The Secret of Sarek/Chapter VIII
CHAPTER VIII. ANGUISH
HAD Veronique been alone, she would have yielded to one of those moods of despondency which her nature, brave though it was, could not escape in the face of the unrelenting animosity of fate. But in the presence of Stephane, who she felt to be the weaker and who was certainly exhausted by his captivity, she had the strength to restrain herself and announce, as though mentioning quite an ordinary incident:
“The ladder has swung out of our reach.”
Stephane looked at her in dismay:
“Then... then we are lost!”
“Why should we be lost?” she asked, with a smile.
“There is no longer any hope of getting away.”
“What do you mean? Of course there is. What about Francois?”
“Certainly. In an hour at most, Francois will have made his escape; and, when he sees the ladder and the way I came, he will call to us. We shall hear him easily. We have only to be patient.”
“To be patient!” he said, in terror. “To wait for an hour! But they are sure to be here in less than that. They keep a constant watch.”
“Well, we will manage somehow.”
He pointed to the wicket in the door:
“Do you see that wicket?” he said. “They open it each time. They will see us through the grating.”
“There's a shutter to it. Let's close it.”
“They will come in.”
“Then we won't close it and we'll keep up our confidence, Stephane.”
“I'm frightened for you, not for myself.”
“You mustn't be frightened either for me or for yourself.... If the worst comes to the worst, we are able to defend ourselves,” she added, showing him a revolver which she had taken from her father's rack of arms and carried on her ever since.
“Ah,” he said, “what I fear is that we shall not even be called upon to defend ourselves! They have other means.”
He did not answer. He had flung a quick glance at the floor; and Veronique for a moment examined its curious structure.
All around, following the circumference of the walls, was the granite itself, rugged and uneven. But outlined in the granite was a large square. They could see, on each of the four sides, the deep crevice that divided it from the rest. The timbers of which it consisted were worn and grooved, full of cracks and gashes, but nevertheless massive and powerful. The fourth side almost skirted the edge of the precipice, from which it was divided by eight inches at most.
“A trap-door?” she asked, with a shudder.
“No, not that,” he said. “It would be too heavy.”
“I don't know. Very likely it is nothing but a remnant of some past contrivance which no longer works. Still...”
“Last night... or rather this morning there was a creaking sound down below there. It seemed to suggest attempts, but they stopped at once... it's such a long time since I... No, the thing no longer works and they can't make use of it.”
Without waiting for his answer, she continued:
“Listen, Stephane, we have a few minutes before us, perhaps fewer than we think. Francois will be free at any moment now and will come to our rescue. Let us make the most of the interval and tell each other the things which both of us ought to know. Let us discuss matters quietly. We are threatened with no immediate danger; and the time will be well employed.”
Veronique was pretending a sense of security which she did not feel. That Francois would make his escape she refused to doubt; but who could tell that the boy would go to the window and notice the hook of the hanging ladder? On failing to see his mother, would he not rather think of following the underground tunnel and running to the Priory?
However, she mastered herself, feeling the need of the explanation for which she had asked, and, sitting down on a granite projection which formed a sort of bench, she at once began to tell Stephane the events which she had witnessed and in which she had played a leading part, from the moment when her investigations led her to the deserted cabin containing Maguennoc's dead body.
Stephane listened to the terrifying narrative without attempting to interrupt her but with an alarm marked by his gestures of abhorrence and the despairing expression of his face. M. d'Hergemont's death in particular seemed to crush him, as did Honorine's. He had been greatly attached to both of them.
“There, Stephane,” said Veronique, when she had described the anguish which she suffered after the execution of the sisters Archignat, the discovery of the underground passage and her interview with Francois. “That is all that I need absolutely tell you. I thought that you ought to know what I have kept from Francois, so that we may fight our enemies together.”
He shook his head:
“Which enemies?” he said. “I, too, in spite of your explanations, am asking the very question which you asked me. I have a feeling that we are flung into the midst of a great tragedy which has continued for years, for centuries, and in which we have begun to play our parts only at the moment of the crisis, at the moment of the terrific cataclysm prepared by generations of men. I may be wrong. Perhaps there is nothing more than a disconnected series of sinister, weird and horrible coincidences amid which we are tossed from side to side, without being able to appeal to any other reasons than the whim of chance. In reality I know no more than you do. I am surrounded by the same obscurity, stricken by the same sorrows and the same losses. It's all just insanity, extravagant convulsions, unprecedented shocks, the crimes of savages, the fury of the barbaric ages.”
