The Secret of Sarek/Chapter VI

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WALKING erect, with a stiff and mechanical gait, without turning round to look at the abominable spectacle, without recking of what might happen if she were seen, Veronique went back to the Priory.

A single aim, a single hope sustained her: that of leaving the Isle of Sarek. She had had her fill of horror. Had she seen three corpses, three women who had had their throats cut, or been shot, or even hanged, she would not have felt, as she did now, that her whole being was in revolt. But this, this torture, was too much. It involved an ignominy, it was an act of sacrilege, a damnable performance which surpassed the bounds of wickedness.

And then she was thinking of herself, the fourth and last victim. Fate seemed to be leading her towards that catastrophe as a person condemned to death is pushed on to the scaffold. How could she do other than tremble with fear? How could she fail to read a warning in the choice of the hill of the Great Oak for the torture of the three sisters Archignat?

She tried to find comfort in words:

“Everything will be explained. At the bottom of these hideous mysteries are quite simple causes, actions apparently fantastic but in reality performed by beings of the same species as myself, who behave as they do from criminal motives and in accordance with a determined plan. No doubt all this is only possible because of the war; the war brings about a peculiar state of affairs in which events of this kind are able to take place. But, all the same, there is nothing miraculous about it nor anything inconsistent with the rules of ordinary life.”

Useless phrases! Vain attempts at argument which her brain found difficulty in following! In reality, upset as she was by violent nervous shocks, she came to think and feel like all those people of Sarek whose death she had witnessed. She shared their weakness, she was shaken by the same terrors, besieged by the same nightmares, unbalanced by the persistence within her of the instincts of bygone ages and lingering superstitions ever ready to rise to the surface.

Who were these invisible beings who persecuted her? Whose mission was it to fill the thirty coffins of Sarek? Who was it that was wiping but all the inhabitants of the luckless island? Who was it that lived in caverns, gathering at the fateful hours the sacred mistletoe and the herbs of St. John, using axes and arrows and crucifying women? And in view of what horrible task, of what monstrous duty? In accordance with what inconceivable plans? Were they spirits of darkness, malevolent genii, priests of a dead religion, sacrificing men, women and children to their blood-thirsty gods?

“Enough, enough, or I shall go mad!” she said, aloud. “I must go! That must be my only thought: to get away from this hell!”

But it was as though destiny were taking special pains to torture her! On beginning her search for a little food, she suddenly noticed, in her father's study, at the back of a cupboard, a drawing pinned to the wall, representing the same scene as the roll of paper which she had found near Maguennoc's body in the deserted cabin.

A portfolio full of drawings lay on one of the shelves in the cupboard. She opened it. It contained a number of sketches of the same scene, likewise in red chalk. Each of them bore above the head of the first woman the inscription, “V. d'H.” One of them was signed, “Antoine d'Hergemont.”

So it was her father who had made the drawing on Maguennoc's paper! It was her father who had tried in all these sketches to give the tortured woman a closer and closer resemblance to his own daughter!

“Enough, enough!” repeated Veronique. “I won't think, I won't reflect!”

Feeling very faint, she pursued her search but found nothing with which to stay her hunger.

Nor did she find anything that would allow her to light a fire at the point of the island, though the fog had lifted and the signals would certainly have been observed.

She tried rubbing two flints against each other, but she did not understand how to go to work and she did not succeed.

For three days she kept herself alive with water and wild grapes gathered among the ruins. Feverish and utterly exhausted, she had fits of weeping which nearly every time produced the sudden appearance of All's Well; and her physical suffering was such that she felt angry with the poor dog for having that ridiculous name and drove him away. All's Well, greatly surprised, squatted on his haunches farther off and began to sit up again. She felt exasperated with him, as though he could help being Francois' dog!

The least sound made her shake from head to foot and covered her with perspiration. What were the creatures in the Great Oak doing? From which side were they preparing to attack her? She hugged herself nervously, shuddering at the thought of falling into those monsters' hands, and could not keep herself from remembering that she was a beautiful woman and that they might be tempted by her good looks and her youth.

