The Secret of Sarek/Chapter VII

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CHAPTER VII. FRANCOIS AND STEPHANE

LONG the mother and son remained thus, kneeling against the wall that divided them, yet as close together as though they were able to see each other with their frenzied eyes and to mingle their tears and kisses. They spoke both at once, asking each other questions and answering them at random. They were in a transport of delight. The life of each flowed over into the other's life and became swallowed up in it. No power on earth could now dissolve their union or break the bonds of love and confidence which unite mothers and sons.

“Yes, All's Well, old man,” said Francois, “you may sit up as much and as long as you like. We are really crying this time... and you will be the first to get tired, for one doesn't mind shedding such tears as these, does one, mother?”

As for Veronique, her mind retained not a vestige of the terrible visions which had dismayed it. Her son a murderer, her son killing and massacring people: she no longer admitted any of that. She did not even admit the excuse of madness. Everything would be explained in some other way which she was not even in a hurry to understand. She thought only of her son. He was there. His eyes saw her through the wall. His heart beat against hers. He lived; and he was the same gentle, affectionate, pure and charming child that her maternal dreams had pictured.

“My son, my son!” she kept on repeating, as though she could not utter those marvellous words often enough. “My son, it's you, it's you! I believed you dead, a thousand times dead, more dead than it is possible to be.... And you are alive! And you are here! And I am touching you! O Heaven, can it be true! I have a son... and my son is alive!...”

And he, on his side, took up the refrain with the same passionate fervour:

“Mother! Mother! I have waited for you so long!... To me you were not dead, but it was so sad to be a child and to have no mother... to see the years go by and to waste them in waiting for you.”

-For an hour they talked at random, of the past, of the present, of a hundred subjects which at first appeared to them the most interesting things in the world and which they forthwith dropped to ask each other more questions and to try to know each other a little better and to enter more deeply into the secret of their lives and the privacy of their souls.

It was Francois who first attempted to impart some little method to their conversation:

“Listen, mother; we have so much to say to each other that we must give up trying to say it all to-day and even for days and days. Let us speak now of what is essential and in the fewest possible words, for we have perhaps not much time before us.”

“What do you mean?” said Veronique, instantly alarmed. “I have no intention of leaving you!”

“But, mother, if we are not to leave each other, we must first be united. Now there are many obstacles to be overcome, even if it were only the wall that separates us. Besides, I am very closely watched; and I may be obliged at any moment to send you away, as I do All's Well, at the first sound of footsteps approaching.”

“Watched by whom?”

“By those who fell upon Stephane and me on the day when we discovered the entrance to these caves, under the heath on the table-land, the Black Heath.”

“Did you see them?”

“No, it was too dark.”

“But who are they? Who are those enemies?”

“I don't know.”

“You suspect, of course?”

“The Druids?” he said, laughing. “The people of old of whom the legends speak? Rather not! Ghosts? Not that either. They were just simply creatures of to-day, creatures of flesh and blood.”

“They live down here, though?”

“Most likely.”

“And you took them by surprise?”

“No, on the contrary. They seemed even to be expecting us and to be lying in wait for us. We had gone down a stone staircase and a very long passage, lined with perhaps eighty caves, or rather eighty cells. The doors, which were of wood, were open; and the cells overlooked the sea. It was on the way back, as we were going up the staircase again in the dark, that we were seized from one side, knocked down, bound, blindfolded and gagged. The whole thing did not take a minute. I suspect that we were carried back to the end of the long-passage. When I succeeded in removing my bonds and my bandage, I found that I was locked in one of the cells probably the last in the passage; and I have been here ten days.”

“My poor darling, how you must have suffered!”

“No, mother, and in any case not from hunger. There was a whole stack of provisions in one corner and a truss of straw in another to lie on. Sa I waited quietly.”

“For whom?”

“You promise not to laugh, mother?”

“Laugh at what, dear?”

“At what I'm going to tell you?”

“How can you think...?”

“Well, I was waiting for some one who had heard of all the stories of Sarek and who promised grandfather to come.”

“But who was it?”

The boy hesitated:

“No, I am sure you will make fun of me, mother, I'll tell you later. Besides, he never came... though I thought for a moment... Yes, fancy, I had managed to remove two stones from the wall and to open this hole of which my gaolers evidently didn't know. All of a sudden, I heard a noise, someone scratching...”

“It was All's Well?”

“It was Master All's Well coming by the other road. You can imagine the welcome he received! Only what astonished me was that nobody followed him this way, neither Honorine nor grandfather. I had no pencil or paper to write to them; but, after all, they had only to follow All's Well.”

