The Secret of Sarek/Chapter X

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CHAPTER X. THE ESCAPE

SHUDDERING, uncertain how to act next, Veronique listened till she no longer heard the sound of his footsteps. What should she do? The murder of Stephane had for a moment turned her thoughts from Francois; but she now once more fell a prey to anguish. What had become of her son? Should she go to him at the Priory and defend him against the dangers that threatened him?” Come, come,” she said, “I'm losing my head.... Let me think things out.... A few hours ago, Francois was speaking to me through the wall of his prison... for it was certainly he then, it was certainly Francois who yesterday took my hand and covered it with his kisses.... A mother cannot be deceived; and I was quivering with love and tenderness.... But since... since this morning has he not left his prison?”

She stopped to think and then said, slowly: “That's it... that's what happened.... Stephane and I were discovered below, on the floor underneath. The alarm was given at once. The monster, Vorski's son, had gone up expressly to watch Francois. He found the cell empty and, seeing the opening which had been made, crawled out here. Yes, that's it.... If not, by what way did he come?... When he got here, it occurred to him to run to the window, knowing that it overlooked the sea and suspecting that Francois had chosen it to make his escape. He at once saw the hooks of the ladder. Then, on leaning over, he saw me, knew who I was and called out to me.... And now... now he is on his way to the Priory, where he is bound to meet Francois....”

Nevertheless Veronique did not stir. She had an instinct that the danger lay not at the Priory but here, by the cells. And she wondered whether Francois had really succeeded in escaping and whether, before his task was done, he had not been surprised by the other and attacked by him.

It was a horrible doubt! She stooped quickly and, perceiving that the hole had been widened, tried to pass through it herself. But the outlet, at most large enough for a child, was too narrow for her; and her shoulders became fixed. She persisted in the attempt, however, tearing her bodice and bruising her skin against the rock, and at last, by dint of patience and wriggling, succeeded in slipping through.

The cell was empty. But the door was open on the passages facing her; and Veronique had an impression— merely an impression, for the window admitted only a faint light — that some one was just leaving the cell through the open door. And from this confused impression of something that she had not absolutely seen she retained the certainty that it was a woman who was hiding there, in the passage, a woman surprised by her unexpected entrance.

“It's their accomplice,” thought Veronique.

“She came up with the boy who killed Stephane, and she has no doubt taken Francois away.... Perhaps Francois is even there still, quite near me, while she's watching me....”

Meanwhile Veronique's eyes were growing accustomed to the semidarkness and she distinctly saw a woman's hand upon the door, which opened inwardly. The hand was slowly pulling.

“Why doesn't she shut it at once,” Veronique wondered, “since she obviously wants to put a barrier between us?”

“Veronique received her answer when she heard a pebble grating under the door and interfering with its movement. If the pebble were not there, the door would be closed. Without hesitating, Veronique went up, took hold of a great iron handle and pulled it towards her. The hand disappeared, but the opposition continued. There was, evidently a handle on the other side as well.

Suddenly she heard a whistle. The woman was summoning assistance. And almost at the same time, in the passage, at some distance from the woman, there was a cry:

“Mother! Mother!”

Ah, with what deep emotion Veronique heard that cry! Her son, her real son was calling to her, her son, still a captive but alive! Oh, the superhuman delight of it!

“I'm here, darling!”

“Quick, mother! I'm tied up; and the whistle is their signal... they'll be coming.”

“I'm here.... I shall save you before they come!”

She had no doubt of the result. It seemed to her as though her strength knew no limits and as though nothing could resist the exasperated tension of her whole being.

Her adversary was in fact weakening and giving ground by inches. The opening became wider; and suddenly the contest was over. Veronique walked through.

The woman had already fled down the passage and was dragging the boy by a rope in order to make him walk despite the cords with which he was bound. It was a vain attempt and she abandoned it forthwith. Veronique was close to her, with her revolver in her hand.

The woman let go the boy and stood up in the light from the open cells. She was dressed in white serge, with a knotted girdle round her waist. Her arms were half bare. Her face was still young, but faded, thin and wrinkled. Her hair was fair, interspersed with strands of white. Her eyes gleamed with a feverish hatred.

The two women looked at each other without a word, like two adversaries who have met before and are about to fight again. Veronique almost smiled, with a smile of mingled triumph and defiance. In the end she said:

“If you dare to lay a finger on my child, I'll kill you. Go! Be off!”