But, on the fourth day, a great hope uplifted her. She had found in a drawer a powerful reading-glass. Taking advantage of the bright sunshine, she focussed the rays upon a piece of paper which ended by catching fire and enabling her to light a candle.

She believed that she was saved. She had discovered quite? stock of candles, which allowed her, to begin with, to keep the precious flame alive until the evening. At eleven o'clock, she took a lantern and went towards the summer-house, intending to set fire to it. It was a fine night and the signal would be perceived from the coast.

Fearing to be seen with her light, fearing above all the tragic vision of the sisters Archignat, whose tragic Calvary was flooded by the moonlight, she took, on leaving the Priory, another road, more to the left and bordered with thickets. She walked anxiously, taking care not to rustle the leaves or stumble over the roots. When she reached open country, not far from the summer-house, she felt so tired that she had to sit down. Her head was buzzing. Her heart almost refused to beat.

She could not see the place of execution from here either. But, on turning her eyes, despite herself, in the direction of the hill, she received the impression that something resembling a white figure had moved. It was in the very heart of the wood, at the end of an avenue which intersected the thick mass of trees on that side.

The figure appeared again, in the full moonlight; and Veronique saw, notwithstanding the considerable distance, that it was the figure of a person clad in a robe and perched amid the branches of a tree which stood alone and higher than the others.

She remembered what the sisters Archignat had said:

“The sixth day of the moon is near at hand. They will climb the Great Oak and gather the sacred mistletoe.”

And she now remembered certain descriptions which she had read in books and different stories which her father had told her; and she felt as if she were present at one of those Druid ceremonies which had appealed to her imagination as a child. But at the same time she felt so weak that she was not convinced that she was awake or that the strange sight before her eyes was real. Four other figures formed a group at the foot of the tree and raised their arms as though to catch the bough ready to fall. A light flashed above. The high-priest's golden sickle had cut off the bunch of mistletoe.

Then the high-priest climbed down from the oak; and all five figures glided along the avenue, skirted the wood and reached the top of the knoll.

Veronique, who was unable to take her haggard eyes from those creatures, bent forward and saw the three corpses hanging each from its tree of torment. At the distance where she stood, the blade bows of the caps looked like crows. The figures stopped opposite the victims as though to perform some incomprehensible rite. At last the high-priest separated himself from the group and, holding the bunch of mistletoe in his hand, came down the hill and went towards the spot where the first arch of the bridge was anchored.

Veronique was almost fainting. Her wavering eyes, before which everything seemed to dance, fastened on to the glittering sickle which swung from side to side on the priest's chest, below his long white beard. What was he going to do? Though the bridge no longer existed, Veronique was convulsed with anguish. Her legs refused to carry her. She lay down on the ground, keeping her eyes fixed upon the terrifying sight.

On reaching the edge of the chasm, the priest again stopped for a few seconds. Then he stretched out the arm in which he carried the mistletoe and, preceded by the sacred plant as by a talisman which altered the laws of nature in his favour, he took a step forward above the yawning gulf.

And he walked thus in space, all white in the moonlight.

What happened Veronique did not know, nor was she quite sure what had been happening, if she had not been the sport of an hallucination, nor at what stage of the strange ceremony this hallucination had originated in her enfeebled brain.

She waited with closed eyes for events which did not take place and which, for that matter, she did not even try to foresee. But other, more real things preoccupied her mind. Her candle was going out inside the lantern. She was aware of this; and yet she had not the strength to pull herself together and return to the Priory. And she said to herself that, if the sun should not shine again within the next few days, she would not be able to light the flame and that she was lost.