“That was impossible,” said Veronique, “because they believed you to be far away from Sarek, carried off no doubt, and because your grandfather had left.”

“Just so: why believe anything of the sort? Grandfather knew, from a lately discovered document, where we were, for it was he who told us of the possible entrance to the underground passage. Didn't he speak to you about it?”

Veronique had been very happy in listening to her son's story. As he had been carried off and imprisoned, he was not the atrocious monster who had killed M. d'Hergemont, Marie Le Goff, Honorine and Correjou and his companions. The truth which she had already vaguely surmised now assumed a more definite form and, though still thickly shrouded, was visible in its essential part. Francois was not guilty. Some one had put on his clothes and impersonated him, even as some one else, in the semblance of Stephane, had pretended to be Stephane. Ah, what did all the rest matter, the improbabilities and inconsistencies, the proofs and certainties! Veronique did not even think about it. The only thing that counted was the innocence of her beloved son.

And so she still refused to tell him anything that would sadden him and spoil his happiness; and she said:

“No, I have not seen your grandfather. Honorine wanted to prepare him for my visit, but things happened so hurriedly...”

“And you were left alone on the island, poor mother? So you hoped to find me here?”

“Yes,” she said, after a moment's hesitation.

“Alone, but with All's Well, of course.”

“Yes. I hardly paid any attention to him during the first days. It was not until this morning that I thought of following him.”

“And where does the road start from that brought you here?”

“It's an underground passage the outlet of which is concealed between two stones near Maguennoc's garden.”

“What! Then the two islands communicate?”

“Yes, by the cliff underneath the bridge.”

“How strange! That's what neither Stephane not I guessed, and anybody else, for that matter... except our dear All's Well, when it came to finding his master.”

He interrupted himself and then whispered:

“Hark!”

But, the next moment, he said:

“No, it's not that yet. Still, we must hurry.”

“What am I to do?”

“It's quite simple, mother. When I made this hole, I saw that it could be widened easily enough, if it were possible also to take out the three or four stones next to it. But these are firmly fixed; and we should need an implement of some kind.”

“Well, I'll go and...”

“Yes, do, mother. Go back to the Priory. To the left of the house, in a basement, is a sort of workshop where Maguennoc kept his garden-tools. You will find a small pick-axe there, with a very short handle. Bring it me in the evening. I will work during the night; and to-morrow morning I shall give you a kiss, mother.”

“Oh, it sounds too good to be true!”

“I promise you I shall. Then all that we shall have to do will be to release Stephane.”

“Your tutor? Do you know where he is shut up?”

“I do almost know. According to the particulars which grandfather gave us, the underground passages consist of two floors one above the other; and the last cell of each is fitted as a prison. I occupy one of them. Stephane should occupy the other, below mine. What worries me...”

“What is it?”

“Well, it's this: according to grandfather again, these two cells were once torture-chambers... 'death chambers' was the word grandfather used.”

“Oh, but how alarming!”

“Why alarm yourself, mother? You see that they are not thinking of torturing me. Only, on the off chance and not knowing what sort of fate was in store for Stephane, I sent him something to eat by All's Well, who is sure to have found a way of getting to him.”

“No,” she said, “All's Well did not understand.”

“How do you know, mother?”

“He thought you were sending him to Stephane Maroux's room and he heaped it all under the bed.”

“Oh!” said the boy, anxiously. “What can have become of Stephane?” And he at once added, “You see, mother, that we must hurry, if we would save Stephane and save ourselves.”

“What are you afraid of?”

“Nothing, if you act quickly.”

“But still...”

“Nothing, I assure you. I feel certain that we shall get the better of every obstacle.”

“And, if any others present themselves... dangers which we cannot foresee?...”

“It is then,” said Francois, laughing, “that the man whom I am expecting will come and protect us.”

“You see, my darling, you yourself admit the need of assistance....”

“Why, no, mother, I am trying to ease your mind, but nothing will happen. Come, how would you have a son who has just found his mother lose her again at once? It isn't possible. In real life, may be... but we are not living in real life. We are absolutely living in a romance; and in romances things always come right. You ask All's Well. It's so, old chap, isn't it: we shall win and be united and live happy ever after? That's what you think, All's Well? Then be off, old chap, and take mother with you. I'm going to fill up the hole, in case they come and inspect my cell. And be sure not to try and come in when the hole is stopped, eh, All's Well? That's when the danger is. Go, mother, and don't make a noise when you come back.”

Veronique was not long away. She found the pick-axe; and, forty minutes after, brought it and managed to slip it into the cell.