The woman was not frightened. She seemed to be reflecting and to be listening in the expectation of assistance. None come. Then she lowered her eyes to Francois and made a movement as though to seize upon her prey again.

“Don't touch him!” Veronique exclaimed, violently. “Don't touch him, or I fire!”

The woman shrugged her shoulders and said, in measured accents:

“No threats, please! If I had wanted to kill that child of yours, I should have done so by now. But his hour has not come; and it is not by my hand that he is to die.”

Veronique, trembling all over, could not help asking:

“By whose hand is he to die?”

“By my son's: you know... the one you've seen.”

“Is he your son, the murderer, the monster?”

“He's the son of...”

“Silence! Silence!” Veronique commanded. She understood that the woman had been Vorski's mistress and feared that she would make some disclosure in Francois' presence. “Silence: that name is not to be spoken.”

“It will be when it has to be,” said the woman. “Ah, I've suffered enough through you, Veronique: it's your turn now; and you're only at the beginning of it!”

“Go!” cried Veronique, pointing her revolver.

“Once more, no threats, please.”

“Go, or I fire! I swear it on the head of my son.”

The woman retreated, betraying a certain anxiety in spite of herself. But she was seized with fresh access of rage. Impotently she raised her clenched fists and shouted, in a raucous, broken voice:

“I will be revenged... You shall see. Veronique.... The cross — do you understand? — the cross is ready.... You are the fourth.... What, oh, what a revenge!”

She shook her gnarled, bony fists. And she continued:

“Oh, how I hate you! Fifteen years of hatred! But the cross will avenge me.... I shall string you up on it myself.... The cross is ready... you'll see... the cross is ready for you!...”

She walked away slowly, holding herself erect under the threat of the revolver.

“Don't kill her, mother, will you?” whispered Francois, suspecting the contest in his mother's mind.

Veronique seemed to wake from a dream:

“No, no,” she replied, “don't be afraid.... And yet perhaps I ought to...”

“Oh, please let her be, mother, and let us go away.”

She lifted him in her arms, even before the woman was out of sight, pressed him to her and carried him to the cell as though he weighed no more than a little child.

“Mother, mother,” he said.

“Yes, darling, your own mother; and no one shall take you from me again, that I swear to you.”

Without troubling about the wounds inflicted by the stone she slipped, this time almost at the first attempt, through the gap made by Francois, drew him after her and then, but not before, released him from his bonds.

“There is no danger here,” she said, “at least for the moment, because they can hardly get at us except by the cell and I shall be able to defend the entrance.”

Mother and son exchanged the fondest of embraces. There was now no barrier to part their lips and their arms. They could see each other, could gaze into each other's eyes.

“How handsome you are, my darling!” said Veronique.

She saw no resemblance between him and the boy murderer and was astonished that Honorine could have taken one for the other. And she felt as if she would never weary of admiring the breeding, the frankness and the sweetness which she read in his face.

“And you, mother,” he said, “do you think that I ever pictured a mother as beautiful as you? No, not even in my dreams, when you seemed as lovely as a fairy. And yet Stephane often used to tell me...

She interrupted him:

“We must hurry, dearest, and take refuge from their pursuit. We must go.”

“Yes,” he said, “and above all we must leave Sarek. I have invented a plan of escape which is bound to succeed. But, first of all, Stephane: what has become of him? I heard the sound of which I spoke to you underneath my cell and I fear...”

She dragged him along by the hand, without answering his question:

“I have many things to tell you, darling, painful things which I must no longer keep from you. But presently will do.... For the moment we must take refuge in the Priory. That woman will go in search of help and come after us.”

“But she was not alone, mother, when she entered my cell suddenly and caught me in the act of digging at the wall. There was some one with her.”

“A boy, wasn't it? A boy of your own size?”

“I could hardly see. He and the woman fell upon me, bound me and carried me into the passage. Then the woman left me for a moment and he went back to the cell. He therefore knows about this tunnel by now and about the exit in the Priory grounds.”

“Yes, I know. But we shall easily get the better of him; and we'll block up the exit.”

“But there remains the bridge which joins the two islands,” Francois objected.

“No,” she said, “I burnt it down and the Priory is absolutely cut off.”

They were walking very quickly, Veronique pressing her pace, Francois a little anxious at the words spoken by his mother.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “I see that there is a good deal which I don't know and which you have kept from me, mother, in order not to frighten me. For instance, when you burnt down the bridge.... It was with the petrol set aside for the purpose, wasn't it, and as arranged with Maguennoc in case of danger? So you were threatened too; and the first attack was made on you, mother?... And then there was something that woman said with such a hateful look on her face!... And then... and then, above all, what has become of Stephane? They were whispering about him just now in my cell.... All this worries me.... Then again I don't see the ladder which you brought....”