She resigned herself, weary of fighting and realizing that she was defeated beforehand in this unequal contest. The only ending that was not to be endured was that of being captured. But why not abandon herself to the death that offered, death from starvation, from exhaustion? If you suffer long enough, there must come a moment when the suffering decreases and when you pass, almost unconsciously, from life, which has grown too cruel, to death, which Veronique was gradually beginning to desire.

“That's it, that's it,” she murmured. “To go from Sarek or to die: it's all the same. What I want is to get away.”

A sound of leaves made her open her eyes. The flame of the candle was expiring. But behind the lantern All's Well was sitting, beating the air with his fore-paws.

And Veronique saw that he carried a packet of biscuits, fastened round his neck by a string.

“Tell me your story, you dear old All's Well,” said Veronique, next morning, after a good night's rest in her bedroom at the Priory. “For, after all, I can't believe that you came to look for me and bring me food of your own accord. It was ah accident, wasn't it? You were wandering in that direction, you heard me crying and you came to me. But who tied that little box of biscuits round your neck? Does it mean that we have a friend in the island, a friend who takes an interest in us? Why doesn't he show himself? Speak and tell me, All's Well.”

She kissed the dog and went on:

“And whom were those biscuits intended for? For your master, for Francois? Or for Honorine? No? Then for Monsieur Stephane perhaps?”

The dog wagged his tail and moved towards the door. He really seemed to understand. Veronique followed him to Stephane Maroux's room. All's Well slipped under the tutor's bed. There were three more cardboard boxes of biscuits, two packets of chocolate and two tins of preserved meat. And each parcel was supplied with a string ending in a wide loop, from which All's Well must have released his head.

“What does it mean?” asked Veronique, bewildered. Did you put them under there? But who gave them to you? Have we actually a friend in the island, who knows us and knows Stephane Maroux? Can you take me to him? He must live on this side of the island, because there is no means of communicating with the other and you can't have been there.”

Veronique stopped to think. But, in addition to the provisions stowed away by All's Well, she also noticed a small canvas-covered satchel under the bed; and she wondered why Stephane Maroux had hidden it. She thought that she had the right to open it and to look for some clue to the part played by the tutor, to his character, to his past perhaps, to his relations with M. d'Hergemont and Francois:

“Yes,” she said, “it is my right and even my duty!”

Without hesitation, she took a pair of big scissors and forced the frail lock.

The satchel contained nothing but a manuscript-book, with a rubber band round it. But, the moment she opened the book, she stood amazed.

On the first page was her own portrait, her photograph as a girl, with her signature in full and the inscription:

“To my friend Stephane.”

“I don't understand, I don't understand,” she murmured. “I remember the photograph: I must have been sixteen. But how did I come to give it to him? I must have known him!”

Eager to learn more, she read the next page, a sort of preface worded as follows:

“Veronique, I wish to lead my life under your eyes. In undertaking the education of your son, of that son whom I ought to loathe, because he is the son of another, but whom I love because he is your son, my intention is that my life shall be in full harmony with the secret feeling that has swayed it so long. One day, I have no doubt, you will resume your place as Francois' mother. On that day you will be proud of him. I shall have effaced all that may survive in him of his father and I shall have exalted all the fine and noble qualities which he inherits from you. The aim is great enough for me to devote myself to it body and soul. I do so with gladness. Your smile shall be my reward.”

Veronique's heart was flooded with a singular emotion. Her life was lit with a calmer radiance; and this new mystery, which she was unable to fathom any more than the others, was at least, like that of Maguennoc's flowers, gentle and comforting.

As she continued to turn the pages, she followed her son's education from day to day. She beheld the pupil's progress and the master's methods. The pupil was engaging, intelligent, studious, zealous loving, sensitive, impulsive and at the same time thoughtful. The master was affectionate, patient and borne up by some profound feeling which showed through every line of the manuscript.

And, little by little, there was a growing enthusiasm in the daily confession, which expressed itself in terms less and less restrained:

“Francois, my dearly-beloved son — for I may call you so, may I not? — Francois, your mother lives once again in you. Your eyes are pure and limpid as hers. Your soul i& grave and simple as her soul. You are unacquainted with evil; and one might almost say that you are unacquainted with good, so closely is it blended with your beautiful nature.”