“Yes, of the barbaric ages; and that is what baffles me most and impresses me so much! What is the connection between the present and the past, between our persecutors of to-day and the men who lived in these caves in days of old and whose actions are prolonged into our own time, in a manner so impossible to understand? To what do they all refer, those legends of which I know nothing except from Honorine's delirium and the distress of the sisters, Archignat?”
They spoke low, with their ears always on the alert. Stephane listened for sounds in the corridor, Veronique concentrated her attention on the cliff in the hope of hearing Francois' signal.
“They are very complicated legends,” said Stephane, “very obscure traditions in which we must abandon any attempt to distinguish between what is superstition and what might be truth. Out of this jumble of old wives' tales, the very most that we can disentangle is two sets of ideas, those referring to the prophecy of the thirty coffins and those relating to the existence of a treasure, or rather of a miraculous stone.”
“Then they take as a prophecy,” said Veronique, “the words which I read on Maguennoc's drawing and again on the Fairies' Dolmen?”
“Yes, a prophecy which dates back to an indeterminate period and which for centuries has governed the whole history and the whole life of Sarek. The belief has always prevailed that a day would come when, within a space of twelve months, the thirty principal reefs which surround the island and which are called the thirty coffins would receive: their thirty victims, who were to die a violent death, and that those thirty victims would include four women who were to die crucified. It is an established and undisputed tradition, handed down from father to son: and everybody believes in it. It is expressed in the line and part of a line inscribed on the Fairies' Dolmen: 'Four women crucified,' and 'For thirty coffins victims thirty times!'”
“Very well; but people have gone on living all the same, normally and peaceably. Why did the outburst of terror suddenly take place this year?”
“Maguennoc was largely responsible. Maguennoc was a fantastic and rather mysterious person, a mixture of the wizard and the bone-setter, the healer and the charlatan, who had studied the stars in their courses and whom people liked to consult about the most remote events of the past as well as the future. Now Maguennoc announced not long ago that 1917 would be the fateful year.”
“Intuition perhaps, presentiment, divination, or subconscious knowledge: you can choose any explanation that you please. As for Maguennoc, who did not despise the practices of the most antiquated magic, he would tell you that he knew it from the flight of a bird or the entrails of a fowl. However, his prophecy was based on something more serious. He pretended, quoting evidence collected in his childhood among the old people of Sarek that, at the beginning of the last century, the first line of the inscription on the Fairies' Dolmen was not yet obliterated and that it formed this, which would rhyme with 'Four women shall be crucified on tree:' 'In Sarek's isle, in year fourteen and three.' The year fourteen and three is the year seventeen; and the prediction became more impressive for Maguennoc and his friends of late years, because the total number was divided into two numbers and the war broke out in 1914. From that day, Maguennoc grew more and more important and more and more sure of the truth of his previsions. For that matter, he also grew more and more anxious; and he even announced that his death, followed by the death of M. d'Hergemont, would give the signal for the catastrophe. Then the year 1917 arrived and produced a genuine terror in the island. The events were close at hand.”
“And still,” said Veronique, “and still it was all absurd.”
“Absurd, yes; but it all acquired a curiously disturbing significance on the day when Maguennoc was able to compare the scraps of prophecy engraved on the dolmen with the complete prophecy.”
“Then he succeeded in doing so?”
“Yes. He discovered under the abbey ruins, in a heap of stones which had formed a sort of protecting chamber round it, an old worn and tattered missal, which had a few of its pages in good condition, however, and one in particular, the one which you saw, or rather of which you saw a copy in the deserted cabin.”
“A copy made by my father?”
“By your father, as were all those in the cupboard in his study. M. d'Hergemont, you must remember, was fond of drawing, of painting water-colours. He copied the illuminated page, but of the prophecy that accompanied the drawing he reproduced only the words inscribed on the Fairies' Dolmen.”
“How do you account for the resemblance between the crucified woman and myself?”