“Please, dearest, don't let us wait a moment The woman will have found assistance....”

The boy stopped short:

“Mother!”

“What? Do you hear anything?”

“Some one walking.”

“Are you sure?”

“Some one coming this way.”

“Oh,” she said, in a hollow voice, “it's the murderer coming back from the Priory!”

She felt her revolver and prepared herself for anything that might happen. But suddenly she pushed Francois towards a dark corner on her left, formed by the entry to one of those tunnels, probably blocked, which she had noticed when she came.

“Get in there,” she said. “We shall be all right here: he will not see us.”

The sound approached.

“Stand well back,” she said, “and don't stir.”

The boy whispered:

“What's that in your hand? A revolver? Mother, you're not going to fire?”

“I ought to, I ought to,” said Veronique. “He's such a monster!... It's as with his mother... I ought to have... we shall perhaps regret it.” And she added, almost unconsciously, “He killed your grandfather.”

“Oh, mother, mother!”

She supported him, to prevent his falling, and amid the silence she heard the boy sobbing on her breast and stammering:

“Never mind... don't fire, mother....”

“Here he comes, darling, here he comes; look at him.”

The other passed. He was walking slowly, a little bent, listening for the least sound. He appeared to Veronique to be the exact same size as her son; and this time, when she looked at him with more attention, she was not so much surprised that Honorine and M. d'Hergemont had been taken in, for there were really some points of resemblance, which would have been accentuated by the fact that he was wearing the red cap stolen from Francois.

He walked on.

“Do you know him?” asked Veronique.

“No, mother.”

“Are you sure that you never saw him?”

“Sure.”

“And it was he who fell upon you, with the woman, in your cell?”

“I haven't a doubt of it, mother. He even hit me in the face, for no reason, with absolute hatred.”

“Oh,” she said, “this is all incomprehensible! When shall we escape this awful nightmare?”

“Quick, mother, the road's clear. Let's make the most of it.”

On returning to the light, she saw that he was very pale and felt his hand in hers like a lump of ice. Nevertheless he looked up at her with a smile of happiness.

They set out again; and soon, after passing the strip of cliff that joined the two islands and climbing the staircases, they emerged in the open air, to the right of Maguennoc's garden. The daylight was beginning to wane.

“We are saved,” said Veronique.

“Yes,” replied the boy, “but only on condition that they cannot reach us by the same road. We shall have to bar it, therefore.”

“How?”

“Wait for me here; I'll go and fetch some tools at the Priory.”

“Oh, don't let us leave each other, Francois!”

“You can come with me, mother.”

“And suppose the enemy arrives in the meantime? No, we must defend this outlet.”

“Then help me, mother.”

A rapid inspection showed them that one of the two stones which formed a roof above the entrance was not very firmly rooted in its place. They found no difficulty in first shifting and then clearing it. The stone fell across the staircase and was at once covered by an avalanche of earth and pebbles which made the passage, if not impracticable, at least very hard to manage.

“All the more so,” said Francois, “as we shall stay here until we are able to carry out my plan. And be easy, mother; it's a sound scheme and we have nearly managed it.”

For that matter, they recognized above all, that rest was essential. They were both of them worn out.

“Lie down, mother... look, just here: there's a bed of moss under this overhanging rock which makes a regular nest. You'll be as cosy as a queen there and sheltered from the cold.”

“Oh, my darling, my darling!” murmured Veronique, overcome with happiness.

It was now the time for explanations; and Veronique did not hesitate to give them. The boy's grief at hearing of the death of all those whom he had known would be mitigated by the great joy which he felt at recovering his mother. She therefore spoke without reserve, cradling him in her lap, wiping away his tears, feeling plainly that she was enough to make up for all the lost affections and friendships. He was particularly afflicted by Stephane's death.

“But is it quite certain?” he asked. “For, after all, there is nothing to tell us that he is drowned. Stephane is a perfect swimmer; and so... Yes, yes, mother, we must not despair... on the contrary.... Look, here's a friend who always comes at the worst times, to declare that everything is not lost.”

All's Well came trotting along. The sight of his master did not appear to surprise him. Nothing unduly surprised All's Well. Events, to his mind, always followed one another in a natural order which did not disturb either his habits or his occupations. Tears alone seemed to him worthy of special attention. And Veronique and Francois were not crying.