Some of the child's exercises were copied into the book, exercises in which he spoke of his mother with passionate affection and with the persistent hope that he would soon see her again.

“We shall see her again, Francois,” Stephane added, “and you will then understand better what beauty means and light and the charm of life and the delight of beholding and admiring.”

Next came anecdotes about Veronique, minor details which she herself did not remember or which she thought that she alone knew:

“One day, at the Tuileries — she was only sixteen — a circle was formed round her... by people who looked at her and wondered at her loveliness. Her girl friends laughed, happy at seeing her admired....

“Open her right hand, Francois. You will see a long, white scar in the middle of the palm. When she was quite a little girl, she ran the point of an iron railing into her hand....”

But the last pages were not written for the boy and had certainly not been read by him. The writer's love was no longer disguised beneath admiring phrases. It displayed itself without reserve, ardent, exalted, suffering, quivering with hope, though always respectful.

Veronique closed the book. She could read no more.

“Yes, I confess, All's Well,” she said to the dog, who was already sitting up, “my eyes are wet with tears. Devoid of feminine weaknesses as I am, I will tell you what I would say to nobody else: that really touches me. Yes, I must try to recall the unknown features of the man who loves me like this... some friend of my childhood whose affection I never suspected and whose name has not left even a trace in my memory.”

She drew the dog to her:

“Two kind hearts, are they not, All's Well? Neither the master nor the pupil is capable of the crimes which I saw them commit. If they are the accomplices of our enemies here, they are so in spite of themselves and without knowing it I cannot believe in philtres and incantations and plants which deprive you of your reason. But, all the same, there is something, isn't there, you dear little dog? The boy who planted veronicas round the Calvary of Flowers and who wrote, 'Mother's flowers,' is not guilty, is he? And Honorine was right, when she spoke of a fit of madness, and he will come back to look for me, won't he? Stephane and he are sure to come back.”

The hours that went by were full of soothing quiet Veronique was no longer lonely. The present had no terrors for her; and she had faith in the future.

Next morning, she said to All's Well, whom she had locked up to prevent his running away:

“Will you take me there now my man? Where? Why, to the friend, of course, who sent provisions to Stephane Maroux. Come along.”

All's Well was only waiting for Veronique's permission. He dashed off in the direction of the grassy sward that led to the dolmen; and he stopped half way. Veronique came up with him. He turned to the right and took a path which brought them to a huddle of ruins near the edge of the dills. Then he stopped again.

“Is it here?” asked Veronique.

The dog lay down flat. In front of him, at the foot of two blocks of stones leaning against each other and covered with the same growth of ivy, was a tangle of brambles with under it a little passage like the entrance to a rabbit-warren. All's Well slipped in, disappeared and then returned in search of Veronique, who had to go back to the Priory and fetch a bill-hook to cut down the brambles.

She managed in half an hour to uncover the top step of a staircase, which she descended, feeling her way and preceded by All's Well, and which took her to a long tunnel, cut in the body of the rock and lighted on the left by little openings. She raised herself on tip-toe and saw that these openings overlooked the sea.

She walked on the level for ten minutes and then went down some more steps. The tunnel grew narrower. The openings, which all looked towards the sky, no doubt so as not to be seen from below, now gave light from both the right and the left. Veronique began to understand how All's Well was able to communicate with the other part of the island. The tunnel followed the narrow strip of cliff which joined the Priory estate to Sarek. The waves lapped the rocks on either side.

They next climbed by steps under the knoll of the Great Oak. Two tunnels opened at the top. All's Well chose the one on the left, which continued to skirt the sea.

Then on the right there were two more passages, both quite dark. The island appeared to be riddled in this way with invisible communications; and Veronique felt something clutch at her heart as she reflected that she was making for the part which the sisters Archignat had described as the enemy's subterranean domains, under the Black Heath.