“I never saw the original, which Maguennoc gave to M. d'Hergemont and which your father kept jealously in his room. But M. d'Hergemont maintained that the resemblance was there. In any case, he accentuated it in his drawing, in spite of himself, remembering all that you had suffered... and through his fault, he said.”
“Perhaps,” murmured Veronique, “he was also thinking of the other prophecy that was once made to Vorski: 'You will perish by the hand of a friend and your wife will be crucified.' So I suppose the strange coincidence struck him... and even made him write the initials of my maiden name, 'V. d'H.' at the top.” And she added, “And all this happened in accordance with the wording of the inscription....”
They were both silent. How could they do other than think of that inscription, of the words written ages ago on the pages of the missal and on the stone of the dolmen? If destiny had as yet provided only twenty-seven victims for the thirty coffins of Sarek, were the last three not there, ready to complete the sacrifice, all three imprisoned, all three captive-and in the power of the sacrificial murderers? And if, at the top of the knoll, near the Grand Oak, there were as yet but three crowes, would the fourth not soon be prepared, to receive a fourth victim?
“Francois is a very long time,” said Veronique, presently.
She went to the edge and looked over. The ladder had not moved and was still out of reach.
“The others will soon be coming to my door,” said Stephane. “I am surprised that they haven't been yet.”
But they did not wish to confess their mutual anxiety; and Veronique put a further question, in a calm voice:
“And the treasure? The God-Stone?”
“That riddle is hardly less obscure,” said Stephane, “and also depends entirely on the last line of the inscription: 'The God-Stone which gives life or death.' What is this God-Stone? Tradition says that it is a miraculous stone; and, according to M. d'Hergemont, this belief dates back to the remotest periods. People at Sarek have always had faith in the existence of a stone capable of working wonders. In the middle ages they used to bring puny and deformed children and lay them on the stone for days and nights together, after which the children got up strong and healthy. Barren women resorted to this remedy with good results, as did old men, wounded men and all sorts of degenerates. Only it came about that the place of pilgrimage underwent changes, the stone, still according to tradition, having been moved and even, according to some, having disappeared. In the eighteenth century, people venerated the Fairies' Dolmen and used still sometimes to expose scrofulous children there.”
“But,” said Veronique, “the stone also had harmful properties, for it gave death as well as life?”
“Yes, if you touched it without the knowledge of those whose business it was to guard it and keep it sacred. But in this respect the mystery becomes still more complicated, for there is the question also of a precious stone, a sort of fantastic gem which shoots out flames, burns those who wear it and makes them suffer the tortures of the damned.”
“That's what happened to Maguennoc, by Honorine's account,” said Veronique.
“Yes,” replied Stephane, “but here we are entering upon the present. So far I have been speaking of the fabled past, the two legends, the prophecy and the God-Stone. Maguennoc's adventure opens up the period of the present day, which for that matter is hardly less obscure than the ancient period. What happened to Maguennoc? We shall probably never know. He had been keeping in the background for a week, gloomy and doing no work, when suddenly he burst into M. d'Hergemont's study roaring, 'I've touched it! I'm done for! I've touched it!... I took it in my hand.... It burnt me like fire, but I wanted to keep it.... Oh, it's been gnawing into my bones for days! It's hell, it's hell!' And he showed us the palm of his hand. It was all burnt, as though eaten up with cancer. We tried to dress it for him, but he seemed quite mad and kept rambling on, 'I'm the first victim.... the fire will go to my heart.... And after me the others' turn will come....' That same evening, he cut off his hand with a hatchet. And a week later, after infecting the whole island with terror, he went away.”
“Where did he go to?”
“To the village of Le Faouet, on a pilgrimage to the Chapel of St. Barbe, near the place where you found his dead body.”
“Who killed him, do you think?”
“Undoubtedly one of the creatures who used to correspond by means of signs written along the road, one of the creatures who live hidden in the cells and who are pursuing some purpose which I don't understand.”
“Those who attacked you and Francois, therefore?”
“Yes; and immediately afterwards, having stolen and put on our clothes, played the parts of Francois and myself.”
“With what object?”
“To enter the Priory more easily and then, if their attempt failed, to balk enquiry.”
“But haven't you seen them since they have kept you here?”
“I have seen only a woman, or rather caught a glimpse of her. She comes at night. She brings me food and drink, unties my hands, loosens the fastenings round my legs a little and comes back two hours after.”