“You see, mother? All's Well agrees with me; nothing is lost.... But, upon my word, All's Well, you're a sharp little fellow! What would you have said, eh, if we'd left the island without you?”

Veronique looked at her son:

“Left the island?”

“Certainly: and the sooner the better. That's my plan. What do you say to it?”

“But how are we to get away?”

“In a boat.”

“Is there one here?”

“Yes, mine.”

“Where?”

“Close by, at Sarek Point.”

“But how are we to get down? The cliff is perpendicular.”

“She's at the very place where the cliff is steepest, a place known as the Postern. The name puzzled Stephane and myself. A postern suggests an entrance, a gate. Well, we ended by learning that, in the middle ages, at the time of the monks, the little isle on which the Priory stands was surrounded by ramparts. It was therefore to be presumed that there was a postern here which commanded an outlet on the sea. And in fact, after hunting about with Maguennoc, we discovered, on the flat top of the cliff, a sort of gully, a sandy depression reinforced at intervals by regular walls made of big building-stones. A path winds down the middle, with steps and windows on the side of the sea, and leads to a little bay. That is the Postern outlet. We repaired it: and my boat is hanging at the foot of the cliff.

Veronique's features underwent a transformation:

“Then we're safe now!”

“There's no doubt of that.”

“And the enemy can't get there?”

“How could he?”

“He has the motor-boat at his disposal.”

“He has never been there, because he doesn't know of the bay nor of the way down to it either: you can't see them from the open sea. Besides, they are protected by a thousand sharp-pointed rocks.”

“And what's to prevent us from leaving at once?”

“The darkness, mother. I'm a good mariner and accustomed to navigate all the channels that lead away from Sarek, but I should not be at all sure of not striking some reef or other. No, we must wait for daylight.”

“It seems so long!”

“A few hours' patience, mother. And we are together, you and I! At break of dawn, we'll take the boat and begin by hugging the foot of the cliff till we are underneath the cells. Then we'll pick up Stephane, who of course will be waiting for us on some strip of beach, and we'll all be off, won't we, All's Well? We'll land at Pont-l'Abbe at twelve o'clock or so. That's my plan.”

Veronique could not contain her delight and admiration. She was astonished to find so young a boy giving proofs of such self-possession.

“It's splendid, darling, and you're right in everything. Luck is decidedly coming our way.”

The evening passed without incidents. An alarm, however, a noise under the rubbish which blocked the underground passage and a ray of light trickling through a slit obliged them to mount guard until the minute of their departure. But it did not affect their spirits.

“Why, of course I'm easy in my mind,” said Francois. “From the moment when I found you again, I felt that it was for good. Besides, if the worst came to the worst, have we not a last hope left? Stephane spoke to you about it, I expect. And it makes you laugh, my confidence in a rescuer whom I have never seen.... Well, I tell you, mother, if I were to see a dagger about to strike me, I should be certain, absolutely certain, mind you, that a hand would come and ward off the blow.”

“Alas,” she said, “that providential hand did not prevent all the misfortunes of which I told you!”

“It will keep off those which threaten my mother,” declared the boy.

“How? This unknown friend has not been warned.”

“He will come all the same. He doesn't need to be warned to know how great the danger is. He will come. And, mother, promise me one thing: whatever happens, you must have confidence.”

“I will have confidence, darling, I promise you.”

“And you will be right,” he said, laughing, “for I shall be the leader. And what a leader, eh, mother? Why, yesterday evening I foresaw that, to carry the enterprise through successfully and so that my mother should be neither cold nor hungry, in case we were not able to take the boat this afternoon, we must have food and rugs! Well, they will be of use to us to-night, seeing that for prudence's sake we mustn't abandon our post here and sleep at the Priory. Where did you put the parcel, mother?”

They ate gaily and with a good appetite. Then Francois wrapped his mother up and tucked her in: and they both fell asleep, lying close together, happy and unafraid.

When the keen air of the morning woke Veronique, a belt of rosy light streaked the sky. Francois was sleeping the peaceful sleep of a child that feels itself protected and is untroubled by dreams. For a long time she just sat gazing at him without wearying: and she was still looking at him when the sun was high above the horizon.

“To work, mother,” he said, after he had opened his eyes and given her a kiss. “No one in the tunnel? No. Then we have plenty of time to go on board.”