All's Well trotted in front of her, turning round from time to time to see if she was following.

“Yes, yes, dear, I'm coming,” she whispered, and I am not a bit afraid: I am sure that you are leading me to a friend... a friend who has taken shelter down here. But why has he not left his shelter? Why did you not show him the way?”

The passage had been chipped smooth throughout, with a rounded ceiling and a very dry granite floor, which was amply ventilated by the openings. There was not a mark, not a scratch of any kind on the walls. Sometimes the point of a black flint projected.

“Is it here?” asked Veronique, when All's Well stopped.

The tunnel went no farther and widened into a chamber into which the light filtered more thinly through a narrower window.

All's Well seemed undecided. He listened, with his ears pricked up, standing on his hind-legs and resting his fore-paws against the end wall of the tunnel.

Veronique noticed that the wall, at this spot, was not formed throughout its length of the bare granite but consisted of an accumulation of stones of unequal size set in cement. The work evidently belonged to a different, doubtless more recent period.

A regular partition-wall had been built, closing the underground passage, which was probably continued on the other side.

She repeated:

“It's here, isn't it?”

But she said nothing more. She had heard the stifled sound of a voice.

She went up to the wall and presently gave a start. The voice was raised higher. The sounds became more distinct. Some one, a child, was singing, and she caught the words:

“And the mother said,

Rocking her child abed:

'Weep not. If you do,

The Virgin Mary weeps with you.'”

Veronique murmured:

“The song... the song...”

It was the same that Honorine had hummed at Beg-Meil. Who could be singing it now? A child, imprisoned in the island? A boy friend of Francois'?

And the voice went on:

“'Babes that laugh and sing

Smiles to the Blessed Virgin bring.

Fold your hands this way

And to sweet Mary pray.'”

The last verse was followed by a silence that lasted for a few minutes. All's Well appeared to be listening with increasing attention, as though something, which he knew of, was about to take place.

Thereupon, just where he stood, there was a slight noise of stones carefully moved. All's Well wagged his tail frantically and barked, so to speak, in a whisper, like an animal that understands the danger of breaking the silence. And suddenly, about his head, one of the stones was drawn inward, leaving a fairly large aperture.

All's Well leapt into the hole at a bound, stretched himself out and, helping himself with his hind-legs, twisting and crawling, disappeared inside.

“Ah, there's Master All's Well!” said the young voice. “How are we, Master All's Well? And why didn't we come and pay our master a visit yesterday? Serious business, was it? A walk with Honorine? Oh, if you could talk, my dear old chap, what stories you would have to tell! And, first of all, look here...”

Veronique, thrilled with excitement, had knelt down against the wall. Was it her son's voice that she heard? Was she to believe that he was back and in hiding? She tried in vain to see. The wall was thick; and there was a bend in the opening. But how clearly each syllable uttered, how plainly each intonation reached her ears 1

“Look here,” repeated the boy, “why doesn't Honorine come to set me free? Why don't you bring her here? You managed to find me all right. And grandfather must be worried about me.... But what an adventure!... So you're still of the same mind, eh, old chap? All's well, isn't it? All's as well as well can be!”

Veronique could not understand. Her son — for there was no doubt that it was Francois — her son was speaking as if he knew nothing of what had happened. Had he forgotten? Had his memory lost every trace of the deeds done during his fit of madness?

“Yes, a fit of madness,” thought Veronique, obstinately. “He was mad. Honorine was quite right: he was undoubtedly mad. And his reason has returned. Oh, Francois, Francois!...”

She listened, with all her tense being and all her trembling soul, to the words that might bring her so much gladness or such an added load of despair. Either the darkness would close in upon her more thickly and heavily than ever, or daylight was to pierce that endless night in which she had been struggling for fifteen years.