“Has she spoken to you?”
“Once only, on the first night, in a low voice, to tell me that, if I called out or uttered a sound or tried to escape, Francois would pay the penalty.”
“But, when they attacked you, couldn't you then make out...?”
“No, I saw no more than Francois did.”
“And the attack was quite unexpected?”
“Yes, quite. M. d'Hergemont had that morning received two important letters on the subject of the investigation which he was making into all these facts. One of the letters, written by an old Breton nobleman well-known for his royalist leanings, was accompanied by a curious document which he had found among his great-grandfather's papers, a plan of some underground cells which the Chouans used to occupy in Sarek. It was evidently the same Druid dwellings of which the legends tell us. The plan showed the entrance on the Black Heath and marked two stories, each ending in a torture-chamber. Francois and I went out exploring together; and we were attacked on our way back.”
“And you have made no discovery since?”
“No, none at all.”
“But Francois spoke of a rescue which he was expecting, some one who had promised his assistance.”
“Oh, a piece of boyish nonsense, an idea of Francois', which, as it happened, was connected with the second letter which M. d'Hergemont received that morning!”
“And what was it about?”
Stephane did not reply at once. Something made him think that they were being spied on through the door. But, on going to the wicket, he saw no one in the passage outside.
“Ah,” he said, “if we are to be rescued, the sooner it happens the better. They may come at any moment now.”
“Is any help really possible?” asked Veronique.
“Well,” Stephane answered, “we must not attach too much importance to it, but it's rather curious all the same. You know, Sarek has often been visited by officers or inspectors with a view to exploring the rocks and beaches around the island, which were quite capable of concealing a submarine base. Last time, the special delegate sent from Paris, a wounded officer, Captain Patrice Belval, became friendly with M. d'Hergemont, who told him the legend of Sarek and the apprehension which we were beginning to feel in spite of everything; it was the day after Maguennoc went away. The story interested Captain Belval so much that he promised to speak of it to one of his friends in Paris, a Spanish or Portuguese nobleman, Don Luis Perenna, an extraordinary person, it would seem, capable of solving the most complicated mysteries and of succeeding in the most reckless enterprises. A few days after Captain Belval's departure, M. d'Hergemont received from Don Luis Perenna the letter of which I spoke to you and of which he read us only the beginning. 'Sir,' it said, 'I look upon the Maguennoc incident as more than a little serious; and I beg you, at the least fresh alarm, to telegraph to Patrice Belval. If I can rely upon certain indications, you are standing on the brink of an abyss. But, even if you were at the bottom of that abyss, you would have nothing to fear, if only I hear from you in time. From that moment, I make myself responsible, whatever happens, even though everything may seem lost and though everything may be lost. As for the riddle of the God-Stone, it is simply childish and I am astonished that, with the very ample data which you gave Belval, it should for an instant be regarded as impossible of explanation. I will tell you in a few words what has puzzled so many generations of mankind....'”
“Well?” said Veronique, eager to know more.
“As I said, M. d'Hergemont did not tell us the end of the letter. He read it in front of us, saying, with an air of amazement, 'Can that be it?... Why, of course, of course it is.... How wonderful!' And, when we asked him, he said, 'I'll tell you all about it this evening, when you come back from the Black Heath. Meanwhile you may like to know that this most extraordinary man — it's the only word for him — discloses to me, without more ado or further particulars, the secret of the God-Stone and the exact spot where it is to be found. And he does it so logically as to leave no room for doubt.'”
“And in the evening?”
“In the evening, Francois and I were carried off and M. d'Hergemont was murdered.”
Veronique paused to think:
“I should not be surprised,” she said, “if they wanted to steal that important letter from him. For, after all, the theft of the God-Stone seems to me the only motive that can explain all the machinations of which we are the victims.”
“1 think so too: but M. d'Hergemont, on Don Luis Perenna's recommendation, tore up the letter before our eyes.”
“So, after all, Don Luis Perenna has not been informed?”
“Francois does not know of his grandfather's death and does not suspect that M. d'Hergemont never heard of our disappearance and therefore never sent a message to Don Luis Perenna. If he had done so, Don Luis, to Francois' mind, must be on his way. Besides, Francois has another reason for expecting something....”