“No one has been yet,” said Francois, “but they are certain to come soon and you had better not stay. I may have a night's work before me, especially as I shall have to stop because of likely visits. So I shall expect you at seven o'clock tomorrow.... By the way, talking of Stephane: I have been thinking it over. Some noises which I heard just now confirmed my notion that he is shut up more or less underneath me. The opening that lights my cell is too narrow for me to pass through. Is there a fairly wide window at the place where you are now?”

“No, but it can be widened by removing the little stones round it.”

“Capital. You will find in Maguennoc's workshop a bamboo ladder, with iron hooks to it, which you can easily bring with you to-morrow morning. Next, take some provisions and some rugs and leave them in a thicket at the entrance to the tunnel.”

“What for, darling?”

“You'll see. I have a plan. Good-bye, mother. Have a good night's rest and pick up your strength. We may have a hard day before us.”

Veronique followed her son's advice. The next morning, full of hope, she once more took the road to the cell. This time, All's Well, reverting to his instincts of independence, did not come with her.

“Keep quite still, mother,” said Francois, in so low a whisper that she could scarcely hear him. “I am very closely watched; and I think there's some one walking up and down in the passage. However, my work is nearly done; the stones are all loosened. I shall have finished in two hours. Have you the ladder?”

“Yes.”

“Remove the stones from the window... that will save time... for really I am frightened about Stephane.... And be sure not to make a noise....”

Veronique moved away.

The window was not much more than three feet from the floor: and the small stones, as she had supposed, were kept in place only by their own weight and the way in which they were arranged. The opening which she thus contrived to make was very wide; and she easily passed the ladder which she had brought with her through and secured it by its iron hooks to the lower ledge.

She was some hundred feet or so above the sea, which lay all white before her, guarded by the thousand reefs of Sarek. But she could not see the foot of the cliff, for there was under the window a slight projection of granite which jutted forward and on which the ladder rested instead of hanging perpendicularly.

“That will help Francois,” she thought.

Nevertheless, the danger of the undertaking seemed great; and she wondered whether she herself ought not to take the risk, instead of her son, all the more so as Francois might be mistaken, as Stephane's cell was perhaps not there at all and as perhaps there was no means of entering it by a similar opening. If so, what a waste of time! And what a useless danger for the boy to run!

At that moment she felt so great a need of self-devotion, so intense a wish to prove her love for him by direct action, that she formed her resolution without pausing to reflect, even as one performs immediately a duty which there is no question of not performing. Nothing deterred her: neither her inspection of the ladder, whose hooks were not wide enough to grip the whole thickness of the ledge, nor the sight of the precipice, which gave an impression that everything was about to fall away from under her. She had to act; and she acted.

Pinning up her skirt, she stepped across the wall, turned round, supported herself on the ledge, groped with her foot in space and found one of the rungs. Her whole body was trembling. Her heart was beating furiously, like the clapper of a bell. Nevertheless she had the mad courage to catch hold of the two uprights and go down.

It did not take long. She knew that there were twenty rungs in all. She counted them. When she reached the twentieth, she looked to the left and murmured, with unspeakable joy:

“Oh, Francois... my darling!”

She had seen, three feet away at most, a recess, a hollow which appeared to be the entrance to a cavity cut in the rock itself.

“Stephane... Stephane,” she called, but in so faint a voice that Stephane Maroux, if he were there, could not hear her.

She hesitated a few seconds, but her legs were giving way and she no longer had the strength either to climb up again or to remain hanging where she was. Taking advantage of a few irregularities in the rock and thus shifting the ladder, at the risk of unhooking it, she succeeded, by a sort of miracle of which she was quite aware, in catching hold of a flint which projected from the granite and setting foot in the cave. Then, with fierce energy, she made one supreme effort and, recovering her balance with a jerk, she entered.

She at once saw some one, fastened with cords, lying on a truss of straw.

The cave was small and not very deep, especially in the upper portion, which pointed towards the sky rather than the sea and which must have looked, from a distance, like a mere fold in the cliff. There was no projection to bound it at the edge. The light entered freely.

Veronique went nearer. The man did not move. He was asleep.

She bent over him; though she did not recognize him for certain, it seemed to her that a memory was emerging from that dim past in which all the faces of our childhood gradually fade away. This one was surely not unknown to her: a gentle visage, with regular features, fair hair flung well back, a broad, white forehead and a slightly feminine countenance, which reminded Veronique of the charming face of a convent friend who had died before the war.

She deftly unfastened the bonds with which the wrists were fastened together.