They took the rugs and provisions and, with brisk steps, went towards the descent leading to the Postern, at the extreme end of the island. Beyond this point the rocks were heaped up in formidable confusion: and the sea, though calm, lapped against them noisily.

“I hope your boat's there still!” said Veronique.

“Lean over a little, mother. You can see her down there, hanging in that crevice. We have only to work the pulley to get her afloat. Oh, it's all very well thought out, mother darling! We have nothing to fear.... Only... only...”

He had interrupted himself and was thinking.

“What? What is it?” asked Veronique.

“Oh, nothing! A slight delay.”

“But...”

He began to laugh:

“Really, for the leader of an expedition, it's rather humiliating, I admit. Just fancy, I've forgotten one thing: the oars. They are at the Priory.”

“But this is terrible!” cried Veronique.

“Why? I'll run to the Priory and I shall be back in ten minutes.”

All Veronique's apprehensions returned:

“And suppose they make their way out of the tunnel meanwhile?”

“Come, come, mother,” he laughed, “you promised to have confidence. To get out of the tunnel would take them an hour's hard work; and we should hear them. Besides, what's the use of talking, mother? I'll be back at once.”

He ran off.

“Francois! Francois!”

He did not reply.

“Oh,” she thought, once more assailed by forebodings. “I had sworn not to leave him for a second!”

She followed him at a distance and stopped on a hillock between the Fairies' Dolmen and the Calvary of the Flowers. From here she could see the entrance to the tunnel and also saw her son jogging along the grass.

He first went into the basement of the Priory. But the oars seemed not to be there, for he came out almost at once and went to the main door, which he opened and disappeared from sight.

“One minute ought to be plenty for him,” said Veronique to herself. “The oars must be in the hall... or at any rate on the ground-floor.... Say two minutes, at the outside.”

She counted the seconds while watching the entrance to the tunnel.

But three minutes, four minutes, five minutes passed: and the front-door did not open again.

All Veronique's confidence vanished. She thought that it was mad of her not to have gone with her son and that she ought never to have submitted to a child's will. Without troubling about the tunnel or the dangers from that side, she began to walk towards the Priory. But she had the horrible feeling which people sometimes experience in dreams; when their legs seem paralysed and when they are unable to move, while the enemy advances to attack them.

And suddenly, on reaching the Dolmen, she beheld a sight the meaning of which was immediately clear to her. The ground at the foot of the oaks round the right-hand part of the semi-circle was littered with lately cut branches, which still bore their green leaves.

She raised her eyes and stood stupefied and dismayed.

One oak alone had been stripped. And on the huge trunk, bare to a height of twelve or fifteen feet, there was a paper, transfixed by an arrow and bearing the inscription, “V. d'H.”

“The fourth cross,” Veronique faltered, “the cross marked with my name!”

She supposed that, as her father was dead, the initials of her maiden name must have been written by one of her enemies, the chief of them, no doubt; and for the first time, under the influence of recent events, remembering the woman and the boy who were persecuting her, she involuntarily attributed a definite set of features to that enemy.

It was a fleeting impression, an improbable theory, of which she was not even conscious. She was overwhelmed by something much more terrible. She suddenly understood that the monsters, those creatures of the heath and the cells, the accomplices of the woman and the boy, must have been there, since the cross was prepared. No doubt they had built a foot-bridge and thrown it over the chasm to take the place of the bridge to which she had set fire.

They were masters of the Priory. And Francois was once more in their hands!

Then she rushed straight along, collecting all her strength. She in her turn ran over the turf, dotted with ruins, that sloped towards the front of the house.

“Francois! Francois! Francois!”

She called his name in a piercing voice. She announced her coming with loud cries. Thus did she reach the Priory.

One half of the door stood ajar. She pushed it and darted into the hall, crying:

“Francois! Francois!”

The call rang from floor to attic and throughout the house, but remained unanswered:

“Francois! Francois!”

She went upstairs, opening doors at random, running into her son's room, into Stephane's, into Honoring. She found nobody.

“Francois! Francois!... Don't you hear me? Are they hurting you?... Oh, Francois, do answer!”

She went back to the landing. Opposite her was M. d'Hergemont's study. She flung herself upon the door and at once recoiled, as though stricken by a vision from hell.

A man was standing there, with arms crossed and apparently waiting for her. And it was the man whom she had pictured for an instant when thinking of the woman and the boy. It was the third monster!

She said, simply, but in a voice filled with inexpressible horror:

“Vorski!... Vorski!...