“A serious reason?”
“No. Francois is still very much of a child. He has read a lot of books of adventure, which have worked upon his imagination. Now Captain Belval told him such fantastic stories about his friend Perenna and painted Perenna is such strange colours that Francois firmly believes Perenna to be none other than Arsene Lupin. Hence his absolute confidence and his certainty that, in case of danger, the miraculous intervention will take place at the very minute when it becomes necessary.”
Veronique could not help smiling:
“He is a child, of course; but children sometimes have intuitions which we have to take into account. Besides, it keeps up his courage and his spirits. How could he have endured this ordeal, at his age, if he had not had that hope?”
Her anguish returned. In a very low voice, she said:
“No matter where the rescue comes from, so long as it comes in time and so long as my son is not the victim of those dreadful creatures!”
They were silent for a long time. The enemy, present, though invisible, oppressed them with his formidable weight. He was everywhere; he was master of the island, master of the subterranean dwellings, master of the heaths and woods, master of the sea around them, master of the dolmens and the coffins. He linked together the monstrous ages of the past and the no less monstrous hours of the present. He was continuing history according to the ancient rites and striking blows which had been foretold a thousand times.
“But why? With what object? What does it all mean?” asked Veronique, in a disheartened tone. “What connection can there be between the people of to-day and those of long ago? What is the explanation of the work resumed by such barbarous methods?”
And, after a further pause, she said, for in her heart of hearts, behind every question and reply and every insoluble problem, the obsession never ceased to torment her:
“Ah, if Francois were here! If we were all three fighting together! What has happened to him? What keeps him in his cell? Some obstacle which he did not foresee?”
It was Stephane's turn to comfort her:
“An obstacle? Why should you suppose so? There is no obstacle. But it's a long job....”
“Yes, yes, you are right; a long, difficult job. Oh, I'm sure that he won't lose heart! He has such high spirits! And such confidence! 'A mother and son who have been brought together cannot be parted again,' he said. 'They may still persecute us, but separate us, never! We shall win in the end!' He was speaking truly, wasn't he, Stephane? I've not found my son again, have I, only to lose him? No, no, it would be too unjust and it would be impossible...”
Stephane looked at her, surprised to hear her interrupt herself. Veronique was listening to something.
“What is it?” asked Stephane.
“I hear sounds,” she said.
He also listened:
“Yes, yes, you're right.”
“Perhaps it's Francois,” she said. “Perhaps it's up there.”
She moved to rise. He held her back:
“No, it's the sound of footsteps in the passage.”
“In that case... in that case...?” said Veronique.
They exchanged distraught glances, forming no decision, not knowing what to do.
The sound came nearer. The enemy could not be suspecting anything, for the steps were those of one who is not afraid of being heard.
Stephane said, slowly:
“They must not see me standing up. I will go back to my place. You must fasten me again as best you can.”
They remained hesitating, as though cherishing the absurd hope that the danger would pass of its own accord. Then, suddenly, releasing herself from the sort of stupor that seemed to paralyse her, Veronique made up her mind:
“Quick!... Here they come!... Lie down!”
He obeyed. In a few seconds, she had replaced the cords on and around him as she had found them, but without tying them.
“Turn your face to the rock,” she said. “Hide your hands. Your hands might betray you.”
“I shall be all right.”
She stooped and stretched herself at full length against the door, in which the spy-hole, barred with strips of iron, projected inwardly in such a way as to hide her from sight.
At the same moment, the enemy stopped outside. Notwithstanding the thickness of the door, Veronique heard the rustle of a dress.
And, above her, some one looked in.
It was a terrible moment. The least indication would give the alarm.
“Oh, why does she stay?” thought Veronique. “Is there anything to betray my presence? My clothes?...”
She thought that it was more likely Stephane, whose attitude did not appear natural and whose bonds did not wear their usual aspect.
Suddenly there was a movement outside, followed by a whistle and a second whistle.
Then from the far end of the passage came another sound of steps, which increased in the solemn silence and stopped, like the first, behind the door. Words were spoken. Those outside seemed to be concerting measures.
Veronique managed to reach her pocket. She took out her revolver and put her finger on the trigger. If any one entered, she would stand up and fire shot after shot, without hesitating. Would not the least hesitation have meant Francois' death?