran for the goal, the only profitable goal.
Being lighter and swifter of foot, she overtook Gertrude, who panted:
“The bridge.... We must burn it.... The petrol's there....”
Veronique did not reply. Breaking down the bridge was a secondary matter and would even have been an obstacle to her plan of taking a gun and attacking the enemy.
But, when she reached the bridge, Gertrude whirled about in such a way that she almost fell down the precipice. An arrow had struck her in the back.
“Help! Help!” she screamed. “Don't leave me!”
“I'm coming back,” replied Veronique, who had not seen the arrow and thought that Gertrude had merely caught her foot in running. “I'm coming back, with two guns. You join me.”
She imagined in her mind that, once they were both armed, they would go back to the wood and rescue the other sisters. Redoubling her efforts, therefore, she reached the wall of the estate, ran across the grass and went up to her father's study. Here she stopped to recover her breath; and, after she had taken the two guns, her heart beat so fast that she had to go back at a slower pace.
She was astonished at not meeting Gertrude, at not seeing her. She called her. No reply. And it was not till then that the thought occurred to her that Gertrude had been wounded like her sisters.
She once more broke into a run. But, when she came within sight of the bridge, she heard shrill cries pierce through the buzzing in her ears and, on coming into the open opposite the sharp ascent that led to the wood of the Great Oak, she saw...
What she saw riveted her to the entrance to the bridge. On the other side, Gertrude was sprawling upon the ground, struggling, clutching at the roots, digging her nails into the grass and slowly, slowly, with an imperceptible and uninterrupted movement, moving along the slope.
And Veronique became aware that the unfortunate woman was fastened under the arms and round the waist by a cord which was hoisting her up, like a bound and helpless prey, and which was pulled by invisible hands above.
Veronique raised one of the guns to her shoulder. But at what enemy was she to take aim? What enemy was she to fight? Who was hiding behind the trees and stones that crowned the hill like a rampart?
Gertrude slipped between those stones, between those trees. She had ceased screaming, no doubt she was exhausted and swooning. She disappeared from sight.
Veronique had not moved. She realized the futility of any venture or enterprise. By rushing into a contest in which she was beaten beforehand she would not be able to rescue the sisters Archignat and would merely offer herself to the conqueror as a new and final victim.
Besides, she was overcome with fear. Everything was happening in accordance with the ruthless logic of facts of which she did not grasp the meaning but which all seemed connected like the links of a chain. She was afraid, afraid of those beings, afraid of those ghosts, instinctively and unconsciously afraid, afraid like the sisters Archignat, like Honorine, like all the victims of the terrible scourge.
She stooped, so as not to be seen from the Great Oak, and, bending forward and taking the shelter offered by some bramble-bushes, she reached the little hut of which the sisters Archignat had spoken, a sort of summer-house with a pointed roof and coloured tiles. Half the summer-house was filled with cans of petrol.
From here she overlooked the bridge, on which no one could step without being seen by her. But no one came down from the wood.
Night fell, a night of thick fog silvered by the moon which just allowed Veronique to see the opposite side.
After an hour, feeling a little reassured, she made a first trip with two cans which she emptied on the outer beams of the bridge.
Ten times, with her ears pricked up, carrying her gun slung over her shoulder and prepared at any moment to defend herself, she repeated the journey. She poured the petrol a little at random, groping her way and yet as far as possible selecting the places where her sense of touch seemed to tell her that the wood was most rotten.
She had a box of matches, the only one that she had found in the house. She took out a match and hesitated a moment, frightened at the thought of the great light it would make:
“Even so,” she reflected, “if it could be seen from the mainland... But, with this fog...”
Suddenly she struck the match and at once lit a paper torch which she had prepared by soaking it in petrol.
A great flame blazed and burnt her fingers. Then she threw the paper in a pool of petrol which had formed in a hollow and fled back to the summer-house.
The fire flared up immediately and, at one flash, spread over the whole part which she had sprinkled. The cliffs on the two islands, the strip of granite that united them, the big trees around, the hill, the wood of the Great Oak and the sea at the bottom of the ravine: these were all lit up.
“They know where I am.... They are looking at the summer-house where I am hiding,” thought Veronique, keeping her eyes fixed on the Great Oak.
But not a shadow passed through the wood. Not a sound of voices reached her ears. Those concealed above did not leave their impenetrable retreat.
In a few minutes, half the bridge collapsed, with a great crash and a gush of sparks. But the other half went on burning; and at every moment a piece of timber tumbled into the precipice, lighting up the depths of the night.
Each time that this happened, Veronique had a sense of relief and her overstrung nerves grew relaxed. A feeling of security crept over her and became more and more justified as the gulf between her and her enemies widened. Nevertheless she remained inside the summer-house and resolved to wait for the dawn in order to make sure that no communication was henceforth possible.
The fog increased. Everything was shrouded in darkness. About the middle of the night, she heard a sound on the other side, at the top of the hill, so far as she could judge. It was the sound of woodcutters felling trees, the regular sound of an axe biting into branches which were finally removed by breaking.
Veronique had an idea, absurd though she knew it to be, that they were perhaps building a footbridge; and she clutched her gun resolutely.
About an hour later, she seemed to hear moans and even a stifled cry, followed, for some time, by the rustle of leaves and the sound of steps coming and going. This ceased. Once more there was a great silence which seemed to absorb in space every stirring, every restless, every quivering, every living thing.
The numbness produced by the fatigue and hunger from which she was beginning to suffer left Veronique little power of thought. She remembered above all that, having failed to bring any provisions from the village, she had nothing to eat. She did not distress herself, for she was determined, as soon as the fog lifted — and this was bound to happen before long — to light bonfires with the cans of petrol. She reflected that the best place would be at the end of the island, at the spot where the dolmen stood.
But suddenly a dreadful thought struck her: had she not left her box of matches on the bridge? She felt in her pockets but could not find it. All search was in vain.
This also did not perturb her unduly. For the time being, the feeling that she had escaped the attacks of the enemy filled her with such delight that it seemed to her that all the difficulties would disappear of their own accord.
The hours passed in this way, endlessly long hours, which the penetrating fog and the cold made more painful as the morning approached.
Then a faint gleam overspread the sky. Things emerged from the gloom and assumed their actual forms. And Veronique now saw that the bridge had collapsed throughout its length. An interval of fifty yards separated the two islands, which were only joined below by the sharp, pointed, inaccessible ridge of the cliff.
She was saved.
But, on raising her eyes to the hill opposite, she saw, right at the top of the slope, a sight that made her utter a cry of horror. Three of the nearest trees of those which crowned the hill and belonged to the wood of the Great Oak had been stripped of their lower branches. And, on the three bare trunks, with their arms strained backward, with their legs bound, under the tatters of their skirts, and with ropes drawn tight beneath their livid faces, half-hidden by the black bows of their caps, hung the three sisters Archignat. They were crucified.