“Why, yes,” continued the boy, “I agree with you, All's Well. But all the same, I should be jolly glad if you could bring me some real proof of it. On the one hand, there's no news of grandfather or Honorine, though I've given you lots of messages for them; on the other hand, there's no news of Stephane. And that's what alarms me. Where is he? Where have they locked him up? Won't he be starving by now? Come, All's Well, tell me: where did you take the biscuits yesterday?... But, look here, what's the matter with you? You seem to have something on your mind. What are you looking at over there? Do you want to go away? No? Then what is it?

The boy stopped. Then, after a moment, in a much lower voice:

“Did you come with some one?” he asked. “Is there anybody behind the wall?”

The dog gave a dull bark. Then there was a long pause, during which Francois also must have been listening.

Veronique's emotion was so great that it seemed to her that Francois must hear the beating of her heart.

He whispered:

“Is that you, Honorine?”

There was a fresh pause; and he continued:

“Yes, I'm sure it's you.... I can hear you breathing.... Why don't you answer?”

Veronique was carried away by a sudden impulse. Certain gleams of light had flashed upon her mind since she had understood that Stephane was a prisoner, no doubt like Francois, therefore a victim of the enemy; and all sorts of vague suppositions flitted through her brain. Besides, how could she resist the appeal of that voice? Her son was asking her a question... her son!

“Francois... Francois!” she stammered.

“Ah,” he said, “there's an answer! I knew it! Is it you, Honorine?”

“No, Francois,” she said.

“Then who is it?”

“A friend of Honorine's.”

“I don't know you, do I?”

“No... but I am your friend.”

He hesitated. Was he on his guard?

“Why didn't Honorine come with you?”

Veronique was not prepared for this question, but she at once realized that, if the involuntary suppositions that were forcing themselves upon her were correct, the boy must not yet be told the truth.

She therefore said:

“Honorine came back from her journey, but has gone away again.”

“Gone to look for me?”

“That's it, that's it,” she said, quickly. “She thought that you had been carried away from Sarek and your tutor with you.”

“But grandfather?”

“He's gone too: so have all the inhabitants of the island.”

“Ah! The old story of the coffins and the crosses, I suppose?”

“Just so. They thought that your disappearance meant the beginning of the disasters; and their fear made them take to flight.”

“But you, madame?”

“I have known Honorine for a long time. I came from Paris with her to take a holiday at Sarek. I have no reason to go away. All these superstitions have no terrors for me.”

The child was silent. The improbability and inadequacy of the replies must have been apparent to him: and his suspicions increased in consequence. He confessed as much, frankly:

“Listen, madame, there's something I must tell you. It's ten days since I was imprisoned in this cell. During the first part of that time, I saw and heard nobody. But, since the day before yesterday, every morning a little wicket opens in the middle of my door and a woman's hand comes through and gives a fresh supply of water. A woman's hand... so... you see?”

“So you want to know if that woman is myself?”

“Yes, I am obliged to ask you.”

“Would you recognize that woman's hand?”

“Yes, it is lean and bony, with a yellow arm.”

“Here's mine,” said Veronique. “It can pass where All's Well did.”

She pulled up her sleeve; and by flexing her bare arm she easily passed it through.

“Oh,” said Francois, at once, “that's not the hand I saw!”

And he added, in a lower voice:

“How pretty this one is!”

Suddenly Veronique felt him take it in his own with a quick movement; and he exclaimed:

“Oh, it can't be true, it can't be true!”

He had turned her hand over and was separating the fingers so as to uncover the palm entirely. And he whispered:

“The scar!... It's there!... The white scar!...”

Then Veronique became greatly agitated. She remembered Stephane Maroux's diary and certain details set down by him which Francois must have heard. One of these details was this scar, which, recalled an old and rather serious injury.

She felt the boy's lips pressed to her hand, first gently and then with passionate ardour and a great flow of tears, and heard him stammering:

“Oh, mother, mother darling!... My dear, dear mother!...”