The man, without waking immediately, stretched his arms, as though submitting himself to a familiar operation, not effected for the first time, which did not necessarily interfere with his sleep. Presumably he was released like this at intervals, perhaps in order to eat and at night, for he ended by muttering:

“So early?... But I'm not hungry... and it's still light!”

This last reflection astonished the man himself. He opened his eyes and at once sat up where he lay, so that he might see the person who was standing in front of him, no doubt for the first time in broad daylight.

He was not greatly surprised, for the reason that the reality could not have been manifest to him at once. He probably thought that he was the sport of a dream or an hallucination; and he said, in an undertone:

“Veronique... Veronique...”

She felt a little embarrassed by his gaze, but finished releasing his bonds; and, when he distinctly felt her hand on his own hands and on his imprisoned limbs, he understood the wonderful event which her presence implied and he said, in a faltering voice:

“You! You!... Can it be?... Oh, speak just one word, just one!... Can it possibly be you?” He continued, almost to himself, “Yes, it is she... it is certainly she.... She is here!” And, anxiously, aloud, “You... at night... on the other nights... it wasn't you who came then? It was another woman, wasn't it? An enemy?... Oh, forgive me for asking you!... It's because... because I don't understand.... How did you come here?”

“I came this way,” she said, pointing to the sea.

“Oh,” he said, “how wonderful!”

He stared at her with dazed eyes, as he might have stared at some vision descended from Heaven; and the circumstances were so unusual that he did not think of suppressing the eagerness of his gaze.

She repeated, utterly confused:

“Yes, this way.... Francois suggested it.”

“I did not mention him,” he said, “because, with you here, I felt sure that he was free.”

“Not yet,” she said, “but he will be in an hour.”

A long pause ensued. She interrupted it to conceal her agitation:

“He will be free.... You shall see him.... But we must not frighten him: there are things which he doesn't know.”

She perceived that he was listening not to the words uttered but to the voice that uttered them and that this voice seemed to plunge him into a sort of ecstasy, for he was silent and smiled. She thereupon smiled too and questioned him, thus obliging him to answer:

“You called me by my name at once. So you knew me? I also seem to... Yes, you remind me of a friend of mine who died.”

“Madeleine Ferrand?”

“Yes, Madeleine Ferrand.”

“Perhaps I also remind you of her brother, a shy schoolboy who used often to visit the parlour at the convent and who used to look at you from a distance.”

“Yes, yes;” she declared. “I remember. We even spoke to each other sometimes; you used to blush. Yes, that's it: your name was Stephane. But how do you come to be called Maroux?”

“Madeleine and I were not children of the same father.”

“Ah,” she said, “that was what misled me!”

She gave him her hand:

“Well, Stephane,” she said, “as we are old friends and have renewed our acquaintance, let us put off all our remembrances until later. For the moment, the most urgent matter is to get away. Have you the strength?”

“The strength, yes: I have not had such a very bad time. But how are we to go from here?”

“By the same road by which I came, a ladder communicating with the upper passage of cells.”

He was now standing up:

“You had the courage, the pluck?” he asked, at last realizing what she had dared to do.

“Oh, it was not very difficult!” she declared. “Francois was so anxious! He maintained that you were both occupying old torture-chambers... death-chambers....”

It was as though these words aroused him violently from a dream and made him suddenly see that it was madness to converse in such circumstances.

“Go away!” he cried. “Francois is right! Oh, if you knew the risk you are running. Please, please go!”

He was beside himself, as though convulsed by the thought of an immediate peril. She tried to calm him, but he entreated her:

“Another second may be your undoing. Don't stay here.... I am condemned to death and to the most terrible death. Look at the ground on which we are standing, this sort of floor.... But it's no use talking about it. Oh, please do go!”

“With you,” she said.

“Yes, with me. But save yourself first.”

She resisted and said, firmly:

“For us both to be saved, Stephane, we must above all things remain calm. What I did just now we can do again only by calculating all our actions and controlling our excitement. Are you ready?”

“Yes,” he said, overcome by her magnificent confidence.

“Then follow me.”

She stepped to the very edge of the precipice and leant forward:

“Give me your hand,” she said, “to help me keep my balance.”

She turned round, flattened herself against the cliff and felt the surface with her free hand.

Not finding the ladder, she leant outward slightly.

The ladder had become displaced. No doubt, when Veronique, perhaps with too abrupt a movement, had set foot in the cave, the iron hook of the right-hand, upright had slipped and the ladder, hanging only by the other hook, had swung like a pendulum.

The bottom rungs were now out of reach.